“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Our Minds Are Not Our Own (Part One)

I have once again fallen behind in my attempt to post daily -- or at least on most days.  Again, I apologize.

This past week presented two obstacles, one the lack of an internet connection at home, and the other a series of events that had me running about the East Bay as well as The City.  Details below.

One of my day-long adventures last week was getting together with my friend JVD.  We have known each other since we were four years old, but I had not seen or spoken to him for ten or fifteen years.

We first reconnected when my phone rang a few weeks back, and I answered it to hear him say, “This is JVD.”

“J!” I said, “how are you?”

“I don‘t know,” he said.  “I‘m sixty!”

We both burst into laughter, and then began trying to find a time when we could get together.  We had between ten and fifteen years of living to catch each other up on. 
The time finally came last Wednesday, the 7th of August.

I left home early that morning and rode BART to the Lafayette station, where I was met by JVD.  One of my purposes in starting this blog was to be able to tell friends with whom I have not been in touch in recent years the complicated story of how I got from where I used to live to where I live now.  JVD had been reading my blog in the weeks since that first telephone call, and the blog had served my purpose.  We were able to dive right into the nitty-gritty.

We had lunch at a pizzeria in Walnut Creek, the town in which we grew up, and then spent the afternoon driving to the top of Mount Diablo.  From that peak one can see more of the earth’s surface than from any other spot on the planet except one, Mount Kilimanjaro.  We looked out over the rivers, the delta, the bay, and the Pacific Ocean, picking out landmarks and spotting the places where we live and have lived.  The ground on which we stood dropped off so suddenly that we seemed to be suspended in air, hovering over the landscape of our lives.

Because the mountain was formed -- is being formed -- by the collision of the North American and Pacific plates, the rocks get older and older as you climb to the summit.  There the most ancient strata of what was once the ocean’s floor are being exposed by the constant scrubbing of wind and rain.  Even a casual glance at these stones reveals hundreds of different organisms, from what seem familiar clam shells to oddly shaped, jointed exoskeletons that I could not begin to identify or describe.

The fossils provide a kind of metaphor for something I noticed hours earlier, when I first arrived at the BART station in Lafayette.  As I stepped off the train and made my way down the stairs from the elevated track, a great wave of memories, with all their attendant emotions, broke over me.

For twelve years after my father died, I spent every Thursday with my mother.  For most of those years, I traveled from Oakland, and then San Francisco, where I lived, to Lafayette, where my mother would pick me up in her big gold Mercedes Benz and take me home -- to her home, that is, because she and my father had moved out of the house in which I grew up within a few years after I, the last child, had gone out on my own.

What hit me most forcefully this last week was that I had not thought of those arrivals -- of waiting by the parking lot for my mother, then watching her car appear, then opening the door and easing myself into the leather seats -- even though I had thought of the Lafayette station and even imagined it in all its physical reality, its shapes and colors, its place,  the weight of its materials, etc.

My memories were not attached to my thoughts or ideas or feelings.  Rather my memories resided in the landscape, in the steel and concrete structures of that station, and the emotions aroused by those memories -- grief, affection, melancholy, gratitude -- were attendant not on any mental processes in my brain but on my contact with that particular physical location.  Memories reside in the physical world around us -- in landscapes, in objects, in sounds, in food and drink -- not in our heads.

How much of the rest of our thinking is produced not by our brains, and not by some invisible “mind” that lives as a ghost in the machinery of our bodies, but by the world, including the people, around us?
I can no longer believe that our thoughts and perceptions reside “inside” us somehow, as if consciousness were hidden inside our skulls, irredeemably sealed off from any direct contact with other minds, each of which is itself presumed to be similarly isolated with its cranium.  Since I expect that my refutation of this Cartesian model will take many months, if not years, to complete, I beg your indulgence as I begin slowly to explore this idea in this first installment.

What about the rest of my week?  On Tuesday, the day before my “mountaintop experience” I traveled to Berkeley, where I took various steps toward finding a job at the University.  I also had lunch with my friend MP, the poet whom I have previously mentioned in these posts.  And on Thursday I received a list of documents that I had to get together and forms I had to complete because I have a chance at getting more permanent housing, dependent on a meeting tomorrow afternoon.

Then Friday.  I confess that I accomplished nothing on Friday or Saturday, when I should have been writing all day both days.

Friday was the first anniversary of my second arrest, the serious one, the one which cost me my job, which arose from charges based on MRM’s blatant lies, enshrined in a completely false police report, and which has yet to come to trial.  I had not thought much about it, but when I saw the date on Friday morning, “9 August”, I slipped down a rabbit-hole into memories of arrest, incarceration, and the paralysis of depression stirred by hopeless anger at injustice -- injustice that is routinely, even mechanically, created by our laws, our police, and our judiciary.

Again I cry out:  Wake up!  Read Tolstoy!