Charles Foster: Being a Human Adventures in Forty Thousand Years of Consciousness (2022)
We quickly lose not only the ability to be free but also the desire to be free. That desire has been almost completely extinguished today. Given a choice between air-conditioned slavery with a regular income and happy, penniless anarchy in a shed looking at the mountains, almost all of us, without hesitation, opt for the slavery. At some level we know it’s a bad choice, and we hate being reminded of the choice. Cain knows not only that he’s less happy than Abel, but also that Abel is his superior. When Abel, leading his wolf on a string, dances across Cain’s path as Cain’s on the way to the office, Cain senses Abel’s natural aristocracy and it makes him mad. And so Cain tries to destroy Abel, herding him and his family into concentration camps, requiring him to have an ID card and a passport to stop the wandering that Cain so fears and envies, and firing tear gas at him at Occupy demonstrations.
The earliest writing was Sumerian. It was pictographic, and still nodded deferentially to the world outside human heads, but soon the pictures were ousted by the lines (yes, lines again) of Sumerian cuneiform – the aggressive, rapacious stabs of a man-made, man-held stylus into natural clay, with which Mesopotamia remade the world in its own image. Purely oral cultures had demanded relationship – between the teller and the hearer and the teller and the source. To gather a story, an oral storyteller has to go out into the wilds of experience, tune their ear to the tones in which the wild, if it is in the mood, chooses to render the story, ask the source’s permission to pluck the story, pledge not to use it in a way contrary to the source’s intention, bow as they walk backwards out of the wild, as the Hasidim walk backwards from the Western Wall in Jerusalem so as not to slight the presence that sits there, tell the story faithfully around fires and bind listeners, on the pain of societal death, to keep telling the story.
When there’s writing, it’s different: someone sits in a room making eternal, binding lines from the thoughts in their head – lines that derive from no authority other than the head, lines constraining the future action and orientation of others just as surely as the line of a fence stops sheep from grazing where they want. To inscribe a list of debts or to detail a treaty is to tell a story just as much as to relate how that rock is the claw of a giant toad, or how your father gathered talismanic leaves, smoked a foul pipe and carried on leaving a vapour trail of coal tar soap long after his body was burned. There was another important and catastrophic stage in the creeping hegemony of written language. It did not happen in the Neolithic, but its seeds were sown there. It was the advent of alphabetic – phonetic – writing. Pictographs nodded to the non-human world, relying on a sketch of a tree or an ox to convey meaning. Phonetic writing severed language’s connection with and dependence on the natural world, and humans for the first time began to believe that language was a uniquely human possession. Until then – and throughout the Neolithic, despite all the charges I have levelled against it – the non-human world spoke and listened, though its accents were increasingly hard for humans to hear, and its stories increasingly disregarded, patronised and supplanted. Not until the alphabet was it presumed that the natural world was dumb.
The current state of consciousness studies is easily summarised. No one has the faintest idea about the point, nature or location of consciousness. ‘Give us time,’ plead the biologists. No, sorry. Time’s up. You’ve had 40,000 years or so. Not only have you made no progress, but there is nothing whatever to suggest that, with your dogmatic materialist view of the world, you could, given more time, make any progress, and a great deal to suggest that you couldn’t.
On the way from the wood to the train I snap a branch, and reflexively say ‘Sorry, forgive me,’ and find and eat an old blackberry and instinctively say ‘Thank you’. I’ve made some progress. Gratitude is the main defining characteristic of hunter–gatherer communities. It’s a gratitude rather different from the gratitude of the harvest festival.
All change – all change – has always and can only ever come from the edges. Nothing of any significance has ever come from the centre – from parliaments, from Cabinets, from boardrooms, from think-tanks with the ear of ministers. Evolution needs edges. Turn the world into a monoculture and you’ll have shorter lengths of edge, and thus less change, and thus less evolution. That’s bad news. Suppose that behavioural modernity began 40,000 years ago, that the Neolithic began 10,000 years ago and that we became modern, in the sense we now are, 1,000 years ago. (As we’ll see, I argue later in this book that this last transition was rather more recent than that.) Assume that each generation is twenty-five years. There have then been 1,600 behaviourally modern generations, 1,200 (75 per cent) of them upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic. There have been forty modern generations: that’s 2½ per cent of the total human generations. If a human life time is seventy years, 75 per cent of a human life time is about fifty-three. Most of our development as individuals is done by the age of fifty-three. And most of our development as humans was done by the end of the upper Palaeolithic. We’re Pleistocene people.
If we start the story when anatomically modern Homo sapiens first appeared, 200,000 years ago, 95 per cent of our history has been as hunter–gatherers: as edge-creatures and hence, excitingly, as changing and change-bringing creatures. Now most of us are in the centre (of cities, of movements, of presumptions) and so have stopped changing either ourselves or the world in the way that the early human generations did. We think that we’re in a fast-changing world. Well, perhaps, but humans aren’t changing in the way that the upper Palaeolithic changed us. What we think of now as change is angst and dissolution. The changes on our watch are not the multiplication and refinement of nuance or the deepening of understanding. They are acts of vandalism: the spoliation of things, places and modes of being that are ontologically superior to us.
We look always to summer, thinking of winter as simply to be endured, but winter is when our sustaining fables sprout; it is when humans huddle together, making the relationships (and hence the differences) between them more obvious. Relationship and individuation both flourish in the dark. And the dark is more other – full of teeth and hair. It’s commonplace these days in certain circles to say that we’re part of the natural world. That’s wholly true and wholly untrue. Certainly when spring comes you can think that you’re simply part of the wood. But no one thinks they’re part of a wood that snarls. It was from the tension between the whole truth that we’re part of the natural world and the whole truth that we are not that human consciousness erupted, flowed out into the ice fields and solidified into the stuff from which we’re now made. I suppose there might be some comfort in these thoughts when we’re reflecting on the fact that one day we will go back into the dark and cold. Or perhaps not.
I’m beginning to think that no dramatic out-of-body experience is needed for the kindling of consciousness. Lots of staring into a fire will do instead. A fire turns literal creatures into symbolisers: it makes everyone a metaphorical and storytelling animal. A fire creates, and shows how the creator also destroys. It confounds the boundaries of matter. It makes gas from fluids and from solids. It eats wood, sleeps and is woken by human breath. It makes a nonsense of space. Though it can travel (as Tom and X carry it) as a tiny dark spark inside a black fungus ball, it can fill a forest. It births metaphors. And there’s no political philosophy that can’t be deduced from staring into a fire. Logs won’t catch without small twigs. Small twigs are both the death and the apotheosis of logs.
To enter a woman, say the shamans, is to enter another world, and the unsubtle male body doesn’t distinguish neatly between entering a vagina and occupying the body of a wildebeest.
Judaism was, and remains, the most suspicious of Nature. It feared any confusion between Creator and the created, and always saw the observation of boundaries as central to its mission. The boundaries, it claimed, were established at the Creation. We have seen them already: light/day, land creatures/ sea creatures, clean/unclean and so on. It didn’t help that – although many of the great festivals of Judaism are arranged around the agricultural year, and at Sukkot Jews are enjoined to live outdoors in transient shelters through which they can see the stars, and so remember their origin as wanderers – rabbinic Judaism was an essentially urban industry. Part of Israel’s big break from its Talmudic past was the birth of a new race of outdoor Jews – Jews who tended orange groves and hiked and fought in the desert. But for many of the world’s Jews, old habits die hard. The British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson observes of a Jewish protagonist in one of his novels that ‘In the highly improbable event of his being asked to nominate the one most un-Jewish thing he could think of [he] would have been hard pressed to decide between Nature [ … ] and football.’
The Unquiet Grave (Cyril Connolly, 1944)
Impression of Jesus Christ after re-reading the Gospels: He thought he was the son of God, he disliked his parents, was a prig, a high-spirited and serious young man (where was he, what was he doing, between the ages of twelve and twenty-nine?) He felt an especial hatred for the Pharisees, the family, his hometown and adultery, and he may have been illegitimate; he had a macabre sense of humour; was overwhelmingly grateful to those who believed in him (‘Thou art Peter’), and extremely close to his elder cousin John, but though moulding himself on him, he was less ascetic.
He was fond of wine and very partial to grapes and figs. More civilized than his cousin, he was yet deeply affected by his end, which warned him of what would be his own if he persisted. The death of John and the revelation of Messiahship at Cæsarea Philippi completely changed him: impatient, ironical and short-tempered, he was a true faith-healer, inspired by his sublime belief in himself and tragically betrayed by it.
I can’t believe in his divinity, yet it is impossible not to admire his greatness, his majesty, his fatalistic intuition and that mixture of practical wisdom with sublime vision which he believed might save our world. His faith carried him through to the end, then wavered.
Was there a secret understanding with John? John the Baptist, I feel, holds many clues.
About the miracles I suspend judgement. But not about the Sermon on the Mount. Those loving dazzling teasing-tender promises are like a lifting of the human horror, the bursting of a great dam. How different he is from Buddha!
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Let the rains descend. Let the floods come, and all winds blow. Let them beat upon your house, upon your head, until you are no more.
And when thou prayest, do this in secret. When thou hast shut thy door, write to the Inner Father, the Inner Reader, who knows and loves thee as you see and would love others. And that shall by thy reward.”
Pascal’s ‘moi’ is Freud’s ‘Id’. Thus Pascal writes, ‘Le moi est haïssable . . . le moi a deux qualités: il est injuste en soi, en ce qu’il se fait centre de tout; il est incommode aux autres, en ce qu’il les veut asservir: car chaque moi est l’ennemi et voudrait être le tyran de tous les autres’. (In a word, the self has two qualities. It is unjust in itself in that it makes itself the center of everything; it is inconvenient to others in that it wants to enslave them, for each self is the enemy and would like to be the tyrant of all the others.)
The mystery of drugs: How did savages all over the world, in every climate, discover in frozen tundras or remote jungles the one plant, indistinguishable from so many others of the same species, which could, by a most elaborate process, bring them fantasies, intoxication, and freedom from care? How unless by help from the plants themselves? Opium-smokers in the East become surrounded by cats, dogs, birds and even spiders, who are attracted by the smell. The craving for the drug proceeds from the brain-cells which revolt and overrule the will. The Siberian tribes who eat Agaric say, ‘The Agaric orders me to do this or that’—the Hashish chewers experience a like sensation. Horses and cattle which become ‘indigo eaters’ continue to gorge till they drop dead. Though one of the rarest and most obscure drugs, Peotl gave its name to a range of uninhabited mountains where it is found. The Greeks and Romans looked on alcohol and opium as lovely twin reconcilers to living and dying presented to man by Dionysus and Morpheus,—God-given because of their extraordinary sympathy to us and because of the mystery attending their discovery. If man be part of nature, then his parasites may well understand him better than he knows.
Everything is a dangerous drug to me except reality, which is unendurable. Happiness is in the imagination. What we perform is always inferior to what we imagine; yet day-dreaming brings guilt; there is no happiness except through freedom from Angst and only creative work, communion with nature and helping others are Anxiety-free.
Art which is directly produced for the Community can never have the same withdrawn quality as that which is made out of the artist’s solitude. For this possesses the integrity and bleak exhilaration that are to be gained only from the absence of an audience and from communion with the primal sources of unconscious life. One cannot serve both beauty and power: ‘Le pouvoir est essentiellement stupide.’ A public figure can never be an artist and no artist should ever become one unless, his work being done, he should choose to retire into public life.
Intense emotion, a mixture of relief and despair, at reading Sainte-Beuve’s notebook Mes Poisons, and discovering ‘This is me.’ This Elegiac, as he styled himself, who quotes my favourite lines of Latin poetry and who sums up happiness as reading Tibullus in the country ‘avec une femme qu’on aime,’ who calls himself ‘le dernier des délicats,’ who loved, suffered and was disillusioned, and yet who recognized love as the true source of happiness, but who was skeptical of everyone and everything
In the jungles of South America grows a trumpet flower fourteen inches deep, and there too is found a moth with a proboscis of the same length, the one creature able to penetrate to the honey and so ensure the plant’s fertilization. I, Palinurus, am such an orchid, growing daily more untempting as I await the Visitor who never comes.
A mistake which is commonly made about neurotics is to suppose that they are interesting. It is not interesting to be always unhappy, engrossed with oneself, malignant or ungrateful, and never quite in touch with reality. Neurotics are heartless: as Baudelaire wrote ‘tout homme qui n’accepte pas les conditions de la vie vend son âme.’
Like the glow-worm; dowdy, minute, passive, yet full of mystery to the poet and erotic significance to its fellows; so everything and everybody eternally radiate a dim light for those who care to seek.
The strawberry hidden under the last leaf cries, ‘Pick me’; the forgotten book, in the forgotten bookshop, screams to be discovered. The old house hidden in the hollow agitates itself violently at the approach of its pre-destined admirer. Dead authors cry ‘Read me’; dead friends say ‘Remember me’; dead ancestors whisper, ‘Unearth me’; dead places, ‘Revisit me’; and sympathetic spirits, living and dead, are continually trying to enter into communion. Physical or intellectual attraction between two people is a constant communication. Underneath the rational and voluntary world lies the involuntary, impulsive, integrated world, the world of Relation in which everything is one; where sympathy and antipathy are engrossed in their selective tug-of-war.
‘The self-torments of melancholiacs, which are without doubt pleasurable, signify a gratification of sadistic tendencies and of hate, both of which relate to an object and in this way have both been turned round upon the self. In the end the sufferers usually succeed in taking revenge, by the circuitous path of self-punishment, on the original object who occasioned the injury and who is usually to be found in their near neighbourhood. No neurotic harbours thoughts of suicide which are not murderous impulses against others redirected upon himself.’—FREUD.
When we decide to write, we should first consider the ingredients involved. Proportions of heart and head, of judgement and imagination. ‘A peach of an essay’, ‘a melon of a poem’, ‘a quince of a book’,—we must let ourselves be impregnated by an archetypal form. Then we should treat the personality with the right mixture till the glaze (style) is suitable,—‘for my philosophical novel with a milligramme of nostalgia, I am taking ephedrine twice a week, opium once—with a little mescaline to loosen up my imagery and a massage on the nape of the neck to stimulate the thalamus after the monthly orgy. I am writing two-thirds standing up in the early morning, one-third in the afternoon lying down. My supervisor is a Jungian.’
O sacred solitary empty mornings, tranquil meditation—fruit of book-case and clock-tick, of note-book and armchair; golden and rewarding silence, influence of sun-dappled plane-trees, far-off noises of birds and horses, possession beyond price of a few cubic feet of air and an hour of leisure! This vacuum of peace is the state from which art should proceed, for art is made by the alone for the alone, and now this cerulean atmosphere, which we should all be able to take for granted, has become an unattainable end. The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication: that is why so many bad artists are unable to give it up.
Let us not forget Whoopee the lemur. Gentle and fearless, he passed four leafy years in the South of France. He would chase large dogs, advancing backwards and glaring through his hind legs, then jump chittering at them and pull their tails. He died through eating a poisoned fig laid down for rats. The children who saw him take the fruit tried to coax it from him, but he ran up a tree with it. There they watched him eat and die.
The French soldier said of the Chleuhs in Morocco, ‘Je les aime et je les tue’. So it is with the lemurs, black and grey bundles of vitality, eocene ancestors from whom we are all descended, whose sun-greeting call some hold to be the origin of the word ‘Ra’ and thus of human language,—we have treated these kings in exile as we used Maoris and Marquesas islanders or the whistling Guanches of Teneriffe,—all those golden island-races, famous for beauty, whom Europe took to its shabby heart to exploit and ruin. To have set foot in Lemuria, writes Cyril Connolly, is to have been close to the mysterious sources of existence, to have known what it is to live wholly in the present, to soar through the green world four yards above the ground, to experience sun, warmth, love and pleasure as intolerably as we glimpse them in a waking dream, and to have heard that heart-rendering cry of the lonely or abandoned which goes back to our primaeval dawn. Wild ghost faces from a lost continent who soon will be extinct.
‘Your time is short, watery one. What do you believe?’ ‘I believe in two-faced truth, in the Either, the Or and the Holy Both. I believe that if a statement is true then its opposite must be true. (Aristotle: ‘The knowledge of opposites is one.’) I believe…[to write]
Un Chien Andalou reminds us of the grandeur of conflict inherent in romantic love, the truth that the heart is made to be broken, and after it has mended, to be broken again. For romantic love, the supreme intoxication of which we are capable, is more than an intensifying of life; it is a defiance of it and belongs to those evasions of reality through excessive stimulus which Spinoza called ‘titivations’. By the law of diminishing returns our desperate century forfeits the chance of being happy and, because it finds happiness insipid, our world is regressing to chaos. Why? Because, as in the days of the Delphic Oracle, happiness consists in temperance and self-knowledge, and these are now beyond the reach of ordinary people who, owing to the pursuit of violent sensation, can no longer distinguish between pleasure and pain.
Throughout history, humanity has been driven by origin myths – stories that imbue our existence with meaning and purpose. SETI is one of modernity’s origin myth. Our search for extraterrestrial intelligence is akin to a profile on a dating app. Every dating profile has the narcissistic intent of seeking another who is also quite predominantly your own ego ideal, how you would like to be seen and admired, even loved.
Beyond that, we seek our creators. Not just our parents, but the distant gods who engineered those OG Homo sapiens, as well as the current crop.
But the cold, hard truth is that, after 70 years of searching, we have no evidence that alien civilizations exist, let alone that they would communicate using our parochial constructs of maths and logic. What does mathematics even mean to a jellyfish-like creature floating in the methane seas of GJ 1214b? Nothing. Yet like all myths before this one, SETI reveals more about human psychology and delusion than cosmic reality. Our desire to find alien intelligence reflects our loneliness, as well as a profound need for transcendence, springing from another yearning, that for meaning and purpose – a craving that inspires art as well as all the wars and squabbles we’ve ever participated in.
SETI is really just another myth that human civilization has created to feel less alone in the vast, harsh universe. The silent gulf of space offers no validation of our concerns. The cosmos is utterly indifferent to our hopes and fears. Why not seek meaning through embodied human relationships, as opposed to mathematical messages from the stars or a social media app, we chide ourselves? And then once more we return to our handheld devices and continue swiping on our signs and symbols, up and down, left and right.
Little Paddocks is a closed and cosy setting for a murder, but A Murder Is Announced is also a story about how a society has changed, how postwar Britain is a different, less settled country. For the murder to make sense, it must be true that somebody isn’t who we think they are – but who do we think they are? How do we know who is and who isn’t what they seem to be? How do the characters know? In essence, that is what detective fiction is: a mystery about which of a particular cast of characters isn’t who they say they are. And that, I suggest, is a, perhaps even the, core reason for Christie’s appeal to so many readers in so many different times and places. Just as her work is formalist without being modernist, her preoccupation with identity, with the constructed nature of character and society, is a modernist preoccupation, expressed through a deliberately popular and accessible medium. Her work is a cocktail of orderly settings and deep malignity, of comfiness and coldness, and at its heart it asks one of the most basic questions of all, modernity’s recurring preoccupation: who are you?
The nature of prose, Valery said, is to perish. Poetry lasts because it gives the ambiguous and ever- changing pleasure of being both a statement and a song.
-KENNETH KOCH, Making Your Own Days (Friday, 8 November, 2019)
“Dystopia and utopia, however, rather than necessarily antithetical, may be categorically contiguous. If being in a state of desire implies that that desire is not yet satisfied, the attainment of utopia (absolute contentment) must invariably require the abolition of human longing (for that which might be but which is not yet achieved). And the elimination of the ability to desire, even if not actually dystopian, may in fact be either equidistant from both dystopia and utopia, or else impossible, because, as Barnes’s hero discovers [in The Dream], in a place where your wishes are automatically fulfilled, the only impossible desire turns out to be the wish to become someone who never gets tired of eternity, which in
turn may only be possible by means of ceasing to exist (obliteration): ‘you can’t become someone else without stopping being who you are’ (Barnes, 1990: 308); and stopping being who you are is dying, by any other name.”
-MARIA LISBOA, The End of the World: Apocalypse and Its Aftermath in Western Culture (2 November, 2019)
FIRE AND ICE
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
-ROBERT FROST (Saturday 2 November, 2019)
“Yes I do love it! The sea is everything. It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is healthy and pure. It is a spacious wilderness where man is never alone, for he can feel life throbbing all around him. The sea is the environment for a prodigious, supernatural existence; it is nothing but movement and love; it is a living infinity, as one of your poets has said. And indeed, sir, nature is present there in its three kingdoms, animal, vegetable, and mineral. The animal kingdom is well represented by the four groups of zoophytes, three classes of articulates, five classes of molluscs, and three classes of vertebrates—mammals, reptiles, and countless legions of fish, which constitute an innumerable order of more than 13,000 species, of which only a tenth live in fresh water. The sea is nature’s vast reserve. It was through the sea that the globe as it were began, and who knows if it will not end in the sea! Perfect peace abides there. The sea does not belong to despots. On its surface immoral rights can still be claimed, men can fight each other, devour each other, and carry out all the earth’s atrocities. But thirty feet below the surface their power ceases, their influence fades, their authority disappears. Ah, sir, live, live in the heart of the sea! Independence is possible only here! Here I recognize no master! Here I am free!”
-JULES VERNE, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (Chapter 10, Translation William Butcher), 30/10/2019
“I have always had this fear of people, not actually of the people themselves, but of their intrusion.“
-KAFKA (quoted in Aneli Rufus’s Party of One), 30/10/19
“Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own – only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you. What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people….Only the individual who is solitary is placed under the deepest laws like a Thing, and when he walks out into the rising dawn or looks out into the event-filled evening and when he feels what is happening there, all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life….It is like this everywhere; but that is no cause for anxiety or sadness; if there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things; they will not abandon you; and the nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands; everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in; and children are still the way you were as a child, sad and happy in just the same way and if you think of your childhood, you once again live among them, among the solitary children, and the grownups are nothing, and their dignity has no value.
RILKE, Letters to a Young Poet, 30/10/19