Oct/Nov 2017 Salon


by Thomas J. Hubschman

Image excerpted from I Heard It Was a Thorough Examination of the Innocuous by Roe LiBretto

Image excerpted from I Heard It Was a Thorough Examination of the Innocuous by Roe LiBretto

Every time I close my laptop, I disconnect the charger and push it, along with any other attached wires, under the portable stand on my bed where the computer rests. How is it that when I return to use the computer a few hours later, the cables and wires are deeply entangled? It takes several minutes to free the earphone connection from the wall-plug wire and both of them from that part of the cable that attaches to the back of the laptop. They're wrapped around each other as if they had a life of their own and wanted to spend it intimately enveloped in each other. I've had to resist the temptation to think this is literally true, that they deliberately twine themselves around one another when I'm out of the room. An absurd notion. But how am I to explain the intricate weave they make as soon as I take my eyes off them?

I also don't understand why my laundry stays warm as long as it does even a day after it's been returned from the laundromat. My pancakes go cold in 15 minutes. I can scarcely believe it when I stick my hand deep inside the unpacked laundry bag a full day after I've done the wash and find the folded clothes warm to the touch. I used to know an engineer who specialized in heat transfer and worked all over the world as a consultant—China, Brazil, Cuba as well as the US. If anyone could explain how a bag of clothes could hang on to heat for that long, I figured he could. There had to be a simple explanation. Heat-Loss 101. On the other hand, maybe I had stumbled onto something the engineers are not aware of. Such discoveries by amateurs still happen. But I'll never know, because my engineer friend passed away after neglecting a hernia that had become entangled.

My mother believed in spontaneous generation. She thought spiders were produced out of balls of dust. My mother was an intelligent woman. Had she been born a couple generations later, I don't doubt she would have been a successful professional. In the matter of spiders she was simply reasoning from the evidence she had before her: leave some dust alone in a corner for a while (something she never willingly did; she cleaned every day) and you'll find a spider in it. It's a perfectly reasonable conclusion if you have no evidence for any other. Post hoc, propter hoc. She never had a science lesson in her eight years of public education. Her knowledge of chemistry and physics were of the purely practical variety a woman of her generation made use of, exclusively in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, I was making my way through the science section of the local library, a modest affair housed above the town's single police station, sharing the building with the mayor's office and the town council. My special interests were meteorology and radio. I knew the names for all the different kinds of clouds and had a basic understanding of how and why the weather behaved as it did. I could describe the course of a radio wave from the point of its entry into an antenna (those days weren't far from the time when you had to attach a long wire to the branch of a tree), through the various tubes, condensers and other parts until it emerged as sound in the speaker. Later in high school I joined the amateur radio club but never got beyond learning a few letters of the Morse code and never took the basic operator's test. These days I only remember a couple of the names for clouds—cumulus, cirrus—though I'm no longer sure what the latter looks like.

Science and me parted company, at least formally, once I started high school and became enmeshed in classical languages and English literature. I faired poorly in mathematics. I somehow got through a senior-year physics course and in college completed an introductory biology course taught by a man who could not have been more boring if he had been asleep. But my interest in how things work has endured. Hence my preoccupation with that tangle of wires under my laptop. Perhaps there's a bit as well of my mother's willingness to believe in the preternatural: my suspicion, however many times I dismiss it, that the wires wrap themselves around each other on their own.

I'm not unaware that this entanglement of wires is a metaphor for the way our human lives are interlaced. Mine and my wife's. Mine and my friends. And then all of the above with other people as well, until we have a world-wide network of overlap and interconnection that is impossible to tease apart. Viewed this way, and throwing in the rest of all living and non-living things, the world, indeed the universe, is a vast and intricate tangle, of which the wires of my computer are just a simple model. Every step we take, every waking and non-waking moment of our lives, deepens this entanglement. We fancy ourselves discrete beings, that we live and die as uniquely who we are. But we are actually as much a part of each other as two cells in a leaf or the bones of a hand. We insist upon our individuality, but we suffer untold agonies as a result of having too much of it. Rather than accept ourselves as part of a necessary greater whole, we create little hells of isolation—are taught to do so by our cultures, our religions, our egos. We crave entanglement, need it as much as we do food and water, but deny it to ourselves and don't even realize we are doing so.

How many of the ailments we go to professionals for—our fears, obsessions, and other so-called neuroses—are in fact the consequence of keeping ourselves apart from one another or of being kept apart by the way we live our lives: retirement, work being the only activity that gives meaning and provides social contact for so many of us; lack of family, our children or parents or brothers and sisters and other relatives living hundreds or thousands of miles away or, worse, nearby but estranged. For thousands of years, all through our development as a species, we lived cheek by jowl, in families, clans, tribes, but only recently in cities and states. Yet, in the space of a few generations we have replaced this highly social arrangement virtually if not actually required by our DNA with an atomized existence that requires psychiatric medication. And we are encouraged to accept individual responsibility for any “dysfunctional” feelings that result from such living. The job of the therapist is not to analyze society, it's to treat the individual. If our culture discards human beings as if they were old clothes when they are no longer useful or in fashion, we are not allowed to blame our alcoholism or drug dependence or anxiety on that fact. If our culture never addresses the social cause, the lack of support a well-functioning society provides, but chooses instead to medicate or even further isolate those of us who feel the deprivations of such society, how can we expect results other than the ones we get?

I have a friend whose sister has worked for many years in nursing homes. There was an old man in the facility where she works who had fallen into a depression. He had children in the area, but they never visited him. The doctor who came by periodically to attend to the patients in the facility decided at a case conference with staff to put the patient on an anti-depressant. My friend's sister had the temerity to suggest that maybe they should first contact the man's family and ask them to come visit him. The doctor's response—and it doesn't take much of a stretch to picture the look of indignation on his face: “From what medical school did you graduate?”

I might add that my friend, who had lived for several decades in New York City, recently returned to the area upstate where he had been raised and where his own large family still lives. He had had companionship here in New York and still loved his trips into Manhattan. But he missed his family (actually, he's only close to a couple of them, families being what they are). His own children are grown. One of them had moved out of the city, and the other, rents being what they are, needed the apartment where his (adoptive) father had raised him and his brother. I might also add that my friend has had his own history of depression and has taken medication for it throughout the 20-odd years I have known him. The jury is still out on how successful his move back to his roots will work out for him, but I can report that in the first six months back on his home turf, he has been able to reduce his medications by half.

Meanwhile, the wires under my computer go on embracing each other like there's no tomorrow. I envy them. How cozy it must feel to be wrapped up in one another as the electrons coursing through each warm them even more than if they were to remain separate and apart from each other. They might be a basket of new puppies or a hive of lazy bees.

You could very well catch me up at this point and remind me that wires don't have social lives or feel warmth or engage in any of the other emotional and cognitive behavior I'm fancifully attributing to them. I already know that, of course. I'm as rational as the next person—too much so. Maybe that's why a part of me goes on suggesting there exists a reality that my conscious mind insists on dismissing as absurdity. But, what's the difference between suspecting some electrical connections are having love-ins when my back is turned (actually, they don't wait that long, which should say something about them, though I'm not sure what) and my sitting in a large darkened room with dozens of other people watching a Hollywood scriptwriter's fancies projected onto a screen as if I and my fellow movie-goers were all experiencing the same dream at the same time? Or my reading a novel about a man who turns into a cockroach, or one who murders an old woman just because?

Don't we really live in our imaginations however much we choose to believe otherwise? If some neurobiologists tell us they can detect brain activity that indicates we make our decisions on a subconscious level a couple seconds before we do so—think we do so—consciously, what does that suggest about what we know and only think we know about ourselves?

I just finished reading Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. I find his “serious” novels—The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter—embarrassingly dated, painfully puritanical even by Catholic standards, and just downright unreal. I grew up in, was daily exposed to and ingested to the core of my psyche, the religion Greene adopted only as an adult as the result of marriage to a Roman Catholic. I find converts like him and Evelyn Waugh exasperating, in their naivety about the grim realities of what it's like to experience that religion in one's formative years rather like those American communists who still believed in Stalin even after he had slaughtered millions of his own people and made a pact with the devil in Berlin. If you haven't actually grown up in a religion or a country or a family and experienced what that's like firsthand, you don't really know what any of those institutions are like, bad and good. Hence the way converts, immigrants, and outsiders generally idealize their adopted fantasies. Greene does the same thing.

He called the less ambitious books he wrote “entertainments”: Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American, The Comedians, The Human Factor, et al. There's plenty of Roman Catholicism in Our Man in Havana, but it's in the background and deliciously absurd, embodied (faithfully, I would say) in the 16-year-old daughter of the main character Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman who gets hijacked into becoming a spy for British Intelligence (more like British Stupidity). His daughter, Milly, is a conniving, manipulative “princess” who can get out of her father anything she sets her mind to, very little of which he can afford; hence his susceptibility to the agent who recruits him as a spy. She's also adept at playing the proper Catholic school girl, kneeling up straight at mass in a wispy mantilla and making novenas for whatever it is she wants next to acquire at her father's expense. Meanwhile, she keeps a pack of postcard nudes to show around, accepts rides home from school from the monstrous chief of police, smokes, drinks and, when she is 13, sets fire to a boy who had annoyed her.

Yet, the religion in which she is embedded—the exasperated nuns, the belief you can get what you want by praying for it (unless, of course, it's not good for you), even the French teacher who likes to romanticize to the girls about l'amour—seems far more authentic than the priest's angst in The Power and the Glory or the guilt-ridden conscience in a novel like The End of the Affair—at least, more authentic in the sense of being genuinely Catholic, even sympathetically Catholic, as opposed to the Calvinism of Greene's novels that pretend to take on big moral issues in a serious way.

Graham Greene's so-called entertainments will still be enjoyed when his serious novels are regarded as period pieces that can't get out of their own ways. An author frequently does his or her best work when s/he thinks s/he is only amusing her/himself or writing purely for entertainment purposes, an attitude that can set the imagination free of deadly messaging and propaganda that so-called serious writing is prone to. It's then, when the imagination is most free, that its deep and powerful forces put together the disparate pieces of experience the conscious mind, with its ingrained and only half-conscious prejudices, makes such a mess of. It's the entanglement of these stands of narrative, their free association in the deeper recesses of the mind, that produces in a master craftsman (and, make no doubt about it, Greene is one of the finest writers of the 20th century) an enduring work of art.

But, like those wires under my computer, the fibers of a true narrative have to take place out of sight and, as it were, miraculously—which is just another way of saying beyond our understanding. We want to understand too much, make everything consciously explicable in terms we can readily understand. That's why literature courses exist. They're really science courses, analytics, the pathologist's postmortem dissection of a corpse, which was once a living thing that moved and felt and thought and was alive in the full and mysterious meaning of that word.

Schopenhauer said that music is the most profound reality we can know. I'd second him in this opinion while adding that art in all its forms attempts the same thing music simply achieves better than the others. But what is he talking about? What reality? I think what he's trying to indicate is something we can experience but not put it into words, any more than we can dissect a poem as we would a living body as that body experiences life, without the risk of killing it. We all live with some kind of experience that Schopenhauer attributes to music as part of our everyday lives. I may not like much of popular culture, but I would be a fool not to recognize that it expresses for those who subscribe to it a profound and necessary meaning, probably as profound for them as Brahms and Dostoevsky are for me. I would be a prig and a fool to think otherwise, and a blind fool at that.

Religion claims preeminence to an experience of the deepest reality. Religion also has the advantage of offering a narrative that is easily accessible and lifelong, a moral force for the young and a consolation for the old. If that moral force is abused and/or erroneous, as it so often is, and the consolation it offers later in life is largely antidote to the horrors it has drummed into us in our youth, the institution nevertheless succeeds anyway. Otherwise no one would be a believer.

Maybe we should just be satisfied with the idea that reality is unknowable, certainly at the level of understanding we think we can comprehend rationally. Even religions aren't so much a bad idea as a means of apprehending that deep reality the philosopher says music affords as they are perversions of that reality deeply infected by doctrine and authoritarianism, by the same hubris that convinces so many of us that whatever we don't understand today, whether it's quantum theory or human behavior, we will comprehend eventually if we but persevere. Even scientists, especially scientists, understand the futility of any kind of comprehensive understanding better than do those who look to science for the answer to every conundrum. Einstein tells a mother who wants to raise her child to be a great scientist to read him fairy tales, lots of them. Scratch a real, original scientific mind, and you'll find a young child giving rein to the freest powers of her or his imagination.

Nowadays I try not to think too much about those interweaving wires under my computer. I simply accept them along with my inability to shed the idea that they are up to something. If I must live with a perpetual question mark in a bubble above my head, so be it. There are compensations to a frank, unprejudiced but inquiring ignorance that are denied the true believer and the nihilist alike.


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