The Limitations of Language and Memory

I’ve been thinking lately that language is a limiting and essentially inadequate means of describing experience. (As I think about this it occurs to me I’ve probably thought this very thing before; in fact, I doubt I’ve had a truly original thought anytime recently).

Anyway, language may be the only way of describing experience, but the descriptions rendered no matter the mastery one may have of the written word will fall well short of sufficiently describing the color and complexities of sensual experience.

Roland Barthes, the late French literary theorist, said that man cannot know, understand prior to developing at least a rudimentary language. I’m inclined to disagree with such an idea. It seems to me my colorful and complex sensual experiences can occur to my conscious self without interpretation; that it is unnecessary for language to supervene upon my experiences for them to actually exist. 

But, then, maybe my memory is going, I am aging after all; brain cells are being lost. Still, the visual imagery is there and doesn’t seem to require captions. I’m thinking language is over-rated. It simply is unable to account for the ineffable.

 

Transcending Reality

I guess the idea of transcending one’s reality has always been imagined by the contemplative mind. For many who seek such adventure religious engagement may provide the pathway to that other world imagined to be beyond painful relationships, workplace power struggles or battles involved in securing a bit of personal dignity, in realizing a certain respect from others.

In the past those truly committed to rise above mundane reality had been known to tax their physical health to the extreme, nearing death in order to weaken their natural self-serving propensities in favor, hopefully, of achieving enlightenment, sensing a divine Ground of Being where original virtue is realized, a state of existence where ego is lost, replaced by an inner serenity.

I do like the idea of rising above mundane reality on occasion, to find serenity, but the means to such an end would be more attractive if it didn’t involve masochism.

I Recently Discovered that My Brain is Shrinking

The science section of the Sunday paper often has an unsettling item or two, usually involving reports by researchers who have determined the dangers of various common behaviors that will likely shorten one’s life. The article that caught my attention most recently warned that alcohol consumption will shrink the brain. Researchers apparently measured brain sizes of some several hundred people and determined that as little as one drink a day will cause one’s brain not only to stop growing but to actually reduce in size.

As I think about this and being aware, as I am, of my forgetfulness as well as the consistency of my inability to come up with the word I want in a conversation, I’m led to believe the researchers may be on to something. The fact that I’ve been consuming alcohol for probably fifty years has me wondering whether dementia may be just around the corner. After all this time it probably wouldn’t make any difference if I quit my daily glass of wine or not; how much smaller could my brain get?

I guess I’ll just have to add alcohol consumption to my other life-shortening behaviors: too much coffee will give me cancer and I can expect diabetes from the sweetened sodas I drink. Such thoughts dim the brightness of the generally healthy lifestyle I see myself living. I guess the realization of life’s fragility will keep me reading such reports even though I won’t be thinking about them too long: shrinking brain, you know.

The World Without Us

There’s a lot of discussion these days about whether or not humankind is putting excessive pressure on our earth’s finite resources. Population growth, new technologies for extracting fossil fuels, depletion of forest lands, loss of clean fresh water sources, garbage in the oceans, over fishing, the list goes on and on.

I was reading an interesting commentary on what would happen to our world if humankind was suddenly to disappear, how quickly it would rebound, become healthy again. Such a scenario, human extinction that is, is not all that unthinkable in view of international tensions these days.

Such thinking made the book, The World Without us, by Alan Weisman, compelling reading. Mr. Weisman suggests that, in his believable future world, infrastructures would begin to fail, the New York subway tunnels would flood almost immediately and within a few hundred years our most solidly built brick, mortar and concrete structures would crumble. Native vegetation would push up through asphalt roadways hastening nature’s reclamation of the earth. Coral reefs and sea life would rebound as the resilient oceans healed themselves.

Even 500 years later the earth, it seems to me, would be a much more attractive place to be; except, of course, I wouldn’t be here; unless I could somehow live in the future. But, I guess that’s a whole other issue.

An Alternative Civilization

I’ve been reading about an ancient culture of copper smelters that lived in what is now Southern Israel some 3000 years ago. Archaeologists excavating the site of an ancient copper mine have determined these people developed sophisticated smelting techniques, had domesticated animals and traded for food items that originated hundreds of miles away. But other than the information deciphered from the mine site the archaeologists know nothing of these people: no village sites or even single building structures have been found in the vicinity leading to the conclusion these people must have been nomadic.

Such information has me wondering how many other ancient cultures might have existed but are undiscovered; people who might have acquired knowledge, possibly had learned truths about planet Earth that hasn’t come down to us. Maybe these unknown people learned how to live in harmony with their environment, how to nurture and be nurtured. Maybe material acquisition wasn’t important to these ancient, enlightened people who worked together to forge healthy, satisfying autonomous existences, being of the land rather than seeing the earth as a resource to be exploited. This idea has me thinking the values and beliefs we associate with an ‘innate human nature’ may be other than the linear progression of civilization which is our heritage has led us to believe them to be.

It all makes me wonder if we might have become a kinder, gentler people had we followed a different evolutionary path.

A Meaningful Existence

It occurs to me that although a majority of people look forward to being relieved of the responsibilities (and tedium) working for a living entails, that, after a while, maybe a few months or a couple of years an existential void may very well appear in the retired person’s psyche. A certain guilt that one is no longer a contributor may have the thoughtful retiree wondering about what constitutes a meaningful existence.

Most, I suppose, find things to do: necessary activities of social support, volunteering where needed. And most everyone of sound mind will be cognizant of one’s impending mortality as physical health inevitably declines, knowing every moment must be embraced, valued. Eat well, exercise, stay healthy, experience life to its fullest.

So, along with the afternoon dances at the VFW, the early bird specials and retirement community life in the southern climes, life proves to be good.

Does Life Imitate Art?

I’ve been thinking, lately, about what art is. A common understanding of art, I guess, will specify that it reflects our visual world and offers insights into our common human experiences. The idea is that art codifies our existence, how we understand who we are. A museum visit invites us to look into our collective psyche, to view clearly our values, beliefs and limitations.

What happens, though, when the consumption of the art that popular culture imposes in the forms of literature, movies, music, not to mention social media platforms becomes so ingrained that we begin to mimic the stereotypes, become the actors art invents? I suspect most of us, by the time we pass adolescence have discovered a solid enough sense of being that we can see past superficial identities so as to not become something other than what we know ourselves to be. Still, it seems there’s a powerful inclination for most of us to slide into a persona, the roll we wish to play in the story of life.

Even though I’m aware of this conundrum I wonder to what extent my identity is altered by the popular culture. It makes me think I need to temper my media consumption.

Existential Angst

I’ve been thinking lately about the mechanisms we put in place to insulate ourselves, act as buffer between our daily existence and the uncertainty of what’s next. I’ve been reading that Hindus who have the means acquire the services of a seer, a guru who will foretell a personal future, what karmic fluctuations one might expect in one’s present incarnation. According to the Hindu cycle of time we are presently in the Kaliyuga, a period of immorality preceding catastrophic social upheaval, which, I guess, is why the Hindu faithful seek the advice of a guru.

Most everyone, I suppose, seeks to avoid confronting the unknown without a plan. Western religious dogmas pacify the faithful by promising an obtainable after-life. Stoics prepare themselves against psychic annihilation by keeping in mind worst case scenarios. The most secular among us lose themselves in all manner of distractions from doing good to living large. Those who recognize such distractions for what they are may rationalize non-existence will involve a peaceful transition.

I suppose if I had to pick a mechanism to ward of fear of the unknown, I might lean toward Hinduism which is pretty attractive at least from a cultural distance. It’s more exotic, less familiar than traditional western religions and the statuary and temples of and to the pantheon of very interesting gods and goddesses is spectacular. I’ll keep Hinduism in mind the next time I’m in the market for a mechanism to deflect existential angst. I realize such flippancy might seriously deplete my karmic capital. I could find myself a minor insect next life.

No Such Thing as a True Story

I’ve been reading that most everyone reconfigures their personal narrative as they proceed through the experiences of living. Personal interactions that may have been emotionally intense may be viewed differently in the calm of later years. Reckless behaviors in one’s youth as reaction to societal (or parental) pressures may later be realized to have been mistakes that interrupted character building constraint so necessary to a stable grounding in reality.

Where once we may have found truth in the absolute freedom of choice as a path to an autonomous independence, we may later realize a shallowness, a superficial misunderstanding of the deep-seeded need we have for the care of others, a dependence on those dear to us. So, the narrative changes; the way you thought things to be were not, upon reflection, truly the case. Motivations, ambiguous desires altered the truth of the experience.

I guess it’s fair to say narratives are interpretations which lie somewhere between fiction and non: stories being told by their possessors.

The Beauty of Rationalization

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the nature of consumer capitalism and how it tends to disenfranchise tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. Folks who are, on the whole, perfectly functional individuals, who have been caught in an impossible financial bind not always of their own making, find themselves unable to provide basic human needs, particularly shelter.

I’ve been reading about a large sub-culture of nomads living in various mobile vehicles who rely on scant social security payments and taxing seasonal employment to make ends meet. The dilemma has me wondering how these folks, who have not chosen to ‘drop out’ in order to exploit the social safety net but rather work in order to maintain an autonomy, deserve such a tenuous existence.

Convinced as I am of the oppressive predicament suffered by thousands, of whom I’ve been made aware by a dedicated and credible reporter who spent extended time living with these vulnerable folks, I find myself disturbed and righteously indignant at the unfairness of it all.


But, to be honest and upon further consideration I must admit my righteous indignation is pretty hard to sustain, you know, having to suffer such distressing contemplation, which has led me to the rationalization that maybe not all of these folks are such innocent victims, that maybe their dilemmas are the result of irresponsibility on their part; maybe they dealt frivolously with their formal education, blew off consumer math, made bad choices in the selection of spouses.

So now, upon even further consideration I find I must relieve myself of my overly righteous suffering. I find myself able to comfortably return to the placid complacency which is my mien and so proceed with my normal daily routines untroubled by occurrences beyond my control.