At the University of Chicago Div School when I was there ’78-82, I tried to talk about “felt meaning” as described and reflected upon by Suzanne Langer, I was not mocked -- it’s not that kind of place. They just all thought of some appointment they had, got up and left so as not to embarrass me. They all (mostly guys) KNEW that thought HAD to be in words, that feeling was what girls and cats did, and that rational abstraction a la math was where reality and human distinction lay. Anyway, Suzanne Langer was female. No cigar. And, no, I could not write about Hannah Arendt for the “Modern Thinkers” exam.
But now the tide has turned and the big shot guys who can tell us what Freud REALLY meant are talking about how the essence of being human is felt desire. This is the core of consciousness, which might not be cognizant at all, not ever put in words, sometimes not admitted to, but is what -- as Mark Solns puts it -- “turns on the lights.” His vision, which is well supported by research and experiment, is that everything “in-skin” (as I put it) but which is only felt, IS Freud’s id, feeling the person into life, monitoring the viscera as well as the environment. It is not cognizant, self-reflective, speech-based, mathematical. It is not planned or controlled, but spontaneous and irresistible.
“Consciousness” in this sense does not distinguish humans from other animals because ALL animals have this drive. All living things share “life in the midst of life, life that wishes to live.” What makes humans different is what they do with their desire. The first thing might very well be simply to feel it, not to deny it, as we sometimes do. But in the end the process throws out something more intense than a dream that is called “reality.” It can be acted upon, shaped, and shared with others.
At one point when I was circuit-riding in Montana, I stayed overnight with a sharp and resourceful young mother who had been wrestling with a defiant and nagging child. She went to a shrink for advice and he told her that when the child began to nag at her, to stop everything, focus on him and ask “exactly what do you want?” She was surprised when he answered things like, “I’m lonesome” or “you don’t look at me.” Later at a meeting I was startled when I was suggesting something for the fellowship and this woman turned the question on me: “Exactly what do you want?” Then I found it was a very useful question and the group came to a conclusion much more clearly and directly.
“Wanting,” desire, yearning, is what Freud and Solns find at the core of personhood. This is what makes any animal alive: seeking. (I have to think more about plants. Maybe seeking light.) It is also what a good method actor asks about a character he or she is playing. This desire, esp. undeflected from reproductive love, is what makes the species survive. The raw appetite is very strong. But redefined, elaborated, sublimated, shared in thought and action, it becomes what makes each person unique and fighting for life. To have a strong desire without a way to fulfill it or even the ability to express it can be a terrible torture.
When I have gotten this round of psychotherapy reading digested, I have waiting for me a paper called “The Question of Survival: The Death of Desire and the Weight of Life” by Leanh Nguyen. The dark side of being human is the possible loss of desire without physical death. It results from torture so severe that humanness is stamped out. This is political. It produces zombies. Christianity represents evil and hell in terms of passion and uncontrolled emotion, but they’re wrong. The opposite of love is not hate -- it’s lack of caring. Pop Buddhism represents the ultimate goal of humans as no longer wanting and striving. I’ll have to think more about that. I must be missing something.
So I haven’t gotten hold of a magic answer. Instead it’s more like a group of questions worth considering, which is valuable in itself. Also, it distinguishes these thoughts from what we’re accustomed to seeing as “religion”: institutions that give their adherents all the answers they think are appropriate. Montana is requiring Valier to do a self-study again and provided a questionnaire meant to turn up things previously unconsidered or even imagined. But last time the mayor sat down with the questionnaire and crossed out everything that was disturbing or likely to create controversy. No surprises, so nothing helpful discovered.
Solns points out that the brain is the only organ that constantly builds itself by learning, actively creating new neurons to support new learning. But he forgets that muscles are like that and even our metabolisms adjust to what we do and eat. Humans are responsive in all ways, always shaped by their environment. EXCEPT pedantic authorities! Luckily, the new scientists of the mind are themselves responsive and openly shaped, which is quite wonderful. But our society is still intractable, still resistant to anything but their own vision of reality.
How do we change society’s insistence on the old ways that don’t work anymore? We can’t really prevent the change. Freud was brilliantly right when he grasped that the pre-cognizant mind is a huge iceberg-like mass under and behind our spoken lives, but he was an uptight Viennese patriarch who didn’t have enough self-control to resist cigars and cocaine. To him, dragging the monsters out of the deep unknown was the task at hand and they were bound to be trouble. He had no instruments to take their measure while they were alive and going about their business down there. Modern fMRI (among other machines) can see the neurons and their structures flashing on and off. Ingenious experiments teach us how to silence phantom limbs and to realize that even when the image-forming part of the brain at the back of the head is damaged, the eyes go on seeing.
In our time we rather like monsters, but not monster societies which exist in abundance. I puzzle over the phenomenon of making a despicable monster out of a multi-cultural, patient, thoughtful president -- imposing stigmas like imaginary foreign birth as a crime, while themselves modeling a society based on greed, blaming, secrecy, and control. I'm not prepared to deal with all that.
Nevertheless, my ideas are very much shaped by responding to a certain kind of group: the Blackfeet tribe, the Unitarian denomination, and boys at risk. All dreamers, all showing signs of trauma, all in process. My affection for them is based on knowing individuals. I’ve lived on the boundaries of each of these groups, watching. I tell little stories about them that go counter to the established version of who they are and the political forces that sometimes work in their favor -- more often not. I’ll say they are the subconscious of the planet, pre-cognizant, known by artists, writers, singers, story-tellers. But not in the Disney-esque sentimental profiteering for the bourgeois.
If I were at the U of Chicago Div School now, I would campaign to be able to write my “Modern Thinkers” exam on Vine Deloria, Jr., Native American thinker with a strong Christian connection. But I’m too far gone for that now. I question the whole university system, the whole concept of denominations, and whether tribes in the purest sense exist outside the Amazon jungle. There are boys at risk all through Hyde Park, some of them children of the brilliant faculty and others in the impoverished edge-community pressing at the boundaries. The Div School students, like the buildings, look rather like those on an episode of “Morse,” “Lewis” or “Endeavor.” But I love those programs. Helen Macdonald comes out of Oxford -- well, goes in and out. If she has grown wings, why can’t others? You feel me?