Posts Tagged ‘Marc D Hauser’

The Existential Implications of “Unready to Wear”

December 4, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut

Now it is part of the Cartesian mode to think of consciousness as something peculiar to the head.  This is the organ originating consciousness.  It isn’t.  It’s an organ that inflects consciousness to a certain direction, a certain set of purposes, but there’s a whole consciousness here, in the body

Joseph Campbell from The Power of Myth (A PBS Documentary)

Sentience and consciousness are inseparable; thinking is a function of feeling.  The brain is not separate from the body; rather, the brain is part of the central nervous system, which runs throughout the body. In 1952 Kurt Vonnegut wrote a Science Fiction short story called “Unready to Wear” which pokes fun at the Cartesian notion of mind/body separation.

The unnamed narrator of “Unready to Wear” describes how people have become “amphibious” by liberating themselves from “parasite bodies” which “were a lot more trouble than they were worth.” The author notes that when an amphibian vacates the body, anger, greed, jealousy and vanity evaporate.

Although they are content to exist merely as souls, the amphibians maintain warehouses full of bodies which they reenter from time to time for reasons of nostalgia.  For example, the narrator’s wife Madge likes to occasionally visit her former house, so she

borrows a body once a month and dusts the place, though the only thing a house is good for now is keeping termites and mice from getting pneumonia.

As soon as an amphibious person enters body, however, “chemistry takes over” and the person become slave to his “glands”, rendering him

excitable or ready to fight or hungry or mad or affectionate, or—well, you never know what’s going to happen next.

Thus, reunited with a body, the amphibians are immediately overwhelmed by the body’s various appetites.  The narrator notes that he has never

met an amphibian yet who wasn’t easy to get along with, and cheerful and interesting –as long as he was outside a body. And I haven’t met one yet who didn’t turn a little sour when he got into one.

Our protagonist laments that

Nobody but a saint could be really sympathetic or intelligent for more than a few minutes at a time in a body–or happy, either, except in short spurts.

Unfortunately for humanity, our “bodies bring out the worst in us no matter how good our psyches are.” Of course, “Unready to Wear” is a silly story, but satire has its uses. Our narrator complains that “the mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything.  Why does it have to be tied to a bag of skin, blood, hair, bones, and tubes?”  This question practically answer itself.  For human beings, the possibility of consciousness minus a physical body is an absurdity.  As the poet Theodore Roethke astutely explains, We think by feeling. And we have no alternative existential choice. We could never be happy or sad or angry or proud or anything else without the physical sensations that ignite thinking.* Whether we like it or not, human beings are animals.  However, we can take slight solace in the following observation from David Hume:

there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of dove kneaded into our frame, along with elements of the wolf and the serpent.

*I’m borrowing that term from Marc D. Hauser

by Richard W. Bray

We Think by Feeling

March 2, 2010

Theodore Roethke

David Hume

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

–Theodore Roethke

Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of understanding as of taste and sentiment. Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt, more properly than perceived.

–David Hume

Emotions ignite moral judgments. Reason follows in the wake of this dynamic….Conscious moral reasoning often plays no role in our moral judgments, and in many cases reflects a post-hoc justification or rationalization of previously held biases or beliefs.

–Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds (24-25)

We Think by Feeling

In my last post I objected to clever and stylistic cinematic portrayals of violence because violence is the ugliest and stupidest thing that people do. I selected four movies for disapprobation, Snatch, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill. (It is no accident that two of these movies were created by Quentin Terantino, but more on that later.) But it dawned on me after I made the post that the primary rationale that I could come up with for why Mr. and Mrs. Smith is such a morally execrable movie (it makes light of those wretched people who kill others instead of exploring the contours of their depravity) is also true of Prizzi’s Honor, one of my favorite movies. Of course, I could try to convince myself that Prizzi’s Honor deserves an exemption from my rule about glamorizing violence because it is a highly ironic work of art.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that whoever came up with Mr and Mrs. Smith was trying to be ironic, and every movie is a work of art (but not necessarily a well-achieved work of art.) It has also occurred to me that every reason I can come up with for why I never enjoyed Married with Children (it’s about a bunch of pathetic losers who are constantly abusing each other) is true about Two and a Half Men, one of my favorite shows.

Because emotions ignite moral judgments, it is my feeling that violence in film should be just as ugly and stupid as it is in real life. That’s why I like Reservoir Dogs so much more than Pulp Fiction (Michael Madsen’s happy dancing torturer scene notwithstanding). Terantino is, of course, a lightening rod for people who object to violent movies, particularly when he says asinine things like this:

“Violence in the movies can be cool,” he says. “It’s just another color to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn’t mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a color.”

The maddening thing about Terantino is that he such an idiotic savant. He writes brilliant dialogue, gets unexpectedly marvelous performances out of his actors and he’s even capable of creating rather touching scenes. I was very moved, for example, by the way Robert Forster revealed his vulnerable side to Pam Grier in Jackie Brown by talking about how degrading it was to sit alone for hours in a dark room that reeked of cat piss in order to do the only job he was qualified for.

So is every work of criticism simply an attempt to rationalize feelings? I’m afraid so.

by Richard W. Bray