Posts Tagged ‘Death’s Echo’

Judgement Machines

February 4, 2018

From natural selection’s point of view, the whole point of perception is to process information that has relevance to the organism’s Darwinian interests — that is, to its chances of getting its genes spread. And organisms register this relevance by assigning positive or negative values to the perceived information. We are designed to judge things and to encode those judgements in feeling.

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment

Like any paradigm, evolutionary psychology is an extreme oversimplification of our multifarious existence. Even if we accept the premise that human beings are shaped by evolutionary pressure, which I do, it does not automatically follow that everything we are is the direct result of “natural selection.” Many mutations and alterations in our genes are merely coincidental.

If, for example, a parrot with an efficient nutshell-crushing beak happens also to be blue, its descendants are likely to be blue despite the fact that their blueness does not foster their success like that marvelous beak does.

Human beings are not “designed” by evolution; we’re the product of happenstance. And nobody can say for certain what the “whole point of perception” is. But you needn’t be a natural selection determinist to appreciate Wright’s picture of human consciousness.

The Difference Between Berry and Toadstool

Wright is certainly correct to say that human beings automatically assign “positive or negative values” to “perceived information.” Every thought we have is wrapped inside a feeling. These feelings often had the benefit of keeping our Hunting Fathers alive long enough to pass along their DNA. That’s how we got here.

Determining the difference between berry and toadstool, lamb and lion, or friend and foe is an essential survival skill. Our ancestors survived and prospered thanks to the happy associations they made with the delicious berries that sustained them and the painful associations they made with frightening beasts that killed their friends and relatives.

The Old, Old Tale of Narcicussus

It’s natural for human beings to constantly analyze and reevaluate the world we live in. And, as social organisms, we evaluate ourselves in relation to others. That’s why we’re forever recalibrating our opinions of one another.

How we feel about others is a function of how they make us feel about ourselves. The world is our mirror, as W.H. Auden notes:

A friend is the old, old tale of narcissus.

Severing how we feel about others from how we feel about ourselves is not possible  we don’t exist in a vacuum. But we can examine our natural tendency to “judge things and to encode those judgement in feeling.”

Jesus commands: “Judge not.” But judgement-free perception simply isn’t possible. What we can do is listen to our thoughts and examine the feelings that ignite them.

Avoiding Misery and Masochism

Don’t squander your precious time on Earth trying to figure out who deserves to be happy. There’s always going to be people you can point to as undeserving of the gifts life has bestowed upon them. Should it really be your task in life to figure out who’s to bless and who’s to blame? By fixating on the unfairness of it all, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of misery and masochism.

I’m not suggesting that we should accept the world the way it is. On the contrary, fighting injustice and trying to make the world a better place is one of the best ways to find meaning in this crazy old world.

 

by Richard W. Bray

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

May 22, 2016

wwhauden

The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
Not to be born is the best for man;

W.H. Auden, The Dead Echo

Wow. That’s pretty depressing. In fact, I wrote that listening to Auden read “The Dead Echo”* from The Voice of the Poet series makes me want to lie down in the fetal position and turn out all the lights.

Is our human existence, as Auden suggests, so meaningless that we would be better off without it? No. Because Love.

In his famous soliloquy Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow Shakespeare’s Macbeth complains that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

As an ardent nonbeliever, I don’t see how human existence signifies anything beyond itself. But our existence is nonetheless pretty awesome when considered on its own terms.

I’m pretty sure that there isn’t any anthropomorphized God up in outer space listening to all our prayers, a god who cares about every little thing that happens in the universe, including the death of every sparrow.   Yet I see reason for hope in this terrifying realization because it informs me that human beings must rely upon one another instead of inventing a god in order to assuage our cosmic loneliness.

However, Auden makes another claim in “The Dead Echo” which haunts me to the core of my being:

A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus

In other words, our hunger for Love is merely a manifestation of ego since we are only capable of viewing the world through the prism of our own interests and our own self-perception. As Auden explains in his collection of essays called “The Dyer’s Hand” :

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both partners run out of good.

This is true, of course. But it hardly renders Love meaningless.  The act of caring about others is selfish and selfless at the same time.  It’s one of life’s many paradoxes.  Our lives are full of paradox not because that’s how the universe is designed; we see life as being full of paradox because that’s how our brains are designed.

When Samuel Goldwyn complained that a script she had submitted “ended on a sad note,” Dorothy Parker noted

“I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”

So what should we do about this whole being alive thing?  Well, in addition to depressing the hell out of us in “The Dead Echo,” Auden provides us with some practical advice:

Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.

And as another poet notes, between birth and death, It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

So the loveliest and most courageous thing we can do is acknowledge the hurt and ugly in our lives and still manage, somehow, to face the music and dance.

* Auden elsewhere refers to this poem as “Death’s Echo”

by Richard W. Bray

The Little Toil of Love

April 13, 2014

new-zeland-zealand-the-free-spring-meadow

I had no time to Hate—
Because
The Grave would hinder Me—
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish—Enmity—

Emily Dickinson

The human mind is capable of generating rational thoughts, but thinking is not a rational process. Our thoughts are the fruit of our emotions. The poet Theodore Roethke points out

We Think by Feeling

Our perceptions are limited and transcendence is an illusion. Wallace Stevens reminds us

Your world is you. I am my world

It’s not my task in life to figure out who the good people are
. There are people that I admire; there are people that I enjoy being around; there are people who annoy me; there are people that I don’t enjoy being around. But people are not what I think about them. And whatever fraction of my life I spend evaluating the overall worth of particular human beings is a waste of my precious time on earth. Life is not a contest, and even if it were, no one appointed me judge.

We see others through the prism of how we wish to perceive ourselves. W.H. Auden explains

A friend is the old, old tale of Narcissus.

It is easier to feel compassion for others when I am feeling good about myself. And forgiving myself for my imperfections makes it easier to accept the imperfections of others.

My cruel and petty and spiteful impulses are the excrescence of my inadequacies. I cannot make these impulses go away. But I can endeavor to check myself whenever I fantasize about seeing bad things happen to other people. It’s a perpetual struggle.

by Richard W. Bray

Under an Arch of the Railway: In Praise of W. H. Auden on his One Hundredth Birthday

February 21, 2013

railway arch

I’d like to read one of W. H. Auden’s best-known poems and one of the best-known poems, I suppose, modern poems of the last ten years. Probably someone will find that it was written in the last nine years, but it doesn’t matter…”As I walked Out One Evening.”

—Dylan Thomas (from the Caedmon Collection)

No poet consistently knocks me on my tailbone the way W.H. Auden does. Listening to Auden read Death’s Echo from the Voice of the Poet recordings makes me want to lie down in the fetal position and turn out all the lights.

As I Walked Out One Evening, depressing as it is, leaves me with some hope, however. At my lowest points, I try to remind myself that my life remains a blessing although I cannot bless.

Each stanza of “As I Walked out One Evening” is by itself a masterpiece, containing more literary merit than you will find on this entire blog.

The theme of the poem is certainly nothing new: Everything human beings do and feel is ephemeral. But a poet’s task is not to discover new themes. As Richard Wilbur notes, the “urge of poetry” is to bring its subject matter “into the felt world.”

The poem has many notable lines, but I’d like to focus on one that seems mundane at first reading, line seven:

“Under an arch of the railway”

There are, of course, many less lovely ways to express this particular image: Beneath the railroad line, below the arch which a train passes over, underneath the elevated train tracks, etc. But Auden’s construction magically sings itself off the page and into my brain where it will remain until such time as I am forced to surrender my smidge of nitrogen to the World Fund

Richard W. Bray