Flowers and Honeybees: A Study of Morality in Nature

New book from Brill | Rodopi. available at

Can we discover morality in nature? Flowers and Honeybees extends the considerable scientific knowledge of flowers and honeybees through a philosophical discussion of the origins of morality in nature. Flowering plants and honeybees form a social group where each requires the other. They do not intentionally harm each other, both reason, and they do not compete for commonly required resources. They also could not be more different. Flowering plants are rooted in the ground and have no brains. Mobile honeybees can communicate the location of flower resources to other workers. We can learn from a million-year-old social relationship how morality can be constructed and maintained over time.

Nietzsche and Stickiness


I propose that human knowledge systems possess a ‘stickiness’ that Friedrich Nietzsche understood in his own writings. This stickiness can also be explained as a phenomenological eternal recurrence. That is, that extant human knowledge tends to recur even when plausible new knowledge is introduced. Stickiness is important to explore because the concept implies that once knowledge becomes it may remain knowledge for a considerable duration. This includes palatably less desirable ‘beliefs’[1] about race, class, and despotism, to the hypothetically more desirable ‘‘belief’s’ of democracy and equality. As Nietzsche discovered in his writings, killing God and replacing whole theological ‘‘belief’’ systems with a ‘free spirit—naturalized human—overman’ was a radical undertaking that could take many years if not centuries.


Fundamental human knowledge associated with God and morality has a stickiness quality that enables it to endure over time and recur from generation to generation; sometimes in duplication; sometimes moderately evolved. However, a theory of stickiness should not be considered as the gluing of things together. Stickiness implies adherence, attraction, and connectivity and, in a cosmic sense, that the fundamental forces of atoms can be bonded over vast periods of time if not in penultimate perpetuity. Yet at the same time, stickiness implies that the bonding is not a seal or a permanent adhesiveness but is something that could be dramatically altered given the right conditions. For human knowledge, I suggest such an altering must come from some event, condition, process, movement, or coming-into-being more profound than gradual evolution or the subtle changes that have occurred in persistent human knowledge over the generations of civilization.

What is required cognitively is what Walter J. Freeman described as ‘unlearning’ (Freeman 2000, 149). I will suggest that the process of unlearning and a subsequent relearning was what occurred within Zarathustra during his ten-year seclusion in his cave as mentioned in the final aphorism of book four of The Gay Science (Nietzsche 1974), repeated again in the beginning of the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche 2005). The actual process of unlearning and relearning that Zarathustra endured I believe was outlined in the prologue of Nietzsche’s earliest aphoristic work Human All Too Human (Nietzsche 1996) on the becoming of the ‘free spirit’.

While Nietzsche understood the inherent stickiness of human knowledge systems he did not explain this as a manifestation of eternal recurrence (hereinafter ER). Yet the ‘belief’ system for the existence of God, for example, has persisted for millennia and the stories, teaching, and learning associated with the kernel[2] of this knowledge passed down from generation to generation. I consider this to be a case of practical eternal recurrence.

It is likely also the case that ingrained human knowledge requires something (event, catastrophe, miracle, etc.) to dissolve the stickiness of such powerful ‘beliefs’ as God so that new knowledge can evolve or become[3]. I will show through Nietzsche’s own published works how he evolved his thinking on what events, intervention, or being-becoming might un-stick long-held eternally recurring human knowledge systems. For this I will explore the mechanism and processes he considered both to soften or even break the stickiness of old knowledge and to bring about the conditions to enable stickiness for new knowledge. I will do this through (in chronological order): Human All Too Human, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Ecce Homo and Ecce Homo. In each he proposed not a divine intervention, nor a global catastrophe, but an intrinsic transformation in human thinking, first from the emergence of ‘free spirits’[4] (Nietzsche 1996, 283), second, the naturalization of humanity after the death of God (Nietzsche 1974). third, through the teaching and adventures of ‘prophet[5]’ Zarathustra (Nietzsche 2005), and finally through one of his last works, Ecce Homo: his life-work summary from the once and future ‘prophet’ of the ‘prophet’ Zarathustra (Nietzsche 1967). Dementia cut Nietzsche’s ‘going under’ short.

The Concept of Stickiness

The term stickiness has been variously defined for uses in chemistry, physics, economics, and business knowledge. The concept of stickiness in business knowledge is relevant to this discussion. Eric von Hippel first defined stickiness in the context of business information:

We define the stickiness of a given unit of information in a given instance as the incremental expenditure required to transfer that unit of information to a specified locus in a form usable by a given information seeker. When this cost is low, information stickiness is low; when it is high, stickiness is high. (Von Hippel 1994, 430)

The experience in business is that not all knowledge is sticky. In this context stickiness means transferability e.g. from one person to another. A low cost, low stickiness environment could be where the individual who gains knowledge during the course of business has no incentive to provide it to others within the firm—knowledge is slow to transfer and by definition is not very sticky. A high stickiness environment might have incentives to share or teach information; or, the sheer cost of obtaining the information is such that management’s attention to knowledge transfer within the business entity is high. Crises can often push up the cost and stickiness of information as more and more attention is paid to information acquisition and transfer at the expense of other activities.

One challenge to employing the theory of stickiness in the context of knowledge and knowledge systems is the temporal difference between fundamental ‘belief’ systems such as God and morality and business practices. Business tends to consider the environment in the short-term and in economic terms which can change rapidly and frequently. Morality and ethics, on the other hand, are typically seen as being derived from religion and/or law, both long-lived systems that are difficult to change. In addition, religion has at its core an eternal quality. Moral code and law, in its purest sense, is a discourse of continuity where incremental change is hard fought, and often persists independent from economics or the other volatile activities of humanity.

I suggest that morality and religion as knowledge systems are so sticky they can be described metaphorically and even phenomenologically as eternally recurring (recurring with each generation). Traditional philosophy is also sticky because it has been built on foundations established in the classical world, and where changes to the canon have been mostly incremental.

Nietzsche wanted to radically challenge and change the world of philosophy and existing knowledge systems—to unstick God and traditional moral thinking. These knowledge systems are so ingrained, so costly to maintain economically and spiritually, and are so sticky that Nietzsche’s challenge was to find a way to overcome this stickiness. For this Nietzsche needed to evolve humanity from where it was ‘stuck’ into a higher form of existence and being that would no longer need this knowledge and even shun it. I suggest that the tools he proposed for doing this were no less radical than a prophesized apocalypse[6]. Unlearning is one of these powerful tools.

The Unlearning Process

Walter J. Freeman explained that Russian behavioral scientist Pavlov first discovered evidence of unlearning. Pavlov taught dogs to perform a task and then subjected the animals to so much stress they literally collapsed. During this post-learning ordeal the dogs forgot all they had been taught (learned) but could be taught the same task or different tasks again without the interference of previous learning. Pavlov called this ‘transmarginal inhibition’ and determined that the benefit to this unlearning was that the animals could be retrained without the additional steps required to unlearn the old behaviors. I. e., if the dog was trained to salivate when a bell rang, it could be taught to salivate by another stimulus after experiencing transmarginal inhibition without having to first to reverse the prior learning (Freeman 2000, 149). Freeman explained that subsequent research has discovered that the process of unlearning and new learning is common in human socialization processes including: rites of passage, the military sports, gangs, fraternities, corporate training and other ordeal-like endeavors that are intended to change not only behavior but knowledge itself. Freeman suggested that the process of unlearning is, “essential for the formation of cohesive social groups based on deep trust. (Freeman 2000, 151)” As a cognitive neuroscientist, Freeman explained this process through neurochemistry and psychology:

The variety and ubiquity of neuromodulators suggests that unlearning, which is a prelude to learning new assimilated meanings through cooperative action, is brought about by the release of one or more neurochemicals in the brain. It seems to me that the action of such chemicals can loosen the synaptic fabric of the neuropil and open the way to the dissolution of beliefs and their replacement by new ones. We experience the process as a religious or political conversion and remembering the light that came, or as falling in love and remembering the song they played. (Freeman 2000, 151)

If there can be a process of becoming ‘born again’ into religious faith, then Freeman’s research suggests that, given the right conditions, one could unlearn the ‘born again’ process and become a Nietzschean ‘free spirit’ without the shackles of God or good and evil.

Modern science appears to have outlined the process of unlearning and new learning that is similar to that which Nietzsche prescribed a century earlier for his ‘free spirit’ and overman to become. I believe that Nietzsche’s ‘gift to the world’—Freeman’s ‘light that came’ or ‘remembered song’—was his Zarathustra which he wrote in fiction, verse, and bible-like revelation so that it would be accessible to the masses but also be informative to other philosophers. It was to be his effort to bring about the apocalyptic great unlearning and great new learning in the form of a ‘great noon’[7] for humanity.

Unsticking Human Knowledge—Nietzsche’s Unfulfilled Life-Work

In his introduction to Human All Too Human, Richard Schacht summarized and paraphrased the challenge of the ‘free spirit’ that Nietzsche laid out as harbingers of change for human knowledge:

…’we free spirits’ first have to become ‘adventurers and circumnavigators of that inner world called ‘man’ as surveyors and [measurers] of that ‘higher’ and ‘one [above] the other’ that is likewise called ‘man’ – penetrating everywhere, almost [!] without fear, disdaining chance and accident in it and as it were thoroughly stifling it. (Nietzsche 1996, xviii, Preface, emphasis in original)

I suggest that Nietzsche embarked on this project innocently enough and with some naivety that this task could be accomplished by the ordeal of and proselytization by ‘free spirits’ alone. As his writings progressed and he engaged in the intellectual battle towards changing human behavior he began to understand the stickiness of the major ‘belief’ systems (God and morality) he was trying to dismantle. I believe that he came to eventually understand that the stickiness of old knowledge would take an enormous amount of human and then superhuman cognitive effort and discourse to both unlearn the old and learn the new concepts and ideas.

That Nietzsche eventually employed a superman to overcome humanity and the ‘belief’ in God and good and evil, I suggest came both from frustration with the stickiness of such knowledge, and from a recognized need that some form of monumental change or event would be necessary to unstick (and unlearn) this knowledge in any reasonable amount of time. 

The ‘Free Spirit

If philosophy for Nietzsche revolved around “things human” (Nietzsche 1996, xviii, Introduction) then  Human All too Human is an early foray into the major systems of knowledge that he would consider more deeply in other works, including but not limited to: morality, religion, aesthetics, power and freedom, and the state. It is not in the scope of this paper to explore the depths of his treatment of these topics. However, what is important to the present study is the establishment of the ordeal of the ‘free spirit’s’ coming into being Nietzsche laid out in the preface. This ‘free spirit’ was something that Nietzsche hoped his writings would pollinate into becoming, “…perhaps I shall do something to speed their coming if I describe in advance under what vicissitudes, upon what paths, I see them coming… (Nietzsche 1996, 6, Preface)” He had not yet killed God[8] but in Human All too Human in the section, ‘Religious Life’, he intimated his skepticism about the tenets of religion.

Nietzsche’s expressed desire that his teachings and writings to be a kind of path towards a new spirituality—the ‘free spirit’—suggests an apocalyptic process of unlearning and new learning. Of course, the word Apocalypse in the original Greek meant revelation. The apocalypse that Nietzsche thought he could hasten into being with his writing would not be one of the destruction of the world as some theological ‘beliefs’ require, but a revelation born through a liberation that he himself would enable through his writings in Human All too Human. Consider the neurochemical transformation that Freeman required for unlearning to pave the way for new learning as a kind of cognitive apocalypse that Nietzsche’s ‘free spirits’ would have to endure. While Nietzsche did not conceive of these neurotransmitters, the process he described of breaking down the old to pave the way for new knowledge appears to be quite similar.

Nietzsche laid out the form of this apocalypse towards becoming ‘free spirit’. First, there is a fettering, a tearing asunder of the soul. This convulsive and “sudden terror and suspicion” de-centers the individual from what had been loved, “…a lightning bolt of contempt for what it called ‘duty’…(Nietzsche 1996, 7, Preface)” Nietzsche understood that the unseating of an embedded knowledge system requires torching the existing catechism before one can have the capability of accepting or considering an alternative. Walter Freeman described this unlearning as, “…an essential precursor to new learning leading to socialization that takes place through cooperative and nurturing behavior. (Freeman 2000, 11)”

Nietzsche also understood that for the ‘free spirit’ to become after this unlearning, it needs to be nurtured, supported and provided with time for the new learning to replace the old. This nurturing requires introspection as well as support. In Aphorism 4 of his preface of Human All too Human, Nietzsche laid out the requirements for productive reflection. I suggest that this productive reflection or explication of the relearning  in Human All too Human was the environment and the process of being becoming superman that in Nietzsche’s later works (The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) Zarathustra endured during the first ten years of his solitude in his cave. Consider the following summary of the ordeal of becoming a ‘free spirit’:

…it is still a long road to that tremendous overflowing certainty and health which may not dispense even with wickedness, as a means and fish-hook of knowledge, to that mature freedom of spirit…In between there may lie long years of convalescence, years full of variegated, painfully magical transformations ruled and led alongside by a tenacious will to health…There is a midway condition…it is characterized by a pale, subtle happiness of light and sunshine, a feeling of bird-like freedom…One no longer lives in the fetters of love and hatred, without yes, without no, near or as far as one wishes…as everyone who has at some time seen a tremendous number of things beneath him… (Nietzsche 1996, 8, Preface, emphasis in original)

Nor is the ordeal over yet. After experiencing the unlearning and the new learning to become a nascent ‘free spirit’ or the Zarathustran ‘overman[9]’ there is a period in the ‘convalescence’ where, “…the free spirit again draws near to life—slowly, to be sure, almost reluctantly, almost mistrustfully. (Nietzsche 1996, 8, Preface)”…“And to speak seriously: to become sick in the manner of these free spirits, to remain sick for a long time and then, slowly, slowly, to become healthy, by which I mean ‘healthier’, is a fundamental cure for all pessimism…(Nietzsche 1996, 9, Preface, emphasis in original)”

In aphorism 5 of the preface of Human All too Human the retrospectively reproduced and re-engaged ‘free spirit’ emerges into the world from isolation (Zarathustra emerging from his cave); and in Aphorism six of the preface begins, “…to unveil the riddle of that great liberation which had until then waited dark, questionable, almost untouchable in his memory. (Nietzsche 1996, 9, Preface)”

The ‘free spirit’ must then be prepared to engage the world. Zarathustra, when he made the decision to commence his first ‘going under’ (Nietzsche 2005, 7, Prologue), decided that it was time to reveal the revelation—his apocalyptically derived understanding to others. Both the ‘free spirit’ and ‘Zarathustra’ would say, “’What has happened to me’, he says to himself, ‘must happen to everyone in whom a task wants to become incarnate and ‘come into the world.’ (Nietzsche 1996, 10, Preface, emphasis in original)”

As revealed, this is no small endeavor. This is the endeavor of a single person who would become a ‘free spirit’ (or a superman)—it suggests nothing about the complexity of this apocalypse for the masses in order to unlearn old and learn new fundamental systemic knowledge in order to ask a question such as: ‘what does existence mean for humanity after the death of God?’ Both Freeman with his unlearning and Nietzsche with his process for becoming a ‘free spirit’ have only described the ordeal of the individual—what about changing the knowledge base of all of humanity?

Becoming a Naturalized Human

In  The Gay Science Nietzsche announced that ‘God is Dead” but he understood that this statement would ring falsely for many for many years to come because, “…given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.—And –we–we still have to vanquish his shadow too.(Nietzsche 1974, 167, Aphorism 108)” It is in this aphorism that Nietzsche expressed the problem of stickiness of human knowledge. In  Human All too Human not only would the ‘free spirits’ have to go through a profound, lonely, and long ordeal to be prepared to proselytize the apocalyptic fettering at the beginning of the re-learning but this same process likely would need to be engaged for centuries (Nietzsche 1974, 168, aphorism 108) (and by the masses!) before the whole unlearning and new learning could become as sticky as the prior ‘belief’ e.g. God. If the unlearning in  The Gay Science was the death of God, the new learning from this revelation would need to occur in a process of ‘naturalizing humanity’ i.e., “When may we begin to ‘naturalize’ humanity in terms of a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature? (Nietzsche 1974, 169,Aphorism 109)” Through the process of the new learning, Nietzsche asked humanity to throw off anthropomorphic ideas about nature and  discard the humanistic laws of nature in favor of a better understanding of nature’s necessities.

This whole new learning, as Nietzsche developed it over the course of his writings, requires the shaking of the foundations of metaphysics, religion and ethics. I am convinced that this task is beyond what many people likely will to want to fathom, let alone participate in the apocalyptic process Nietzsche proposed as necessary for the ‘free spirit’ to become. Enter the superman, the overman, the ubermensch, the first born of the successor to man—Zarathustra.

Enter the ‘Prophet’ Zarathustra

Among my writings my Zarathustra stands to my mind by itself. With that I have given mankind the greatest present that has’ ever been made to it so far. This book, with a voice bridging centuries, is not only the highest book there is, the book that is truly characterized by the air of the heights-the whole fact of man lies beneath it at a tremendous distance-it is also the deepest, born out of the innermost wealth of truth, an inexhaustible well to which no pail descends without coming up again filled with gold and goodness. Here no “prophet” is speaking, none of those gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions. Above all, one must hear aright the tone that comes from this mouth, the halcyon tone, lest one should do wretched injustice to the meaning of its wisdom. (Nietzsche 1967, 219, Preface)

If Nietzsche’s goal for Thus Spoke Zarathustra was to give humanity a masterpiece above all masterpieces and something that soared above mankind…with a result that left mankind far below—he needed to avoid producing a metaphorical Icarus whose wings were capable of aspiring to new heights but was ultimately doomed when the wax holding his feathers together was melted by the overwhelming power of the sun.

The ordeal of becoming an individual ‘free spirit’ Nietzsche outlined in Human All too Human. In The Gay Science the extent of the ordeal for humanity to throw of the shackles of the anthropomorphic world derived from God was outlined in its full stickiness (shadows on cave walls) over centuries of time. I suggest that the ‘free spirit’ was not strong enough in name and in constitution for what was necessary to erase the shadows of God from the caves of believe in humanity. Nietzsche needed to overcome humanity with an evolved human—a superhuman—a much stronger and resilient individual. This would be someone with compassion and the ability to engender the deep trust Freeman required for his process of unlearning and new learning to be effective in a societal knowledge structure.

With the moniker superman, Nietzsche sent Zarathustra on a ‘going under’(Nietzsche 2005, 7, Prologue) to bring the apocalypse of his ten year ordeal of ‘going over’ to the people. Throughout his journey, Zarathustra ran headlong into the stickiness of old knowledge, first at the village of the tightrope walker where his message was ridiculed, and lastly (in the story) as he metamorphosed from camel to lion in sight of the third metamorphoses—child (Nietzsche 2005, 25, Book 1, On The Three Metamorphoses)  where he realized that the ‘higher men’ to whom he had tried so hard to reveal his vision had failed to understand his teaching (Nietzsche 2005, 279, Book IV, The Sign). With this epiphany Nietzsche sent the nearly thrice metamorphosed Zarathustra from his cave without ever concluding the story or Zarathustra’s quest (Nietzsche 2005, 281, Book IV, The Sign). I contend that the lack of conclusion to Thus Spoke Zarathustra suggests that Nietzsche had begun to understand the enormity of the task he outlined in The Gay Science.

Consider also that Nietzsche’s solution to produce (to create) a successor to man evolves not through a Darwinian process of evolution or even genetic mutation, but as Nietzsche produces with Zarathustra—a pure evolution of his mind into a new being and a new becoming as a result. Nor is the irony lost on the reader that the ancient Zoroastrian prophet known as Zarathustra who first united the deities into a monotheistic god would return again (ER?) to kill God (unlearn God) and seek again to engage humanity in this new thinking.

What this evolvement to superman requires is that the current mind of the human is capable of making such an evolutionary leap (consider the Zoroastrian primordial intellectual leap from many gods to one God) with the brain power humanity has acquired over the past five hundred thousand years.[10] Even with this considerable new capacity to think and to be the only being that knows it has ‘being’,[11] the ordeal required as Nietzsche outlined in Human All too Human, The Gay Science, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra asks whether evolving a successor race through sheer brain power alone may still require additional evolutionary steps, including further changes in the human’s capacity to think, reason, and understand. We have no evidence of such a cognitive evolution in any other species. Yet we do know that the process of unlearning and new learning is available to many animals and humans produce profound cognitive changes. This question results, ‘Is Nietzsche’s creation of the successor race through the mind before changes in DNA a new process—a new methodology for evolving life—or is this just another manifestation of Freeman’s unlearning which is far from a higher-order function?’

While this may seem like wild speculation to some, I believe that Nietzsche was searching for just such a process to speed the progression of overcoming man into becoming superman….and that this was necessary because of the enormity of the problem of stickiness in the traditional and historic human ‘belief’ systems of God and good and evil.

Nietzsche was no fan of Darwinism (Richardson 2002; Call 1998; Forber 2007). However, John Richardson suggested that Nietzsche’s notion of ‘will to power’ may bring both scientists closer, “By seeing will to power as an ‘internal revision’ to Darwinism, opposing the latter’s stress (as Nietzsche thinks) on survival, but assenting to its uses of natural selection, we can ground or naturalized that notion congenially to Nietzsche and to us. (Richardson 2002, 537)” It is likely that Nietzsche’s concept of will to power is a necessary function for the overcoming of man into becoming superman. The extent to which the will to power is at work within the process of unlearning and new learning is something that deserves further study.

Nietzsche as ‘Prophet’

In the end, I believe that Nietzsche understood that his failing health and the limited distribution of his work made it impossible for him to become the ‘prophet’ of the ‘prophet’ Zarathustra. He began Ecce Homo with the strongest of statements, “Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indispensable to me to say who I am. (Nietzsche 1967, 217, Preface, emphasis in original)” Nietzsche began his own going under in summary of his body of work. Ecce Homo is, I suggest, a prolegomenon: not unlike Kant’s Prolegomenon for Any Future Metaphysics (Kant 1997); an attempt by Nietzsche to make accessible his entire body of writings. Throughout Ecce Homo Nietzsche combined autobiography with lecture about his key concepts, and, more importantly for this paper, the explication of the tribulations of humanity required to replace old ideas with new. For example…

Nietzsche acknowledged the ordeal that faces the willing, and the personal required effort to maintain optimism even in the face of adversity:

Every attainment, every step forward in knowledge, follows from courage, from hardness against oneself, from cleanliness in relation to oneself. (Nietzsche 1967, 218, Preface, emphasis in original)

For it should be noted: it was during the years of my lowest vitality that I ceased to be a pessimist; the instinct of self-restoration forbade me a philosophy of poverty and discouragement. (Nietzsche 1967, 224, Why I am So Wise, emphasis in original)

Nietzsche even intimated that one must have continuously suffered in life to understand the meaning of Zarathustra, “In order to understand anything at all of my Zarathustra one must perhaps be similarly conditioned as I am-with one foot beyond life. (Nietzsche 1967, 226, Why I am So Wise, emphasis in original)” This suggests that the process of unlearning to begin to appreciate the apocalypse that precedes new learning is harsh, long, and at least for Nietzsche, unforgiving in its pain.

This apocalyptic epiphany Nietzsche called ‘the great noon’. “My task of preparing a moment of the highest self-examination for humanity, a great noon when it looks back and far forward, when it emerges from the dominion of accidents and priests and for the first time poses, as a whole, the question of Why? (Nietzsche 1967, 291, Dawn, emphasis in original)” Zarathustra referred to the ‘great noon’ throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra and in the closing lines of book four even said when he left his cave having metamorphosed from camel to lion in sight of his third metamorphosis into child[12], “…arise now, arise, you great noon! (Nietzsche 2005, 281, The Sign, emphasis in original)” Thus the great noon would be an apocalypse that would bring about the metamorphosis[13] of human to superhuman.

The overcoming of pity I count among the noble virtues: as ·’Zarathustra’s temptation” I invented a situation in which a great cry of distress reaches him, as pity tries to attack him like a final sin that would entice him away from himself. To remain the master at this point, to keep the eminence of one’s task undefiled by the many lower and more myopic impulses that are at work in so called selfless actions, that is the test, perhaps the ultimate test, which a Zarathustra must pass-his real proof of strength. (Nietzsche 1967, 228, Why I Am So Wise, emphasis in original)

The equilibrium Nietzsche strove for was to be honest about the task at hand, but not to paint the goal (the great noon) as being so high it could be unattainable. To keep the aspiration as high as possible above mankind and to provide a kind-of rocket-boost to get there, his Zarathustra needed to be a will to power in and of himself that would be difficult for even the most timid to deny. Nietzsche explained, “Verily, a strong wind is Zarathustra for all who are low; and this counsel I give to all his enemies and all who spit and spew: Beware of spitting against the wind! . . . (Nietzsche 1967, 235, Why I Am So Wise, emphasis in original)”

Nor is this the end of the message in Ecce Homo. Nietzsche cautioned against falling into great imperatives on the journey because they may mischievously hide true goals and meanings (Nietzsche 1967, 254, Why I Am So Clever); that the despising of the little things (e.g. the necessities of nature vs. the anthropomorphic laws of nature) was to despise the basic concerns of life (Nietzsche 1967, 256, Why I Am So Clever); and he wanted his readers to be adventurers, “bold searchers, researchers, and whoever embarks with cunning sails on terrible seas… (Nietzsche 1967, 264, Why I Write Such Great Books)”.

Nietzsche did not recoil from criticism. He understood the need to overcome doubters, naysayers, and dogmatists in order to unstick old knowledge. In ‘The Untimely Ones’ in Ecce Homo he outlined the ‘assassination’ attempts against his work. There is no question that Zarathustra faced similar criticism, especially in his first foray going under where his message is given unto ridicule and he is advised by a fool to leave town (Nietzsche 2005, 16, Prologue).

Finally, the most abysmal idea in Ecce Homo and the greatest weight (Nietzsche 1974, 275, Aphorism 341) are the ER to which Zarathustra is no stranger:

Zarathustra is a dancer -how he that has the hardest, most terrible insight into reality, that has thought the “most abysmal idea,” nevertheless does not consider it an objection to existence, not even to its eternal recurrence-but rather one reason more for being himself the eternal Yes to all things, “the tremendous, unbounded saying Yes and Amen. “Into all abysses I still carry the blessings of my saying Yes.”- But this is the concept of Dionysus once again. (Nietzsche 1967, 306, Zarathustra, emphasis in original)

This abysmal thought is the ER that permeates Nietzsche’s work. I have suggested that stickiness is a kind of ER in human knowledge structures. Yet this ER is conditional and depends for its existence upon the stickiness of its knowledge in the face of competing facts, ideas, and understandings. Because knowledge is sticky and possesses the ability to recur over vast durations—change requires Freeman’s process of unlearning and new learning. Because ‘belief’ systems are often systemic throughout populations, Nietzsche’s slowly fading shadows on a cave wall metaphor is an appropriate description of a systemic unlearning and new learning required to remove stickiness.


There are advantages to stickiness. While there have been catastrophes of major and minor importance that have affected the existence of small populations or large; since recorded history, humanity has existed in a fairly consistent environment. Retaining proven knowledge systems during challenging periods probably has saved humanity from massive behavioral swings over time. As humanity becomes ever more entangled globally, knowledge stickiness, in spite of rapid technological change, is probably necessary to mitigate potential bipolar swings in behavior. Long-held ‘belief’ systems are part of that mitigation process. At the same time, this stickiness can serve to hold back or even prevent new concepts from becoming.

The importance of stickiness extends beyond the concept of eternal recurrence and presents a challenge to all philosophical advancement. What is remarkable about human knowledge is its stickiness and that it appears that there must be a radical disturbance of the fulcrum of knowledge (unlearning) before stickiness can be loosened enough to provide the environment for more than incremental change.

Nietzsche saw the problem of stickiness and attacked it gently at first (‘free spirits’), and then radically, through a new kind of evolution. Nietzsche’s evolution was not Darwinian—it was cognitive through the power of will. I believe he understood that if he, Nietzsche (Zarathustra), could envision a life without God or good or evil, then he thought there were others that could as well. Yet he had little faith in humanity. He devised the superman to overcome humanity. This superman would not likely have any different genes than humanity but would use the powers of thought (and free will) that humanity already possessed to break free from the limiting shackles of a metaphysical God and morality. While he constructed this overman in the form of Zarathustra and explained, as best he could, the process of becoming superman and what humanity could become if endured this process successfully, he never succeeded in reproducing the superman. Nietzsche had little or no following during his lifetime.

Nietzsche’s work has begun to receive the attention it deserves. However, the concept of stickiness, especially in fundamental knowledge and other human activities, represents a significant challenge towards overcoming (unlearning and new learning) inequities and iniquities born of centuries-long knowledge systems and resulting attitudes and behaviors.

A question that is derived from this discussion is whether humanity’s recent evolvement of a large forebrain is adequate to produce a superman—an overcoming of man without the Darwinian requirements of genetic mutation and selection over time. While Nietzsche theorized his Zarathustra as metamorphosing into such a superman over ten years, could there be others who could do the same and, if so, could this be accomplished by more than a few, or is this capacity available to humanity at large? We know that under the right circumstances (the apocalypse of unlearning; becoming a ‘free spirit’) the ability to metamorphose knowledge is indeed possible and is fundamentally a part of the cognitive process for many species, including humans. What we do not have yet is a mechanism that is not divisive (brainwashing, Nazism, etc.) to bring about such changes in mass.

Nietzsche himself never engendered a radical change even in philosophical circles. However his writing and the circumstances of the century that followed his death may, in fact, serve as at least a partial catalyst towards what Nietzsche hoped would be a radical overcoming of humanity into what it could possibly become.


Call, L. 1998. “Anti-Darwin Anti-Spencer: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Critique of Darwin and ‘Darwinism’.” History of science no. 36:1-22.

Forber, P. 2007. “Nietzsche was no Darwinian.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research no. 75 (2):369-382.

Freeman, Walter J. 2000. How Brains Make Up Their Minds. Edited by Steven Rose, Maps of the Mind. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1982. Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. Bloomington, IN: Bloomington Indiana Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1997. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Translated by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On The Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo. Translated by Walter Kaufman, & R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House, Inc.

———. 1974. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House.

———. 1996. Human All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Edited by K. Ameriks, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2005. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Clancey Martin. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics.

Richardson, John. 2002. “Nietzsche Contra Darwin.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research no. 65 (3):537-575.

Von Hippel, E. 1994. “” Sticky information” and the locus of problem solving: Implications for innovation.” Management Science:429-439.

[1] This paper is about knowledge. I use the term ‘‘belief’’ as a convenience for systems of knowledge that are often termed ‘belief’s. It is not within the scope of this paper to review the literature on the different theories of knowledge versus ‘beliefs’.

[2] There are many different theologies, religions, sects and factions of religious thought. For purposes of this paper the kernel of the knowledge and or ‘belief’ system is associated with a monotheistic God in the European tradition. By extension, I believe that Nietzsche would have a problem with all deities as such but it is not within the scope of this paper to detail the differences.

[3] This paper does not advocate for or against God. I merely suggest that any successor ‘belief’ found to be important would require significant effort, first, to unlearn God and second to learn, accept, and practice the new ‘belief’.

[4] In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche clarified what he meant by ‘free spirit’ “The term “free spirit” here is not to be understood in any other sense; it means a spirit that has become free, that has again taken possession of itself.” (Nietzsche 1967, 283, emphasis in original)

[5] Nietzsche abhorred the word prophet, in fact in Ecce Homo, he said about Zarathustra, “Here no “prophet” is speaking, none of those gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions. (Nietzsche 1967, 219, Preface)” While Nietzsche undoubtedly wanted to distance any thought of Zarathustra as a religious figure, I am using the term ‘prophet’ because Zarathustra is a singularity that wants to become a race. Nietzsche is the other possible ‘prophet’ in Ecce Homo but I suggest that because of his dwindling physical and emotional state and the fact that Zarathustra is his creation, there is only one Zarathustra—therefore what is he but a prophet…

[6] Apocalypse for certain religious sects involves catastrophe and the judgment of souls for eternity—in many cases leading to the end of the world. Apocalypse for Nietzsche, I suggest, is the death of God and the advent of the superman—the overcoming of man for a new kind of being that would become. 

[7] See the section Nietzsche as Prophet in this paper for a discussion of the ‘great noon’ or ‘great noontide’.

[8] Not until The Gay Science which was published six years later.

[9] The overman, superman, ubermensch of Zarathustra I believe is a more powerful term to ascribe to the ‘free spirit’. I suggest that the overman, etc. is Nietzsche’s evolution of the free spirit into something more impressive and powerful which he had begun to understand would be necessary to unstick the old knowledge.

[10] . “In the past half million years, the human forebrain has grown faster than any other organ in any other species in Earth’s history. (Freeman 2000, 106)”

[11] (Heidegger 1982, xxiii, Translator’s Introduction)

[12] As Nietzsche ends Thus Spoke Zarathustra with Zarathustra leaving the cave, we are left wondering whether the journey metamorphosed into a lion would be a final journey or whether this would become like an eternal recurrence for Zarathustra—over and over again. Zarathustra is mortal so, if this were intended by Nietzsche to be the eternal return of the overcoming then the line ‘my children are near’ (Nietzsche 2005, 280, Book IV, The Sign) suggests that the day that begins for Zarathustra that would come into a great noon would require disciples to continue the recurrence and eventual emergence of supermen.

[13] One might want to replace ‘metamorphosis’ to ‘evolution’. I suggest that evolution requires genetic change. The overman becomes through thought, contemplation and will but retains the same genetic structure it is born with.

The Myth of the Present


I assume with R.G. Collingwood that the question comes before the proposition. Edmund Husserl proposes that our natural attitude presupposes theory on the phenomenal experience during the experience. I maintain that presupposition serves to interrupt the question before it completes. Using modern brain science and through Lisa Feldman Barrett’s constructed emotions theory, I show that Husserl’s natural attitude is normatively present in Barret’s cognitive process because the brain is constantly comparing the current phenomenal experience with past similar experiences to, through error processing, not only come up with an appropriate response, but also the appropriate emotions. It is my contention, from Husserl’s natural attitude and similarly from the Buddha’s dukkha that foreshortening the question produces the myth of the present by denying the temporal entirety of the question. I propose that the Buddha’s mindfulness and Husserl’s phenomenological attitude can help us understand the complications caused by the irruption of the question before it concludes. This includes deriving inappropriate responses and emotion from the truncated question that may not be ultimately beneficial to the person and may lead to faulty learning and improper error processing in future phenomenal events.

Introduction to the Question

R G. Collingwood informs us that a question always precedes a statement.[1] This means that the question precedes the proposition and not the other way around. Given this as a starting point, we must ask is there a predecessor to the question? Martin Heidegger asks the same with his question, “What is called thinking?” He says, “The ambiguity of the question ‘What is called thinking?’ lies in the ambiguity of the questioning verb ‘to call.’”[2] To call means to call something by its name or to name it, or to call as in a cry for help because one is lost, hence the fungibility of call that can be called ‘call’ in multiple contexts. Heidegger says, “The call is the directive which, in calling to and calling upon, in reaching out and inviting, directs us toward an action or non-action, or toward something even more essential.”[3] In other words, the call gathers our attention towards its object. Heidegger says, “Every call implies an approach, and thus, of course, the possibility of giving a name.”[4] The word approach is an operative word for attention to the question.

For example, the baseball batter approaches the batter’s box in anticipation of the question of what the pitcher will throw. The gathering is the attention to the ball still in the pitcher’s hand which is also an approach to the question of the phenomenal moment of both the batter’s and pitcher’s preparation for the pitch, and then the ball as a call. The call of the ball engenders the question of the pitch. The batter meets the question of the pitch with reflexive technique learned from thousands of such pitches but also with a reflective moment of discerning what the question has proposed (what will be the pitch), and when thrown, the phenomenal answer that concludes (calls): curve ball low and inside. From that information the batter acts and either swings or does not. Emotions are generated as this process unfolds.

The process begins with an approach, intentionality towards phenomenon in the world. The approach can involve walking towards the batter’s box, and before, standing in the warm-up circle watching the pitcher pitch to others. It is the calling that complicates thinking. The calling can be the naming of names, as Heidegger suggests, but that also suggests that in a very quick call one has already proposed or presupposed what the intended object is, and this is what Edmund Husserl called the natural attitude of proposing an answer before the question has been fully asked.[5] Fundamentally this is a restructuring of temporality by foreshortening the temporality of the phenomenon to ‘call’ the answer to the question before it has been completely asked. In other words, the call to question is answered in a structuralist manner that is consistent with prior experience or knowledge. Thus, the intentional object is objectified: called before the question is fully asked. The call of the object could simply be the signifier of its sign, or, more importantly, what the sign signifies in relationship to me. The call of the object as the signifier of its sign truncates the temporality of the question and objectifies the object. In the calling of the sign as both signifier and signified, the gestalt of subjectivity of the phenomenon is concealed even more under an objective mantle—its relation to me. In both callings, the question that occurs in the approach before the call is truncated into a notion that is a call that names and defines the phenomenon before the phenomenon can be ‘completely’ experienced and the question ‘fully’ asked.[6] The question arises from the phenomenon, not from me.[7] I gather the phenomenon in the approach. From the approach the question unfolds itself. It is I who am the arbiter of the question, but I cannot possess the question, only hear what it is asking or not.

Is this truncation, the calling of the phenomenon before it plays out, a bad thing? A reflexive ducking by the batter from the pitcher’s wild pitch is protective. Naming (calling) of a thing thrown at me is not necessary—I do not need to know whether it is a rock, a ball, or a fist—it is simply a projectile that could produce consequences for me. Such a shortcut is important for nature to react to imminent danger.

Is there something that is even more originary than the approach and the question that leads to a call? Jacque Derrida offers a more primordial notion of what precedes the question, “What calls us to thought, toward the thinking of thought, in giving us the order to do it, the call also being the call to reply ‘Present, here I am?’”[8] This is no less than the saying of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “sacred yes saying”,[9] the affirmation that ‘present here I am’; the affirmation of being that precedes all possible futurity, questions, and propositions. While this ‘present, here I am’ suggests a proposition of situatedness, it says nothing more than in this moment I am. ‘Present, here I am’ is always preceded by the word ‘yes’. Yes, as in the sacred yes saying, is simply an affirmation of being, not a proposition that might precede the question. Without yes and its affirmative ‘I am’ there is not the condition of being that is necessary for thinking to begin. ‘Present here I am’ is the statement of being, the being I am, present. It suggests no temporality other than the momentariness of being present—situated now in the present.[10] It is the beginning of the process that being engages to prepare the mind for thinking: ‘present, here I am’, preceded by the affirmation of being: ‘yes’—yes, present here I am. Being ‘present, here I am’ presages the situatedness of location—where I am—that precedes the approach to the phenomenon of the world. ‘Present, here I am’ is existential, the predecessor to the experiential me. The experiential me is where the question of the question is revealed.

Husserl’s Attitudes

Husserl proposes that the phenomenological attitude (versus the natural attitude) resists the calling, the naming of the phenomenon, the structuralist objective answer before the question has been fully asked.[11] However, we must define what the phenomenal event consists of. I maintain that a phenomenal event has three coordinates: content, cognition, and spatiality. Content is the intentional phenomenon (first as a question of what or who is). Cognition is the process our mind uses to discern the intended phenomenon (what or who is), its relation to me, and the subsequent action or reaction (including emotion) to the phenomenon. Spatiality is the three-dimensional space in which both the individual and phenomenon are located and the relation to each other—in the world. Time is not a coordinate because the experience of time is constructed from the event in context of the three coordinates and the temporality of the question. Time is therefore subjective and defined by the event, subjective because if we answer the question before it has been completely asked, we truncate the temporal possibility for the question and the revealing of the phenomenon that we intend.

The phenomenological attitude[12] event process is: yes, ‘present, here I am’, the approach towards the intended phenomenon which engenders the question, the three coordinates that frame the question phenomenologically: content, cognition, and spatiality, then the calling after the question fully reveals itself, and the reflexive and/or reflective response and the emotion that is generated from the brain’s understanding of the event compared to previous events. The cognitive process of how the response is agreed upon will be discussed later.

The truncation of time in the calling before the question has been completely asked produces a moment foreshortened of its temporality. If the call is both signifier and signified, its subject is shorn of its gestalt and revelatory possibility because it has become no more than the encapsulation that the sign of the ‘call’ (signifier/signified) of the phenomenon presupposed by me without completely hearing the question; the foreshortening of both what the question can reveal and its temporality.

Time and Temporality

The myth of the present suggests that the ‘calling’ or the naming before the phenomenological event has completed its question, not only compresses temporality but can lead to incomplete learning. I suggest that this truncation of the question can contribute to an error processing feedback loop that may be misleading or even wrong.  The myth of the present is the encapsulation of the event objectively before the question completes itself. This freezes both time and the object of intention, compressing both the temporality and subjectivity of the phenomenon being experienced.[13] It is, in some sense, the denial of the yes saying of the other (being, object) that proposes itself through its phenomenality. It also subverts temporality under the notion of time. This notion of time is not clock time, the Aristotelean progression of nows according to an accepted notion of what the moment of time is. Nor is this notion of time a physics time that considers the time relativity of an object in motion to an object at rest.

I suggest that time must be rethought as it relates to the experience of the phenomenal event. For this I turn to physicist Julian Barbour. He says, “[c]hange is the measure of time, not time is the measure of change.”[14] Agreeing with Barbour, time therefore is a function of change where change evolves as temporality.[15] Freezing temporality into time in the calling before the question has been fully asked is the fallacy that is the myth of the present. It is the deprecation of subjectivity under the objective call that refuses to account for the ‘entirety’ of change or difference that the experience could produce, but rather affiances a static reference—‘the call’—to a previous experience—an assumption without complete evidence. This produces Gabriel Marcel’s “disease of the intelligence” through his notion of the spirit of abstraction, “As soon as we accord to any category, isolated from all other categories, an arbitrary primacy, we are victims of the spirit of abstraction.”[16]

Marcel was interested in the kinds of abstraction that subvert a class of persons into an abstracted notion that, for example in war, tells us to, “[l]ose all awareness of the individual reality to whom I may be led to destroy…In order to transform him into a mere impersonal target, it is absolutely necessary to convert him into an abstraction: the communist…”[17] The spirit of abstraction ignores the phenomenon of the subjective other and refers back to the call that has been categorically made using the impersonal abstraction term. The other abstracted as a thing can now be killed without ‘any’ moral confliction or cognitive angst.

The spirit of abstraction in the myth of the present is not always as radical as Marcel’s abstracted enemy. The spirit of abstraction in the notion of the myth of the present is the presupposition of the call, the naming of the name of the thing before the question is fully revealed in the phenomenal event. It is a call to a prior understanding of what was—the return to a former experience(s) encapsulated in the objectivity of a definition that not only ignores change but also freezes temporality and produces the notion of permanence which the Buddha called dukkha, clinging, grasping, and craving. The Buddha explains:

And what, bhikkhus, is ‘in a word the Five Groups that arise from Grasping’? These are the Groups of material form, of feeling, of perception, of dispositions, and of cognition that arise from grasping. This is what is called ‘in a word the Five Groups that arise from Grasping are associated with Ill.’ This, bhikkhus, is the Aryan Truth regarding Ill.[18]

However, if one clings to the notion that grasping is a form of dukkha, how is this clinging to preconceived belief that grasping produces dukkha not also a manifestation of the myth of the present—the putting of the proposition before the question? This very well could be the case. However, the obverse, being free from grasping, can be thought of as a phenomenological attitude of letting the question unfold before any theory is proposed. This emptying of the grasp is consistent with Stephen Bachelor’s summary of the first noble truth of Buddhism, there is suffering, “How often do we embrace that worry, accept our situation, and try to understand it? … The challenge of the first truth is to act before habitual reactions incapacitate us.”[19] In other words, for purposes of this study, it is to first place ourselves in the moment (the approach), as it presents itself (before the call), and prepare to listen to and hear the question it poses before generating a hypothesis as to what it means to me. Bachelor calls this a letting go, “As with anguish, letting go begins with understanding: a calm and clear acceptance of what is happening.”[20]

Of course, grasping any new theory that is proposed could also introduce a natural attitude towards future questions. What we must recognize is that the phenomenon can be ‘called’ (its conventional truth) and is also empty (its ultimate truth). Later Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism observe that a phenomenon’s nature includes both conventional and ultimate truth. Sonam Thakchoe, through Tsongkhapa’s argument, explains this through a sprout:

The ultimate nature of the sprout cannot be separate from its conventional nature— its color, texture, shape, extension, and so on. As an object of knowledge, the sprout retains its single ontological identity, but it is known through its two natures. These two natures exclude one another so far as knowledge is concerned. The mind that verifies the deceptive empirical nature of the sprout thus does not have direct access to its nondeceptive ultimate nature. Similarly, the mind that verifies the nondeceptive ultimate nature of the sprout does not have direct access to its deceptive empirical nature.[21]   

Thakchoe continues, “It is important to recognize that, for Tsongkhapa, the two types of verifying consciousness do not imply two different individuals. A single cognitive agent is potentially capable of verifying both the truths.”[22] It is my contention that both the Buddha and Husserl want us to begin with the ultimate truth of emptiness because that empties the mind of preconceived notions to give the question of the phenomenon time to reveal itself. Therefore, the grasp and the freedom from grasp are both truths that can be cognized within a single person. Ill arises from the empirical grasp and falls away in the ultimate freedom from grasping. A single person can verify both truths, but not at the same time. Beginning in the ultimate mode, the freedom from grasping, letting the question unfold, is also, in my opinion, a means to secure freedom from the myth of the present. Letting the question unfold to ascertain the empirical, conventional truth is emptied in the phenomenological attitude to prepare for the next question. Thakchoe explains:

Knowledge of the conventional truth informs us how things are conventionally, and thus grounds our epistemic practice in its proper linguistic and conceptual framework. Knowledge of the ultimate truth informs us of how things really are ultimately, and so takes our minds beyond the bounds of conceptual and linguistic conventions.[23]

The ultimate truth helps us consider the gestalt of the phenomenon that exceeds the conventional evidence produced by the call. While the question may be heard completely, it continues to hang in the air as the ultimate truth informs. This hanging in the air is also a freedom from grasping, an emptying, which is a preparation for future questions as the phenomenal world unfolds.

The Buddha understood through his notion of dependent origination,[24] that there is a progression of causes that is the nature of our own being and the nature of the universe. While being announces its existence with a yes, it is always already approaching the next moment, the next cause even as it continually affirms the notion of being. Being is, however, not a permanent self, as the Buddha informs us, because to declare a permanent structure of either self or soul[25] would also lead us into the myth of the present to insure objectivity when there is subjectivity. Nagasena comments on this notion in The Questions of King Milinda:

 And Milinda began by asking, ‘How is your Reverence known, and what, Sir, is your name ?’ ‘I am known as Nagasena, O king, and it is by that name that my brethren in the faith address me. But although parents, O king, give such a name as Nagasena, or Surasena, or Virasena, or Sihasena, yet this, Sire,—Nagasena and so on-is only a generally understood term, a designation in common use. For there is no permanent individuality (no soul) involved in the matter.’[26]

Nagasena recognizes that the call of the naming of Milinda only provides limited information that does not reveal the entirety of Milinda, which, of course, cannot be revealed if Milinda the individual is subject to change. Therefore, from both the Buddha and Barbour, we must understand that ‘change is the notion of time’ and that to freeze time through an objective ‘calling’ and the denial of temporality of the question the phenomenon is posing, as the Buddhism said about dukkha—it is unsatisfactory, an ill, a lack.[27]

The Myth of the Present

 What is the cause of this unsatisfactoriness, the disease of the intelligence? The myth of the present results in the calling before the question is fully asked. For answers to the cause of the myth of the present we must first turn to the idea of emotion in the context of passion. The Buddha explained that there are two forms of enlightenment through the concepts of wood and burning. The enlightened one who has fuel remaining is like the charcoal log that no longer burns: this is the living enlightened one. When fuel runs out, this is the immanency of death. Says Michael C. Brannigan, “While the Arahant [Tathágata] is still alive, he/she still experiences the process of the five aggregates, but they do not burn with the fires of passion, aversion, or delusion.”[28] The five aggregates are the five continuous processes that are what we call the living person. After enlightenment, one no longer clings, grasps, and craves in a contingent world. The fuel that has caused the log to burn has been removed, but even though there is fuel remaining for the five aggregates to continue, the enlightened one does not reignite the log.[29] Therefore, the myth of the present with its rush to judgment without all of the facts proposes that if one exists like the flaming log, one exists in dukkha, which has been called suffering, lack, unsatisfactoriness, and ill. What produces this suffering? In the myth of the present, the emotions are channeled back towards defending the proposition. With the calling before the question has been fully asked, emotions are arrayed towards continuity, not change—compressing temporality of the event as well.


Emmanuel Levinas tells us that suffering, “[r]esults from an excess, a ‘too much’ which is inscribed in a sensorial content, penetrating as suffering the dimensions of meaning which seem to be opened and grafted on to it… it is as if suffering were not only a given refractory to synthesis, but the way in which the refusal opposed to the assembling of givens into a meaningful whole is opposed to it: suffering is at once what disturbs order, and this disturbance itself.”[30] Levinas’s suffering is an excess of sensorial content that refuses to assemble into a meaningful whole. But what does this lack of the whole produce? Levinas continues, “Suffering, in its hurt and its in-spite-of-consciousness, is passivity. Here, ‘taking cognizance’ is no longer, properly speaking, a taking; it is no longer the performance of an act of consciousness, but, in its adversity, a submission; and even a submission to the submitting, since the ‘content’ of which the aching consciousness is conscious is precisely this very adversity of suffering, its hurt.”[31] Passivity in this context is the state that asks the question of whether a sacred yes saying is possible.[32] This state of passivity suggests that it may not be possible to assert, ‘present, here I am’ because the phenomenon that causes passivity is simply overwhelming. Levinas calls suffering evil.[33] The Buddha called suffering unsatisfactory—the condition of otherwise than enlightenment—not evil in and of itself, because contingent beings suffer. Therefore, suffering is unsatisfactoriness. Though both the Buddha and Levinas explain suffering differently, there is in both a returning. Levinas’s suffering is a return to passivity as the ‘present, here I am’ but with an uncertainty of that statement. With the Buddha, the return is to a prior calling of the phenomenon (clinging, grasping, craving). Passivity also suggests that there is a paring of the phenomenological experience down to that which can be processed more efficiently. In this notion of the return we see Husserl’s natural attitude, but from both excess and lack at the same time—the surfeit of content, and the passivity that compresses the phenomenal content as it unfolds either through the need to simplify the phenomenon or to shortcut, as to return to a prior phenomenal experience. There is both too much (a surfeit of content) and not enough (the shortening of temporality) by the call before the question is fully asked—this is suffering.

However, the calling of the question before it has been completely asked does not always involve an existential-questioning surfeit of content that Levinas introduces as the predecessor to the experience of suffering. The assumptiveness of the natural attitude in common experiences is the foreshortening of the temporality of the other (object or being). This may be because of surfeit or may simply be a shortcut to make the call. In other words, it is a categorial reduction of the phenomenon to objectivity before the question can be fully asked. It is the limiting not only of the phenomenon to tell its story but also it limits the production of appropriate emotions associated with this phenomenon by referring it back to a prior instance of the same or similar phenomenon, putting it under the call of the prior phenomenological event.


The Buddha seeks mindfulness,[34] being in the now; Husserl’s phenomenological attitude eschews the truncating of the question before it can be completely asked. Both suggest that the irruption of the phenomenological moment produces distortion of experience which may produce an unsatisfactory response and the restricting of emotion to that which is associated with the assumed proposition based upon prior experience or prior knowledge.

Husserl’s phrase ‘natural attitude’ is appropriate to consider in context of the question, for it proposes that our natural state is one where we make the call before the question has been fully asked. I turn to Magna Arnold’s idea of the appraisal construct to inform this discussion. Arvid Kappas quotes Arnold that appraisals, “are direct, immediate, intuitive, and unwitting…and some are reflective.”[35] Therefore, intuitive appraisals of the phenomenal experience are the ‘norm’, though in some instances they can be reflective. Kappas says, “Emotions, according to Arnold, are similar to ‘sense perceptions’ in that they have an object, in other words that they are characterized by intentionality…What makes emotions different is that their object has been appraised with regard to how it relates to me.”[36] Therefore we can permit sense perceptions to reveal themselves through the question, but it is when that revelation reveals its relationship to me that emotions are produced. This suggests that emotions may also serve to truncate the question by objectifying and simplifying it in terms of its relationship to me.

As a result, Arnold’s appraisals relate to the being who has being, the continuity of affirmation of the affirmative yes saying, that restricts focus to the phenomenon defined as it relates to me. Arnold maintained that the appraisal, whether intuitive or reflective, produces emotion.[37] Obviously, if the phenomenon poses an existential threat to my being, a different cocktail of emotions is produced rather than the more reflective approach to an aesthetically appealing sunset, which has no direct existential consequence to my being, my sacred yes saying. What Arnold’s appraisal construct suggests is that we more often operate in an intuitive mode of understanding the question the phenomenal event proposes rather than the reflective mode. If this is the case, then we are more often focused on the known past, through prior assumptions of equivalence, rather than in the assessment of difference, which is towards being in the temporal moment, observing temporality and change unfold along with the unfolding of the question. In other words, we are oriented to survival, the continuity of the sacred yes saying, but do so in a manner that foreshortens the question to that of an expedient response: fight, flight, hide. I suggest that this is what the Buddha was trying to tell us, that fundamentally we operate as if we are the burning log, rushing from one moment of suffering to another. It is the surfeit of content of the phenomenological experience that drives us towards Levinas’s passivity where meaningfulness comes not from the experience of the experience, but from the content of past experiences that are substituted for the present phenomenon.

In Barbour’s notion of time as a function of change, in the event of the intuitive appraisal, temporality is compressed to fit the notion of the question that is presupposed. Experiential time, therefore is a function of the experience, the appraisal of the experience, and whether the question is properly heard and assessed. Can we gain any kind of confirmation of this notion of the variability of temporal experience from neuroscience?

Benjamin Libet and his A-Temporal Backwards Response

For most of the second half of the twentieth-century, neuroscience and philosophy grappled with the experiments of the brain studies of Benjamin Libet who showed that a person reacts to a stimulus about a half a second before the conscious cortex records the event.[38] This suggests that response to stimulus is reflexive and even subconscious and that there is an a-temporal backwards reflective response (to the subconscious response) that forms later in consciousness. Libet speculated that perhaps the conscious response that occurs after the actual response, serves as a checks and balance system to make sure that the subconscious response is appropriate.[39] Because the protocol of Libet’s experiments produced a time delay, Libet and others concluded that consciousness is not in direct control of will. Ergo, there is no such thing as free will because the intuitive response is not a conscious response.[40] This, of course, presupposes that consciousness is the location for free will.

However, Andrew C. Papanicolaou in a metanalytical study shows us that Libet, and those who confirmed Libet’s latent time differential, conducted a more complex experiment than stimulus, response, and brain-wave recording.[41] Within Libet’s experimental protocol was the requirement for the subject to also personally record the timing of a clock which introduced a third component that is outside of the original endeavor to record only the neurological activity associated with the event of the stimulus and response. In addition, Libet’s experiments were inconsequential events to the participant (non-threatening). Consequential events were not tested.

When subsequent researchers removed the timing requirement, any conscious cortex delay was minimal. Libet’s introduction of complexity outside of the primary task appears to have produced the delay. This has led John F. Kihlstrom to suggest that Libet’s backwards referral is the result of a flaw in the experiment that introduces new conditions which require additional thought processes not associated with the original response to stimuli task.[42] Both Papanicolaou and Kihlstrom conclude that we cannot say from Libet’s or subsequent experiments that remove the recording of time, whether there is free will or not.[43] If Libet’s assumption is based upon a flawed experiment, experiential time can no longer be explained as bifurcated into the subconscious response and the delayed backwards referral of the conscious experience of the event. Rather time and temporality, as Barbour has suggested, are produced from change, the unfolding of the question that is engaged during the phenomenal experience.

David Chalmers suggests that the hard problem of defining consciousness is how to define experience.[44] I am suggesting that what may be fundamental to experience is how we treat the question, whether it is to assume is objectivity before the question has time to unfold, or it is to wait until the question unfolds and reveals its subjectivity and gestalt. Either approach to the question is a subject of will. Both the Buddha and Husserl ask us to become ‘fully’ informed before we express our will either in definition or in action.[45] Expressing the natural attitude is as much a subject of the will as is letting the phenomenon unfold towards expressing the full nature of the question. Can we say either is free will? Should one duck from the errant pitch, is that free will or only intuitively produced will whose freedom is constrained by the primordial sacred yes saying that requires the continuity for, ‘present, here I am?’ The resistance to willful ending of the ‘present, here I am’ suggests that there is something that is fundamental to this phrase being uttered over and again without interruption. Leaving the discussion of whether the will is free to others, I maintain that there is will and it is something that we do have some capacity to control even if it may or may not be a proposition we can call ‘free’ categorically.


Both the Buddha and Husserl want us to temper will towards the experiencing of the question in its entirety before proposing a proposition and acting upon it. This is a concept that includes the Buddha’s mindfulness (being in the present moment), and Husserl’s phenomenological attitude. What I maintain is that this also can lead to the production, from Arnold’s appraisal construct, of emotion that is appropriate to the question being asked and not to some prior question that has been asked and answered (perhaps also answered before the entire question unfolded). If we must limit our emotional experience by restricting it to past events, are we not running headlong into dukkha as defined as lack? By not letting temporality unfold to complete answer the question posed by the phenomenon, what implications does this have not only on the emotional experience, but also to whether this restricted emotional experience will produce the ‘disease of the intelligence’ that Marcel suggested might be a flawed but useful phrase for what occurs when one employs the spirit of abstraction?

It is difficult to suggest what emotions will be produced when either the question is foreshortened or allowed to complete, because that will depend upon the question that is asked. I suggest that the more we accord phenomenon its temporality, meaning that the more we experience time as change using the phenomenological attitude of being in the moment of the phenomenal experience rather than returning immediately to the prior experience and experiencing what we remember of that emotional moment (which may also have been foreshortened), the more appropriate (and informative) both our phenomenal experience and our emotional experience will be. More investigation to assess this assertion is required. Preliminarily, I return to more recent neuroscience theories of emotions for a discussion about the primacy of the referential process.

Constructed Emotions

Lisa Feldman Barrett rejects the classical view of emotions that, “we have many such emotion circuits in our brains, and each is said to cause a distinct set of changes, that is, a fingerprint.”[46]  In performing allostasis, Barrett explains that, “Instead, the brain models the world from the perspective of its body’s physiological needs.”[47] We can call this the me-modeling of the world, relating the world to my personal needs, whether it is survival, sex, nourishment, or other physiological functions. Barrett suggests that the process begins something like this, “I hypothesize that, using past experience as a guide, the brain prepares multiple competing simulations that answer the question, ‘what is this new sensory input most similar to.’”[48] As the question unfolds, already our minds are comparing it to past experiences to determine its similarities or differences. Naturally, we are also processing whether our reaction to and corresponding emotions generated from the prior experience were helpful or not. We are engaging in in a recurrence pattern of thinking, albeit through multiple returns to experiences to find good fit for response e.g. run, hide, fight. Barrett explains:

[t]he brain uses emotion concepts to categorize sensations to construct an instance of emotion. That is, the brain constructs meaning by correctly anticipating (predicting and adjusting to) incoming sensations. Sensations are categorized so that they are (i) actionable in a situated way and therefore (ii) meaningful, based on past experience. When past experiences of emotion (e.g. happiness) are used to categorize the predicted sensory array and guide action, then one experiences or perceives that emotion (happiness).[49]

In other words, the appropriate emotion is generated based upon the fitness of the present phenomenal experience as related to past experiences. Even if the present experience is a new experience, direction of fit is sought to construct emotion that is appropriate to the world that the brain produces from this experience in relationship to past experiences. Emotions, as Barrett says are, “[c]onstructed the same way that all other perceptions are constructed, using the same well-validated neuroanatomical principles for information flow within the brain.”[50] Because the brain is testing differing scenarios, some will not produce direction of fit which means there must be error routines that lead towards a final consensus on what emotions to produce and what actions to take.[51]

I offer an example of consensus from the animal kingdom. Honeybees swarm. The swarm begins the house hunting behavior when the old queen leaves the nest with a complement of drones from the hive. Scout bees fan out to look for appropriate replacement homes. Scouts return to the swarm and dance the quality of the location they have found. It has been suggested that the more energetic the dance, the higher the quality of the site.[52] Other scout bees then visit that location and return to dance or not dance depending upon their assessment of the site’s suitability. After multiple trips and return trips and the ending of dancing of other locations, a consensus is achieved and the swarm flies to its new home. We see in house-hunting behavior consensus building, the use of multiple hypotheses, and an error routine that leads to a decision. Even so, each honeybee has in its mind a pre-conceived idea of what a suitable location is. As it dances it reveals that relativity even if others do not have the same notion of what suitable is.

What emotions (if any) the honeybees produce from this activity is unknown. Honeybees have one hundred thousand neurons compared to human’s eighty-five billion.[53] Honeybees are eusocial insects that work together to maintain and serve the hive. Humans are also a social species and we also rely on social cues to help us derive meaning and make individual and group from phenomenal events.

The phenomenal event provides the opportunity for new learning, not just the return to the same learning, the prior experience that provides a reasonable direction of fit. Barrett explains how learning occurs, “Therefore, the hypothesis is that all new learning (e.g. the processing of prediction error) is concept learning, because the brain is condensing redundant firing patterns into more efficient (and cost-effective) multimodal summaries.”[54] If one processes the question before it has a chance to unfold and secures an expedient answer based upon predictions of fit to past experiences, not only is the question truncated, but its possibilities for providing meaningful new information that can contribute to learning is also truncated. This is important because as Barrett says, “I further hypothesize that the salience network tunes the internal model by predicting which prediction errors to pay attention to [i.e. those errors that are likely to be allostatically relevant and therefore worth the cost of encoding and consolidation; called precision signals].”[55] Therefore, if we do not pay attention to the entire question and we rely on past information to provide direction of fit for current phenomenon, then our potential learning is diminished, and correspondingly, our error routines will likely be inefficient or even become compromised as a result. This is important because not only do we construct an allostatic response to the phenomenon, we also construct emotion that is consistent with the view of the world we have constructed from our cognitive process and derived error routines. Barret explains how her theory of constructed emotion works, “The brain continually constructs concepts and creates categories to identify what the sensory inputs are, infers a causal explanation for what caused them, and drives action plans for what to do about them. When the internal model creates an emotion concept, the eventual categorization results in an instance of emotion.” [56]

Barrett rejected the traditional emotional centers idea. Walter J. Freeman sees a chaotic aspect to the brain. Freeman has extensively studied one of the most primitive parts of the brain, the forebrain’s olfactory system. Freeman says that the forebrain, “[i]s the organizing focus of intentionality in vertebrates.”[57] He studies how rabbits and other vertebrates learn smells. A traditional cognitivist hypothesis maintains that, “[t]he brain would have to store, accumulate, and average sets of AM [amplitude modulation] patterns in a training period, and then retrieve the average patterns as a standard against which to compare all new incoming patterns during a test period, not only with one average AM pattern but with all average patterns to find the best match.”[58] Freeman suggests that, “brains do not have the neural machinery to perform these engineering operations, and if they did, they wouldn’t have time to run them.”[59]

Freeman sees significant AM pattern shifts over time over different parts of the brain which suggests that there is a non-linear dynamic at work in the brain. In reviewing AM patterns over time Freeman discovered that the AM patterns also do not form in the same place in individuals of the same species who have been given the same scent to assess. Rather, he theorizes, “Because of the contributions from past experiences, they are aspects of the meaning of the stimuli, holding only in the animal that has constructed them.”[60] In other words, learning produces unique patterns of AM and these are stored differently in each animal, even if they are stored in the same general location in the animal species’ brain. What Freeman offers is that cognitive process is somewhat flexible and individualistic if not also chaotic.

If emotions and action plans are both derived from the construction of conceptual ideas, then dukkha (as unsatisfactoriness) begins when direction of fit is not correctly aligned with the actual (in all its subjectivity) phenomenal experience that can be expressed by the question that is left to reveal itself. Both the Buddha and Husserl taught mindfulness as being in the moment and observing the phenomenal moment without interjecting preconceived theories before the question has ‘completely’ unfolded.[61] If Barrett is correct, we begin the process of reflection and assessment of the present experience compared to past experiences, actions, and emotions the moment the phenomenon is presented to us because we are fundamentally allostatic beings and our mind is an allostatic mind. Therefore, we can conclude that Husserl’s notion of the natural attitude is likely a ‘normative’ process. In a world where animals face imminent threats and have little time to respond, even Barrett’s constructive concept for action and emotion alone takes considerable computing time and energy. Therefore, something is sacrificed in the ‘normative’ process and that is the ‘complete’ understanding of the question that is being asked.

The Buddha developed his eightfold path to help individuals prepare themselves for enlightenment. In this process is mindfulness training which, as we have seen, is likely necessary if we are to counteract the tendency to make allostatic decisions as quickly and expediently as possible in situations that may not be consequential to our being ‘present, here I am’. Husserl offered no such process for the development of a phenomenological attitude, but clearly one is needed if one is to alter the mind’s tendency to derive answers before the question is fully asked. Obviously, there are degrees of freedom we can accord to any such approach to letting the question unfold ‘completely’. One does not need to be cognizant of the full phenomenal event of the car crossing into our lane to act appropriately to avoid an accident. However, the foreshortening of other questions that do not evolve such consequences is not only a truncating of the temporal experience of the phenomenal event, but also can produce errors in the error routines and perhaps flawed or incomplete learning that could interfere with the allostatic process in the future. Likely, if the natural attitude (the jump to the proposition before the question has been fully asked) is ‘normative’, it is something that requires a certain amount of training and conscious conditioning to overcome.


The field of emotion studies is vast and has engendered competing ideas and theories. I have sought to add value to Husserl’s natural attitude and phenomenological attitude which did not receive much attention from his followers like Heidegger and Levinas.[62] I have considered Husserl’s ‘attitudes’ only through three theories: Arnold’s assessment construct, Barret’s constructed theory of emotion, and Freeman’s work on olfactory learning. My effort has been to show how Husserl’s natural attitude can produce assumptions before the full question that the phenomenon poses plays out. Scientific studies of specific phenomenon are needed to discern just what differences in emotion and action might arise from the irruption of the question and correspondingly from the completion of the question…if any.  

Barrett and others who believe they are beginning to understand the nature of how the mind constructs its answers and emotions provide us with some confirmation that Husserl’s natural attitude of putting the proposition before the question has been fully revealed, is a ‘normative’ way of seeing, understanding, and constructing the world of our perception. The myth of the present suggests that while the compression of temporality towards quick resolution of direction of fit is a normative process, this does not mean that the accoutrements of nature constrain us to construct the world in our own personal mythology. The Buddha understood this; Husserl understood this.

The question of emotional health arises from this discussion in conjunction with the problem of developing direction of fit based upon incomplete information. If we constantly return to the past to define the future, we can get into a negative feedback loop. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a returning to a prior call based upon sensory feedback that returns to a time of stress and the emotion generated by that stress. In other words, incomplete information about the present somehow produces an error routine that routinely defaults to a prior experience, producing a negative feedback loop that triggers the stress emotions from the prior traumatic event.

Psychotherapist and philosopher Eugene Minkowski spoke of a schizophrenic patient who kept retreating inside himself in order to ward off the blows of life.[63] The patient had compressed temporality into a moment of the past that was not consequential to his being and as such had constricted his error feedback loop to a hypothesis that could countenance no new (as in different) questions, even a question that could reveal the potential for violence against his own existence.

With these two extremes we see the pathological possibilities of being ensconced in the myth of the present. I can offer no discrete process for assuaging the myth of the present. Certainly, it can be explained by Husserl’s natural attitude and is in Marcel’s term a ‘disease of the intelligence’. However, we have learned from Barrett that the myth of the present is derived from evolved natural allostatic processes and is fundamentally how the brain works. Therefore, the ‘disease’ is one of fundamental expediency and abstraction, principally towards the preservation of the being’s being. However, this is a malady, as the Buddha has informed us, that produces suffering that can be mitigated through cognitive and other training in the process he called the eightfold path.

If suffering begins in the incorrect matching of prior propositions with the truncated version of the present phenomenal experience, then its overcoming begins with listening to the question as it unfolds before one jumps to the proposition. The production of appropriate emotions and actions associated with the ‘complete’ unfolding of the question contributes two important things to the allostatic brain. First, it helps the brain more correctly match the current experience with past experiences which can lead to a more accurate error processing routine—a learning. Second, concomitant with the correct matching of the prior experience to the present phenomenon produces more appropriate emotions—also a learning.

As we have seen both with PTSD and Minkowski’s schizophrenic patient, should we take the myth of the present to the extreme, both emotion and physical health can become compromised, even to the detriment of the allostatic mind because, the appropriate feedback loop is truncated to meet conditions of a former time. Ultimately, the compression of temporality to fit expedient allostatic needs shows that the myth of the present is pathological (by degree) and, while it may be efficient in situations of imminent danger, it ultimately may not be helpful to the learning being’s long-term physical and emotional health.  


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———. “Do We Have Free Will.” Conscious will and responsibility  (2011): 1-10.

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———. “How Does Conscious Experience Arise? The Neural Time Factor.” Brain research bulletin 50, no. 5 (1999): 339-40.

———. Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness. Harvard Univ Pr, 2004.

———. “Time Factors in Conscious Responses: Reply to Gilberto Gomes.” Consciousness and Cognition 9, no. 1-12 (2000).

———. “The Timing of Mental Events: Libet’s Experimental Findings and Their Implications.” Consciousness and Cognition 11, no. 2 (2002): 291-99.

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[1] In his Metaphysics in the chapter ‘On Presupposing’, Collingwood’s first proposition is, “Every statement that anyone ever makes is made in answer to a question” Robin George Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1940), 23…is a metaphilosophical statement that shows the primacy of the question to human endeavors in general.

[2] Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking trans. Fred D. & J. Glen Gray Wieck (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1968), 123.

[3] What Is Called Thinking 124.

[4] What Is Called Thinking 123.

[5] The question before the proposition in terms of phenomenology suggests that the question is more complex than our language allows. The question is an unfolding that unfolds alongside the phenomenal event, and as such, questioning itself really has no conclusion because our phenomenal experience of the world never ends until death. The word ‘the’ with question is therefore not correct. Question’s inception begins with attention to the phenomenon. Attention is the origin of the question that unfolds temporally during the phenomenal event. Therefore, we can think of ‘the’ as attention that draws us towards the phenomenon and initiates our intentionality.

[6] Completely and fully are teleological and ultimately not helpful. Because we cannot know the thing in itself completely and fully returns us to Husserl who envisioned the science of phenomenology to be one of exploration and thick experience. Husserl explains, “Our procedure is that of an explorer journeying through an unknown part of the world, and carefully describing what is presented along his unbeaten paths, which will not always be the shortest” Edmund Husserl, General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, trans. F.  Kersten (Hingham, Mass: Kluwer Boston, Inc., 1983), 235.

[7] Husserl gives intentionality content, “That a mental process is consciousness of something” General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, 74. By giving intentionality content he brackets the intentionality rather than the natural attitude and this engages the myth of the present. The nearly content-less questions of what-is and who-is are not a ‘pure’ phenomenological attitude because they contain content related to the formulation of the question itself. Nor can the question as it unfolds reveal the entirety of subjectivity of the event. For example, one cannot see behind the rock where one stands. Therefore, the question will likely not ever reveal the entirety of the event even if I let it reveal itself as fully as I can.

[8] Jacques Derrida, “Hostipitality,” Angelaki 5, no. 3 (2000): 11.

[9] Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when referencing the ‘Three Metamorphoses’ (camel, lion, child) says, “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yes-saying” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Clancey Martin (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005), 26.. The child is life affirming, not life denying which is the fundamental notion of the construct used in this paper ‘yes, present, here I am’.

[10] I acknowledge the considerable deconstruction of the notion of ‘moment’ in Derrida’s work and the work of others. Entering into a discussion about the definition of moment is outside the scope of this study.

[11] Dermot Moran explains the natural attitude and the need for the shift to a phenomenological attitude, “Husserl thought phenomenological practice required a radical shift in viewpoint, a suspension or bracketing of the everyday natural attitude and all ‘world-positing’ intentional acts which assumed the existence of the world, until the practitioner is led back into the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity” Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology (NY: Routledge, 2000), 2.

[12] Phenomenology for Husserl was a science of phenomenon, Husserl, General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, xvii. Scientifically, then, the phenomenological attitude could be explained as, “When engaged in natural science we effect experientially and logically ordered acts of thinking in which these actualities being accepted as they are given, become conceptually determined and in which likewise, on the basis of such directly experienced and determined transcendencies, new transcendencies are inferred. In the phenomenological attitude in essential universality we prevent the effecting of all such cogitative positings, i.e., we ‘parenthesize’ the positings effected; for our new inquiries we do not ‘participate in these positings’” General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, 114..

[13] The question of the question does not mean that there is only one question. The object of intention, a bird, in the trees also includes the question about the trees and other factors and hinges upon the orientation to the object with respect to me. If I am a hunter of birds, I also ask questions about wind speed and whether there are leaves or branches that might deflect my shot. If I am a bird watcher, my questions may only be associated with the bird itself, its plumage, its colors, its beak shape and other physical and behavioral questions. These are both gatherings, but gatherings though a selective filter and as such foreshorten the question to suit particular objectives. The premise and the objective therein are associated and linked. Temporality is constrained by the filter.

[14] Julian Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 2.

[15] Barbour Explains, “Time is nothing but change” The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics, 2.

[16] Gabriel Marcel, Man against Mass Society, trans. G.S. Fraser (South Bend, In.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 116.

[17] Man against Mass Society, 117.

[18] (From the T. W. Rhys Davids translation of the Mahsatipatthana Sutta, XXI, 18, ‘The Section on the Noble Truths’, Dukkhasaccaniddeso (Exposition of the Truth of Suffering [307])

[19] Stephen Bachelor, Buddhism without Beliefs (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), 7.

[20] A standing-under Buddhism without Beliefs, 8.

[21] Sonam Thakchoe, Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2007), 11.

[22] Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way, 11. I have kept to Tsonghapa’s version of the two-truths debate for purposes of simplicity. Tsonghapa allows for a single mind to orient itself towards both the natural and phenomenological attitudes. This study does not try to orient the reader towards Buddhist enlightenment, but the everydayness of the human. I recognize that Gorampa sees the need for two minds, “the division of the two truths is dependent on two minds, ignorance and wisdom. In other words, were there no ignorance and wisdom, not only the distinction between the two truths, but also the two truths themselves, would not exist” Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way, 13. There are many others, including Nagarjuna who have explored the two truths idea.

[23] “The Theory of Two Truths in India,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University).

[24] Paṭiccasamuppāda: law of dependent origination, the perpetual chain of cause and effect in the world.

[25] The question of self or soul has engendered considerable discussion in Buddhist literature as well as contemporary literature. My effort here is only to explain that if there is a self or soul it is subject to the Buddha’s laws of dependent origination.

[26] (From the T. W. Rhys Davids translation of the Milindapañhá Book II., Lakkhana Panha, The Distinguishing Characteristics Of Ethical Qualities, Chapter 1, Individuality and name [25].

[27] In his Pali-English dictionary, T. W. Rhys Davids explained that the word dukkha has no precise English meaning because English words have become too specialized. Some of the various aspects of dukkha are: suffering from being born and through the transmigration states of rebirth, illnesses, and bodily suffering, pain from cold, heat and other externalities, and mental stress by loss of loved ones or property. Dukkha includes mental stress as described but not mental illness, domanassa. Also, “As complex state (suffering) & its valuation in the light of the Doctrine: (a) any worldly sensation, pleasure…(b) ekanta (extreme pain) refers to the suffering of sinful beings in Niraya…(c) to suffer pain, to experience unpleasantness etc. is expressed in foll. terms: dukkhaṁ anubhavati Dukkha Dukkhita & experience may be a source of discomfort” TW & William Stede Rhys Davids, Pali-English Dictionary (Sri Lanka: Pali Text Society, 1921-1925). Ekanta, the pain of the sinful, Rhys Davids speculated, may or may not have been the original meaning of dukkha Pali-English Dictionary.. Whatever the origin, dukkha, on the one hand, involves worldly sensation whether pleasure or pain; and, on the other hand, it involves metaphysical suffering involved in the Buddhist notion of rebirth (saṃsāra). Note 1, §44, p.29, from the Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation of the Itivuttaka in the chapter, The Group of Twos. Content in brackets added.) The process of the five aggregates (or five khandhas) or our combined ‘mental’: Form, sensation, perception, mental formation, and consciousness.

[28] (Michael C. Brannigan, Striking a Balance (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2010), 52.

[29] Amata is for many an attribute of nibbana (nirvana) but what must be differentiated is the deathlessness of the Tathagata while alive and after death or, the Arahant with fuel remaining or no fuel remaining. Frank Hoffman explains, “…it may seem as if the door to the deathless swings open to a ‘transcendental state’ of existence” Frank J. Hoffman, Rationality & Mind in Early Buddhism (Delhi, India: Motilal Banasaridass, 1987), 106….for the Arahant after death.

[30] Emmanuel Levinas, “Useless Suffering,” in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, ed. Robert Bernasconi, & Wood, David (NY: Routledge 1988), 156.

[31] “Useless Suffering,” 157.

[32] The term passivity used by Levinas in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being relates to being for the other—the giving up of active or even passive resistance to the other to serve the other. This passivity is the location from which the ethics of responsibility begins after the recognition of the face informs me that the other is present. The passivity in Useless Suffering he describes as, “In suffering sensibility is a vulnerability, more passive than receptivity; it is an ordeal more passive than experience” “Useless Suffering,” 157. This vulnerability does not seek to affirm the other, but is a regression into a state that questions the notion of yes, present here I am. What Levinas does not reconcile is the vulnerability to the self that is the subject of both notions of passivity. In the passivity for the other there is the possibility that the other will turn on me, but for Levinas this is non-useless suffering. It is when the other is suffering this is useless. As with reciprocity, Levinas declares passivity to be asymmetrical in that it is useless for the other, but for me. This asymmetry is a subject for another paper.

[33] “Useless Suffering,” 157.

[34] The Buddha explains one element of the eightfold path: right mindfulness, “And what, bhikkhus, is right mindfulness? Herein, O bhikkhus, a brother, as to the body, continues so to look upon the body, that he remains ardent, self-possessed and mindful, having overcome both the hankering and the dejection common in the world. And in the same way as to feelings, thoughts and ideas, he so looks upon each, that he remains ardent, self-possessed and mindful, having overcome the hankering and the dejection that is common in the world. This is what is called right mindfulness” (T. W. Rhys Davids Translation of The Dialogs of the Buddha Volume II, Chapter 14 The Mahapdana Sutta, The Sublime Story II, 21 [35]).

[35] Arvid Kappas, “Appraisals Are Direct, Immediate, Intuitive, and Unwitting … and Some Are Reflective …,” Cognition & Emotion 20, no. 7 (2006): 952.

[36] “Appraisals Are Direct, Immediate, Intuitive, and Unwitting … and Some Are Reflective …,” 954.

[37] “Appraisals Are Direct, Immediate, Intuitive, and Unwitting … and Some Are Reflective …,” 955.

[38] See: B. Libet, Wright, E.L.W.W., Feinstein, B. & Pearl, D.K., “Subjective Referral of the Timing for a Conscious Sensory Experience,” Brain 102, no. 1 (1979).; Benjamin Libet, “The Experimental Evidence for Subjective Referral of a Sensory Experience Backwards in Time: Reply to P. S. Churchland,” Philosophy of Science 48, no. 2 (1981).; Benjamin Libet, Curtis A. Gleason, Elwood W. Wright, & Dennis K. Pearl, “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential),” Brain 106, no. 3 (1983).; Benjamin Libet, Dennis K. Pearl, David E. Moreledge, Curtis A. Gleason, Yoshio Hosobuchi, & Nicholas M. Barbaro, “Control of the Transition from Sensory Detection to Sensory Awareness in Man by the Duration of a Thalmic Stimulus,” ibid.114, no. 4 (1991).; Benjamin Libet, “How Does Conscious Experience Arise? The Neural Time Factor,” Brain research bulletin 50, no. 5 (1999).; “Time Factors in Conscious Responses: Reply to Gilberto Gomes,” Consciousness and Cognition 9, no. 1-12 (2000).; “The Timing of Mental Events: Libet’s Experimental Findings and Their Implications,” Consciousness and Cognition 11, no. 2 (2002).; Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness (Harvard Univ Pr, 2004); “Do We Have Free Will,” Conscious will and responsibility  (2011).; Conscious Will and Responsibility: A Tribute to Benjamin Libet (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[39] “Time Factors in Conscious Responses: Reply to Gilberto Gomes,” 9-10.

[40] Based on his experiments and experimental protocol, Libet concludes, “The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as “bubbling up” in the brain. The conscious will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort, with no act appearing” “Do We Have Free Will,” 7.

[41] Papanicolaou explains, “Third, the design of all relevant experiments involves multicomponent tasks that require that the participants divide their attention among them. In the early experiments by Libet, these tasks included (a) choosing the time to make the movement; (b) identifying with (millisecond) precision when they so choose by perceiving the position of a dot moving around the face of a clock, or something analogous to it; (c) remembering the position of the dot at the end of the trial to report it; and (d) performing the movement and, in some cases also identifying when the movement was performed” Andrew C. Papanicolaou, “The Myth of the Neuroscience of Will,” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice 4, no. 3 (2017): 313.

[42] John F Kihlstrom, “Time to Lay the Libet Experiment to Rest: Commentary on Papanicolaou (2017),” ibid.: 326.

[43] On free will, Papanicolaou says, “Although this may very well be the case, it is the aim of this essay to show that the aforementioned studies do not support such a conclusion; that the illusion of free will remains a mere hypothesis” Andrew C. Papanicolaou, “The Myth of the Neuroscience of Will,” ibid.: 310.” Kihlstrom says, “But it now appears that Libet’s experimental results were wholly an artifact of his method. Maybe we do not have free will, and conscious agency is an illusion, but the Libet experiment offers no warrant for thinking so, and it is time to lay it to rest” John F Kihlstrom, “Time to Lay the Libet Experiment to Rest: Commentary on Papanicolaou (2017),” ibid.: 327.

[44] D.J. Chalmers, “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995): 201.

[45] To the extent that ‘fully’ can be realized. There is always some undiscovered subjectivity in any question and any experience.

[46] Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), Introduction.

[47] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience 12, no. 1 (2017): 6.

[48] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 7.

[49] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 9.

[50] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 9.

[51] This notion of feedback, both positive and negative is just one of the building blocks that Walter J. Freeman has developed to describe intentionality, “The genesis of chaos as background activity by combining negative and positive feedback between three or more mixed excitatory-inhibitory populations” Walter J. Freeman, How Brains Make up Their Minds, ed. Steven Rose, Maps of the Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 35. Freemen also discovered that when analyzing responses to learned and not otherwise known smells, that amplitude modulation patterns changed to reflect learning, How Brains Make up Their Minds, 78. This suggests that the feedback loop, as Barrett proposes, is constantly readjusting itself based upon new phenomenal experiences and is learning from these.

[52] See: Nigel R. Franks et al., “Information Flow, Opinion Polling and Collective Intelligence in House-Hunting Social Insects,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 357, no. 1427 (2002).; Margaret K. Wray and Thomas D. Seeley, “Consistent Personality Differences in House-Hunting Behavior but Not Decision Speed in Swarms of Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera),” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 65, no. 11 (2011).

[53] Martin Giurfa, “Cognition with Few Neurons: Higher-Order Learning in Insects,” Trends in neurosciences 36, no. 5 (2013): 285.

[54] Barrett, “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 11.

[55] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 12.

[56] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 13.

[57] Freeman, How Brains Make up Their Minds, 31.

[58] How Brains Make up Their Minds, 76.

[59] How Brains Make up Their Minds, 76.

[60] How Brains Make up Their Minds, 78.

[61] The question of the question as revealing itself fully produces the question of what does ‘fully’ or ‘completely’ mean. Likely the moment disappears before the question is asked in full, therefore the question is not a static ‘thing’ but a series of queries that does not conclude even with the completion of the phenomenological event. ‘Complete’ and ‘fully’ are therefore placeholders for the notion of question as having a shape or form, a beginning or end, which likely is not the case. In other words, like Heraclites’s river, the question is always flowing and changing, and the moment never is the moment. This is why Barbour’s notion of change producing time is important to this discussion, for like Barbour’s time, the question introduces the question what is it that is changing that also announces the temporality of change.

[62] For example, few embraced Husserl’s phenomenological reduction: Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology 2.

[63] Eugene Minkowski, Lived Time: Phenomenological and Psychopathological Studies, ed. John. Wild, trans. Nancy Metzel, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 411.

Do You Have a Bumble?

A small child looks up

Before him are racks of cakes




Chocolate of all kinds

“Do you have a bumble” he asks

His voice is small

His stature slight

Blue shorts

A blue and white striped shirt

Sneakers that flicker red lights when he moves

He is up on his toes

He is back on his heels.

The lanky clerk looks down

Black-rimmed spectacles slide along his nose

A handprint in chocolate on his smock

“A bumble?” he asks.

The boy nods

“Describe it,” the clerk asks.

“I was told to fetch a bumble,” the child says.

“Is it chocolate?” asks the clerk.

The child shakes his head.

“Is it pastry”

“Is it jam”

“Is it custardy”

“Perhaps it is flan”

All shaken no.

The child digs his hands into his hips

“No, a bumble,” he says.

“What could a bumble be?” asks the clerk.

The boy grins, giggles, and runs out the door

His mates outside clap his back

They jump up and down

They shout

They squeal

They wave their arms

And cross them as they double over in laughter

The clerk clucks and smiles.

The Tomb Guardian

The Tomb Guardian


Bread is scarce

But a new feast daily

At the palace of the prince

While the dugs of other mothers


“The dead fare better”

Cry the unfed, unwashed

Silk and festival

Fete and soirée



“Your grace”

“We beseech thee”

For sum inconsequential

A triviality

When those outside the gate


By fetid sewers

Unnourished souls

Forgotten lives



Wrap themselves

Against the cold

But cold passes through

The blocks of the tomb

Harbor the cold

Like the ice in the stream

They rob heat

The guardian shivers

All these dead

All past

But I am here

To keep them


No one says

No one cares

No one comes

But they come

[1] Thanks to Franz Kafka for the idea from his The Warden of the Tomb.

Series Renewed

Vladimir and Estragon here.

Just to let you know we are back.

Yes, for a new season.

All your favorite characters are back too:


And Boy,

Aren’t we creative?

Go on, who else?

And Lucky.

See, we aren’t kidding.

You forgot Godot.

Hell, I did.

Yes, you did.

But Godot never comes.

So, that’s the point.

Saves us on salary.

And makeup, don’t forget that.

Any new characters?

Well, it’s winter so the tree’s the same.

It is going to be a cold day in…

Stop it, this is a family show.

Stick a fork in it, we’re about done here.

So, tune in: same time, same station.

What if they don’t want to?


Tune in.

Why not?

I mean, who would want to?

I fail to see your point.

Well, Pozo is addled and blind.

He’s more fun that way—unpredictable.

Lucky can’t talk anymore.

So, maybe that’s for the better.

We tried speech therapy.

A lot of good that did.

Boy is a dolt.

True, but dolts are us.

That is a low blow. He does keep us informed.

Sure, that Godot will not be on the show tonight.

But at the end. Keeps up expectations.

We could die waiting for Godot.

Perhaps that’s what viewers want to see.

Perhaps you are right.

Or maybe not.

Or maybe not.

Plato’s Cave

And so they found it you know.

The holy grail-
The Arc of the Covenant-
Genghis Khan’s Tomb?


No, silly, Plato’s cave.

He had a cave?


In it are Troglodytes of an indeterminate age.

Are not Troglodytes immortal?


And so they are.

What then?


What then what?

What then is with this cave?


Well, so it is dark.

Aren’t all caves dark?


Certainly, but there is a veil.

A veil?


Yes, they sit before a veil.

A curtain, I suppose.


No, something more substantial.

A glass wall, then.


Perhaps, no, not exactly.

Are they wrinkled?


It is hard to tell; the veil is opaque.

How do you know they are Troglodytes?


The paper says so.

Which paper?


This paper.

Oh, that paper.


The same.

You don’t suppose they could be aliens, then.



Yes, that would be nonsense.


They speak.

What do they say?


Nobody yet can tell.

What language, Greek?


Perhaps, maybe not.

You don’t know.


We don’t know.

Isn’t someone going to get them out?



Isn’t that what we do when we find lost people?


It doesn’t say…no they are not lost.

Not lost?


They think they prefer it so.

Behind a veil, in the dark?


I suppose so.

Don’t you think it rather odd?


What is odd for a Troglodyte?

Fair question.


There is an empty place.



On the bench where they sit.

Oh, a bench…are they stiff and sore?


Perhaps, but what do eternals care?

It must be interminably boring.


Something is bound to happen.



When it will happen.

I don’t get that.


What do immortals care?

Oh, that someday will someday come?


Something like that.

Who do you think the empty place is for?


It does not say.

They do not know?


They know very little.

I say someone escaped; overcame the veil.


But it is as hard as diamond.

Maybe, but they have had forever to do it.



Or, perhaps it awaits another.



Certainly, one who has not yet entered the cave.


A missing Troglodyte?

Well, have we a clear accounting of other Troglodytes?


I surely do not know.

Check the paper.


It doesn’t say.

Where are the archaeologists?


On the way, I suppose.

It is all blocked off then?


Oh yes, of course, yellow tape and all.

Yes, I see the picture. Rather grainy. Vague.


It’s classified I suppose.

It is not far from here, is it?


A short drive. But they say the traffic…

Then we should wait.


Wait like Troglodytes?

Don’t be crass.


You don’t suppose that old man…

Down the street? In the home?


He is quite ancient.

Yes, but a Troglodyte?


Hasn’t spoken in years.

Should we try to see him?


That would be prying.

He might like some flowers.


They do take him out on occasion.

Your aunt, is she still…


Yes, that is our approach.

We can roll her up to where he sits.


A nice chat.

Yes, a nice chat.


With a Troglodyte who does not speak.

Now, but he has all eternity to do so.


I do hope it is not so long.

No, neither do I.


I bore easily.

You would not make a good Troglodyte.


God forbid.

Your family lives long.


Stop that. Shall we go?

I suppose.


But then again, such a bother.


In the Penal Colony with Kafka and Foucault

Sayeth Michel Foucault:

The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’ s destruction of the body. (Foucault, 2010, p. 83)

In Franz Kafka’s The Penal Colony, the officer describes the parts of the ‘apparatus’, “Thus, the lowest part is called the bed. the top part is the engraver, and the suspended part here in the middle is the harrow” (Kafka, 1971, p. 142). The harrow is the inscriber of the ‘surface of events’ on the body. The Officer explains, “‘The condemned man has to have the law he has transgressed inscribed by the harrow on his body. This man here, for instance’ – the officer indicated the man – ‘will be inscribed with: HONOR THY SUPERIORS!’ (Kafka, 1971, p. 144)”

Ah, so is it the descent of humanity to be condemned to have the sentence totally imprinted by his history of disrespect in the case of this man on his body like a tattoo, or worse, the destruction of the body through the dissociation of the skin? Is this the service for which genealogy is ascribed?

Oh, but there is more to this monstrous inveiglement than just a scribing pen. Explain on Sir, “‘You see,’ the officer continued; ‘needles in many positions, but always in pairs. Each long one has a short one next to it. It’s the long one that writes, and the short one squirts water to wash off the blood, so that the writing is a1ways clearly legible. The mixture of water and blood is conducted into these little runnels, and finally flows into this principal runnel, which feeds the drainage pipe into the pit here.’”(Kafka, 1971, p. 147).

Now you see, genealogy does what it says, it is traced by language and dissolved by ideas that wash away into a pit. Ideas that had been in so much service to the individual before, but alas are inconsequential once he has expired.

Loathe are we to return to Foucault’s Order of Things for a moment to understand that the officer and his visiting dignitary are from separate epistemse. Behold the conversation between officer and gentleman: “‘Sit down, I’ll show you a few; from this distance you’ll be able to have quite a good view.’ He showed him the first page. The traveller would have liked to say something complimentary, but all he saw were labyrinthine crisscrossing lines that covered the paper so thickly that it was hard to see any white space at all. ‘Read it,’ said the officer. ‘I can’t,’ said the traveller. ‘But it’s perfectly clear,’ said the officer. ‘It’s very artful,’ said the traveller evasively/but I’m afraid I can’t decipher it’” (Kafka, 1971, pp. 148-149). You see, there is no illusion of a substantial unity here, there is no understanding between the officer and gentleman. The body and its history that the officer explains with his diagrams is inarticulate now, it has become an archaic which the officer desperately wants the gentleman to understand.

The descent of the human into the genealogical pit of history writ on the body but the mind must not hear it, nor see, it but feel it as if it were a part of him…Alas it is now…Listen once again to the officer, “Nothing more happens, but the man begins to decipher the script, he purses his lips as if he were listening. As you’ve seen, it’s not easy to decipher the script with one’s eyes; our man deciphers it with his wounds” (Kafka, 1971, p. 150).

Hear Foucault once again:

Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations-or conversely, the complete reversals-the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculation s that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents. (Foucault, 2010, p. 81)

Oh, the pain the man must endure who is affianced to this ‘apparatus’. He must learn the minute deviations of the pens, the complete reversals, and even the errors of this cantankerous machine to understand that which is happening to him and the reason for his suffering. He has no other way of knowing his fate than what has been writ on his skin which he must see with his mind. At what point does it become clear to him? The officer is unequivocal, after six hours. Thus, we are not to easily discover what genealogy purports to find. We must suffer through the interminable analysis to discover, perhaps at our own wits end, that which has been written for our descent on our deconstructing body.


Foucault, M. (2010). Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader (pp. 76-100).

Kafka, F. (1971). In The Penal Colony. In N. M. Glatzer (Ed.), Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (pp. 140-167). New York: Schocken Books.


Resistance is Futile! A Journey into Hive Personality


What is personality? More specifically what is personality in a hive species? We have many hive species on earth, but Star Trek has produced a singularly frightening hive construct called the Borg. The Borg hive eliminates the being of the being for the collective and therefore has only hive personality, not individual personality. This study will examine personality in earthly hive species and the Borg. Why study questions of personality associated with hive species? Brent W. Roberts and Joshua J. Jackson suggest “[p]ersonality psychologists can benefit by becoming intimately familiar with personality processes and structures of other species” (Roberts & Jackson,  p. 1527) I will heed this advice and conduct an analysis of personality processes and structures in earthly hive species and the Borg, and then consider some implications for humans, should we want to produce a cybernetic construct or ‘hive’ where multiple minds are connected together. This study is divided into three parts. The first part provides definition of the Borg, the hive, and seeks guidance from the different discourses about personality construction to inform a discussion about hive personality. Part two explores personality constructs for earthly hives, the Borg, and the human hive hypothesis. Part three discusses personality implications associated with future possibilities of human biomechanical interface.

First, an explanation of the construct called the Borg.

Part I: The Borg, Hive, and Personality

The Borg

We first meet the Borg in the episode Q Who in Star Trek Generations. Cosmic bad-boy Q has just sent the Enterprise to a section of the universe that has not been explored by the Federation. The script introduces us to the Borg that is rapidly closing on the Enterprise:

The image on the screen enlarges. The shape of the ship is more apparent. It’s box like, with none of the aerodynamic qualities associated with most spaceships including the Enterprise. This is a case of form following function. We are about to have our first encounter with the BORG. (Bowman)

The ship is a cube, the hive home of the Borg. Commander Data explains:

The ship is strangely generalized in design. There is no specific bridge or central control area, no specific engineering section—I can identify no living quarters… There is no indication of specific life. (Bowman)

There is no specific life because the bodies within the cube have no sense of self, not individuality, and no separate personality. A creature suddenly appears on the bridge:

SUDDENLY a strange creature appears — it’s a BORG. It is a biped — a cyborg. Part organic and part artificial. There is a metal like device implanted in its head. One arm is artificial with a tool like contraption instead of a hand. The other organic except for the hand. Its eyes are artificial. (Bowman)

Q appears again (he can teleport) and says that this Borg representative is only interested in discovering what the Enterprise is and who are its inhabitants. They use phasers on the Borg and it is knocked away. Another appears immediately. It is like the action of fire ants that pour out of the nest to attack anything that causes a vibration on the ground. When one dies there is another right behind.

On the viewscreen, they see the interior of the Borg ship:

The image on the viewscreen is of the interior of the Borg ship. Not the bridge, because they don’t have one. It is a great chamber with stacks and stacks of slots in which are individual Borg. We can see over a thousand of them, but the ship probably holds more. Some of them are making small controlled movements, otherwise they would appear to be at rest. (Bowman)

Troi says, “You are not dealing with an individual mind. They do not have a single leader. It is the collective minds of all of them” (Bowman). Captain Picard comments that this has advantages, and Troi responds, “Yes. A single leader can make errors. It is less likely for the combined whole” (Bowman). We wonder about the fire ants pouring out of the nest. They too have no leader, no single individual who directs them. The caste tasked with the defense of the nest simply acts in mass.

Guinan whose home planet has been decimated by the Borg explains to Picard what they are, “They are a mixture of organic and artificial life that has been developed over a thousand centuries” (Bowman). Q reappears and says:

The Borg is the ultimate user, with the result that they are unlike any threat your Federation has ever faced. They have no interest in political conquest—or wealth or power as you know it. They simply want your ship—its technology. They have identified it as something they can consume and use. (Bowman)

The Borg are the ultimate consumer of: technology, sentient beings, and energy. They are a colonial power that sucks the resources out of any place where they find technology and sentient beings. They enslave sentient beings and consume their identity and being to incorporate it into the Borgian whole. Their accumulation of capabilities through technological and being- assimilation puts them far ahead of the Federation in almost every respect…except human empathy, a personality trait. The Borg’s personality is a thing that is driven to consume.

An away team enters the Borg ship and discover no individual life forms but see individual bodies lying on Racks. Data explains, “Perhaps because this ship was scanned for individual life signs. Apparently when they are in these slots, they become part of the whole and no longer read as separate life forms” (Bowman). Data and others of the away team discover that each individual Borg assimilate is connected to the ship and they surmise that what was an individual mind has become part of the collective ‘consciousness’ that is the Borg. They talk about Borg advantages. Commander Riker says, “Speed being the obvious one. This ship literally thinks what it wants to do and it happens” (Bowman)…Fire ants pouring out of the nest the moment a vibration is felt.

There are younger Borg, Borg children which the away team see are in various stages of being assembled into cyborgs. Riker says:

From the looks of it the Borg are born as biological life form. Almost immediately after birth they begin getting artificial implants. They have apparently developed the technology to link artificial intelligence directly into a humanoid brain. Pretty astounding. Something else — I haven’t seen any females. (Bowman)

In earthly hives, the only reproductive female is the queen. Different forms of nurturing and feeding create separate caste individuals according to the needs of the hive. Castes include but are not limited to harvesters, warriors, nest tenders, queen tenders, and the queen.

The Enterprise damages the Borg ship, but it quickly repairs itself and chases the Enterprise, looking to drain its energy. Q says:

You can’t outrun them. You can’t destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains—they regenerate and keep coming… eventually you will weaken—your reserves will be gone… they are relentless. (Bowman)

Killer bees are so frightening because they swarm in mass and continue to chase intruders far beyond what we might think is necessary. Often, they kill the intruder. They are not looking for energy; they want only to preserve the hive. Any damage to their hive, workers are already working to fix.

Guinan says, after Q returns the Enterprise to their corner of the universe, “When you’re ready, it might be possible to establish a relationship with them, but now—now, you are only raw material to them. And since they are aware of your existence…” (Bowman).

This is only the first encounter with the Borg. There will be many more. For example, in the movie, Star Trek: First Contact, the script reveals more about the Borg:

A vast CHAMBER crammed with HUNDREDS of BORG DRONES standing upright in individual alcoves. They’re everywhere — on the ceiling, walls, floor. This is a BORG COLLECTIVE — hundreds of Borg that form a gigantic “hive” mind. The Borg are half man/half machine. No individual personalities. No feelings. They have only one goal in life: to assimilate new races into their collective. To become a Borg is to experience living death. When they speak, they speak as a collective — thousands of voices speaking as one. (Frakes)

The Borg then attacks the Enterprise and a Borg representative says to Picard, “Your defense perimeter is useless. You will be assimilated… Your opinion is irrelevant. We are the Borg. Resistance is futile” (Frakes).

The Borg collective is practically immortal. Captured children are assembled into cyborgs, and when one assimilant of the Borg dies, it is reabsorbed into the system, but its memories are retained. As we have seen, the Borg is nearly invincible because of all the advanced technology it has accumulated, including all the Federation’s defensive and offensive weaponry which it can now counter. It pursues its prey relentlessly. It is a force beyond force, something that may eventually consume the universe.

Later in the story we encounter the Borg queen. All hives have queens. However, this queen is not the reproductive factory as is the case for ants or bees. She says, “I am the Borg… I am the beginning… the end. I am the one who is many. I am the Borg” (Frakes). She is seductive and connected to the Borg ship. The Script says:

She is unlike any of the Borg drones we’ve ever seen — a humanoid female with conduits and tubes running out of her body. She has no legs. Her torso is SUSPENDED by a complex rig of CABLES and HYDRAULICS. Her face and upper-torso are much more humanoid, with the pasty pale white of Borg flesh. Her EYES have a silvery glint to them. Her demeanor is seductive and sensual in contrast to the harsh, mechanical surroundings. She is an eerie blend of two worlds—organic and mechanical. (Frakes).

Yet this queen cannot reproduce, and she is as mortal as a bee or ant queen. Unlike hive species on earth, this queen directs the Borg. She is the Borg, and is like a distributed brain, everywhere in the Borg construct, even though she is a biomechanical thing.

The Borg have no interest in power, politics, or money. They seek new assimilants to replace dead ones, and they search for useful new technology and the energy sources necessary to sustain them. We watch leaf-cutter ants strip a tree of its leaves, leaving little behind. Much the same happens when the Borg visits your neighborhood. In The Best of Both Worlds I, Picard is taken by the Borg to be assimilated. This conversation ensues:

BORG: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

PICARD: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

BORG: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.

PICARD: We would rather die.

BORG: Death is irrelevant.

PICARD: What is it you wish of me?

BORG: Your archaic cultures are authority driven. To facilitate our introduction into your societies, it has been decided that a human voice will speak for us in all communications. You have been chosen to be that voice. (Bole)

What is the purpose of the Borg queen? The queen is a construct of the Borg as the Borg. She is the authority, but the authority is the Borg itself. Even if the queen dies, the Borg will continue to do what it does. There is no head attached to the Borg; the Borg is all head. What service does the queen provide? She serves as the champion of Borg causes and in many respects as a lobbyist who convinces target civilizations to accept their assimilation.

In the Best of Both Worlds II, Riker, now captain of the Enterprise is on a mission to retrieve Picard, now Borg assimilate Locutus (other Borgs are just numbers, but Locutus is a spokesperson). Riker says, “We’re not just fighting the Borg anymore… we’re fighting the life experience they’ve stolen from Captain Picard… how the hell do we defeat an enemy that knows us better than we know ourselves… ?” (Bole). The Borg learns, acquires, consumes, and continues indefinitely. Worf replies to Riker, “The Borg have neither honor nor courage… that is our greatest Advantage” (Bole). What is honor, courage, which are aspects of personality, to the Borg? Nothing, nothing at all. The Borg has eliminated all distractions of individuality, ego, pettiness, and all aspects of personality that might get in the way of their mission… think the behavior of fire ants.

In the same episode Riker captures Picard (Locutus) and a medical examination finds microcircuit fibers and rewritten DNA (Bole). The Borg is a technological juggernaut ensconced in a cube, a hive, with the tenacity of fire ants and killer bees, but with amassed intelligence that is far beyond the capabilities of any Federation member. They are relentless, but not cruel. They don’t kill the body indiscriminately, but they take minds and enslave the body. They learn quickly and immediately develop countermeasures to any who attack them.

While in sick bay Picard (Locutus) asks Worf, “Why do you resist? We only wish to raise… quality of life…for all species…” (Bole). What is the quality of life for a hive species? Are all like the Borg, a singularity with a singular mission, mindless automatons bereft of individual personality? To understand more about the difference between earthly hive species and the Borg, we must first understand what hive means.

Hive Definition

Eusociality is a term used for social insects. Bernard Crespi and Douglas Yanega provide their criterion for eusociality, “Our criterion for eusociality is the presence of castes, which are groups of individuals that become irreversibly behaviorally distinct at some point prior to reproductive maturity.” (Crespi & Yanega,  p. 109). An alternative and more universally accepted definition is given by Raghavendra Gadagkar, “According to this system of classification, eusocial insects (the only truly social insects, by definition) are defined as those that possess all of the three fundamental traits of eusociality namely, (a) cooperative brood care, (b) differentiation of colony members into fertile reproductive castes (queens or kings as the case may be) and sterile non-reproductive castes (workers), and (c) an overlap of generations such that offspring assist their parents in brood care and other tasks involved in colony maintenance” (Gadagkar,  p. 485). Both definitions are helpful to this study. However, while hive species are eusocial, they also have more-or-less permanent dwellings. Therefore, hive species require additional definition.

Hive is a structure, a home for bees. However, hive is also the term for the complex social structure of the bee colony. Ants do not live in a ‘hive’, per se, but they also construct a home for the colony and maintain a complex social structure like bees. The hive is therefore both a noun, a place of dwelling, and a verb, to dwell. With hive species, to dwell and dwelling are required. There must be a dwelling to house the queen(s) and to raise hive young. Migratory herd mammals, for example, do not have permanent dwellings and therefore cannot be classified as hive species.

The dwelling for hive species is a place out of the elements, a place to leave to find food, and a place to return to bring food to the hive, and a place to raise young. What about reef fish who have favorite hiding places, are these not dwelling? Yes, but the reef fish, even though some school, generally do not exist in a caste community tasked with sharing food and raising young.

The hive dwelling is a place to be defended and repaired or replaced if the dwelling is irretrievably damaged. These activities are all part of the concept to dwell. The complex social structure (to dwell) has various modes of operation, ranging from normal everydayness, threat, replacement of the queen, and the repair or replacement of the dwelling. Therefore, to dwell includes activities associated with the dwelling which are part of the complex social interaction of the individuals and castes within the hive.

On earth, hive individuals are born into specific castes: queen, drone, workers, soldiers, and other variants. Each caste contributes to the hive and to the complex social structure in specific ways. Hive caste individuals are born (or nourished) into their jobs; they cannot change what they do. However, as we will discover, some hive individuals have distinct personalities and some hives, taken together, act differently from other hives which researchers have called hive personality.

What constitutes a hive species for purposes of this study requires these specific attributes. First, hive species must have a hive, a dwelling and must dwell in accordance with the requirements of the dwelling and of the collective nature of the species. All individuals within the colony dwell in and from the hive. Individuals in hive species are born into or nurtured into castes. The individuals within a caste have similar physical, attitudinal, behavioral, and task capabilities. Warrior ants may, for example, be larger and have bigger mandibles than foraging ants. However, this does not mean that individuals within castes are replicants, exact clones. Research that will be cited below says that honey bees can develop their own individual personalities. Finally, the hive comes first over the individual. Warrior ants, for example, are tasked with defending the hive at the cost of their life, which they appear willing to do. Therefore, while hive members are individuals, and there can be individual differences in personality in some species, the hive comes before the individual in all matters.

Can we say that humans are a hive species? We have dwellings and a complex social structure. However even in caste-based hierarchical societies, there is the opportunity to move from one caste to another even if it involves moving away. Ants and bees have fixed castes and generally fixed behaviors, and even separate physical constructs between castes.

Another difference is that although we live in rather-permanent dwellings we do not always dwell with a family or others. No ant would survive long, alone, outside of the hive. Humans, therefore, technically are not hive creatures. However, as will be explained, we do exhibit behaviors that we can relate to those who live collectively in hives.

Why is the Borg cube a hive dwelling and not the Federation Starship Enterprise? The cube and its inhabitant bodies are one. ‘They’ have no other place they can go to and from. Individuals on the enterprise live and work together for a time, but when their tour is over they go to different places. Hive species only go collectively to a new home or back to the old one.

In earthly hives there is no central mind or controller of the dwelling, nor does any one individual or caste control how the hive-mates dwell. We can call this type of hive self-directed.

The Borg as a Hive Species

Science fiction has long been fascinated with hive structure, personality, ‘hive mind’ and the complexities associated with hive society. These include H.G. Wells’ The Empire of the Ants (1905), Bob Olson’s The Ant With a Human Soul (1932), The film Them (1954), and more recently, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), and the Borg. As with other hives, the Borg is both a dwelling and to dwell. The dwelling is a technological cube that, unlike earthly hives, moves freely through space.

Like earthly hives, with the Borg there is the continuity of place (the cube) and a caste hierarchy, though this is less complex than bees or ants. There is only a non-reproductive queen and her drones. Unlike Earthly hives, the Drone queen is the hive and controls what the hive does because she is the hive. The queen, like the drones, is not an individual, but a form the outward appearance of the collective that takes on a queen-like shape and function. Therefore, the Borg hive is a self-directed singularity, not a group of individuals that work together.

However, to dwell has a singular meaning within the Borg ‘community’ as the Star Trek website explains, “The Borg have a singular goal, namely the consumption of technology, rather than wealth or political expansion as most species seek” (Studios). In other words, they have equated raw technology as a fungible commodity of value.

The Borg construct means technology with loss of individuality. As the Star Trek website maintains:

This collective consciousness is experienced by the Borg as ‘thousands’ of voices — they are collectively aware, but not aware of themselves as separate individuals. Consequently, they never speak in singular pronouns, referring to themselves when required as merely ‘Third of Five,’ for instance…The hive-mind drones do not register as individual life-signs when scanned, only as a mass reading and then at a bare minimum. The sick and injured are not healed but ‘reabsorbed’ by the removal of the receiver piece, which leads to self-destructive dissolve” (Studios).

In other words, the personality of the hive has replaced individual personality. They are no longer conscious beings, they have become a singular ‘consciousness’. While bodies remain, they are without any form of personality, personal meaning, or awareness.

Earth hives fascinate us because we wonder why and how hive individuals go about their business, and how the hive directs itself. If there is no controlling queen or other entity, how does the hive function all on its own? Star Trek provides a dark explanation for how the Borg functions. The Borgian ‘to dwell’ is both utopian and acquisitive. It raids other nests, hives, and places where sentient beings live and commits each to slavery in service to the hive. The Borg captures the mind power of individuals which it incorporates not only into the society but also into the structure of the hive itself—the dwelling. As a biomechanical construct, the Borg is both dwelling and to dwell in a much more connected way than earthly hive species.

Rather than use bee dances or ant pheromones to guide others to food sources, the Borg uses technology to find energy sources and to maintain its social order. What is frightening to those who believe humans have both ego and free will, is that the Borg produces a construct where both are replaced by personality of the technology-hungry construct itself. In other words, our worst fears are realized that something other than ourselves can control our minds and eliminate our individuality and our distinct personality. What the Borg does is effectively turn the individual into a zombie.

How Do Borg and Earthly Hive Species Differ?

Ants and bees, however are not zombies. Recent researchers into hive species that will be cited have discovered that individual honey bees are not behaviorally cloned into performing exactly like other bees. They have individual personalities. Both ant and bee species have been found to have differences in aggregate hive behavior which leads researchers to suggest that hives themselves can have personality.

Humans have individual personalities, but is there a group personality? The so-called ‘hive hypothesis’ that will be reviewed in this study considers why and how people require participation in complex social structures to thrive. Human society is also a complex social structure with significant order and well-documented societal (not physical) caste structures. Human individuals are said to have individual personalities, but we must wonder whether this personality, like the Borg, is more influenced by the group than we realize. The Borg presents the nightmare scenario for humanity to consider what influence society has on both creating and suppressing the individual personality. The question of technology also arises in this context as we become more interconnected with societal constructs such as social media and the internet. The Borg takes technology to the extreme and uses it to both manipulate and transform the human into a cyborg that is under complete control by the hive.

While the Borg is the subject of science fiction, the idea that it is both a dwelling and to dwell is consistent with other hive species. The fact that hives can have distinct personalities also is consistent with Borg logic. Where the Borg differs is that it uses technology to repress individual personality in favor of the Borg group personality. The Borg pierces the sanctity of the skin-bound individual. The former individual, through technological brainwashing and repression, is plugged into a collective dwelling to dwell with a single-minded purpose and that is to assimilate all other sentient beings along with their technology.

The Borg is an alternative to the nuanced message of the earthly hive as a complex social structure. In both there is a high sense of order and caste, but the earthly hive is a construct where individuals can both thrive and exist as individuals with distinct personalities as we will see with bees. The Borg is a singularity and a singular personality.

Hive is both dwelling and to dwell, but so is the Borg. However, it is the question of personality with which we must contend. What is personality and how can the Borg repress individual personality? What can we learn from individual and group personality that will help us recognize Borgian aspects of control in our own societal constructs, influences, and social structure? Then, what can we learn from earthly hive species in how they construct both individual and hive personalities?

This paper considers recent research in the origin of personality through sociogenomic biology theory, hive personality through ants and bees, the human hive hypothesis, and the Borg to provide some answers into how we can begin to recognize Borgian aspects of control over the individual and group personality.

Even though a definition of personality will not be offered by this study, the diverse discourses on personality will first need some explication.


There is no one definition of personality. Philip Corr and Gerald Matthews point out that researchers have approached personality from different perspectives, including: biological, cognitive, humanistic, learning, psychodynamic, and traits (Corr & Matthews,  p. 4). Each of these perspectives deals with different aspects being. Corr and Matthews explore diverse definitions of personality through the common terminology they use:

If commonality is to be found among these diverse definitions, it may be a frequently shared assumption that an individual’s personality begins with biologically innate components, both those shared with others and those that are distinct because of heredity or other influences; that over the life course, these innate tendencies are channelled by the influence of many factors, including family experience, culture and other experience; and that the resulting pattern of habitual behaviours, cognitions, emotional patterns, and so on constitutes personality. (Corr & Matthews,  p. 5).

Gerard Saucier says about personality:

Personality can be defined in either of two strongly contrasting ways, either as (a) a set of attributes that characterize an individual, or as (b) the underlying system that generates such attributes. Funder (1997, pp. 1–2) provided a definition that takes in both (a) and (b): personality is ‘an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour, together with the psychological mechanisms—hidden or not—behind those patterns’” (Corr & Matthews,  pp. 379, in Semantic and linguistic Aspects of Personality).

Saucier then asks and answers in the affirmative, that there is not only continuity to personality but what he calls attributes that are more or less, time stable, “Can we then say that personality is all of the relatively time-stable attributes of persons?” (Corr & Matthews,  pp. 381, in Semantic and linguistic Aspects of Personality).

Michael Hogan and Michael Harris-Bond say:

In everyday language the word personality has two meanings. These meanings serve very different purposes and it is important to keep them distinct. On the one hand, there is ‘the actor’s view’ of personality and it concerns ‘the you that you know’: your hopes, beliefs, values, fears and theories about how to get along, get ahead and find meaning. On the other hand, there is ‘the observer’s view’ of personality and it concerns ‘the you that others know’: the person others think you are, based on their judgements of your overt behaviours. (Corr & Matthews,  pp. 579-580, In Culture and Personality)

The actor’s view Hogan and Harris-Bond call identity, and the observer’s view they call reputation.

Finally, Jurus D. Draguns says about research on personality:

Suffice it to say that research on personality is focused upon two major topics: individual differences in the distribution of various traits and dispositions across persons and the organization of these characteristics within the person (Draguns 1979). According to Kluckhohn and Murray (1950, p. 190), ‘every man is in certain respects: (a) like all other men, (b) like some other men, and (c) like no other man’ (Corr & Matthews,  pp. 556, in Personality in Cross-Cultural Perspective)

The themes that run through these definitions suggest that personality formation is both nature and nurture. There are internal (psychological processes) at work to create personality as well as external and experiential processes that influence personality. Personality is also a bicameral concept because it involves how you see yourself and how others see you. In addition, there are likely to be time-stable attributes of personality that do not change much over time. We can say also that personality constructs include attributes, traits, thoughts, emotions, and, dispositions, whether applied to individuals or across discrete societies.

We have yet to find a ‘personality lobe’ in the brain. All we can say for certain is that each of us individually has what we can call a personality, and others can see that each of us has a personality. Personality is something that humans have, and this having is time-stable but never completely static.

What unnerves us about the Borg is that they have found a way through technology of replacing individual personality with a hive personality that has become a continuity, but resists change in its mission. Rather, it maintains that its happiness quotient is only preserved and enhanced by the accumulation of technology. While ants and bees do not acquire technology to maintain and ‘improve’ their society’s well-being like the Borg, they all seem to go about their business with an intensity of purpose that we find both fascinating and unnerving.

The nightmare that is the Borg exemplifies the idea that personality is both nature and nurture. Before being assimilated by the Borg, the individual assimilates likely had personalities. After being rescued from the Borg, both characters Seven Of Nine and Jean-Luc Picard rediscover their prior personalities. If we can assume that both developed their original personalities through nature and nurture, then what is it about the Borg that can alter an individual’s personality? Before we can begin to answer this question, we must first consider the nature versus nurture debate through sociogenomic biology theory.

Part II: Hive Personality Constructs

Sociogenomic Biology Theory

The origin of personality continues to vex biologists, psychologists, and philosophers. Is the origin of personality the result of genes (nature) or the environment in which the person grows up (nurture)? Why not both, ask Brent W. Roberts and Joshua J. Jackson (Roberts & Jackson)? Their sociogenomic biology theory challenges the assumption that, “[t]hat something that is biological, heritable, or temperamental, is unchangeable” (Roberts & Jackson,  p. 1523). They agree that biology has something to do with how personality is formed. However, they note that conditions in the environment influence how genes behave. Genes are not hard-wired. They can and do help the organism adapt when there are environmental changes and/or challenges. Roberts and Jackson note that that that the environment also has a lot to do with how personality becomes shaped and changes over time for that part of personality that is constructed, not from our biological proclivities, but our experiences in the world itself. They also see evidence that our personality does not stop changing at the end of childhood, but that things like stress or injuries can alter our personality even if momentary (Roberts & Jackson,  p. 1532). We need only to consider personality changes of those afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to see how this could be the case.

What the Borg does is replace genetic code with technological purpose. The technology prevents the Borg from changing the mission. However, the Borg is constructed from assimilants from many species who presumably brought their own personalities into the construct when assimilated. There is some evidence of separate group personalities in different Borg hives because Borg queens exhibit different personalities. Borg queens are the hive and as such cannot also have individual personalities. I suggest that Borg queen differences come from the different personalities acquired from the different assimilants each hive assimilates, and from the experiences of the individual Borg as it travels through the universe. This is just an assumption, but Star Trek offers no alternative reason for why Borg queens differ when the Borg construct is so unidirectional and inflexible.

Sociogenomic biology theory is centered around social or group animal species. Roberts and Jackson explain, “Thus, sociogenomic biology focuses on the behavior of animals that live in groups in which members must cooperate and compete in order to survive and thrive. Clearly, humans fall into this category” (Roberts & Jackson,  p. 1527).

The Borg is a hive construct, but it operates differently from hive societies on earth. We watch ants and bees work together seemingly as a unit. While ants and bees have different castes for different jobs, all seem to work as if they are under some unseen power or authority. On the surface, at least, all workers appear the same; all hive defenders seem the same. In fact, neither the queen, nor any other ant or bee directs the hive. Individual ants lay down pheromones to let others know where food is. Bees dance to do the same. They all work together apparently for a singular purpose and that is for the maintenance and support of the hive or colony.

Ants and bees are highly successful. Both survived the great extinction that killed the dinosaurs, and there are many species of each who have adapted to diverse ecological niches. They seem to work so smoothly together and willingly sacrifice themselves in service to the hive or nest.

In the next section the question of personality in earthly hive species will be explored.

Bees and Ants

Do individual ants and bees have personalities or is it the hive that has personality, or perhaps is it a bit of both? Alexander Walton and Amy Toth, in a recent study of bees, found that honey bee dances differ from individual to individual (Walton & Toth). Anyone who has attended a high school dance can attest that this is also the case with humans. Walton and Toth report, “our data suggest some individuals may be more likely to be highly interactive with other workers (e.g., engaging in food sharing), while other individuals are consistently less interactive” (Walton & Toth,  p. 999). Bees, at least, can display individual personality traits, some which help the hive, others do not. We can say the same about individual humans and their groups. While this was not part of their study, I suggest that if we were to investigate different hives, we might see a hive that has more interactive workers develop a different group personality than a hive with fewer interactive workers. For example, such hives might weather droughts or cold winters better because they were more efficient collecting food during summer months. There is some evidence of the existence of group hive personality in the honey bee.

Margaret K. Wray and Thomas D. Seeley considered house-hunting behavior among different honey bee colonies of the same honey bee species. They did find evidence of group personality behavior, “We found that swarms displayed consistent personality differences in the number of waggle dances and shaking signals they performed and in how actively they scouted for new nest sites. However, swarms did not consistently differ in how long they took to choose a nest site” (Wray & Seeley,  p. 2061). While group personality may not change speed to find new homes, has it any other benefit? Wary and Seely suggest that it does, “In general, increasing the costliness of errors increases the emphasis that decision-makers place on accuracy as opposed to speed, a relationship that has been demonstrated in individual honey bee and bumble bee foragers” (Wray & Seeley,  p. 2068). The implications are that waggle dance accuracy, when it comes to nest-finding, improves the bee’s chances for survival.

Both Walton and Toth and Wray and Seely studied the same bee species, the honey bee or Apis Mellifera. While we cannot compare the two studies in terms of the efficacy of their specific dance steps because the dances studied involve different tasks, we can suggest there is evidence of both individual and group personality traits in the common honey bee. Bee queens mate multiple times during their maiden flight, but never again. Therefore, there is an opportunity to continue genetic diversity (nature). However, bee brains are small. What we do not know is how much of the bee dance differential in either an individual or group context is attributable to genetic diversity (nature) or to learning or environmental cues (nurture). Additional study is required. All we can say now is that bees exhibit both group and individual personality traits.

Can we say the same about ants?

Inon Scharf, Et. al., in a study of ants, found that different colonies have different levels of aggression against parasites and invaders. The more aggressive the colony, the less likely it will relocate the nest. They explain, “The most important result is the evidence for a collective personality: colonies that defend their nest, either by fighting against intruders more aggressively or by removing infected corpses more efficiently, are less likely to relocate after a disturbance” (Scharf, Modlmeier, Fries, Tirard, & Foitzik,  p. 5). Nest relocation is an energy expensive proposition, but aggressiveness can also mean the death of individuals who are necessary for colony survival. Therefore, a pragmatic aggressiveness is appropriate for ant colonies. Unfortunately, we cannot make the same hypothesis for evidence of both individual and group personality in ants as we can with the honey bee, because studies of individual ant personality have not yet been conducted. However, we can say that at least one species of bee and one of ant exhibit group personality traits.

What we have discovered is that in the insect kingdom, there is evidence of both individual and group personality traits in honey bees. We move next into a discussion about humans to investigate evidence of individual and group personality.


What about humans today? Do we exhibit hive behavior or are we just rugged individualists through and through? Recall the high school dance. Some are dancing to their own rhythm, and others are dancing together using coordinated and synchronized dance steps they have learned and appear to enjoy doing together.

Walton and Toth concluded from their bee study, “We suggest that individual-level personality differences have the potential to contribute to colony division of labor by creating variation in individual tendencies to perform different tasks” (Walton & Toth,  p. 999). We observe the same in human societies at the group and even family level. People use their individual talents to solve group problems or achieve group goals. People work together in groups; hive species work together collectively. In earthly hive species, collectivism is a more-or-less permanent construct (bee swarms split the construct in two, some follow old queen, some follow the new queen) while the group in human activities is not necessarily a permanent construct. A group can be like a temporarily constructed project team or a more permanent and formal society. In both, humans retain the innate capability to move from one group to the other, while honey bees, for example, cannot other than through the swarm, but even then, the group splits into two.

We certainly have evidence in our own lives of the differences in personality between members of our own immediate family who presumably have had similar parental and nurturing experiences. While there may be ‘family resemblance’ in sibling personalities, each will bring individual genetic differences that contribute to what we know as individual personality. Then again, what seems like identical parenting likely is not. Even ‘equally’ applied encouragement or discipline that might be beneficial to one sibling might not be beneficial for another. Therefore, we can be comfortable in saying individual humans have individual personalities that are influenced both, by nature and the environment, and the way that humans interact with each other. Evidence of group or hive personality in humans and the Borg is explored next.

The Human Hive Hypothesis

Honey bees have been shown to have individual personalities and hive personalities. In the spirit of comparing species, what about the Borg and humans?

We know from the Star Trek story line that the Borg drones exhibit collective personality traits of aggressiveness and purpose. They cannot have individual personality traits because they are no longer individuals. However, before they were assimilants, likely each drone once had individual personality traits as well. The queen is not an individual, she is the Borg. Therefore, because Borg queens display different personalities, there must be something different in each hive. I have said before that it is likely that the Borg benefits from the individual personalities that shaped the assimilant before assimilation. Nothing of the assimilant is lost in the assimilation. All that the assimilants bring with them is stored in Borg technology. Therefore, if a Borg colony happens to assimilate many aggressive species, it makes sense that that the Borg colony might become more aggressive.

Jonathan Haidt, J. Patrick Seder, and Selin Kesebir, studied three social construct hypotheses in human society. The first, is the dyad approach, where humans pair bond. Marriage is just one example of the dyadic relationship. The dyadic hypothesis Haidt, Et. al., states, “[t]hat people need relationships to flourish” (Haidt, Patrick Seder, & Kesebir,  p. 5135). With the prevalence of marriage around the globe, this certainly has merit.

However, they see a second even stronger hypothesis originally espoused by Emile Durkheim, “A stronger and more controversial hypothesis is the moral community hypothesis, which states that people need to be bound into a community that shares norms and values in order to flourish” (Haidt et al.,  p. 5135). Bees, ants, and humans flourish in societies. Individual bees and ants would not survive without the community. Humans consider both the health of the community and individual health when developing societal norms and personality. Haidt, Et. al., explain that Durkheim maintained that, “Only by being a member of a group that imposes limits and sets standards for good behavior can people achieve their desires and find satisfaction” (Haidt et al.,  p. 5135). Durkheim’s moral community considers not only the satisfaction of the community, but also the satisfaction of the individual who lives by community rules.

Haidt, Et. al., think that neither the dyadic nor the ethical community hypothesis adequately explains the need for group activity for human flourishing. They suggest a third hypothesis they call the hive hypothesis, “An even stronger relatedness hypothesis is the hive hypothesis, which says that the self can be an obstacle to happiness, so people need to lose their selves occasionally by becoming part of an emergent social organism in order to reach the highest levels of human flourishing” (Haidt et al.,  p. 5136).

As societies become more interconnected through technology and social media the hive hypothesis deserves further study. Are people happier as part of these social organisms? Many of these social media platforms enable trolls, bullies, and anonymous users to ‘flame’ or otherwise denigrate others who post messages and other media to these platforms. Social media sites are just beginning to deal with hate messages and with intentionally planted fake and misleading news and information. What affect these social media devices have on personality development should be studied.

What do we take from the group? Simple observation of teens shows us that when they join cliques and gangs, they take on the clothing, behavior, and attitudes of that construct. Some may adapt so completely to the lifestyle that their own personality is changed in a big way. Others might only demonstrate the personality of the group while associated with the group, but in other settings return to more-or-less their original personality. Therefore, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that we can adapt to both the personality of the group, and maintain (and/or modify) our own individual personality while associated with specific groups. However, we likely influence the group personality by our being and acting in the group, and it is likely also that the group personality influences our individual personality by our association with it.

I return to Walton and Toth’s Bee study and will extrapolate that like bees, individual human personality differences, create variation that will affect the performance, attitude, and even the personality of the group itself (Walton & Toth,  p. 999). Evidence of this can be found in studies of military service teams by Hafhill, Et. al., that found that those teams that are the most agreeable collectively perform better (Halfhill, Nielsen, Sundstrom, & Weilbaecher,  p. 51). If one’s personality is generally disagreeable, one must agree to become agreeable to function well within this group, which may require taking on some group personality aspects that one did not bring to the group.

Because we exhibit both individual personality and exist within groups that develop group personality and we migrate between groups even daily, it must be the case there is a certain amount of fluidity in personality development for humans, and perhaps even for the ants and bees. Genetic influence of personality traits is not absolute, as Roberts and Jackson warn, “In fact, gene expression can be switched on and off and altered in response to both genetic and environmental factors” (Roberts & Jackson,  p. 1528). Therefore, there is fluidity to be found even in our genetically constructed personality. Our experience of the world, whether it is to exercise our own personality to effect our personal human flourishing, or in a group to mitigate those aspects of our self that are holding us back, shows us that our personality benefits and evolves from many different environmental influences. Quoting Jensen-Campbell & Sullivan-Logan, Roberts and Jackson use this metaphor to explain the process, “[t]emperament has been equated to the hard ice ball around which the softer snow of personality accumulates developmentally” (Roberts & Jackson,  p. 1526).

That same metaphor we can now apply to the Borg. The Borg hard ice ball is the cube structure that becomes the hive where all the assimilants exist. As new assimilants are added to the collective like the snow, they help the cube become bigger, and presumably stronger. I maintain that the addition of others also leads to personality development. As has been mentioned, each Borg hive has a different personality which likely comes from the prior individuals who are now assimilants (nature/nurture) and from the hive’s experience (nurture). The queen is the hive so her personality (the hive personality) is that of the hive.

The Borg takes a different approach to agreeability. It eliminates the possibility for the display of individual personality which serves to limit the possibilities that the collective will veer from message. Likely this is because the mechanical has taken over the control of the physical. The message of the mechanical does not vary ever—seek new technology, assimilate it, and the species who produced the technology. The collective learns from this new technology and presumably also learns from the former individuals it has assimilated. Therefore, Borg agreeableness is through enforced message and purpose. This agreeableness also produces a stronger Borg because it stays on mission.

As we move closer to creating biomechanical interfaces, how Borgian will we become is the next question I will consider.

Part III Questions Associated with Human Biomechanical Interface

Questions Associated with Collective Constructs

The Borg operates successfully without individuals and without individual personality. The Borg has a single-minded purpose to assimilate any species it encounters. If assimilants were permitted individual personality, would that not also introduce ego, personality, and instability into the collective. Would these capabilities make the Borg less efficient? Is that why they are so successful? Along with this question, it is important to ask, what could a group of humans armed with Borgian resolve and technology achieve? Could we solve some of the more vexing problems we face? Does individual personality need to be repressed like it is with the Borg for us to move to the next levels of achievement?

We cannot yet answer these questions. However, as we increasingly use technologically enabled ‘hive-like’ (to dwell) activities such as social media, we need to ask whether rigid processes help or hinder productivity, happiness, and individual development. We might ask, for example, whether the limit 140 characters in a tweet is a barrier or a human enabler…also, how does prolonged use of the tweet influence personality, if at all?

As we move towards more ‘collective’ constructs that may involve human-machine interfaces like the Borg, we will want to understand the issues of personality associated with ‘hyperconnected’ constructs. To begin this journey, we can turn to science.

Scientists have analyzed bee and ant behavior and have discovered individual and group personality traits in honey bees and group personality traits in ants. The Borg collective also provides us with some ideas about how human personality might be changed in a ‘hyperconnected’ construct we might eventually create to improve our own productivity. ‘Hyperconnected’ (and also hyperconstructed) means more than just people working together. It is minds connected in some way, presumably through technology. In such a construct we likely will become more hive-like because we are both in a connected technological dwelling and we dwell within that ‘hyperconnected’ dwelling.

Humans without biomechanical interfaces are not hive species because we do not all live in groups and we do not have rigid physical castes as do ants, bees, and the Borg. Even an untouchable in India could be someone other than an untouchable in another country. We do, however, live in societies like ants and bees, and like bees, at least, have individual personalities.

However, we do get together in groups to solve problems. We also see that groups take on aspects of the personality of their members and vice versa. Nature and nurture help produce personality, and personality is bicameral, we have individual personalities (our identity) and how others see our personality (our reputation).

Ants use pheromones to direct hive mates to food, bees do a waggle dance to do the same. The Borg uses its bio-mechanical intelligence to run down and capture new sources of technology, energy, and, new assimilants. Ants, Bees, the Borg and the human are all successful ‘species’, if the Borg is a species. All engage in group activities.

Hypothetically, then, if humans were to create a hive construct, a cybernetic dwelling in which we can dwell even if only for short periods of time, what might this enable us to do? Project teams gain from the diversity of members’ experience, knowledge, personality, intelligence, and ideas. Would a cybernetic hive where individual minds with all their egos, personality, and intelligence produce more than the non-connected project team? Or would individual egos and personalities interfere with productivity? Is the Borg, taking the individual out of the picture, the most productive use of the cybernetic construct because it replaces individual personality and ego with purposefulness that is linked to the combined brainpower of the hive? These are important questions we must explore as we begin to develop technological ways of connecting individual minds to each other.

The Borg is a highly successful hive species. Hive species require both a dwelling and to dwell, or activities that are associated with a single dwelling. Hive species also have rigid physical and task castes. While individual honey bees can have unique personalities through how they perform their waggle dance, those that gather nectar cannot also tend the newborn. Earth hive species have queens whose sole function is to reproduce. The Borg has a queen who is not a reproductive creature, but is the Borg itself and acts as a kind of ambassador or spokesperson for the hive. Borg drones investigate new possibilities for assimilation and technology acquisition and then use hive resources to bring both into the hive.

However, the Borg do not have individual personalities. They are a construct that absorbs all aspects of individuality: personality, intelligence, and even being itself into the hive. Therefore, there is but one personality for each Borg colony. The Borg has spent thousands of years assimilating beings and technology. It is more advanced than the human and each hive possesses a singular personality along with what is likely a pre-programmed and quite consistent drive to assimilate.

While the Borg has eliminated individuality, it has not eliminated personality. The battles between the Borg and the Federation in Star Trek are not just about assimilation but about whether individual/group personality or group personality alone is ultimately more powerful in producing happiness as both cultures define them. For the Borg, happiness is more technology, more assimilants. For the civilizations that belong to the Federation, each likely defines happiness in different ways, but they all agree to be agreeable to each other. The Federation is both a collective, meaning, a group of civilizations that work together, and a collection of individual civilizations with individuals. The Borg is a collective without individuals.

Bee individuals belong to a rigid work and physical caste. However, they can develop individual personalities in service to the hive itself. At the same time each hive (like the Borg hive) can have a different personality from other hives of the same species. Therefore, the bee exemplifies the sociogenomic biology theory that personality is both produced through the genes and through experience. The Borg uses technology to eliminate both genetic and experiential personality in the former individuals who are now cyborg and mobile operatives. Yet, each Borg hive has a personality that may be different from another Borg hive.

Towards an Uncertain Future

What does all of this say about personality and what humans might gain from more knowledge about how other species develop personality?

First, that individual personality is not by itself limiting. Humans and Bees are successful species. The Federation team (made from individuals with individual personalities) on the Starship Enterprise seems capable of avoiding assimilation by the Borg. The Borg insistence on maintaining group personality only does not yet seem to be superior to that of the Starship Enterprise where there are both individual personalities and the group personality of a Federation Starship. Finally, since we know that humans, the Borg, and at least some species of bees have personalities (whether individual, hive, or both) that personality is part of the construct of what being is in many higher-order species.

Gadagkar suggests that eusocial bees and ants exhibit altruistic behavior because they cooperate rather than compete in reproduction (Gadagkar,  p. 485). Drones and other castes cannot reproduce, but enhance capabilities in other ways through physical changes that serve the hive. The Borg give up all rights to individual freedom. Borg altruism is the notion that their species is superior to all others and all others should desire to become Borg. Humans may exhibit altruistic behavior, but we remain distinctly individual and independent. If we create a hive construct that connects individual humans biomechanically, must the individual give up some freedoms like other hive species, and what might this mean to the notion of selfhood, freedom, individual personality, and autonomy that humans appear to cherish? Are we physiologically and psychologically equipped to become eusocial-like beings, even if only while biomechanically connected?

We need to take personality into account as we begin to look for ways of producing earthly biomechanical devices to help people work together in a hiveish way. While the fictional Borg have excised personality from the individual, could we, or would we want to do the same with a temporary or even permanent human hive constructed of brains connected to each other through a mechanical device? Certainly, the Borg have been wildly successful in repressing individual personality to pursue exacting goals, but what would that do to the human put into a personality-stripping construct for the purposes of being more productive technologically or to produce new science from the combination of many minds? We are built to retain our individual personalities even with the strong influence of culture and the group. If we take that away, or try to limit individual personality, will there be physical or psychological trauma?

These are just questions today, but important questions that we must ask as we move closer to cybernetic capability. While we advance biomechanical science, we must be cognizant of our species’ construct. Like bees, we are a product of both individual and group personality. Turning us into a hive species that dwells together in a dwelling of linked minds might produce something we are not yet prepared to understand. Will we, for example, be able to mitigate the problem of noise from many interconnected brains, or will connectivity require, like the Borg, a singularity, at least while connected in the hive construct? What about the trauma of entering a direct conversation with multiple minds? What about the problem of withdrawal when one exits a construct of great intelligence and capability to return to one’s all-too-humble self?

The Borg avoided these questions by absorbing the individual’s mind and ending the individual. Even though Seven of Nine and Captain Picard were rescued from the Borg, both exhibit flash-backs and other problems associated with the experience. While personality is created through both nature and nurture, we have learned from considering hive species, that different species develop personality in different ways. If we should try to become hiveish because we think it might improve our creativity, productivity, or scientific discovery, we must also be cognizant of how we come to be human. If we want to become more than the human we are now, and retain our individuality, we must be mindful of the lesson of the Borg. The Borg determined that it was better to erase the individual than try to work with it.

Works Cited

Bole, C. (Writer). (1990). Star Trek Generations: The Best of Both Worlds I. Los Angeles, Ca.: CBS Studios.

Bole, C. (Writer). (1990). Star Trek Generations: The Best of Both Worlds II. Los Angeles, Ca.: CBS Studios.

Bowman, R. (Writer) & G. Roddenberry (Director). (1989). Q Who?, Star Trek Next Generation.

Corr, P. J., & Matthews, G. (Eds.). Cambridge Handbook of Personality Psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2009).

Crespi, B. J., & Yanega, D. The definition of eusociality. Behavioral Ecology, 6(1), 109-115  (1995).

Frakes, J. (Writer). (1996). Star Trek First Contact. Los Angeles, Ca.: Paramount Pictures.

Gadagkar, R. Why the Definition of Eusociality Is Not Helpful to Understand Its Evolution and What Should We Do about It. Oikos, 70(3), 485-488  (1994). doi: 10.2307/3545789.

Haidt, J., Patrick Seder, J., & Kesebir, S. Hive Psychology, Happiness, and Public Policy. The Journal of Legal Studies, 37(S2), S133-S156  (2008). doi: 10.1086/529447.

Halfhill, T., Nielsen, T. M., Sundstrom, E., & Weilbaecher, A. Group Personality Composition and Performance in Military Service Teams. Military Psychology, 17(1), 41-54  (2005). doi: 10.1207/s15327876mp1701_4.

Roberts, B. W., & Jackson, J. J. Sociogenomic personality psychology. Journal Of Personality, 76(6), 1523-1544  (2008). doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00530.x.

Scharf, I., Modlmeier, A. P., Fries, S., Tirard, C., & Foitzik, S. Characterizing the Collective Personality of Ant Societies: Aggressive Colonies Do Not Abandon Their Home. [Article]. PLoS ONE, 7(3), 1-7  (2012). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033314.

Studios, C.). Star Trek Borg  (2017), Retrieved 11/21/17, from

Walton, A., & Toth, A. L. Variation in individual worker honey bee behavior shows hallmarks of personality. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 70(7), 999-1010  (2016). doi: 10.1007/s00265-016-2084-4.

Wray, M. K., & Seeley, T. D. Consistent personality differences in house-hunting behavior but not decision speed in swarms of honey bees (Apis mellifera). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 65(11), 2061  (2011). doi: 10.1007/s00265-011-1215-1.


Care In Any Sense


Kierkegaard in his essay, The Care of Lowliness juxtaposed the bird with the Christian and with the pagan in their respective cares. When Nietzsche ‘killed’ the concept of god he upset this juxtaposition. By this act he demoted the Christian and elevated the bird. In doing so Nietzsche redefined the nature of being.

The Care of Lowliness

There are three actors (or actresses as the book’s subtitle would suggest) in the essay The Care of Lowliness in Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Discourses. These are the bird, the Christian and the pagan. The bird is the teacher for Kierkegaard. It is the bird as teacher that will guide this exploration of the care of lowliness. The bird is and has no conception of being other than it is. The bird has no conception of lowly or eminent. It sings for itself and not for others. The bird is free to do its will as it is and is what it is but it has within itself a joy of being.

The Christian is aware of lowly and eminent but unlike the bird, the Christian knows that the advantages of earthly existence are denied him. It is the paradox of coming into existence that is the conundrum that Kierkegaard poses as the differentiation between the Christian and the pagan. The human is confronted with the dilemma of coming into existence but becoming first in the image of other humans – to become himself in the image of others. The more the individual becomes like the others – the less like himself he will become. Kierkegaard reasoned that the Christian is not confronted with this dilemma because the Christian is before god, …he is at the beginning, is himself before God, is contented with being himself. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness) The Christian is himself before God and only before God. The pagan has no such satisfaction of becoming before God as himself and because he has no God as the prototypical being before himself, His care is: being nothing—indeed not being at all. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 318, The Care of Lowliness)

The Christian is lowly to himself in the same way he is lowly to others. There is no distinction in this lowliness because the Christian wants only to be himself before God. Yet the Christian is care – On existing only for the others, on not knowing anything but the relation to the others. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness)

On the other hand this person (the Christian) who is lowly and before God himself is a human being. Inasmuch as he is a human being, he is in a certain sense like the bird, which is what it is. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness) Kierkegaard does not explain this similarity. However it is this unanswered similarity between the bird as teacher and the Christian as being himself before God that produces a dilemma.

The dilemma is not the pagan’s who is himself only by being before others. This is well explained and Kierkegaard makes the reader feel the pain of the pagan in never becoming himself and never quite human as a result. The dilemma is the bird who could have no notion of God that bruises the logic of the diaphony between the Christian and the pagan. This excluded middle poses the question of whether there is care in any case should we not be aware of whether the actors in a caring relationship are or are not Christian. This excluded middle also asks what is the relationship of the bird to the Christian in the scheme of heaven.

The pagan is generally not thought of as an atheist – someone who has renounced the idea of a higher deity completely. The pagan is uninformed, perhaps ignorant, or has not been exposed to the ideas of an organized belief system other than one that is pre-Christian (Dictionary). As a savage, the pagan is not far removed from the bird as being one with nature but one without a believing relationship with Christianity. Yet unlike the bird that is what it is; the pagan is dissatisfied with what he is and has this care of lowliness. The Christian does not have this care of lowliness because he is before God as prototype which he can ceaselessly emulate to become more and more like the prototype.

Nietzsche Removes God

This dilemma the later Nietzsche explored when he removed God from the equation and tried desperately to provide such an opportunity for care in a world where existence was guaranteed only during one’s lifetime. That it was the life lived now that could be judged as such as if it were to occur again and again. This singular life would be considered by one and all as being a life well lived (or not) – not judged as such by an omniscient other but by self and other in a relationship of care. After Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Heidegger too found difficulty with the life lived in imitation of others but embraced the idea that care is fundamental to the existence of humans for other humans and for the world of human existence (Heidegger, 1962). Heidegger struggled with life, not the life lived before God, but the life that was authentic to one’s self.

So the question from this dilemma is whether there can be care for others and equally so for self that is not expressed in a triangular relationship with an omniscient one – more particularly a Christian God as expressed through the existence and teaching of Jesus Christ. Can the bird instruct? Is the joy of being for the bird enough?

For the bird to be instructive, we must first with Nietzsche dethrone man from the center of the world. While the bird cannot distinguish lowliness from eminence or much else besides, it is what it is in the moment that it is. Is it any less of a being in the eyes of God? Kierkegaard equivocates at the moment the revelation of bird and human being as being what they are. He then restates the problem. The Christian is not born, ‘…if one is a Christian, one must have become that. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 316, The Care of Lowliness) To complicate this even further he must deprecate the pagan by making him more and more not human (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 318, The Care of Lowliness). Thus the bird and Christian become what they are – the bird by its existence; but the Christian by becoming the eponymous believer. The bird does not have this capacity to become Christian but loses not its ability to be a creature of God because of its handicap. Since there have been only two thousand years of Christianity there must be something that humanity can offer in kind that is not connected to its God and heritage or else the lot of our ancestors is condemned to that of the pagan.

When Nietzsche ‘killed’ the concept of God in The Gay Science not only did he leave the shadow of the dead God on the wall for generations to come, he also left a void (Nietzsche, 1974, pp. 167, Aphorism 108). The void of God’s demise was eternity that is central to the Christian belief. The lowly Christian does not care about his lowliness because he has the prospect of eternity and heaven (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 319, The Care of Lowliness). Without eternity the prospect for existence in life would become Kierkegaard’s lowliness of existence – the pagan – His care is: being nothing—indeed not being at all. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 318, The Care of Lowliness) At the same time he ‘killed’ the concept of God Nietzsche needed to ‘naturalize humanity’ (Nietzsche, 1974, pp. 169, Aphorism 109) and that meant to put humanity once again in the realm of the bird.

The bird like the Christian does not have the care of lowliness because it does not understand lowly or eminent – it simply is. But that simply was not enough for the Christian had been someone who enjoyed special status simply because, He sees with the eyes of faith; with the speed of faith that seeks God, he is at the beginning, is himself before God, is contented with being himself. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 314, The Care of Lowliness) Replacing God with something that humanity could believe in and not be condemned to the pagan’s care of lowliness became Nietzsche’s greatest weight. To resolve this dilemma, Nietzsche did not take humanity out of its naturalized state. He left humanity in the realm of the bird. Nor did Nietzsche specifically address the bird in its state of nature. It is as if he agreed with Kierkegaard that the bird is what it is and does everything it does simply because it exists naturally as a bird without any care of lowliness. But this was not the case for humanity because what had been given in the form of eternity through Christianity (and other religions) had been erased by Nietzsche.

Nietzsche could not see the Christian heaven or its eternity as something that could be possible. In subtracting from eternity its moral code of good and evil – the mathematics of heaven – he had eliminated the basis for much of morality that came with eternal judgment. This became the crux of Nietzsche’s dilemma for it was not his mission to return humanity to a Hobbesian state of nature. Instead of abandoning eternity, he returned it to the equation but only in a sense that it became an analogy for the life lived to the fullest. Eternity became an idea again, not a place – an idea that even if you had become the lowliness of care as Kierkegaard’s pagan had become, there is the notion that like the bird you could just be…be to face this lowliness of care as the Christian had done not with the prototype of God but in the prototype of life, your life, as if you could see yourself living the same life again and again (Nietzsche, 1974, pp. 273, Aphorism 340) and that the life lived as such now lived would be eternally the same if eternity was possible. In effect Nietzsche replaced ‘because eternity’ with ‘as if eternity’.


For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the issue of being was important. Kierkegaard separated being into the bird, Christian and pagan. The bird has no notion of eternity and from The Care of Lowliness from Kierkegaard it is not clear whether the ignorant bird is accorded the benefits of heaven. Yet when Kierkegaard said, Inasmuch as he is a human being, he in a certain sense, is like the bird, which is what it is. But we shall not dwell further on this here. (Kierkegaard, 1997, pp. 315, The Care of Lowliness) Kierkegaard opened the possibilities for but does not commit to the bird attaining heaven along with the Christian. If he can make this connection then he as with Nietzsche has made the connection of the Christian (not the pagan) to the bird.

What Nietzsche does is replace the prototype (God) that the Christian emulates with life itself and the will to live in a way that one would live this live the same way over and over again without any difference. For Nietzsche, all of nature and humanity have become one in being. Kierkegaard’s sufferer of the care of lowliness, or the pagan, has been replaced by Nietzsche by the person who would not accept the will to live as if it were a life that would return. The Christian for Nietzsche has become the human who would accept the eternal return of the same and live life accordingly.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both approached life and living with an eye towards its perfection. Kierkegaard placed the prototype of god before a Christian to emulate and approach by word and deed. Nietzsche placed humanity before the prototype of the bird as nature to emulate, to be what it is and to exist in the fullest measure possible. In either case – the prototype of God or the prototype of existence-in-full are what keeps the care of lowliness in abeyance.


Dictionary, O. E. pagan, n. and adj.: Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (J. MacQuarrie, & Edward Robinson, Trans.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Kierkegaard, S. (1997). The Essential Kierkegaard (H. V. E. M. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Random House.

A Study in Grotesque

Pink Flamingos

“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” said John Waters (Waters, 1981, p. 2). That said, is any of his filth art? I think so, and I think that the baddest of the bad, Pink Flamingos, deserves special recognition.

John Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos is representative of the art genre, ‘Grotesque Realism’, first articulate by Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1965 published dissertation, Rabelais and His World. Even though Pink Flamingos is not a work that was produced at the cusp of the Renaissance as was Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, the movie exhibits many of the same earthy references to the body and nature and is constructed in a manner that produces hegemonic-bending humor in the same carnivalesque manner as early Renaissance Grotesque Realism.

Given this auspicious beginning, however, I will not be considering the Institutional theory of art attributed to but mostly rejected by Arthur Danto. Danto was concerned that art may satisfy certain conditions but otherwise art, “is an honorific predicate” (Danto, 1981, pp. 28-29 & 31). Certainly Pink Flamingos is no ‘honorific predicate’. In fact, John Waters himself called it filth. He agreed with the US Supreme Court definition of obscene in Jacobellus v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964) 378 U.S. 184, that this work had ‘no socially redeeming qualities’ (Waters, 1981, p. viii). On that note and candid but authoritative critique by the film-maker himself, we begin, this inauspicious project into the depths of depravity.

Believe it or not, Waters’ brand of filth-full humor is nothing new. Excrement, cross-dressing, masks, and costuming, bumbling authorities, flatulence, sodomy, and diverse sexual acts were integral parts of early Grotesque Realism in Rabelais’s work…and many of these were amplifications of what occurred during real carnivals which Rabelais used to write his literary critique of society. The guttural brand of humor used by both Rabelais and Waters therefore isn’t novel. Let’s face it, people have been picking their noses and eating snot probably since we stepped onto the African Savannah. In fact, the depth of ‘depravity’ that some might accord Waters’ works are no less extreme than Rabelais’s works, even though they are separated by half a millennia. It appears civilization, technology, space exploration, and the modern sedan have not altered our need to express in all our earthy possibilities what it is to be human.

I will not contest the possibility that some may reject Grotesque Realism as a genre of literature. Literary genres are inherently subjective and malleable like any other categorization of art or literature. However, if there is good scholarship behind the subject and, I believe that there is for Grotesque Realism, I am asking the reader to suspend disbelief if only to understand that this project is not to certify whether Grotesque Realism deserves its place in the pantheon of literary genres but to explore its nature both in the very real context of the fifteenth century carnival and as it is also portrayed in the twentieth century through the antics of two feuding families in Pink Flamingos.

The ribald, guttural, body-centric, and earthy nature of the genre in and of itself is anti-prude to use a crude neologism, but works such as Rabelais’ have transcended cultural periods when even piano legs were covered up because they were considered visual representations of human form. To explore this thesis that Water’s work is a valid example of Grotesque Realism I will briefly compare elements of both Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Waters’ Pink Flamingos.

This does not mean that I will need to or will want to make the case that Pink Flamingos is in any way a literary masterpiece like Gargantua and Pantagruel. Far from it—it is crude and rude, its dialog is stiff and campy, and the filming is only a step or two beyond amateurism. I am sure if we were to unearth other works or testaments to actual carnival events such as written chronicles of the feast of fools written in the time of Rabelais, we would find Pink Flamingo-esque plays and fiction that were also crude and rude but were as much Grotesque Realism as Gargantua and Pantagruel.

What is Grotesque Realism?

Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1935 dissertation, later published in Russia in 1965 as, Rabelais and His World, explained that the works of fourteenth century author and physician, Rabelais required more in depth study in order to understand the nature of his work in context of his times. Bakhtin said, “Rabelais is the most difficult classical author of world literature. To be understood he requires an essential reconstruction of our entire artistic and ideological perception, the renunciation of many deeply rooted demands of literary taste and the revision of many concepts. Above all, he requires an exploration in depth of a sphere as yet little and superficially studied, the tradition of folk humor. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 3)” With this work, Bakhtin provides a detailed exploration into folk humor of the middle ages and Renaissance and insight into the psychological underpinnings of the carnival. Bakhtin’s technique is literary analysis which we should not confuse with the genealogy of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s task of genealogy determines, “…to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body, (Foucault, 2010, p. 83)” Rather, what Bakhtin does is show how the Grotesque Realism celebrates the body in quite different ways from what are considered mainstream today, but Bakhtin argued, in the spirit of folk humor and carnival, were quite acceptable and even desirable during Rabelais’ time.

Folk Humor

Rabelais lived on the cusp of the Renaissance at the end of the Medieval. In the prologue to Bakhtin’s book, Michael Holquist explained that, “The decline of freedom in the Renaissance becomes apparent when it is chartered as a proportional rise of new practices for representing certain aspects not only of the body, but of language. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. xxi)” What Bakhtin does with Rabelais is to explore how his Gargantua and Pantagruel represents the body through the carnival and laughter that was not only acceptable at the time but part of the very fabric of society.

During the middle ages there were lords who commanded the earthly lives of their serfs and the church who commanded the serf’s and the lord’s eternal souls. These were not easy times which had been so recently and irreverently upended by the obscenity called the Black Death. The Black Death had one socially redeeming feature, with fewer people in Europe there was more to eat. Then too, with many nobles now in their graves, land reform had not become a matter of law, it simply happened. Feudalism, however, had not been completely desiccated by the plague. Perhaps because all of the social upheaval, new lands to till, and fattening bellies, there was time to feast and make fun of everyone, including authority and the church, where there had only been pestilence, starvation, and death only a few years before.

Through activities such as carnivals, feasts of fools, and other regular celebrations there were opportunities to turn the hegemonic tables (both ways) if for just a moment. And this was a time where the people were still close to the land and the issues of the seasons and the life and death on farms and in the fields. They were tied to the world, not apart from it as were the people who in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance flocked to the cities from the countryside.

One can list the many causes of the rise of the Renaissance but one is particularly cogent. During the Middle Ages populations increased but farming techniques did not improve and land reform was non-existent. People denied even their subsistence flocked to the cities which were unclean and overcrowded. From the east came the bubonic plague which some estimate killed a quarter or more of the European population, sparing neither lord nor serf. David Haddock and Lynne Kiesling record that land reform came from the fact that whole aristocratic families perished or could no longer defend or maintain their lands (David D. Haddock & Lynne Kiesling, 2002). The cities became less crowded and because food was now plentiful and because jobs were more available there was more time for leisure, contemplation, education and the arts. In the early Renaissance in Italy lived Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. One wonders what they would have done at a viewing of Pink Flamingos (in subtitles of course), laugh or puke…Remember, for Waters, either is acceptable.

Norman Cantor noted that the decline of the aristocracy and the Protestant reformation reduced the power of the royal/cleric hegemony (Cantor, 2001). David Herlihy noted how the cities became more sophisticated and merchants and petty bureaucrats became more important arbiters of culture (Herlihy, 1997). When the cities became dominant, there was a backlash against the earthy humor of the past, leading to Foucault’s later observation that the body has been destructed. However, Bakhtin showed us how the body was central to the Grotesque Realism of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

The folk culture of the Middle Ages, Bakhtin summed up with: carnivals and other ritualistic festivals, parodies, and curses and oaths (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 5). These included carnivals and feasts where participants parodied the trappings of power, including feudal and church practices. As Bakhtin said, “The basis of laughter which gives form to carnival rituals frees them completely from all religious and ecclesiastic dogmatism, from all mysticism and piety. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 7)” They imitated and parodied the trappings of power and laughed at it and each other. Any and all were shown in the light of the fool, often in garish costumes or as cross-dressers. And as Bakhtin reminds us the carnival exists at the border of art and life but as life itself expressed in a particularly constructed ritual (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 7). Rank was suspended and the peasant became the aristocrat and the aristocrat the peasant. Bakhtin pointed to Erasmus, Shakespeare and others as masters of portraying the carnival in their works (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 11).

“I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs,” says Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, Act 1 Scene 1. Are we not reminded of, well, something like that, in the toe sucking scene between Raymond and Connie Marble in Pink Flamingos?

And the laughter is that of all the people: serf, or lord, or cleric. But Bakhtin was careful to distinguish the carnival and folk humor from the negative, the parody of today. In fact Bakhtin reminded us that this folk humor was ambivalent, neither negative nor positive (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 14). Everyone laughed at each other. Why oaths and swearing? Simply it was the language of the marketplace, the discourse of commerce and the dialectic of competing interests—merchants, farmers, city dwellers and lords and their servants. Marketplace language was complex and guttural and it was as much a part of the transaction as barter and money (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 16).

The Body

Bakhtin coined the term ‘Grotesque Realism’ to reflect not only the animated spirit of the time in carnivals, parodies, and cursing, but also the body. In Grotesque Realism, the body is positive. It is not the private body of today that should be hidden, is private and as a result something of a mystery and its showing (as well as its functions) as being somewhat unclean or even unnatural. In Rabelais’ time Bakhtin made clear:

We repeat: the body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character; this is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of the world, because it is not individualized. The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 19)”

The body of the Middle Ages is still entangled with nature which in the favorable seasons, springs forth lustily into bramble and keeps on growing until it dies in the first major frost. Then, the body and death are inextricably tied; and death as a result is not a negative, it is simply a fact of life. Sex, eating, defecation, birth, and death are all wound together, inseparable and intertwined. And it matters not whether this body belongs to an aristocrat, peasant, fool, or cloistered monk, the body is the same because it is the body of humanity.

There is a strict relation in Grotesque Realism: down is earth which is both death and the womb—and down is the genitals, the belly and the buttocks. Downward is both degradation and rebirth—the body and its waste is moldering in the ground which in turn produces more life. The downward is always conceiving (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 21).

The upward is the heaven of their Christian religion. Can I have a hallelujah!

Why is Pink Flamingos Representative of the Genre Grotesque Realism?

First a plot summary for Pink Flamingos from the Internet Movie Database (which is concise and distubingly accurate), “Queen Divine lives in a caravan with her mad hippie son Crackers and her 250-pound mother Mama Edie, trying to rest quietly on their laurels as ‘the filthiest people alive’. But competition is brewing in the form of Connie and Raymond Marble, who sell heroin to schoolchildren and kidnap and impregnate female hitchhikers, selling the babies to lesbian couples. Finally, they challenge Divine directly, and battle commences… IMDb, avail: accessed 3/22/15). The war that rages is over who really is the filthiest person alive.

Gargantua and Pantagruel’s plot is a bit more complex. First, understand that the overall plot was secondary to scene creation in order to emphasize humor and absurd situations and actions of people of all walks of life. In book one Gargantua is born so large he kills his mother. He is a giant, pictured in the book’s woodcuts as a creature probably twenty feet tall or higher and with ample girth to make him look voluptuous—like Divine, but certainly not as pretty. He travels to Paris to become educated but then is sent by his father to defeat the Dipsodians, which he does and thus conquers Dipsodia. Hurray! The second book concentrates on Gargantua’s education. But once again Gargantua is called away (education-interruptus), home this time to defeat King Pirochole who has started a war between bakers and shepherds. Gargantua wins, of course, and establishes a monastery. In the third, fourth and fifth book we are regaled with the adventures and mis-adventures of Pantagruel, Gargantua’s son, also a giant. I imagine that a Gargantua and Pantagruel movie if ever made would not be nominated for an Academy Award for its plot summary. Like the television series, Seinfeld, its non sequitur scenes would capture the imagination and likely a few Emmys. However, it would have to be shown on a high numbered premium ‘adult content’ cable channel rather than prime time.

The simplest approach to comparison is to look at the categories of analysis Bakhtin used to describe Grotesque Realism through Rabelais. First is laughter. Waters noted that at the premier of Pink Flamingos, “The audience roared with laughter in all the right places and shrieked in horror in others. (Waters, 1981, p. 20)” Bakhtin characterized Grotesque Realism’s laughter as, “Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning, it is one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a particular point of view relative to the world; the world as seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 66)” Bakhtin suggested that beginning in the seventeenth century this deep philosophical meaning became lost (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 67). With Grotesque Realism we recognize, “…its positive, regenerating, creative meaning. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 71)” Who cannot both laugh and gag at the absurdity of Gargantua saying:

I will go then, said he, and piss away my misfortune; which he did do in such a copious measure, that the urine taking away the feet from the pilgrims, they were carried along with the stream unto the bank of a tuft of trees. (Rabelais, 1894, pp. Chapter 1, .XXXVIII, How Gargantua did eat up six pilgrims in a salad.)

Or, how could we not both laugh and gag at Divine opening a gift, a wrapped pig’s head as a birthday present which is received with an expression of sheer delight and mirth on Divine’s face.

In the language of the marketplace, during the feast of fools, Bakhtin made this observation, “During the solemn service sung by the bishop-elect, excrement was used instead of incense. After the service the clergy rode in carts loaded with dung; they drove through the streets tossing it at the crowd. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 147)” Waters uses human excrement to underscore the meaning of filth. Connie and Raymond Marble send a turd in the mail to the Divine family to show they are the filthiest people alive, not Divine. But Divine outdoes their own filthy act by consuming a dog turd at the end of the movie. Excrement in Grotesque Realism was tied to fertility and in Pink Flamingos it is tied not to fertility per-se but to being recognized publicly as being potent at something—filth (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 149). We have come a long way—or not—as we are shown a somewhat more sanitized vision fertility in today’s society when People® Magazine recognize the sexiest man and woman alive. Divine, unfortunately, never made even the short list for that honor…perhaps only because Divine is otherwise uncategorizable.

In the medieval carnival there is festivity, food, jokers and verbal abuse. Roles are comically reversed and the gentry are made to be fools and serfs their superiors but neither makes it out without showing how foolish each other is. In Pink Flamingos Divine’s birthday party is held outside Divine’s family’s dilapidated trailer in the cold where a gaggle of strange characters perform acts of supreme flatus, and send off in a wheelbarrow the egg man and the demented egg lady Mama Edie into marriage, if such a union between the two is even possible. The banquet for the birthday party includes salty snacks, beer, and assorted other convenience store delectables. But this is the present-day and which we must contrast with the banquet of the middle ages where the wealth and bounty of the land in gross exaggeration was a subject for celebration, not the squalor of the poor today who are relegated to their own meagre feast of fast foods and cheap snacks (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 303).

And of course, there is the body, particularly as Bakhtin called it the lower stratum. Beyond scatological events, Pink Flamingos is riven with strange sexual acts including sex with animals, toe sucking, flashing in the park and more. Waters seems to want to strike at every taboo that was present in early nineteen seventies society and remains with us today. And while the Marbles try to outdo the Divine family in every sexual way possible in order to prove their superior filthiness, in the end Raymond Marble flashes what he thinks is a woman and is flashed back by a transsexual. He runs off, disgusted, depreciating his claim to dethrone the filthiest person alive.

We are confronted by Divine who dresses in flashy women’s clothes, but we are never really sure of Divine’s gender. With both the flashing scene and Divine’s uncertain countenance we are left to wonder where is the origin of gender and whether it is something that anyone but the individual can have access to. Above all we are asked what does gender really mean and what is its worth? In Grotesque Realism, the body is the body, period.

In Gargantua and Pantagruel, Panurge is asked how to build solid walls on the cheap in Paris and he says the cheapest could be made from the privates of Parisian women because they give up sex for a penny or so, so loose are their morals. (Rabelais, 1894, pp. Chapter 2. XV, How Panurge showed a very new way to build the walls of Paris.). We begin to see from both works that it is who you are that matters, not gender. We see in Divine not the stereotypical cross-dressing show-queen of the back alley theaters of the nineteen sixties, but a snarling person who commits crimes and acts against society with abandon—while still dressed and made up to the hilt.

The Loss of the Body; the Deprecation of Humor

However, as the Renaissance progressed, this earthy degradation-cum-regeneration view of the downward, the body, and the earth changed. Renaissance Realism, as Bakhtin called it, combined elements of folk humor but what became evident is that the body lost its universality and became, “…the bourgeois concept of the complete atomized being. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 24)”

I suggest that as we have progressed through many ages following the Middle: Renaissance, modern, industrial, and now post-modern, that we have retained the Renaissance Realist completely atomized body but have lost the element of folk humor in most of our sanitized albeit R-rated cinematography. This portends ill for people like John Waters who celebrates the body not in its individuality but the body as a product of nature, capable of all sorts of natural acts… and who is qualified to call such bodily functions and activities unnatural or obscene if they can be conceived of and performed by humans? In John Water’s world the authorities are made foolish by doing things authorities do and the peasants live like animals and with animals because we are all animals. Sex is and gender isn’t personal. In fact it has no meaning. Divine simply is: painted, dressed up, and at the same time aims a mouthful of invectives towards the camera that spew forth like so much vomit. Divine is the Gaia incarnate, the filthiest ‘person’ alive because the world is a filthy place.

Bakhtin suggests to me that all of this: Divine, and the whole production of Pink Flamingos is nothing more than a carnival of sorts, a parody with appropriate cursing and oath making and that it should accord similar billing with Rabelais’ works of Grotesque Realism. However, the problem is, can we today consider an effort of Grotesque Realism to be aesthetic, a form of art? Or have we moved so far away from the body and folk humor to the point where folk humor and the body, rather than being the testament to and the mirth of humanity, have become its obscenity which deserves censure and banishment? John Waters recalled that after enjoying Waters’ more mainstream Hairspray, a Florida family decided to rent Pink Flamingos, resulting in Waters paying a fine of five thousand dollars because the move was judged to be obscene (Waters, 1981, p. viii). Duh, said Waters. Some people just do not have any sense of humor.

By destroying the body and sanitizing humor we have let go of our deepest roots of being in the world. We have hidden away the body rather than celebrate it. Our sanitized humor no longer celebrates the body, life, death other than in oblique reference. It is the loss of earthy realism, grotesque or otherwise that is perhaps is the most obscene thing we have done to ourselves. Therefore, I say: Bring it on John Waters!


Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and His World (H. Iswolsky, Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Cantor, N. F. (2001). In the wake of the plague: the Black Death and the world it made. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Danto, A. C. (1981). TGhe Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

David D. Haddock, & Lynne Kiesling. (2002). The Black Death and Property Rights. The Journal of Legal Studies, 31(S2), S545-S587. doi: 10.1086/345566

Foucault, M. (2010). The Foucault Reader. NY: Vintage Books.

Herlihy, D. (1997). The Black Death and the transformation of the West: Harvard University Press.

Rabelais, F. (1894). Gargantua and Pantagruel P. Gutenberg (Ed.)   Retrieved from

Waters, J. (1981). Shock Value. Philadelphia: Running Press.


Luddites’ Ball

“What the hell are these damned people doing in Nottingham? Bloodlights, aren’t they calling themselves?” asked Lord Eversley to the elfin Joker who bowed obsequiously before him. Careless gene-riddling cousins’ marriages over many generations had finally caught up to Eversley’s generation and left his royal countenance rotund, balding, with skin as rough as sandpaper, and a patch over his left eye masking an incessant sty. Lady Eversley, another cousin nee of a cousin’s marriage and his wife of thirty years, was mostly bedridden with horrible internal problems nobody dared ask about.

“Luddites, sire,” said the diminutive Joker who stood before his lord, resplendent in his sequined body suit, blue on the left, white on the right topped with a cap n’ bells blue on the right, white on the left. He belched, and from a bulging pocket, drew out a stained handkerchief the size of a bedsheet. He blew hard into the handkerchief which produced a deep trombone note. He wobbled backwards after the blow. The Joker was fond of the drink, you see. Others in the room, the hangers-on and toadies, shook their heads and sniffed.

“What, damn you and your foul habits, is a luddite?” asked Lord Eversley, who hunched his bulk forward in his overstuffed wing chair to glare at the Joker?

Another belch and a giggle from the Joker. “Sire, a luddite is a person who believes you are taking his and everyone else’s jobs away when you purchased that vacuum cleaner, made in, of all places, Sweden,” said the Joker who beamed a smile at the Lord. He giggled again, and said, “They think it sucks…Guffaw.” Even the hangers on and toadies in the room could not suppress smiles. The Joker wobbled, fell to the floor, and dissolved in great peals of ululating laughter. Lord Eversley shook his head and sighed.

“You are speaking nonsense,” said Lord Eversley who leaned back in his chair.

“Ha,” said the Joker, “nonsense is all that I speak.” He hoisted his diminutive body to his knees, “Now for their bit of logic, which is utter nonsense to me. You see, it isn’t just that you now need fewer or is it less maids…no matter…but that all the manors and great houses will need fewer or less maids as well. One even has calculated that thousands of maids will be sacked and will not find jobs even in the great hotels and counting houses in the cities. That is because their maids, sculleries, and servants are being sacked as well. Not only that, but our best broom makers are losing their jobs, as lords and ladies have stopped buying brooms for their servants. And that’s not the all of it, my Lord. The luddites say that the Swedes are eating our lunch, taking good manufacturing jobs from us because they are selling these infernal vacuum cleaners to us at less than what they cost to make. Nobody here can afford to make vacuums at these prices. Some say that the Swedes plan on making their money by selling bags, whatever that means.”

“Then we will have to tax them or ban them or something to keep the damn Swedes out,” said Lord Eversley with a wave of his hand.

The joker grinned and commenced another belly laugh that ended in a rather loud fart.

“Come now, man” said Lord Eversley, “hold yourself together. This is no laughing matter.”

The Joker grinned and said, “That’s the nonsense of all of this. They eat your lunch either way. If you ban their vacuums or tax them so they won’t sell, there is nobody here who can make vacuums like the Swedes. It will take years for us to figure out how to do it. Anyway, even if we did, we would likely price all but a few out of the market. Everyone will have to hire back those maids again.” The Joker fell onto his belly and pounded the floor with his hands and kicked his feet, as he tried to stifle his laughter in the Persian rug under him.

“All this calling for strikes and work stoppages over an infernal carpet sweeper?” asked Lord Eversley, “We must do something and quickly. Anyone?” He hoisted his bulk up to stand and survey the room. Nothing but shaking heads and clearing of throats. The Joker turned over on his back.

“A luddites’ ball,” said the Joker to the ceiling.

“A what?” asked Lord Eversley, now looking down at the prostrate joker who lay with a bit of soiled handkerchief peeking out of his distended pocket.

“A luddites’ ball,” said the Joker who rose once again to his knees, and then with a groan, to his feet, “Don’t you see? We invite these luddites to a ball in the very oldest style that there is. We call it a costume ball, even though we know it will be a luddites’ ball. We serve great piles of greasy food but have no forks, just big farm knives, and no plates. To clean up after the mess we let mangy dogs run around to eat up the scraps and get in everyone’s way. We serve the crudest of mead and warm beer that reeks of rotting hops. The bread will be hard as rock and the only heat will come from a single fireplace. Ha!”

“What the devil are you talking about?” asked Lord Eversley.

“Your lordship, isn’t it quite obvious even to a crude and disgusting nonsense speaker like me, that we give them a taste of what they’re asking for? To go back to a time when there were no vacuums and the job of cleaning up after such a thing as ball would take forever. ‘We haven’t any soap, just lye…no gloves, sorry,’ we’d say, ‘Use that straw broom and mind not to leave any behind. On your knees knave,’” said the joker who sniveled, reached for his handkerchief, and blew another note.

Lord Eversley plopped down into his chair hard which let out a hiss from the overstuffed cushion. “I think that is a rather good bit of nonsense,” said Lord Eversley. The hangers-on and toadies murmured their assent and a few even clapped. Lord Eversley continued, “We’ll hold this luddites’ ball right in this room. Take down the curtains and drape tapestries on the walls. Leave the windows open for days to let the cold seep into the walls. We can have the stable boys build roughhewn tables and direct the blacksmith to fashion crude knives. We will cook on spits outside that these luddites will see as they approach. We’ll make them ride in ox carts from the front gate.”

“Reeking of manure,” offered the Joker.

Lord Eversley nodded, then said, “We will have for them the manner of dress so many hundreds of years ago in the draughty castles of old.” He strummed the arm of the chair with his right fingers. Then he stood up abruptly and said to the room, “Get right on it.” He waived his hand in dismissal and all the toadies and hangers-on rushed hurriedly from the room. “Not you, Joker,” said Lord Eversley, “I need more of your nonsense and scheming…”

A fortnight later, gilded invitations went out to all the luddites.

Lord Eversley rubbed his cold hands and smiled broadly when he saw the wind swirling the falling snow on the afternoon of the luddite’s ball. Oxcarts rolled slowly as he had instructed, through the rutted cow paths to the barn where they stopped to let off the ball-goers in their delightful home-brought finery. In the stalls where cattle chewed cud and horses whinnied, Lord Eversley’s squires gave the luddites their costumes to change into. Like burlap, the leggings and blouses chaffed freshly powdered skin. Hemp belts were tied tight because the leggings had no belt loops. For the women, dresses down to their ankles and made from the coarsest uncombed wool that the dressmakers could find. No bras, undergarments, nor hose, or other modern appurtenances. Not even corsets or petticoats or impossibly large hoops, for this ball was of a time when Arthur was king. Most arrived at the door of the manse the color of cold.

The bare chested but hooded headsman stood atop a rough-hewn table at the center of the room, leaning on a double-bladed axe. At his feet was the object of the luddites’ distress, the vacuum cleaner made in Sweden. On either side of the execution table, more rough-hewn tables were laid out the length of the room in straight lines. The tables overflowed with boars with apples in their mouths, haunches of venison, brick-oven baked bread made of the coarsest flower, and assorted vegetables sautéed in lard. A steaming pot hung from the hearth. More food than this group could eat in a sitting. No chairs, just rough-hewn benches, cut and assembled without any care towards curing splinters, cracks, or wobbly legs.

As the room filled with the luddites, the Joker stood by a large wooden keg, slopping beer into horn cups between gulps he took himself while placing his mouth directly under the spigot. Luddites milled around, rubbed their palms together for warmth, scratched skin irritated by rough clothes, and gagged on the rusty ale.

With the retinue of toadies and hangers-on behind him, Lord Eversley strode down the spiral staircase that had been newly carpeted red. He wore a navy-blue suit with epaulets of an indeterminate military rank. Atop his bald head was a tricornered hat and around his waist a gold sash into which was stuffed a shiny cutlass. He sported a new black eyepatch.

“Gawd,” said the Joker to himself loudly and lustily, “He’s a pirate, not a lord.” Then he shouted to the room, “Welcome your eminence!” The room quieted as Lord Eversley strode down the staircase. He said nothing to the crowd. He simply walked to a table and pulled the leg off a roasted turkey, bit into it, brandished It, and threw it to the dogs who suddenly appeared in the room. As mangy curs go, these were some of the worst. They immediately got into a growling fight over the drumstick. The snarling tussle crashed into a bench that went hurtling across the room.

The crude alcohol worked and soon the luddites, the Joker, the hangers on and the toadies were loosened up to where tongues wagged and arms groped and rude merry was made. Following Lord Eversley’s lead, the luddites took to tossing their own half-eaten bones and bread crusts on the floor. Tomatoes and radishes were thrown in jest. A well-aimed potato knocked one elderly toady woman down. The revelry continued into the night.

Then, just before the winter’s dawn, the Lord had the doors locked to prevent anyone from leaving. When directed by Lord Eversley, the Joker hoisted himself up from under the spigot, shook his now stained clothes, and spoke with a pronounced slur, “Ladies, gentlemen and assorted other luddites, since we are without maids and the vacuum cleaner is incarcerated awaiting execution, we all must clean up the mess we have made before anyone leaves the hall, the ball, which is decidedly over.” Made merry became merry maid.

And with that, the luddites were put to work with crude mops, straw brooms, and wooden buckets and dank sponges that the manor’s staff brought out for the made merry merry maids. It took until the twilight before the cleaning was done. Lord Eversley gave the final say of spotlessness, and when the last straw broom was set carefully aside, he strode to the table where the headsman still stood and told the headsman to raise the axe. The room gasped. Lord Eversley said to the luddites, “It is you who will decide whether the vacuum, this Swedish vacuum, will live or die. Aye, and off with its head. Nay, and it exists to clean another floor. Your choice. Your decision…” Lord Eversley stood in silence.

The Last Dragon

The oracle awakens and speaks: It began in wonder; it began as a question. The first question, which nothing asked itself, must there be a something? And there it was, something. To which something asked, what is something? From there to us and now—the unfathomable complexity of cascading and multifaceted questions have shaped the universe until its very now, that endless war between substance and insubstantiality…

When he was eight, Nicholas found an old couch, propped up against a wall in a forgotten corridor of the Great Manor. Damp and musty; it would do. He lugged it, thump, thump up the staircase to the old library. It was here where he would sleep from now on. They wouldn’t miss him. As the spare and not the heir he had been relegated to the kitchen. Even the kitchen help had little use for him as he had little use for their pots, pans, flans, and soufflés. He had cut up a pig to the dismay of all because he cut it as he wanted it, not as others thought it should be cut. He wasn’t banished from the place; he was shunned out of it. It suited Nicholas that he could still come down and grab a meal as he saw fit. They thought little about him as a person after he had gone.

Three years on from securing his bed, he had transformed the library. Rather he had set about to unhinge the dust motes that had lain heavy on the old tomes and sent them soaring into the sunlight that cascaded from the clear glass skylight that stretched the entire length of the room. Steel and glass had become loose and rattled in the wind making splash spots in the dust on the oaken floor below. Walls were lined floor to ceiling with books by the thousands of all sizes, colors, and thicknesses. Nicholas spent little time with genres. He was not interested much with what was inside these great books. Rather he was a sort that would sort the books to his likings. His first effort was by size which proved quite satisfactory until he became bored with it. Then by color, which even less delighted him the moment he had completed his task. Too many dark books, he said to himself.

Of course, he could read. No self-respecting inborn member of the Great Manor would be caught dead illiterate, his mother had said before his sixth birthday as she trundled him down to the kitchen to take his place of penance for being second out of her. That, of course, remained an oxymoron—the being caught dead illiterate—Nicholas pondered this notion until he found it quite exasperating. If one is dead how can one even read? The goings on of adults both in the kitchen now and of his distant memories of the Great Manor great rooms vexed Nicholas. He made up his mind to no longer reflect upon them. He banished them to nonesuchplace and kept ideas that were to his liking. His logic was superior, he had decided, even with the disastrous book-by-color-of-binder sort. He thought by author name and discarded it. These were his books. The other names written on the bindings mattered not at all to him.

Nobody else entered the library. They called now and again on the voice horn for this or that recipe book. Nicholas knew all the books and where they were located and that was adequate he reasoned for his acquired library duties. There was no door to the library, just a long winding staircase made from blocks of stone that sweat in summer and formed ice stalactites in winter. He would just lay the requested book at the top of the stairs and in turn would retrieve assorted newspapers, boxes, and other paper goods they left for him to feed his fireplace in winter. This wasn’t quite a satisfactory solution because even when he wound the papers tight they didn’t burn for long. The library walls were thick and though the skylight leaked wind and water, during days when the sun shone, the heat rose with the dust motes.

In the Library

Now he is about thirteen. At thirteen one is still struggling with what it is to be and at the same time becoming something which is unfamiliar and downright discomforting, and that is a young man. Nicholas is not spared from this growing thing even as a spare. His beard that had begun as wispy fuzz has darkened and thickened. He lets it grow because it is still soft.

The nubile scullery maids sitting down at the great table in the kitchen for their supper now whisper troll under their breath which Nicholas can hear and does not respond. Now that he is of an age to be hirsute, the magical age of thirteen, he delights in the moniker troll for he feels like the owner of a bridge, living under the open stars and sun of the day in the place he and he alone controls. He holds the power over all of their requests for this or that book, to grant them or not. He has not yet refused, but he could and this pleases Nicholas. If he has nothing else but his library; well he is king of that. His privileged older brother, notwithstanding, Nicholas has always felt that his station is at the center of the world and he rightly so is emperor of it with all the peerage due him. He has not yet fought the war against barbarian invaders or infidels but he has oiled the blued armor breastplate on the wall and shined the old sword above the mantle just in case. Besides, he reasons, he just as well might welcome the infidels because he has become one himself after the ordeal through which he suffered his first six years of existence under the tutelage and stick of the Monk, Paul.

Paul stuck him with pins, and slapped his hands with a burled walking stick and shouted God-fearing sayings replete with spittle all over Nicholas’s countenance. Nicholas reasoned he was being showered with unholy spit water with each exhortation to the heavens that Paul would spew. Nicholas endured but soon came to reject all that which Paul had proclaimed to be true. He felt no soul within. He feared not God, only the pain dealt out by Paul. His ears rung with satanic verse shouted in exorcism to assuage a recalcitrant child who shivered from the pain, not the cold of the drafty Great Manor. Nicholas was quite relieved when his mother in her best yellow gown led him on his diaspora into the kitchen where he would be forever rid of Paul. He kept looking back as he was hurried out of the great rooms of the Great Manor, watching for the walls of water to crash back and drown the pursuing monk. The monk had not followed, simply returned to his monastery to prepare for his next victim.

That journey, his diaspora, his exodus from the Great Manor was also his flight from the church. He would not listen about God anymore. He had put it and all of the blather that Paul had proclaimed completely out of his mind. Good riddance, he had said. He even sat in prayer to banish the teaching for good from his mind. Having banished God, Nicholas felt quite relieved and satisfied with himself. He had exiled that which had oppressed him and beaten him into submission only to emerge as the Nicholas the Stronger, the leader, the titan, the Librarian!

Here we are at his age thirteen with Nicholas now pondering things about being and about his own existence that have become much more confused as his bones lengthen in agonizing spurts. His thoughts and feelings come and go and he feels quite unnerved at times. At other times, the voices of his head scream at him like an unruly parliament.

He now stands in the middle of the library floor, sun upon his shoulders, warming his face. He turns around and around to see the books. They don’t stare back as they once did. They have become books, he thinks to himself, just books. When the kitchen calls up on the voice horn it doesn’t motivate him as it once did. It bores him. He has become king of an island in the middle of a sea that has all but forgotten him. His world now is too small for such a burgeoning young man who needs lebensraum to flex his wings so that he can fly. The armor about fits him now which it won’t in perhaps just months with the spurt of growth that has come upon him. He can wield the sword above his shoulder when once he could only drag its tip along the floor. His domain has become too small; his books less than satisfactory. Rather they are unnerving him for he has run out of ideas on how to sort them in a way that will please him.

Nothing pleases him. The whisperings of troll and now ogre as his hair and beard have become quite long no longer please him. He wants to strike out and bash in the face of the scullery maids who giggle and wiggle their supple bottoms on their bench and elbow each other. At the same time, he lusts for the red haired one. He does not yet fully grasp what this lust entails or ultimately means but it quickens his pulse and turns his cheeks crimson. The headmistress of the Great Manor is bright enough not to send any of the young wenches to retrieve or return books to the library. His only shadowy visitor is the simple boy dishwasher with his permanent grin of imbecility. Nicholas has become a bitter king, itching for a fight, ennobled by a rush of hormones and rising of color in his cheeks as he stands in the middle of the library floor, quietly raging within himself for that which he cannot quite grasp but yearns for.

In the Night

It has become night and the moon has risen, casting eerie shadows of metal ribbing across the room. The books are imprisoned behind these dark bars. The books stare back without eyes, but here and there bits of gold leaf glow in the moonlight. Nicholas has returned to the center of his room. He wants to howl at the moon and decides instead to howl into the voice tube in the unlikely possibility that there are still some in the kitchen. They will not know what to make of this he thinks because he has never initiated a call. As he howls he recalls Paul and his lunatic raving. He works up his spittle to froth his mouth and pants in the exertion. His unholy dispatch to the kitchen below rings in his ears. He doesn’t get any reply. Then he is done with his howling and looks frantically around as if he could leap out of his skin. There is nothing more to see but that which he has always seen. His couch doesn’t beckon him and the night is rapidly cooling the air. Nicholas sweats through his tunic which has become randy with his stink and this hits his nostrils, urging him onward and upward. He swings about the room twirling and setting up dust motes which makes him sneeze. He catapults from the stepstool to the gimbled ladder that swings around the room. He kicks at shelving and propels himself first this way and that all while moaning and humming through a voice that waggles between a castrate’s soprano and a false baritone. His laryngitis spurs him on to kick harder and books tumble with his missteps. They crash to the floor and turn the library into a dust mote storm. Then as suddenly as he began this frenzy, he stops, or rather the ladder stops, thwarted by a pile of kicked out books. He pants and his nostrils flare. His shirt is soaked through and he finds the smell of himself both invigorating and distasteful. He can taste his lust through a throat that has been set fire from a straining voice. His hands tremble from gripping the ladder so tight. His shins throb from the missed kicks he has thrown. He feels the bloody gashes, not as once he felt from Paul, but as one who has battled his betters and come through without serious injury.  Then all of this is gone in a collapse of a body that has abused itself and become quite exhausted and unable to continue the fight. He then realizes he has been like a cat who jumps about seemingly with abandon from no discernable goad or without any goal in mind.

He steps down from the ladder. His shoulders slump and the heat his body has stoked begins to dissipate in evaporating sweat. He once again sees the moonlight prison bars encapsulating him, his room, and his books. Piles of books have tumbled from their shelves, leaving blank spaces only partially lit by the moon. Shadows cast the walls in empty spaces where once there were only books. The piles are elephant dung, strewn about by their rampage against the moonlight. Full moon.

Old Timekilly

There once had been a librarian before Nicholas. Old Timekilly. He had died behind the library’s lone desk and had become mummified before anyone thought to look in on him or wonder why he no longer came down for supper. Nicholas is thinking about Old Timekilly, wondering what he would have looked like in this moonlight. He wonders whether Old Timekilly would have felt imprisoned. He was surely not caught dead illiterate for they found a book propped in his hands. He was positioned as if his dry sockets were still reading the page. It was the Odyssey by Homer someone had said when Nicholas still lived in the kitchen. Another thought it was Dickens.

What do they know, thinks Nicholas? It is their speculation for none who found him could read. What they did with the book after they disposed of Old Timekilly no one could say for there are only a few left who knew him at all and none of these were involved in his internment.

The Fat Book

It is through those blank dead eyes that Nicholas tries to see the world now, his world, moonlit bars and emptied shelves. It is this he sees through those same eyes that will be his own soon enough, one of his voices laments. Is he to be relegated to seeing those selfsame pages over and over again with every moonrise? I must escape these bars, he cries out, but this is now only a harsh whisper from his overtaxed throat. He glances towards the library entrance but there is only darkness. He has no torch, no candle to help him find his way out of the library. He has burned all of what they have brought him. Perhaps it is time to burn some books one of him thinks and then another rejects that idea. What if he burns the book Old Timekilly was reading, another voice admonishes? They say there is a curse upon it, the curse of which he has just cried out against. It is this book he reasons that is keeping him imprisoned. He can’t burn it and it won’t let him be, let him become anything outside of this room. He is becoming Old Timekilly. The curse, the curse. He raises his hands up to the moon and hisses his displeasure.

His eye catches the glint of steel above the mantle. He strides to it and takes down the sword and brandishes it in a figure eight. He isn’t strong right now. The weakness has overcome him. The pressure of the full moon weighs on his mind. The damp’s cool has penetrated his shirt and his bloodied shins have stuck to his pantlegs. He has fought the demons within and has come away alive but more depressed than exhilarated from the ordeal. The curse of Old Timekilly and his book…He lets the tip of the sword drag on the ground. He is eight again and working on his second sorting by color. It is there and with that disastrous effort that has become his downfall, one voice grumbles. He has been ruined by what he is incapable of doing and that is make this room, this tomb into something that can break out of itself and become something worthy of him, Nicholas, once removed, of the Great Manor.

He is where he should be, his mind informs him rather abruptly. However, it isn’t his mind that he hears speaking. It’s a different voice. He grips the sword tighter and looks around the room, first at the library’s opening, then the moon and then all round, dragging the sword tip in a circle around himself which one of his voices professes will act as a prophylactic against whatever has infiltrated the defenses if his mind.  Sparks fly from the tip of the blade as it drags across the flint of the hearth floor. He sees it now, the great fat book that seems to glow in the moonlight. The first thought from Nicholas is that this is an unholy book and then that this is a book he has not seen before and he has seen every book…then it is the book that Old Timekilly had been reading. It is all just speculation but this glowing book stands alone in a spot his errant kicks have dislodged erstwhile contents onto a pile on the floor. This is no normal book and this he sees beyond its glow because it appears as if it is an opening, a portal, a space within space to another space. What space is this his mind races through possibilities. It could be the mote in the eye of Old Timekilly lured back here by the moon and the unstable Nicholas who has become unhinged from all of the goings on in his body. His logical sense of himself has fallen away and now he is confronted by mysteries he had long ago abandoned when he abandoned God and the monk Paul’s spittle spewed catechism. This is new unholy, godless, and possibly even a satanic event. He is drawn to this idea as he is not the notion of God. Such notions of God have fallen to dust before him like the foul incense they twirled in the chapel where God was supposed to come into being before his eyes. Even the stained glass in the place had not moved him.

Yet this thing is moving him and moving him to break his circle and edge towards the glowing book. The appurtenance is now clearly a passageway, a doorway perhaps into the diaphanous beyond, whatever that might be. It is barely enough to fit him even with his lanky frame. He turns and lifts the blade and stabs it into the book, hoping to find purchase but only punctures air. The tip fades into the mist and he groans and tumbles forward from an effort that was supposed to stop within the book but now buries itself to the handle whose blade has now quite disappeared. It feels cool at its entrance, like the passage to the kitchen. Its smell is the leaf piles he jumped into when he was four and five. The stink of cider from rotting apples he remembers covered his knees and elbows, but this smell is not so certainly from rotting fruit. It is more virulent and anticipatory as if it wants to give his mind something to think about before it lets him know what it is or will become. It is all uncertainty now except for the moonlight and the dark bars that paint the walls and floor. The glow is faint in the moonlight but it is certain in its uncertainty. He is beckoning himself forward. This is not right. He is beckoning himself towards plunging his hand into this misty morass. He wants to tumble through and into its thing. But not all of him wants this. He stops one voice to let another speak.

He thinks towards Old Timekilly but does not see his mummified corpse and ever-reading eyes. He sees only the book staring back at him. The book has become silent. It no longer rudely interrupts his voices. He is pleased with himself for having thrust the sword deep into its maw. Still, the meagre consequence of this act of violence gives him no succor. He is as frustrated, damp, weak, and uncentered as he was when he first set off on his tantrum. The hormones are spent. His muscles burn. His shins are battered. His head swims in the broken chemical chains that have flooded him so powerfully.

He has regained his powers of reason. He reasons that this is what he has been asking for. A way out. A way out through a way in and perhaps through. This is how one escapes being, the being that never sleeps, the insomnia of dreams and waking nightmares. It beckons, but not like sleep, or hunger, or even to have his way with the red-haired chambermaid. He hasn’t a need to piss. Yet it is a longing just the same. It pulls like no God ever did for him but pulls at him like he remembers that Paul said it did for him. Paul had only his rituals to guide him into his belief and mystery. For Paul, however, there was no mist, only stone cold cathedrals, sweet wine, stale bread, and flickering candles. He had no misty book, only one that has the thinnest of parchment pages and a great red bookmark to show where he would steal words from the mouth of God.

“This is no God,” Nicholas declares to the room. “The book is therefore not a manifestation from Satan,” he replies. It is outside either and not in the same realm. He recognizes the must in the scent that wafts around the mist. It is the scent of good clean earth in the spring when the old of winter has decayed and new generations, new shoots, new flowers are about to burst. It is rain teased, and snow melted, thick with air and stirring from worms, bugs, and seedlings that are emerging into the sunlit air. It is the mirage of day that brings Nicholas’s mind back to focus. He must be careful, he reasons. This bit of mist and glow is a danger waiting to gobble him up as it consumes him like it has done the sword. He pulls out the sword. It is as it was, only a bit colder to the touch than before. He expects rust or mold or some such underworld scourge. The sword displays none of this. In a moment of decision in all this indecision and speculation and worry, and remembrances, and with a mind both fueled and drained of confidence and hormonal fury, he plunges into the doorway, blade first.

In the Book

It is a dark corridor of indeterminacy down which a light is fading fast. He turns but sees nothing now behind him. He rushes forward brandishing the sword as he goes, trying to keep up with this fading glow of a light that seems to be guiding him onward. It is a dream state he feels. His panting becomes louder and creates a buzzing in his ears from the effort heaped upon the previous effort. His arms begin to sweat again and his hair mats. His shins become sticky from his wounds breaking open, but he presses on. Then there is no more leading light. His eyes cannot make out any sort of boundaries even with his peripheral night vision. His eyes have now become accustomed to the gloom of the darkest dark. The strain of his eyes produces twinkles and sparks which he has seen before and they are not from this room but from mistakes his eyes have produced with their over taxing efforts to see. He hears a rustling and takes hold of the sword with both hands and raises it up to protect himself and to parry any advancement of the thing that shuffles. His mind races around what it might be but his ears try to discover its meaning, its shape, and its intention. So little have his ears been used to listen in his solitary existence, they are useless now in this endeavor. He waits for a voice if it is a speaking thing. It is.

“What were you expecting?” comes the voice from the direction of the shuffling thing.

“Whatever comes,” says Nicholas in his hoarse croak that travels two octaves. This is his braggadocio retort. He is not so brave. Rather he is miserable now. He shivers from a loss of the heat from his run. The sweat runs again; chills again. Yet there is a warmth that comes from the direction of this shuffling now speaking thing if it is the right direction because there is an echo both from him and the other.

“So, what is it you have come to ask?” the voice echoes. Ask? Ask? Nicholas is taken aback. He has questions about all of this but what is this about asking?

“You are?” asks Nicholas.

“Come now, is that your most important question? The reason you have penetrated my abode and disturbed my privacy?” A glow now from where Nicholas thinks the voice comes. It feels warm as did his own cheeks when he was gyrating around the library. His lack of specificity has brought anger, thinks Nicholas. “It is a beginning, a common courtesy,” Says Nicholas. “Nicholas of the Great Manor, by way of introduction.”

“By way of introduction, of what, of who, of whom? I sense already that you have much to learn, Nicholas of the Great Manor. And what is that which has introduced? Is it a thing? Does it be or is it a being, a soul perhaps, even a permanence like that crumbling husk of an old librarian who used to haunt from where you have just arrived. I smell no scent of permanence in you, though you are ripe enough to burst from the chemical stew that courses through you. I hate youth. I hate old age. I hate death. I hate sickness. I hate renunciants like that monk of yours. Philip is it?”
“Paul. And he is not my monk. I have renounced him, but surely you must know that. You seem to know much. So bodiless voice, why not show yourself? Besides you have not returned my favor of introduction.” From where did this hiss come from, Nicholas asks himself. Restraint! some of himself cried out to its otherness. Not to anger this blustering thing. Not to anger. Cheeks red again and a more intense glow out there as if from massive eyes. Show some restraint. He grinds his teeth to set the admonishment to his impetuous ego thing that has arisen so suddenly and disconcertingly with the beginning of this night’s moon.

“Oracle. I am called Oracle. It is not what I call myself. Do you call yourself Nicholas or is it just something someone stuck you with? Perhaps your father pinned it to you or rather it was a must-be because of some distant relative who must-have his name assigned to unsuspecting future generations. If we must be indulged with formalities I then accept being called Oracle.”

“What is an Oracle then?” asks Nicholas.

“You have learned nothing from the mountain of books you call a library?” the Oracle replies.

“I prefer their outer skin.” Says Nicholas.

“Surface, not deep. Shallow water. Nothing inside. Do you find yourself to be a dullard?”

“No, a dullard is the dishwasher with his perpetual smile,” says Nicholas.

“Forgive me then. Your shuttling books around based upon some surficial attribute serves what purpose?” asks the Oracle.

“Purpose, of what purpose are books to anyone at the Great Manor? There are recipe books ordered now and again, but nothing else. Why bother with these others if their innards are of no concern to anyone but themselves? Why bother with them other than their colored splines or otherwise splineless skins?” says Nicholas. His emboldening retorts, even though they sound like they come from a rooster who has too many stones in its gizzard, are scaring even him. He punches his arm with his free hand and this loosens the other’s grip on the sword which rattles to rocks on which he stands.

“You are torn inside, warring, making silly fisticuffs with your youthful arms. Such a childish belittlement of yourself. Dropping a sword makes you look foolish you think and it does. What purposes would you wrought with such a device? Whom would you harm and why would you harm?” asks the Oracle.

“The unknown comes in many forms,” says Nicholas.

“The unknown that is unknowable remains that way. Why bother with that which you cannot possibly know? For what purpose is your sword if it has no purpose for which you can conceive of its use? Does this make any sense at all? Of course it doesn’t. It makes as much sense as you telling me that you are Nicholas of the Great Manor. You are not either at this moment because you, like me are an impermanence, something that cannot be grafted onto a thing because neither you nor the thing into which you would be grafted are permanent. If neither are permanent, then only impermanence but not grafting is possible…”

“Riddles and nonsense,” croaks Nicholas, shouting down the Oracle. “It’s the same sort of twaddle that the Monk Paul spewed with great confidence in his own ability to profess his ignorance by proclaiming the kingdom of God. What kingdom comes from the vapors of incense burners? What wisdom comes from a glowing thing that calls itself the Oracle that lives in this dank place? Of what purpose are you? Are you just another charlatan priest of some even more obscure religion? Bah. You are all the same. The teachers grand, wonderful, self-congratulating, and sure of themselves to the point of believing their own farts are as from perfume…” The echo lasts longer this time. There is no increase in glow. It seems that this diatribe has not upset the Oracle any more than what he has said before. He feels emboldened to continue…

“Are you through,” asks the Oracle in a mild voice, punctuated by a chuckling sound that is as deep a rumble as Nicholas has ever heard. This thing that glows like a rouged cheek sounds massive, elephantine, perhaps bigger, Nicholas wonders. Nicholas does not reply.

“I take it by your silence that you have ended your little fit of pique and are now somewhat disabused to sound any more ridiculous,” says the Oracle. “Those who make up stories to solve riddles, giving them some supernatural explanation are doomed to their own folly. Blasphemy comes in many forms and those who make believe beliefs in things that have no business existing without evidence of their existence are as dull an explanation as is your methodology for organizing books to meet a persistent youthful whim. Get off that soap box for a moment and listen to yourself. You are both impetuous and snob. Your thoughts are perfect you think and you continue to shore up your beliefs of your own omniscience through wisecracks, impertinence, and sheer gall. Your spleen is rent with anxiety and your liver aches from the poison you deliver to yourself through yourself. It is time to awaken from all of this and begin to see the world as it is.”

“Then why do you hide down here or wherever here is?” asks Nicholas.

“Why do you hide in the library like a scared child? Why do you brandish that blade that is still too sharp for you as is your tongue, and too weighty for you to heft as are your infantile arguments? You cling to what you know and what you know you think you possess as being a firmament against dissolution. Yet your body is rebelling against you, fighting to grow up as your mind keeps asking it to stop. You whirl around the library in great haste, bruising yourself and breaking the splines of centuries old manuscripts. You have yet to see. You let your impetuosity control you, your thinking, your actions, your sense of what is good and not. Nothing is good but what you devise. Can you not see how encapsulating that is? Can you not escape your library prison by even opening one book and thinking through what it says to you?
“I discern no books here, nothing but your presence and this in a cavern of sorts, devoid of even light in a darkness where only you can see. I cannot see much purpose or worthiness in this existence. Of what right do you have to speak of betterment from this hole?” grunts Nicholas.

“You have bitten down on your imperfectness. You have consumed it and it is making you suffer. It is the returning again and again to the same to try to make it somehow different but to return it to sameness from some idea you had of it when you were still a small boy. If you continue, your dead eyes will stare into the void just like Old Timekilly. It is time to grow up Nicholas,” says the oracle.

“Grow up? I am growing or can’t you see in this opaque space? I shoot up like a beanpole and new cocktails course through me making me at once giddy and the next abject and poorly. This is the curse of becoming I believe,” says Nicholas. He shuffles his feet now both from the rapid onset of boredom towards this conversation, and to loosen muscles so abused this day.

“Your body blossoms into a new thing. You have never stood still, but you haven’t noticed. You are too busy trying to become into something you cannot. Your permanence in impermanence grabs your throat as tight as your vocal cords have become from screaming like a banshee. You are railing against the light. You see the prison of the moonlight. You fear the darkness because it clings to you like the fog does to an apparition you cannot just make out. It is me you fear, not because I am older and wiser but because I am without the need of others in a way the same as you have become. Yet you still cling to the other which you were and now want again to be. Let it go, take it down, scourge it by removing the fuel from it. It is so much like your puny fires built from thin paper that require constant refreshment. You heap tissue upon your own meagre flame with every new thought and action. Puff. Poof. Will you continue to sort your books in ever new versions of wonderment or will you begin to wonder on your own just what wonderment might be? Why are you here other than to explore, to escape that sameness of thinking you are what you are and that is all that will be? You are the spare, the unnecessary, the afterthought, the just in case that never will offer a case because your brother is quite a healthy man now. It is his turn to produce a heir and you are soon done being a spare. So what time is it now? Is it time to wallow in self-pity and in a pile of books that has no purpose other than to store dust for the next librarian? Will you keep the flame that burned so dully in the last Librarian as your own? Come now you have more than that, do you not?” The Oracle lets out a great sigh. His breath comes like a breeze over Nicholas which forces him back not because of its force but because it’s odor is as if from death itself.

“There is foulness in you. How can you offer advice if you yourself are unhealthy?” asks Nicholas.

“And when did you last bathe? We can continue to sling odoriferous barbs at each other but if you are to learn what you must you must begin to listen for a change rather than to presume and posture and internalize and permanentize the moments in which you think. Memory is a cruel mistress at times because it can lock you into yourself. Here you may think, which I am sure you do, that I am locked in to my own self, my own thinking, my own being. I have let go of all of that long ago. You ask why I am here. It is because the magic that flows through the world is real here. It has gone deep after its disappearance on the surface world. You have only glimpsed its glow. This is not some metaphysical vein of useless drivel, but a real current that flows through the earth and which makes all worthwhile. It is disappearing my young companion. It is disappearing. It is I who am the last to feel it I am afraid. I will invite you to engage with it but I sense that you have a greater journey ahead of you to discover the magic of the world.”

Nicholas’s legs begin to shake and buckle, not from the admonishment from the Oracle but from fatigue. Nicholas sits. He thinks for a moment while there is silence. He is fighting with himself constantly to gain superiority of this one over that. He has tried to cling to that which no longer gives him pleasure. That which has listened to the oracle now speaks. “What would you suggest?” he asks.

“That you are sitting is a first step. Calming the body prepares the mind to think. The darkness is but a place where its cloak not only casts no shadow but envelops you. You hear better even if you can see nothing with your eyes. You can then turn your eyes back in on your mind and think through them with greater clarity. You smell the earth, perhaps eventually you will feel the tingle of its energy, the magic that I alone can tap into at this moment. I am the last of my kind.”

“The last dragon,” Nicholas ventures but not so tentatively.

“You could say that. You could say that I am also that which represents all of which we can become but most hold back by clinging to things and ideas that harm us rather than serve us towards our own well-being,” says the Oracle.

“You have no one who comes here?” Nicholas asks.

“No, not in hundreds of years. The librarians have all seen the book you saw in the moonlight, but none have ventured through. There is hope young man for you but that is not my undertaking. I cannot give you license nor agency to go where you will go. Only you can give that. Certainly, I can provide some guidance but it first must come from within you. This cave is dark and by design so. It lets go all of that which is not necessary. There is no clinging here because there is no phenomenon here other than the electricity of the magic which courses through the rocks. It too is impermanent, a process that flows like everything else in the world. You will have choices to make but you will not make them here. No, you are not ready yet. You must return. If not, you will shiver yourself into a ball of fever and then where will you be? Besides, what sustenance can you derive from these rocks? How little it offers me. Yet, the magical forces provide me with whatever I need. I am neither thin nor weighty for my bulk but somewhere in between. This suits me fine. But enough about me. What are your intentions Nicholas?”

Nicholas remains silent for many moments. He pushes back the voices that urge him to deny this Oracle as being a false prophet. He digs deeper this time and when he has let go of these naysayers and rabble rousers, he responds with, “You began with a question of me. I believe it is time that I leave with that question in my pocket. For I don’t quite know yet where I will be going. Back to the library at first, but there is no need of me either for others or for myself in the Great Manor. I have yet to see beyond its walls. Fondness, a clinging to the books of my youth? Yes, for a time I see it. Perhaps a clinging a bit more to get to know their insides before I venture forth. Yet I think that I will return down through the diaphanous covers of the great book to ask you more questions. What is good now as I see it is that I bring with me a question to kindle more as I go along.”

This admission and statement of purpose silences the voices of dissent within Nicholas. The same-sayers and status-quoers have become oddly silent. They have been admonished for their clinging, grasping, and craving, but Nicholas sees that he has more to learn.

He stands. The Oracle is silent. The glow Nicholas followed to this place has begun to move away. This time Nicholas thinks it is guiding him back towards the library. He is not looking forward to this returning. He sees that this journey is just a beginning, a coming back down the path of the same to reach its root so that he can ascend from sameness into otherness and become that which is other than what which he has always thought himself to be. He can barely keep up with the glow. He aches and his lungs burn. He coughs from the exertion and one of the voices falls out of his mouth and disappears from him. He hopes it is gone forever.

Food for Thought

Identity, being, continuity, and the angst of becoming for an adolescent are not the typical fare for the mainstream philosopher. The arrogance of the philosophical canon in general is that it considers only the adult, as if we arrive fully formed like Venus from a clamshell, without any history or experience of a time before. This produces a philosophical attitude and outlook that tends to concretize being into a permanent isness.

Nicholas sees that which once had pleased him no longer does. He is not the same as he was, but he cannot reconcile who he is because his isness is in flux. He is like the youth who discovers her father is Santa Claus. She wants desperately to hold onto that idea of a metaphysical being while knowing now that the gift giver is but a member of her own family. Nicholas too has lost the dreams he had as a youth. He has become conflicted both by the chemicals of adolescence and the conversations in his head that seem to want to take him all directions at once. Nicholas knows not what to do to assuage the voices warring in himself to push him in this way or that. He cries out in existential angst. Nor has he a God to turn to. He has like Nietzsche forsaken God, perhaps not because the idea is abhorrent, but because the Monk Paul has beaten the idea of God into him and it is the sting he wants gone. Paul has not listened to him; his mother has abandoned him to the kitchen; and he doesn’t fit-in there and has been shunned to the library. There he creates his own world to his liking, but this world is no longer enough for him. He is alone in his multifarious thoughts. Kitchen help speak to him through the voice horn. They have never listened to him and he does not reply. When he finally shouts down the voice tube in his own extremis, no one responds back. It is only the Oracle who listens to Nicholas, the last dragon who plumbs the depth of the earth for its non-metaphysical magic, its karma, and an end to ignorance. The Oracle gives up only its voice and a bit of glow. Its identity is as amorphous as the cavern where it exists, but it helps Nicholas begin to remove the fuel from the warring factions in his head so that he can begin his journey into adulthood. We see Nicholas, shouldering his greatest weight towards a letting go of that which threatens to return again and again. Nicholas is both Nietzsche’s undergoing and overgoing towards that which he cannot yet envision for himself. The Oracle is not unlike the Buddha who explains to his monks and others who will listen that to embrace impermanence is the antidote to clinging to that which can never be…permanence. Suffering is that clinging to that which cannot any longer be. Running back towards his library, Nicholas begins to let go of that which he has clung.