Narnia’s Pevensies And Personal Identity

Readers of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe will remember the novel’s dramatic ending: Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, now all grown up and ruling as noble and just kings and queens of the land of Narnia, set out to hunt a mysterious stag; their hunt leads them into the woods, toward ‘the lamp post’–the one that had brought them to Narnia in the first place, and then suddenly, as Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan find themselves back in ‘the wardrobe’ all too soon, they are back in England, back in the here and now, and barely an instant has passed. (Many Narnia years you see, only amount to a second or so of Earth time. Indeed, it is not clear at all that any time elapses while the children are in Narnia; the two timelines are disconnected.)

Of course, because only an instant has passed, the children are children again–they are not adults any more. They have shrunk, physically. But presumably they have shrunk psychically too; after all, back in Narnia, they were adults, and their growth into adults would have involved progression in the physical and psychological dimensions. Interestingly enough, the children remember their experiences in Narnia; which means they have memories of their growing up, their transformation into adults. This journey back to ‘the real world’ is likely to be far more disruptive, then, than C. S. Lewis lets on; Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, are, on their return to earth, facing possibly one of the most hallucinatory of all experiences: years and years have passed by, and then, one day all of a sudden, you find yourself a child again, but  this is not any ordinary child, this is a child with memories of having been an adult once. So, even if this child does not have its physical child capacities any more–perhaps they pre-pubescents again–it still remains an open question whether this child remembers its adult responses in the emotional and psychological dimensions. Does the child now behave as an adult might? What is the effect on the Pevensies as they continue their lives, with these memories reminding them of what they once were? Note that had the children gone to Narnia, and spent say, a few months there, and then been shot back through the wardrobe to land up back in England in the same way as before, these questions would not have arisen. They arise only because Lewis insisted on giving the Pevensies a full-blown reign in Narnia, a long and prosperous one of fifteen years.

Lewis has thus created a tricky situation for the Pevensies. As they grow up here on Earth, they will slowly become adults but they will not be the adults they were in Narnia; after all, Earth is not Narnia: its lands and peoples are significantly different. The Pevensies will have different experiences, encounter different circumstances and react differently. Of course, since they carry around their memories of their psychological growth, they might use those as inputs into their development in this ‘new life’ but they will still certainly not be identical to their Narnia selves. They will have multiple personalities of a sort–perhaps akin to that of the immigrant, who remembers an older world, an older self, older ways of behaving and responding to the world’s offerings. Their friends and lovers and family might find their repeated invocations of their past irritating and bothersome at times, but also of singular interest; the Pevensies for their part, if they play their cards right, will ‘enjoy’ having lived two lives–once again, much like the wise immigrant does, who considers himself fortunate to have experienced ‘two worlds for the price of one’–even if such experiences do bring their own fair share of heartbreak. (The novels featuring the Pevensies themselves span nine years–from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle.)

A budding writer could do worse than to write a novel that tracks the Pevensies’ developments as adults, back here on Earth, when they are done with the Narnia phase of lives, but with those Narnia memories animating their hybrid selves.

The Shames Of Anger

I’ve written before, here on this blog, about the pleasures of anger, of holding on to grudges–the two are, of course, inter-related, for very often it is the pleasure of experiencing anger that allows us to retain a long-held grudge. These ‘pleasures,’ such as they are, have a role to play in the economy of our lives, it is why we experience them as such–they ‘work for us’ somehow or the other, which is why we seek them out and retain them. But they do not come for free, not without their own incurred costs, ones we are willing to pay; the devastating and melancholic shames associated with the expression of anger and the retention of grudges. The shame of anger is experienced most directly when the effects of our anger are visible: the hurt of a partner or friend we have tongue-lashed or driven out of our lives, the fear and sadness and confusion of a child who has encountered our furious loss of self-control, the sometimes irrevocable damage done to relationships, romantic or familial.

These are powerful reminders of our lack of virtue; haunting indicators of how far we need to go in asserting mastery over ourselves. We are reminded violence comes in many forms, and is expressed and experienced in a rich and uncomfortable diversity; we are reminded too, by way of introspective contact with our own hurts and unresolved resentments that the injuries we bear and nurse are not always visible; the effects of the ‘blows’ we have landed through our anger are only partially visible to us–there is more to this landscape of fear and hurt than we can ever possibly know; much of it remains unaccounted for. We are reminded of the humanity and vulnerability of others when we remember and relive the effects of others’ anger being visited on us. That fear, that panic, that urge to flee– we induce those feelings in others through our thoughts and deeds; they experience the same painful affects we do. (Allied with the shame engendered by such thoughts is yet another variant: we might seek forgiveness for our anger, beg to be forgiven, and yet we do not move forward, unwilling to descend from our perches–for we are reluctant to admit guilt, to encounter another shame that our selves might send our way, that of having ‘backed down.’ In this kind of situation at least, masculinity has a great deal to answer for.)

The shames of anger remind us of why anger is considered corrosive–these signposts in our minds that we are not ‘quite together,’ that we are disordered, are powerful covert agents, inhibiting us, consuming our psychic energies in consoling ourselves, in providing ourselves palliative diversions and distractions. It becomes yet another component of our ongoing dissatisfaction with ourselves, yet another reminder that for all the blame we may send the world’s way, we always find the finger pointing back at us.

Climbing And The Persistent, If Irrational, Fear Of Falling

A curious experience in roped climbing (whether on auto-belay, top-roped climbing, or following a leader on a multi-pitch route) is the presence of instinctive fears that should have no rational basis for persistence. Like the fear of falling, for instance.  There you are, tied in with your faithful figure-eight knot into your climbing harness, which is snug around your waist, connected to your belayer who is clipped and locked into the belay loop. The knots are good, the gear works, your belayer has you; you cannot fall. And yet, as you step out to make a move that requires some balance, or that might not offer the best grip, you experience a sudden sickening sensation; you are afraid; you become aware of the number of feet you are off the ground; you feel your palms grow sweaty, your heart starts to beat a bit faster. You are in trouble.

You aren’t. But you feel it anyway. Old habits and instincts die hard. I’ve always been terrified by heights, by the sickening vertigo and nausea they induced in me. Overcoming that fear was one of the reasons for my taking up climbing a couple of years ago; I hoped that ‘controlled exposure’ to heights would help me become more familiar with these fears; I would never ‘master’ them but I could learn to work in their presence; perhaps working through some task or problem at hand even while I was afflicted by them. The good news is that these expectations have been borne out by my experiences. Very often, over the last couple of years, I have found myself in places (precarious belay ledges) and situations (negotiating narrow exposed traverses) that would previously have terrified me in incapacitating ways. But the fears are always there, anchored in instincts and reflexes that have hardened over the years.

And so, even when I’m indoors, inside a comfortable climbing gym, tied and clipped in, with nowhere to go in the case of a slip but slowly, smoothly down, riding a rope all the way, when my body senses, even if for only for a micro-instant, that slight absence of security or solidity that signals the earth opening up under my feet, I retreat (or rather, am forced back) to an older me. This particular instinctive reaction will, of course, become familiar in its own way; I will learn to anticipate it, welcome it, live with it. As I never fail to notice during my indoor climbing sessions, when I start climbing for the day, such reactions are at their most visceral, and are attenuated as I continue to climb. Some of the intensity of my instinctive responses then will be tempered, by greater experience; as my body learns that these falls do not end in anything more bothersome than some swinging through air, or a painful bump against an exposed hold (I’m not counting falls taken by lead climbers which can result in serious injuries.)

Of course, by the time I get to that stage, I will have discovered newer fears to work through. And hopefully, improved my climbing.

Cussin’ In The Classroom

Of late, I’ve noticed that I have begun using more profanity in the classroom than I ever have previously in my teaching career. (Strictly speaking, I do not ‘use’ more profanity; I ‘mention’ it. That is, rather than using the word ‘fuck’ in a sentence like “This is a fucking crazy argument,” I mention it as in ‘Then someone might say, “Look, fuck it, I’m not going to obey the law.’ In the first case, I have used the word ‘fuck’ myself; in the second, I have quoted someone using it.) I do not exactly know why this is the case. For the first dozen or so years of my teaching career, I studiously eschewed mentioning profanity in the classroom; my style of teaching saw me stick pretty close to the assigned reading and the written notes I had prepared on it. Of late, my teaching has become more unstructured; I rely less on notes and more on the text (and on student responses to it); I consider most of the teaching in the classroom to happen when my students and I build on the textual material to explore applications of it in our daily lives. I supply more examples to my students now, and spend considerable time making them as elaborate as they need to be in order to illustrate the point I am trying to get across. I’m also more comfortable now in my skin as a teacher, more confident about the material I teach (even as many new existential doubts have also crept into my self-assessments of my intellectual and pedagogical worth.) These changes have, over a period of time, resulted in–when things are going well–a more informal classroom space.

This ‘loosening up’ has, I suspect, also loosened my tongue somewhat. I do not mind the tangents I go off on; I’m more inclined to be facetious in class, to invoke levity into its proceedings. Some of my students have told me that they quite enjoy my historical asides, the stories I tell to supply some historical context to a particular philosophical debate; this has encouraged me to be more discursive in my working through the material being discussed in a class. And so, I have found that often times, when constructing some imaginary conversation for an example, to illustrate some political or ethical issue, I will throw some profanity into the mix to make the reported conversation more dramatic, more realistic. I hope.

My students do not seem to mind; no one ever looks shocked. Most students occasionally snicker; there is a noticeable relaxation in the classroom atmosphere. (For some strange reason, this is also the case whenever the topic at hand invokes the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.) I suspect that to a certain extent, my language humanizes me for my students–for better or worse. I’m ‘distant’ from my students in many ways–this language brings me ‘closer’ to them, again, for better or worse. I do not think that I’m currying favor with my students by employing this language; it has come naturally to me as my classroom methods of interacting with students have changed. For what it is worth, I curse a lot in my conversations outside the classroom, so I’m slipping into a mode of discourse that comes naturally to me. About fucking time.

That Alex Honnold MRI In ‘Free Solo’

One of the most commented on segments of Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarelyhi‘s ‘Free Solo‘–the film that details Alex Honnold‘s incredible free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park–is that of the MRI of Honnold’s brain. This MRI is performed in an attempt to solve the mystery of how Honnold is able to calmly scale a three thousand feet cliff without any ropes or aids, without apparently suffering the terror that would afflict most human beings engaged in any task that approximated Honnold’s feat. We learn that Honnold’s amygdala–the part of the brain supposedly activated by our fear–just doesn’t light up all that much in his case. See? He’s just built differently from us.

But we were also given some psychological insight, of course: Honnold himself is asked how he does it and he offers some interesting introspective takes on it on fear, risk, consequences, and existential choices; other climbers–like Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin–also chime in. And those around Honnold offer us some explanations of his behavior and attempt to determine its psychological foundations.

Such explanations do not satisfy all–especially those who find MRI scans more convincing than verbal reasons for human behavior:

Unfortunately, Free Solo suffers when Vasarhelyi and Chin psychologize Honnold or attempt to explain his drive for death-defying climbs. It’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to examine Honnold’s psyche, given that his Spock-like demeanor and curiously casual approach to soloing does raise certain questions about his mental stability or lack thereof. Yet every “answer” they ascribe to him (or he ascribes to himself) feels pat and unconvincing. Honnold mentions his father, who was emotionally unavailable to Honnold’s mother but also spurred his son’s interest in climbing. He describes his “dark soul” as a child and his “bottomless pit of self-loathing.” There’s some talk about being a loner in school. Yet none of those explanations are as persuasive as an MRI diagnosis that simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. Similarly, Free Solo’s fixation on how soloing affects Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend feels transported from a more banal film altogether. At best, this material is uninteresting filler, and at worst, it’s a distraction

Now, I hate to have to break the news but ‘pat psychologizing is what we do all the time, every single day of our lives. In fact, if we didn’t indulge in it, we wouldn’t know how to live with each other. Think about our language of everyday social, political, and ethical interaction–replete with wants, desires, beliefs, motivations, the whole gamut of psychological attitudes. We use this language all the time to predict and anticipate the reactions of others; we do not go around conducting MRIs to find out what our fellow humans want or desire or believe; we observe their behavior, we ask them questions, we correlate their behavior with their verbal pronouncements for further refinement and we muddle right along. In courts of law, when we want to know why someone did something, we ask them or other human beings to explain their behavior; we don’t cut open skulls or run scans to elicit reasons–though some neuroscientists want to do just that. All of which is to say that there is nothing ‘pat’ about the psychologizing in ‘Free Solo’; we make this assessment at the risk of being similarly dismissive of most of our daily conversation and our best tool for dealing with other humans.

But the attitudes expressed in the review above are not outliers. ‘Pop psychology,’ ‘psychobabble,’ ‘amateur psychologizing’–these are all apparently Bad Things; we should look for more Scientific Explanations. A laudable sentiment, but one which is too caught up in reductionist fantasies to be anything more than grossly misleading. In the realm of human behavior, psychological explanations are useful, elegant, and successful; and it is neuroscientific ones that have a long way to go:

The fundamental problem…is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris….It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

The urge to rely on neuroscientific explanations is easy to understand: human beings are complicated creatures; we are creatures of biology, culture, and psychology; to understand what makes us tick is hard.  Some pat neuroscientific explanations seem quite tempting. But what at cost? What, if anything, have we learned about Honnold from his MRI that is genuinely useful–especially since that MRI rests upon a series of as yet unconfirmed assumptions?  That ‘pat psychologizing’ that Honnold and those around him indulge in is far more enlightening; they place Honnold’s behavior in the domain of human relationships and motivations, far more comprehensible for us as human beings, and far more amenable to utilization in our future interactions with our fellow human beings.

Wittgenstein’s Lion And Solaris

Kris Kelvin, Snow, Gibrarian, and Sartorius are all puzzled and perplexed; as other educated and intelligent residents of Station Solaris–a sophisticated scientific laboratory–have been before them. They are stumped and bewildered by their interactions with the planet Solaris, with the ocean that covers its surface, the one that plays host to mimoids and symmetriads and asymmetriads and vertebrids extensors and fungoids and other strange and wondrous physical forms, which seems to be able to conjure up, out of its own chosen raw materials, facsimiles of the human form–like Kelvin’s former, dearly beloved, and now sadly departed love–that are good enough to induce genuine confusion about their identity on the part of those who would interact with them.

Does the ocean live, is it conscious, does it have a body or a mind? Is it intelligent? Is it communicating with human beings? Does it speak a language? Does it possess knowledge of mathematics or computation? Does the surface of the ocean on Solaris engage in computations; is that what the changes in its physical form signify?Are these human forms, the ones that look like the ones we love, are they forms of communication on the part of the planet? Has it scanned our brains, discovered our obsessions and physically realized them in an attempt to establish contact with us? Has it performed a series of vivisections on our brains and psyches, treating us flippantly like objects for experimentation–the way we have treated physical materials and other species on this planet?

The planet is, of course, Wittgenstein’s lion. It has spoken and we do not understand it. All that the scientists on Station Solaris can bring to bear on their interactions with the planet is their knowledge of themselves and other human beings–and their interactions with each other; this knowledge–of their particular ‘forms of life’–forces them into a particular interpretive stance with respect to the planet, one whose prisoners they remain, and which does not afford a unique and determinative understanding of what the nature of the planet is, and or what it might be trying to say–if it is trying to say anything in the first place. The planet has its own ‘form of life‘ that regulates and determines the form and content of its interactions with the human beings engaged with it; there is little guarantee that this communication is set up to enhance, or even make possible, understanding on the part of its human interlocutors.

Kelvin and Snow and Sartorius and Gibarian have come to realize that these concepts they trade in–life, mind, consciousness, thought, persons, intelligence, brain, language–find their meaning with respect to a particular form of life and being–they do not transcend it. They do not allow for the determination of whether the planet, a ‘being’ perhaps radically similar or dissimilar to them, traffics in similar concepts, or anything like them. If they were to ascribe a ‘life’ or a ‘mind’ to Solaris, it would be an asterisked one–‘life as we know it’–and perhaps that’s all we can or should aspire to.

America’s Next Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, Is A Lying, Rapey, Fratboy

I believe Christine Blasey Ford; I believe Brett Kavanaugh did precisely what she accuses him of doing. My reasons for offering this expression of my beliefs are quite simple: Brett Kavanaugh has done everything possible–especially during his ludicrous interview to Fox News yesterday–to indicate to me that he not only did what Ford alleges he did, but that this kind of behavior was par for the course for him and his drunken prep school buddies. (As various other testimonials about his rapey and drunken belligerent behavior on other occasions seem to confirm.) I’m not convicting Brett Kavanaugh in any legal domain and of course, were the Senate not to vote in favor his nomination, they would not be doing so either–they would merely be letting him continue in his present position at the  highly prestigious Federal Appeals Circuit as a judge; still, given these two sources of information available to me about what happened some thirty-six years ago, I’m inclined to find one of the pair named in my opening sentence above vastly more credible.

Ford, that is. Not the dude who looks like just about every other rich, privileged, self-satisfied, smug, drunken frat boy it has been my misfortune to either personally encounter or read about. There is a history to these matters, and in almost every single reckoning, dudes like Brett Kavanaugh are the guilty ones, yet almost always unpunished, and women like Ford, who have been assaulted or harassed, are forced to suffer further indignities. (Three women friends of mine have been raped; not one of them ever filed a report. Their rapists still walk free.)

Seeing isn’t believing. Most of the knowledge we claim about the world comes from testimony, written or otherwise. I know the sun is 93 million miles from the earth; reliable, authoritative, scientific sources tell me so. I know Napoleon came to power in 1799; reliable historical sources tell me so. Neither of these claims graduated to the status of knowledge via a courtroom; they went through ‘standard epistemic channels’: statement, corroboration (possibly via other testimonials), confirmation by taking actions based on the truth of these propositions, and so on. If we were to examine the corpus of our beliefs, we would find that the grounds we have for believing them are exceedingly varied; very few of them have been vetted by any kind of legal standard. There is no reason to hold, as many obfuscators would have us do, that the grounds for rejecting Kavanaugh’s nomination should be a ‘conviction’ by the standards of a criminal court. It should merely be enough that we find ourselves agnostic no longer, and inclined to believe one account. On which we could base our future actions. Like we do every single day of our lives. Context matters, yes, and this is a nomination process for the next Supreme Court Justice. But it is no more, and no less, than a highly dramatized job interview. There are no criminal penalties here. Our standards should be appropriately configured.

And when I do that, I find that I”m in a very familiar epistemic situation: on one side, a graduate of an institution–a fucking petri dish for toxic masculinity–that breeds and confirms privilege, which condones drunken behavior, imbued with a sense of entitlement, allegedly engaging in a species of behavior that is, by all historical and cultural accounts, very common to such places, and on the other side, a woman alleging an assault whose parameters sound very familiar, and who did not speak up for years because she feared precisely the reaction sent her way by the Republican Party.

The evidence is in: Brett Kavanaugh is a lying, rapey, fratboy.