Peter Parker’s Metamorphosis into Spider-Man: Genetics or God?

This study is a speculative thought experiment into what caused Peter Parker and Cindy Moon to metamorphose into spidery people after an irradiated spider’s bite. This is an ontological thought experiment as to the origins of the acquisitions of their spiderpowers, not how they would eventually use or abuse them. This thought experiment uses both existing science and well-established Roman Catholic Christian theory to explore how and why Parker and Moon were transformed. It is a speculation as to possibilities, given what we know about Parker and Moon’s ontological transformation, using the emerging tools of epigenetic science to consider rational explanations for how two humans could become spidery creatures so quickly and thoroughly. This study is a thought experiment because epigenetic evidence would need to be found that can definitively say whether humans have dormant dragline silk producing genes that can be re-activated. Far-fetched as this possibility might seem, we are just beginning to learn what our myriad of individual genes do or no longer do. This study leaves it to others to discover whether we have such transformative genes.

As we have done for many years, when science cannot fully explain miracles like Parker and Moon’s transformation, we look to theology. This thought experiment turns to two famed Christian theologians, Augustine, and Aquinas for theological explanations of Parker and Moon’s ontological transformation to perform some important service for God. Such a transformation was required for Mary to prepare to bear the Christ child. Though the ontological transformations differ, Mary provides a blueprint to consider whether Parker and Moon were similarly transformed by God to perform an important mission. Just what that mission might be is also subject of speculation by this study.

This investigation considers only the ontological (not epistemological) transformation of Peter Parker into Spider-Man. While Moon is similarly transformed, this paper principally considers Spider-Man. First it engages the science of epigenetics, then through the efforts of Augustine an explanation for original sin, and then the later Aquinas who explores this human original sin in the context of the transformation of Mary to bear the Christ child. Even though both Augustine and Aquinas provide logical and metaphysical explanations for original sin and Mary’s transformation, we cannot ignore the possibility there are modern epigenetic scientific explanations for each, of which, neither Augustine nor Aquinas had any knowledge. How Parker learns to use and how he uses his power are not in the scope of this study. First, we explore how the comics explain Parker and Moon’s transformation and why the writers have given us permission through omission to speculate as to how both were transformed.

It Begins with a Spider Bite

The myth of Spider-Man begins when Peter Parker, with other students, attends a demonstration of the safe handling of clean nuclear waste that goes wrong and irradiates a spider who bites both Peter Parker and Cindy Moon; he becomes Spider-Man and she Silk (Amazing Fantasy 15).[1] We are given no explanation for how irradiated spider venom can cause such transformations. Therefore, we have been given license to speculate as to how such a transformation might occur. First is the question of whether either transformation can be explained through strict scientific terms from biology and genetics. Specifically, this study considers their transformations through the relatively new subset of genetics, epigenetics, where certain outside stressors change the expression of genes without changing the chromosome order. The human genome evolved over billions of years and contains DNA from plants (light sensing genes) and who knows what other ancestral species. Suppose that one of our distant ancestors was a venomous spider who left behind dragline silk spinning genes that have been dormant for millions of years because the right environmental stressor was not available to activate them. If such genes had epigenetic capabilities, then it is possible, just possible, that the irradiated spider somehow engaged a process, whether epigenetic or chemical change in the spider venom, that produced such a stressor in humans. We can say with some minimal credibility that this might be the case because two non-related humans were presumably identically transformed by the same spider’s bite. Nor is this so far-fetched in the superverse, because Deadpool was given a serum that activated dormant genes in his body that put his cancer into remission and gained him his superpowers. While the science of epigenetics offers promising clues to Parker and Moon’s metamorphosis, it is likely not enough to explain either transformation. Neither Parker nor Moon suffered the radiation that the spider endured. We cannot, therefore, explain their transformation like we can with the Hulk whose mutations were the result of gamma rays. Evolution that involves natural mutation over many generations could not have possibly caused Parker and Moon’s transformation. If epigenetics is a possibility but is likely inadequate to explain these transformations, can we turn to religion for some assistance?

There are only a few clues in the Spider-Verse literature that gain us understanding of Parker’s relationship to religion. For example, we know from our first introductions to Spider-Man, his Aunt May was a devout Protestant, so likely he was familiar with Christian precepts. In the Goddess Series, the Goddess recruits Parker to become a member of her religious heroes force.[2] Parker, however, does not transform himself into an evangelical or hyper-religious superhero. Later, when his Uncle Ben returns from the afterlife, Parker has a crisis of faith, which presumably he retained from his days living with his aunt and uncle, and is persuaded to confess at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not a Protestant, but a Catholic Church.[3]

Ezekiel Simms in the Spider-Man series claims that he went through a ritual to obtain spidery powers, and perhaps the spider that bit Parker and Moon was sent on a mission to do the same. Said Simms, “Did the radiation enable the spider to give you those powers? Or was the spider trying to give you those powers before the radiation killed it? Which came first? The radiation? Or the power? The chicken or the egg or the power?”[4] Simms explains to Parker that The Great Web of Destinies, a multiverse hub that permits transit through different universes, is maintained by totemic spiders.[5] He informs Peter Parker that, indeed, he has genes from those totemic spiders. [6] Therefore, Marvel Comics gives us both the myth of the possibility for spidery God(s) and permission to explore that myth theologically.

Metaphysics in the Abrahamic religion Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism, may help better explain just what is required for God to transform individuals like Parker and Moon into people capable of serving God’s purposes. Neither Stan Lee nor Steve Ditko (in the 1960s), Spider-Man’s creators, nor the biblical scholars Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, who will be consulted in context of religious origin, gave any epigenetic explanations for what they wrote. However, God does, and always did understand epigenetics because God is all knowing. William of Ockham penned what is now called Ockham’s Razor that parenthetically says that the simplest complete explanation is likely the best explanation.[7] Using Ockham’s Razor in this exploration of metamorphoses, we must explore why God would perform a more complex transformation of either Parker or Moon utilizing mystical or transcendental means when God had already created the epigenetic tools to engender the metamorphosis. God took time to create an orderly universe made from rules that avoid inexplicable surprises—why change strategies now just to create two spidery humans?

While epigenetics has always been available to God to perform the mechanics of the transformations, both Augustine and Aquinas suggest that there may be other processes God engages to help change those who are tasked with service to God. This study considers just one Christian biblical transformation and that is the human born with the Augustine coined ‘original sin’, Blessed Mary, who is tasked with taking to term the son of God, or the Christ, without transferring this active original sin to the child. The arguments for how the transformation of Mary occurred can help but not completely explain the transformation of Parker and Moon. Mary was tasked with an important office, and, therefore, God took the time to prepare her to get it right. The Bible explores only a few who are tasked with serving God directly, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Mary. Mary is one of the few who is physically transformed to perform her service. That there is one physical transformation suggests there could be more in the future. However, we must then ask why Parker and Moon and why Spider-Man and Silk? What important service are they performing for God? Before we broach that question, we will speculate what epigenetic processes may have been involved with Parker and Moon’s transformation.

Epigenetics and Peter Parker’s Transformation into Spider-Man

Charles Darwin studied an island in the Pacific where finches had become different species through changes in their beak sizes and shapes.[8] Each beak served as a perfect tool to harvest specific seeds or berries of the local flora. Speciation helped each finch species not only find a niche, but also lessened competition for scarce resources between finch species. However, such adaptations like beak shape require many generations to take hold in a population.

Peter Parker, however, does not fit into the natural selection scheme. He is bitten by a spider who has just been irradiated. It is well understood that high doses of radiation (sun’s rays, natural uranium deposits, and nuclear radiation from human technology) can produce cancer and other genetic anomalies. However, this (and evolution) take time to modify chromosomes. While Parker and Moon do not immediately gain knowledge of their metamorphoses, it appears that the transformation occurred quite soon after the spider bite. There must be another explanation.

When Spider-Man was created in the early 1960s, genetic engineering was not yet possible and, while we knew about adverse bomb radiation effects from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we did not have the tools to explain how Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man might have occurred. Stan Lee exploited the cold war fear that science fiction movies and texts had embraced—the sudden creation of superpowered or super-large creatures from nuclear tests and post-nuclear-war dystopia. We have not yet seen such transformations in places where excess radiation abounds and will do so for tens of thousands of years. For example, more than thirty years on in the exclusion zones surrounding the doomed Chernobyl reactor, we have not seen wild local animal populations mutate in ways that produce gigantism or hybrid monsters.

We have long bred domestic animals to suit our purposes. We made wild cattle more docile, bred horses for farming and war, and our companion dogs have been slotted into breeds for different tasks. We have now learned how to skip generational breeding and artificially manipulate genes to produce hybrid plants that are cold or pest resistant.

Spider dragline silk is stronger and lighter than steel, but we do not have a mechanical means to produce it in any quantity. Enter genetic manipulation. The notion of mammals producing dragline silk protein is no longer far-fetched. Goats and mice have had spider silk genes spliced into their DNA to produce spider dragline silk in their milk.[9] We need to be clear that goats and mice do not shoot streams of dragline silk like the spider or Spider-Man, they only were given the genes to produce the silk protein in milk, not to use it to spin webs or spring from building to building.

            We have no evidence from any version of the story that Peter Parker in his embryonic state was genetically re-engineered. The Marvel myth of the spider bite rules out that he was given dragline silk genes through invitro or other means. However, we are not yet at the limits of understanding genetic processes. We are the product of billions of years of genetic evolution. We have the same light-sensing genes that plants use to regulate their circadian rhythm, when they begin photosynthesis, become dormant in winter, etc.[10] We use these same genes to regulate our own biological clock. We also carry genes that have purposes (extant or vestigial) we have not yet identified. These may be permanently dormant reptilian genes from our ancient past, or there may be arachnid genes that could be activated at some point in the future with the right change.

The radiation kills the spider before the work of evolutionary genetics could possibly have changed its chromosome order in a way that could have introduced functional silk producing and other spidery genes into either ‘victim’. Genetic science has come a long way since 1962 when Spider-Man Amazing Fantasy #15 was published. The emerging science of epigenetics is discovering that some genes can express themselves differently when put under environmental or emotional stress. Some genes can turn on, off, or express themselves in other ways without changing the chromosome order.[11] This genetic feature is called epigenetics—above genetics. Epigenetics sits between mutation where genes and the chromosome order are permanently changed, and the other extreme, called behavior, that is immediate but produces no genetic change in and of itself. Nature has constructed epigenetic processes to switch genes on when needed and switch off when not. Environmental stress such as disease, trauma, or other existential conditions can serve to produce epigenetic change.

Considering we have a lot of ‘junk’ DNA left over from millions of years of evolution, there is the remotest of possibility that the radiation caused the spider to express genes common to its species that produced a venom that caused certain human genes to express themselves differently. This presumes that we humans have vestigial dragline silk spinning genes that indeed can become activated epigenetically in the manner set forth in the comics. Just as science is skeptical of the genetic mutation claim from the Marvel myth, rightly you should be skeptical of this more plausible but remote possibility that we have dormant dragline silk spinning genes, and these can be activated epigenetically. However, epigenetics is a powerful tool of nature that we are just beginning to understand. Certain plants exposed to pathogens develop epigenetic immunity strategies that can be passed along to their progeny.[12] We cannot discount epigenetics entirely from the story of Spider-Man.

Epigenetic science is applicable to humans. The mother’s experience while the child is in the womb, and the upbringing of children (supportive v. abusive, etc.) have epigenetic implications in later life. Propensity towards certain debilitative diseases, cancer, and other existential problems can be associated with stressors that change the expression of certain genes.[13] For example, a recent study of US Civil War (1861-1865) veteran offspring found that those Union soldiers who were interred in the infamously cruel Confederate POW camps, after the war produced male children who were more likely to die younger than those Union soldiers who were not in Confederate camps.[14] This increased mortality was not found in female children nor male children born before the war. While researchers could not rule out nurture as a factor in this increased mortality (despite the lack of mortality change in female children), they suspect that something epigenetically had occurred in the father’s genes from war stressors that affected the mortality of male offspring. It is therefore plausible that a radioactive spider bite could cause enough stress in Peter Parker to change the expression of certain genes that might give him more capabilities than before. If…humans have dormant dragline silk spinning genes.

It would stretch credulity to argue that epigenetic processes alone transformed Parker and Moon. If God created the universe and its processes, God does understand epigenetics is a tool that could be used to transform Parker and Moon to serve God’s purposes. The model to compare to Parker and Moon is God’s transformation of Mary (born human with original sin inherited from the line stretching back to Adam) into the vessel to bear the son of God, the Christ. Mary was given a great responsibility by God to be a part of the process to save the lost. If we are to trundle down this path where God has a hand in their transformation, we must also ask what great tasks has God assigned Spider-Man and Silk?

Metaphysics and Peter Parker’s Transformation into Spider-Man

Is there a spider-God who, like the Abrahamic God, gifts powers to select people to carry out the spider god’s missions? Ezekiel Simms suggested to Parker that indeed this could be possible. The Abrahamic monotheists will cringe at this suggestion, but what if these spider totems were, in fact, servants of God? The Bible speaks of angels, why not spider totems as similar functionaries? The Bible records instances where humans were given responsibilities beyond normal human capabilities, and this includes Moses parting the Red Sea, and the very human and mortal Mary who gave birth to the son of God, the Christ.[15]

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) introduced the notion of original sin to early Christian doctrine.[16] He reasoned that Adam committed the sin of disobedience and all descended from him will be born with original sin. It is possible to consider the original sin genetically, as something that is uniquely human, and is passed down from generation to generation without fail. However, this is a problem when we are asked to also believe that Mary, a descendent from the line of Adam and thus born with original sin, could bear the sinless and divine Christ. Augustine did not invent the Virgin Mary; he inherited the story from Christian scripture. The problem, as we will see, is that he gave a biological explanation to original sin that it is paternally handed down through the line that runs from Adam. This provides some explanation for how the Christ could be born without active original sin because his father is God who is not descended from Adam. However, Augustine provides a metaphysical explanation for how original sin is absolved—baptism. Yet, even those who are baptized will pass down the original sin to their offspring. Baptism, to the scientist sounds like an epigenetic change that cannot be passed down. On the other hand, the baptism ritual does not produce the kind of environmental stress that normally triggers epigenetic change. Could baptism be both epigenetic and metaphysical?

The later Roman Catholic scholar, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), set about to discover how Mary, descended from Adam, born with original sin, could take to term the son of God without transferring active original sin to the Christ. He says, “For Christ did not contract the original sin in any way but was holy in his very conception according to Luke 1:35.”[17]

In the struggle to find an answer to this question, Aquinas goes through a series of arguments in his Summa Theologica and ultimately arrives at an answer: “I answer that, God so prepares and endows whom He chooses for some particular office, that they are rendered capable of fulfilling it.”[18] Unfortunately, Aquinas cannot explain just how God prepares Mary for fulfilling her office. Baptism absolves the original sin. Baptism is a process performed by a priest that includes sprinkling water on the head. Mary was not baptized by any cleric prior to the conception of the Christ. However, her preparation for the office of bearing the Christ could have included a baptism by God.

If there is a God, what science and theology contribute to their intersecting discourse is the nature of God. The God-believing scientist likely sees a God who created the laws of physics, genetics, and epigenetics to run smoothly without God’s direct intervention. This might suggest an absent God, perhaps an ancient alien species who seeded life on earth and let it run by itself. However, the Bible shows us a meddlesome God, with examples like Adam and Eve, Noah, and Sodom and Gomorrah, who has frequently become frustrated with humanity’s antics and refusal to obey divine laws and directives. Such a God cannot be both absent and meddlesome at the same time. Nor could there be two Gods, one absent and one meddlesome, in any of the Abrahamic religions. What we now see is that God created genetics and epigenetic processes that work quite well. Assume for a moment that these God-designed processes produced evolution and eventually humans. We can then say that the creation myth of Genesis is a (compressed in time) metaphor for the processes set in motion by God that created the earth and life that eventually begat the human.

Adam and Eve were immortals in Eden. When they sinned and were removed from Eden, they became mortal, and all human progeny thereafter are destined to be cursed with original sin. Mary did not become immortal, nor did she become a God in her office of bearing and raising the Christ. Nor was the active original sin passed down to the Christ. Augustine maintains that:

And God was not ignorant that man would sin, and that, being himself made subject now to death, he would propagate men doomed to die, and that these mortals would run to such enormities in sin, that even the beasts devoid of rational will, and who were created in numbers from the waters and the earth, would live more securely and peaceably with their own kind than men, who had been propagated from one individual for the very purpose of commending concord.[19]

Jesse Couenhoven explains that Augustine understood that concupiscence was also a constitutional part of Adam and Eve that was not activated until they thought about and then sinned against God, “Carnal concupiscence is desire for things forbidden, and thus, the desire for sin.”[20] Even in Eden, there existed evil and the possibility for desire for the forbidden and its fulfillment. Augustine explains why, “But evils are so thoroughly overcome by good, that though they are permitted to exist, for the sake of demonstrating how the most righteous foresight of God can make a good use even of them…”[21] This is the theodicy argument that God can make good use even of evil. Therefore, concupiscence followed Adam and Eve into their descent from Eden. Adam and Eve always already had the propensity to sin even while in Eden.

Making Mary a virgin does two things. First, even though Mary could have had forbidden sexual desires prior to God’s intervention, these were not consummated. Did God also switch off ‘concupiscence genes’ so that Mary would not have the sexual desires that would make it not possible to serve the office God required of her? Breaking the chains of original sin and concupiscence serve Roman Catholic theology well in explaining how Mary became capable of bearing the Christ. Epigenetics could turn off a gene like an original sin gene. While some epigenetic changes can be passed to offspring (plants, perhaps Civil War POW’s children), other epigenetic processes do not. Therefore, it is possible that an original sin gene could be epigenetically absolved during life, but the active gene passes to all offspring. We know that Mary was a virgin and the father of the Christ was God, not in the genetic line descended from Adam. Implanting the Christ embryo without any genes from Mary solves this problem but, on the surface, requires God to abrogate God’s own carefully crafted genetic process. Augustine maintains that Adam, the male, is the carrier of the original sin gene. Mary did not have the benefit of a descendent from Adam in the gestation of the Christ in her womb. If we stay with the strict rules of genetics, Mary had the original sin gene and would have to pass the singular gene to her child, but it would not be active without the companion male original sin gene. This means that while the Christ did not have an active original sin gene, he still carried genes from his mother’s side. However, Luke informs us that Jesus did not contract the original sin in any way. The word ‘contract’ suggests that original sin did not manifest in him after gestation. Presumably, Christ had no children which would have complicated things. Female children would have children with descendants of Adam, meaning that grandchildren of Christ would be born with the original sin gene. It is best then that the Christ refrain from all acts of carnal concupiscence.

The birth of the Christ as the son of God, without original sin rightly suggests that while born of human form and substance, the Christ was not entirely human—God made flesh. If the original sin can be absolved only through a priest-conducted baptism, there is no need to suggest that God made flesh was an epigenetic transformation. Christ is the God made flesh. He is not the successor to humanity. In his human form, however, he could take on the sins of humanity, and this is in part because sin was present in humanity from the beginning and is passed along because both human partners carry the sin gene, while only the male can pass down the active original sin. Baptism completes a metaphysical compact with God. The paternal descendent explanation from the line of Adam requires an epigenetic explanation for baptism. What if it is both, a metaphysical covenant with God—an epi-epigenetics—that does not violate the laws of genetics because it also produces an epigenetic change to mute the original sin gene, but only for those who are baptized? All subsequent children will still be born with original sin even if both parents were baptized.  

Even without all the answers, we now can say it is possible that epigenetics, along with God’s intervention using epi-epigenetic processes (which we may never completely understand), transformed Mary to serve her office as required by God. While Christ was born without original sin, his mother was. A speculative Godly baptism would only absolve original sin, not eliminate it. Once again, the metaphysical confronts the theological. Both male and female descendants inherit the original sin, passed along through the male side. While Christ did not manifest the original sin in any way, he would have had to have his mother’s genes. Otherwise, how could he become God made flesh?

Theology, through a paternal explanation of the inheritance of original sin, has made it difficult to reject the notion that the original sin is genetic, even though baptism likely does not produce the existential stress that alters genes epigenetically. This would also mean that the original sin was likely present as an epigenetically modifiable gene in Adam and Eve even before they sinned against God.

What about Spider-Man? If we are to offer an underlying epigenetic explanation for the transformation of Parker and Moon, we must assume that God knows that the spider and the human contain silk spinning genes, but these are normally active in the spider but not in the human. Therefore, the suggestion by Ezekiel Simms that the spider was on a mission to bite Parker and Moon to effect such a transformation is not out of the question. Certainly, God would have such powers to do this without the spider, but why the spider as intermediary? This, like many other theological questions, may not yield anything more than a metaphysical answer. However, in the least we can suggest, using Ockham’s Razor, that the simplest accurate explanation is likely the best explanation—the radiated spider was a ready vessel to epigenetically activate the dormant spider genes in humans. This, however, is pure speculation unless or until we can find such dormant genes.

What is the Nature of God’s Office that Spider-Man Is to Fulfill?

God gave the Blessed Mary a significant responsibility. What about Peter Parker and Cindy Moon? The 1960s were a time of upheaval and momentous change. The Cold War, the Vietnam War, civil rights, and a cultural revolution roiled the decade. There was an increase in violence, and civil rights rioting burned many large cities. The emergence of superheroes began in earnest with Superman and Captain America during the great depression and World War II. Neither could rid the world of evil. Batman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, to name a few, came on the scene and each had different ontological or technological (Batman) skills to fight evil in the world. We can make the usual dismissive statement, ‘God works in mysterious ways’ to explain the divine origin of any or all of these superheroes. However, if we look at the underlying message, say for example with Moses, God was not only freeing a people but making the statement that human bondage is not a good thing. God gave Jesus to the world to help save the lost.[22] God gave Noah advanced warning that there would be a great flood, and if he would build the ark and fill it with animal pairs, the creatures of the world could be saved to build the world anew. With Parker, Moon, and the irradiated spider, could God have been sending a message that humanity was messing with a force of nature that could easily overwhelm the world? This is not the apocalypse of global thermonuclear war, but the intergenerational problem of safely storing spent nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years. The effects and messages of the efforts of Moses and Mary remain with us today through robust teaching of the Abrahamic religions. Truthfully, Spider-Man has not been a crusader for clean nuclear waste disposal, even though his transformation occurred during a flawed demonstration of the same. However, and tangentially, Spider-Man’s effort has been to thwart the efforts of sociopathic scientists and inventors, specifically the Green Goblin and later, Dr. Octopus and many others, from their efforts to use technology for evil, greed, or destructive purposes that could span many generations and may permanently change earth’s biome. The technological explosion that began during World War II did not peak in the 1960s but began to increase in breadth and depth. Rather than just countries deploying engines of destruction, as was the case during WW II and the Cold War, today individual scientists working from a rogue lab can produce genetically engineered organisms and nanobots that could wreak havoc on the world. This is the kind of office for which God could have prepared Spider-Man, to render impotent these ethically challenged scientists. Therefore, it is not implausible to suggest, along with Aquinas, that somehow God has prepared Peter Parker and his transformation into Spider-Man for a mission to rid the earth of badly conceived technological wizardry and its consequence.

Parker, however, was no Virgin Mary. Rather, he came to understand his obligations slowly. He at first was arrogant, using his superpowers for show on television. Given an opportunity to restrain a robber at a warehouse, he does nothing and claims it to be the responsibility of the warehouse security guard. This same robber later killed his Uncle Ben. Even after he realizes his own error, he persists with his vaudevillian efforts to turn his powers into profit. He then associates with persons who he finds out later are criminals. Finally, he begins to turn himself around, first by taking on small-time criminals, and then expanding his responsibility to bigger demons like the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus. Parker emerges from immaturity having left some wreckage behind, a flawed superhero indeed. God is not above testing his human creations. He found Adam and Eve lacking and banished them from Eden. He tested, but found Abraham and Job’s faith to be strong and made Abraham the patriarch of humanity. God threw a lot at Parker: too much power for his maturity, suffering and loss with the death of his uncle, a troubled love life, and a shifting press who adore Spider-Man one minute, and call him out for his transgressions the next. Perhaps God had become more patient than in the days when all it took was a bite into a certain fruit to send him into punishment mode. Which leads us into the next question that is just as relevant to Parker as to ourselves. Specifically, just what is our relationship to God? Who, ultimately, serves who?

We have long been asked to believe in certain things for which we can and probably will not ever have first-hand or empirical knowledge. God is one of these things for which we are asked to trust in faith to believe. Immanuel Kant coined the neologism ontotheology to, as he explains, differentiate that which we can logically deduce without experience from that which we can deduce from experience:

Transcendental theology either thinks that the existence of an original being is to be derived from an experience in general (without more closely determining anything about the world to which this experience belongs), and is called cosmotheology; or it believes that it can cognize that existence through mere concepts, without the aid of even the least experience, and is called ontotheology.[23]

If no human has ever seen God, then how could we ever describe God in phenomenological or experiential terms? We cannot. However, the question that ontotheology poses for critique is the notion that somehow, we created God for our personal use. Merold Westphal’s critique of ontotheology can inform us in our quest to find answers for Parker and Moon’s transformation:

It is also a critique, by extension, not of theistic discourses as such, but of those that have sold their soul to philosophy’s project of rendering the whole of reality intelligible to human understanding. Their fault does not consist in affirming that there is a Highest Being who is the clue to the meaning of the whole of being. It consists in the chutzpa of permitting this God to enter the scene only in the service of their project, human mastery of the real.[24]

 God as a tool of humanity? Escape from this quagmire requires what Jean Luc Marion Called God Without Being:

God Gives Himself to be known insofar as He gives Himself—according to the horizon of the gift itself. The gift constitutes at once the mode and the body of his revelation. In the end the gift gives only itself, but in the way that this is absolutely everything.[25]

 I suggest that the ‘absolutely everything’ that constitutes the mode and the body of God’s revelation to humanity begins in the genius of genetics: the genius of mutation, evolution, epigenetics, and the capability of parents to epigenetically prepare children for the exigencies of the world. Keeping with Ockham’s Razor and Marion’s gift, God developed epigenetics to serve a purpose for life in general. Epigenetics sits between the permanence of mutation and the momentariness of behavior, providing intermediate temporal changes to our genes to serve specific purposes that we are only beginning to understand. Life could not have asked for greater gifts than these.

Augustine maintained that evil and the seeds for Adam and Eve to disobey God were present in Eden. Concupiscence precipitated the fall, and the fallen are destined to produce generations of children endowed with original sin. Baptism serves as an article of faith, and this faith produces metaphysical change that absolves the original sin. What vexes the scientist is that while baptism looks like it produces an epigenetic change, it lacks the stress that is associated with many epigenetic changes. However, we are just beginning to discover that there are many epigenetic processes that require different triggers. We cannot rule out the physical aspect of baptism producing epigenetic changes.

What nags in the mind is that God is infallible and omniscient—all seeing. If God were also omnipotent there would be no free will. John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), a Catholic scholar, said that there must be some free will. Duns Scotus explained that, “God has immutable knowledge of our contingent future.”[26] When God installed Adam and Eve in Eden, God knew that one possibility was that they would fall to concupiscence and another that they would cherish Eden so much they would continue to obey God’s commands. The former occurred, producing such stress it could have activated an original sin gene. Parker and Moon did not require the absolving of original sin nor the mitigation of concupiscence. However, as this study suggests, they may have been prepared by God for the office they would assume. They required two things to metamorphose. First, spider genes in the human chromosome that can be epigenetically turned on to produce and deploy dragline silk. However, a normal spider bite would not have changed either Parker or Moon. It is possible that the irradiation produced stressors that epigenetically, or otherwise, changed the spider’s venom to where it could activate the human vestigial dragline silk spinning genes. Radiation alone can break down molecules that can recombine into different substances. Second, Ezekiel Simms gives us the insight we need to conclude that there was an intervention by God (perhaps in the guise of spider totems) to transform the spider venom into something that would epigenetically activate the spider genes in Parker and Moon. God did not need to perform an elaborate transcendental process. God just needed to make sure that the experiment on safe storage of nuclear waste would go wrong, which God knew would alter the spider venom to epigenetically change Parker and Moon’s genes. Whether God intervened through the spider totems, making the spider target Parker and Moon as Simms suggests, is uncertain. However this may have occurred, we can speculate that Parker and Moon may have been prepared ontologically to serve an office for God. That office is to not only ontotheologically serve humanity, but also life itself by preventing the wholesale transmogrification of the world by unscrupulous scientists working alone or in rogue operation.

Therefore, to answer the question proposed by the title of this paper, both science and theology can be used to fill in the gaps in the spidery literature to explain how Parker and Moon metamorphosed into Spider-Man and Silk. We need the science of genetics to propose the re-activation of spider silk spinning dormant genes, and epigenetics to propose their stressful reactivation through the spider’s venom. Second, the spider totems that rule at the nexus of the multiverse offer us insight into possible metaphysical reasons for why Parker and Moon were transformed—to serve someone—if not the spider totems, then the God who created them.

Perhaps you remain skeptical. Express your incredulity! It is the right thing to do. When Ludwig Wittgenstein finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he said:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.[27]

Wittgenstein maintained that there are things that defy explanation and therefore any explanation we might try to offer is senseless. It is therefore appropriate that you be skeptical of this paper’s effort to explain the transformation of Peter Parker into Spider-Man using both epigenetic and theological means. It is the task of those who read this to surmount these propositions, which is the way of the world of both science and theology, neither of which is a static discourse.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Perrysburg Ohio: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1265-1274.

Augustine. The Complete Works of Augustine. Translated by Marcus Dodds. Edited by Philip Schaff. Public Domain, Kindle Edition, 2011.

Bernal, Autumn J., and Randy L. Jirtle. “Epigenomic Disruption: The Effects of Early Developmental Exposures.” Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical and Molecular Teratology 88, no. 10 (2010): 938-44. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdra.20685.

Bird, Adrian. “Perceptions of Epigenetics.” Nature 477, no. 24 (2007): 396-98.

Costa, Dora L., Noelle Yetter, and Heather DeSomer. “Intergenerational Transmission of Paternal Trauma among Us Civil War Ex-Pows.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 44 (2018): 11215-20. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1803630115.

Couenhoven, Jesse. “St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin.” Augustine Studies 36, no. 2 (2005): 359-96.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: P. F. Collier and Sons, 1909

Fransquet, Peter D., Jo Wrigglesworth, Robyn L. Woods, Michael E. Ernst, and Joanne Ryan. “The Epigenetic Clock as a Predictor of Disease and Mortality Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” journal article. Clinical Epigenetics 11, no. 1 (April 11 2019): 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13148-019-0656-7.

Heard, Edith, and Robert A. Martienssen. “Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Myths and Mechanisms.” Cell 157 (2014): 95-109. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2014.02.045.

Janusek, Linda Witek, Dina Tell, and Herbert L. Mathews. “Epigenetic Perpetuation of the Impact of Early Life Stress on Behavior.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 28 (2019/08/01/ 2019): 1-7. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.004.

Kaati, G., L. O. Bygren, and S. Edvinsson. “Cardiovascular and Diabetes Mortality Determined by Nutrition During Parents’ and Grandparents’ Slow Growth Period.” European Journal of Human Genetics 10, no. 11 (2002/11/01 2002): 682-88. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejhg.5200859.

Kaati, Gunnar, Lars O Bygren, and Soren Edvinsson. “Cardiovascular and Diabetes Mortality Determined by Nutrition During Parents’ and Grandparents’ Slow Growth Period.” European journal of human genetics 10, no. 11 (2002): 682.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. Boston, New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2007.

Ketcham, Christopher. “Towards a Biological Explanation of Sin in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’S” a Canticle for Leibowitz”.” Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy 3 (2020): 1-25.

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Longo, Dan L., and Andrew P. Feinberg. “The Key Role of Epigenetics in Human Disease Prevention and Mitigation.” The New England Journal of Medicine 378, no. 14 (2018): 1323-34.

Marion, Jean-Luc. God without Being: Hors-Texte. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Miryeganeh, Matin, and Hidetoshi Saze. “Epigenetic Inheritance and Plant Evolution.” Population Ecology, no. Special Feature: Review (2019): 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1002/1438-390X.12018.

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Scotus, John Duns. Contingency and Freedom: John Duns Scotus Lectura I 39. Translated by A. Voss; H. Veldhuis; A. H. Looman-Graaskamp; R. Dekker Jaczn, N. W. Dem Bpl. Vol. 42 Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

Slaughter, Ana, Xavier Daniel, Victor Flors, Estrella Luna, Barbara Hohn, and Brigitte Mauch-Mani. “Descendants of Primed Arabidopsis Plants Exhibit Resistance to Biotic Stress.” Plant Physiology 158, no. 2 (2012): 835-43.

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Straczynski, J. Michael. A Spider’s Tale. The Amazing Spider Man. Edited by Joe Quesada. Vol. 2 #48, New York: Marvel Comics, 2003.

———. “Transformations, Literal & Otherwise.“. In The Amazing Spider Man Volume 2 # 30, edited by Axel Alonso. New York: Marvel Comics, 2001.

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Veenendaal, M. V. E., R. C. Painter, S. R. de Rooij, P. M. M. Bossuyt, J. A. M. van der Post, P. D. Gluckman, M. A. Hanson, and T. J. Roseboom. “Transgenerational Effects of Prenatal Exposure to the 1944–45 Dutch Famine.” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 120, no. 5 (2013/04/01 2013): 548-54. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-0528.12136.

Westphal, Merold. “Overcoming onto-Theology.“. In Overcoming onto-Theology. Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith, 1-28: Fordham University, 2001.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Translated by C.K. Ogden. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co. Ltd., 1922.

Xu, Hong-Tao, Bao-Liang Fan, Shu-Yang Yu, Yin-Hua Huang, Zhi-Hui Zhao, Zheng-Xing Lian, Yun-Ping Dai, et al. “Construct Synthetic Gene Encoding Artificial Spider Dragline Silk Protein and Its Expression in Milk of Transgenic Mice.” Animal Biotechnology 18, no. 1 (2007): 1-12.


[1] Stan Lee, Spider Man, ed. Stan Lee, Amazing Fantasy 15, (New York: Marvel Comics, August 1962).

[2] Goddess Series beginning with: Jim Starlin, Infinity Crusade, ed. Tom DeFalco, vol. 1 #1 (New York: Marvel Comics, 1993).

[3] Jose Molina, Amazing Grace Part 6: Lead Me home, ed. Axel Alonso, vol. 4 #1.6, Amazing Spider Man, (New York: Marvel Comics, 2016).

[4] J. Michael Straczynski, “Transformations, Literal & Otherwise,” in The Amazing Spider Man Volume 2 # 30, ed. Axel Alonso (New York: Marvel Comics, 2001).

[5] J. Michael Straczynski, A Spider’s Tale, ed. Joe Quesada, vol. 2 #48, The Amazing Spider Man, (New York: Marvel Comics, 2003).

[6] Straczynski, A Spider’s Tale, 2 #48. In a series of comics, Parker finds out that he has totemic spider genes (Man 2 #18 and #20) and in the Spider Island Series of comics (beginning with Amazing Spider-Man: Infested Vol 1 #1), these are used to build serums to create spider monsters that wreak havoc on the earth.

[7] See: Paul Vincent and Panaccio Spade, Claude, “William of Ockham,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2011 ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University, 2011), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/ockham/.

[8] See: Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: P. F. Collier and Sons, 1909 ), 38.

[9] Hong-Tao Xu et al., “Construct Synthetic Gene Encoding Artificial Spider Dragline Silk Protein and its Expression in Milk of Transgenic Mice,” Animal Biotechnology 18, no. 1 (2007)”.

[10] See: C. Lin, “Blue light receptors and signal transduction,” 10.1105/tpc.000646, Plant Cell 14 Suppl, no. suppl 1 (2002): S207”.

[11] Adrian Bird offers a technical definition of epigenetics, “[t]he structural adaptation of chromosomal regions so as to register, signal or perpetuate altered activity states…An implicit feature of this proposed definition is that it portrays epigenetic marks as responsive, not proactive. In other words, epigenetic systems of this kind would not, under normal circumstances, initiate a change of state at a particular locus but would register a change already imposed by other events” Adrian Bird, “Perceptions of Epigenetics,” Nature 477, no. 24 (2007): 398”.

[12] See: Ana Slaughter et al., “Descendants of Primed Arabidopsis Plants Exhibit Resistance to Biotic Stress,” Plant Physiology 158, no. 2 (2012)”; Matin Miryeganeh and Hidetoshi Saze, “Epigenetic Inheritance And Plant Evolution,” Population Ecology, no. Special Feature: Review (2019)”.

[13] These are just a few of the recent studies that show epigenetic changes as the result of pre-natal and post-natal actions of parents and offspring: Dan L. Longo and Andrew P. Feinberg, “The Key Role of Epigenetics in Human Disease Prevention and Mitigation,” The New England Journal of Medicine 378, no. 14 (2018)”; Edith Heard and Robert A. Martienssen, “Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Myths and Mechanisms,” Cell 157 (2014)”; Dora L. Costa, Noelle Yetter, and Heather DeSomer, “Intergenerational Transmission Of Paternal Trauma Among US Civil War ex-POWs,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 44 (2018)”; Linda Witek Janusek, Dina Tell, and Herbert L. Mathews, “Epigenetic Perpetuation Of The Impact Of Early Life Stress On Behavior,” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 28 (2019/08/01/ 2019)”; Laura Ramo-Fernández et al., “The Effects Of Childhood Maltreatment On Epigenetic Regulation Of Stress-Response Associated Genes: An Intergenerational Approach,” Scientific Reports 9, no. 1 (2019/04/18 2019)”; M. V. E. Veenendaal et al., “Transgenerational Effects Of Prenatal Exposure To The 1944–45 Dutch Famine,” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 120, no. 5 (2013/04/01 2013)”; G. Kaati, L. O. Bygren, and S. Edvinsson, “Cardiovascular And Diabetes Mortality Determined By Nutrition During Parents’ And Grandparents’ Slow Growth Period,” European Journal of Human Genetics 10, no. 11 (2002/11/01 2002)”; Gunnar Kaati, Lars O Bygren, and Soren Edvinsson, “Cardiovascular And Diabetes Mortality Determined By Nutrition During Parents’ And Grandparents’ Slow Growth Period,” European journal of human genetics 10, no. 11 (2002)”; Autumn J. Bernal and Randy L. Jirtle, “Epigenomic Disruption: The Effects Of Early Developmental Exposures,” Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical and Molecular Teratology 88, no. 10 (2010)”; Peter D. Fransquet et al., “The Epigenetic Clock As A Predictor Of Disease And Mortality Risk: A Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis,” journal article, Clinical Epigenetics 11, no. 1 (April 11 2019)”.

[14] Costa, Yetter, and DeSomer, “Intergenerational Transmission Of Paternal Trauma Among US Civil War ex-POWs.”

[15] Christopher Ketcham first considered the question of original sin, epigenetics, and the Blessed Mary in association with the immaculate emergence of Rachel in A Canticle for Leibowitz: Christopher Ketcham, “Towards a Biological Explanation of Sin in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s” A Canticle for Leibowitz”,” Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy 3 (2020): 13-15”.

[16] “[t]he doctrine of original sin cannot be traced back beyond Augustine” Jesse Couenhoven, “St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin,” Augustine Studies 36, no. 2 (2005): 359”.

[17] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Perrysburg Ohio: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1265-1274).Part III, Question 27, Of the Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin, Second Article, Objection 2

[18] Aquinas, Summa Theologica.Part III, Question 27, Of The Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin, Fourth Article, Answer 2.3, Emphasis in original.

[19] Augustine, The Complete Works of Augustine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dodds (Public Domain, Kindle Edition, 2011).Summa Theologica, Book XII, Chapter 22.

[20] Couenhoven, “St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin,” 373.

[21] Augustine, The Complete Works of Augustine.City of God, Book XIV, Chapter 11.

[22] Luke 19:10 “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.

God.” Various, King James Bible with VerseSearch, Red Letter Edition, Kindle Edition (Seattle, Wa.: Amazon, 2019).

[23] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (Boston, New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2007), 584 A 632 B 660 Emphasis in original.

[24] Merold Westphal, “Overcoming Onto-theology,” in Overcoming Onto-Theology, Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (Fordham University, 2001), 4, .emphasis in original.

[25] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-texte (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1995), xxvi.

[26] John Duns Scotus, Contingency and Freedom: John Duns Scotus Lectura I 39, trans. A. Voss; H. Veldhuis; A. H. Looman-Graaskamp; R. Dekker Jaczn, N. W. Dem Bpl, vol. 42 (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994).

[27] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co. Ltd., 1922), 6.54, .Ogden translation.

Flowers and Honeybees: A Study of Morality in Nature

New book from Brill | Rodopi. available at https://brill.com/view/title/57014

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.

The Myth of the Present

Abstract

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.

Suffering

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.

Appraisals

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.

Emotion

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.

Discussion

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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Endnotes


[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. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09697250020034706

[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). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/twotruths-india/

[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. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930600616080

[36] “Appraisals Are Direct, Immediate, Intuitive, and Unwitting … and Some Are Reflective …,” 954. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930600616080

[37] “Appraisals Are Direct, Immediate, Intuitive, and Unwitting … and Some Are Reflective …,” 955. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930600616080

[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). https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4612-0355-1_9; 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). http://www.jstor.org/stable/187179; 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). http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/106/3/623.abstract; 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). http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/114/4/1731.abstract; Benjamin Libet, “How Does Conscious Experience Arise? The Neural Time Factor,” Brain research bulletin 50, no. 5 (1999). http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-15843-005; “Time Factors in Conscious Responses: Reply to Gilberto Gomes,” Consciousness and Cognition 9, no. 1-12 (2000). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810099904087; “The Timing of Mental Events: Libet’s Experimental Findings and Their Implications,” Consciousness and Cognition 11, no. 2 (2002). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810002905684; Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness (Harvard Univ Pr, 2004); “Do We Have Free Will,” Conscious will and responsibility  (2011). http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/1999/00000006/F0020008/966; 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. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810099904087

[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. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/1999/00000006/F0020008/966

[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. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-11094-001.

[42] John F Kihlstrom, “Time to Lay the Libet Experiment to Rest: Commentary on Papanicolaou (2017),” ibid.: 326. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-39242-002

[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. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-11094-001” 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. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-39242-002.

[44] D.J. Chalmers, “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995): 201. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/1995/00000002/00000003/653

[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. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712

[48] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 7. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712

[49] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 9. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712

[50] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 9. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712

[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). http://www.jstor.org/stable/3558092; 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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-011-1215-1

[53] Martin Giurfa, “Cognition with Few Neurons: Higher-Order Learning in Insects,” Trends in neurosciences 36, no. 5 (2013): 285. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223613000039

[54] Barrett, “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 11. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712

[55] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 12. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712

[56] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: An Active Inference Account of Interoception and Categorization,” 13. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712

[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

Pies

Custards

Creams

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

Note[1]

Bread is scarce

But a new feast daily

At the palace of the prince

While the dugs of other mothers

Wither

“The dead fare better”

Cry the unfed, unwashed

Silk and festival

Fete and soirée

Obsequious

Cantankerous

“Your grace”

“We beseech thee”

For sum inconsequential

A triviality

When those outside the gate

Huddle

By fetid sewers

Unnourished souls

Forgotten lives

Shuffle

Scurry

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

From…

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:

Pozzo,

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?

What?

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.

 

Nonsense.

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?

 

Why?

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.

Where?

 

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?

 

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.

 

Ah.

Or, perhaps it awaits another.

 

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.

References

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

Introduction

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.

Personality

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.

Humans

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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/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. https://doi.org/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. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-00808-004

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. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00530.x/full

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. http://ezproxy.uhd.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=79931229&site=ehost-live

Studios, C.). Star Trek Borg  (2017), Retrieved 11/21/17, from http://www.startrek.com/database_article/borg

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. https://doi.org/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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-011-1215-1

 

Care In Any Sense

Abstract

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’.

Being

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.

References

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: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069089/ 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!

 References

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 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1200/1200-h/1200-h.htm

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.