"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Orbital Thinking–Going ‘Round In Circles, Unable To Sort Out Illusion From Reality, And Never Realizing It Doesn’t Matter

There was a prolix man named Phil Bandy who couldn’t stop talking, but his stories all had a tempting logical intent.  He would begin well enough, simply and straightforwardly – about his Aunt Mary or Donald Trump – then added allusions and references which at first seemed to enrich the anecdote but then became the story itself.  Before long the listener had forgotten Phil’s original intent which he never seemed to have in the first place; but looked at more generously, how he got from his aunt’s lemon meringue to magnetism was a thing of beauty.  And the marvel of it was, his stories never turned back on themselves, logical loops that only he knew but with a little patience would be revealed.  Anyone who was hoping for a logical thread or even a linear one who waited patiently would eventually get hopelessly the eddies of hairstyles, sea foam, and artificial flowers his impossibly senseless streams of consciousness created.

True, a reader has to have patience reading Ulysses, but the patience pays off.  There is a point to Joyce’s tale, an interior logic to Molly Bloom’s monologue and her husband’s wandering but never inchoate sensuous musings about his liver and onions, his room, and his wife.  Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury requires even more patience because there are many streams of thought, one of which is that of an idiot, Benjy, whose thoughts are pre-linguistic, yet essential to the story. 

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Perhaps one of the most famous opening paragraphs in literature is the monologue of Miss Caldwell in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.

Prom a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called die office because her father had called it that— a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as bang flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband  none knew sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet , and talking in that grim, haggard amazed voice until at last hearing would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet, inattentive, and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be die dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and over- sweet with the twice-bloomed wisteria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the triangle of lace at wrists and throat and from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running horn patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house. Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran...

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In this one long monologue Faulkner tells the entire story of Thomas Sutpen, his journey from Virginia to Mississippi, his creation of Sutpen’s One Hundred, his family, his ambitions, and his misjudgment of race, the Deep South, and his own emotions.  The monologue is insightful, prescient, and evocative.  It drifts purposefully reflecting the mind of Miss Coldfield whose images are never fully logical,are randomly selected, but essential bits of her past when put together make perfect sense.  Faulkner’s genius was has ability to tell stories made up of bits and pieces of memory, unexplained notions, and emotions with origins too far back to remember; and to make the adhere into a narrative – a narrative that was never in chronological or logical order because a life’s story only has coherence when told from its end.

Most of us can only manage a rough assemblage of ideas to tell a complex story because managing image, narrative, impressions, and logic at the same time is almost impossible.  In fact, we are enslaved to logic – our tradition, intellectual history, and most impressive achievements are logical ones.  We are heirs to Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Newton, and Descartes, and to dismiss them all in favor of a more sensuous, impressionistic, and implicit view of the world would be unthinkable.

Yet Hinduism does exactly that.  Traditional Hindus believe that consciousness can exist without cognition; and in fact it is a higher order of evolution, one closest to spiritual enlightenment.  To see without thinking is to have eliminated the logical thought which inhibits an understanding of the world as illusion.  Both logic and reality are illusive.

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Browning, Kurosawa, and Durrell have written novels and screenplays which tell the same story from different perspectives.  The architecture of the story – place, time, season – may be agreed upon, but little else.  Memory itself is only fill-in, fractions of what actually might have happened, and larger segments added by others; so not only might four people have different impressions of what happened on a given day, but their own impressions might be little more than quilted memories.  People they remember may or may not have been there, said what they were supposed to have said, or acted according to what was remembered.  By listening to the accounts of all four, one may have an impression of what might have happened, but no certainty that it did.

The genius of Faulkner – part Hindu, part Descartes – was that he was never troubled by what was or what is; but only interested in what may have been or what could be.  Thomas Sutpen did what he did, fathered whom he fathered, and came to an unhappy end because of his ambition; but those whose lives were affected by him could only remember what he seemed to be.  A story of misjudgments, misapprehensions, and ignorant ambition can also be read as one of inevitable admixture of truth and untruth, fiction and non-fiction. While logic may enable one to appreciate the steps to eliminating logical thought, it can lead to nowhere on its own.

We, on the other hand, slave to logic, surprised by our illogical dreams but able to understand them on a sub-logical level, and knowing that perception is far more than attributing fact, can only wander between the two like Phil Bandy does.  He wants to tell a story with a plot line, character, and theme; starts off well enough in his logical narrative, but cannot help drifting into unmapped narrative tributaries. 

On the other hand, perhaps we have been too hard on Phil Bandy.  In his own way, in his hopelessly orbital thinking, he may have come closer to ideal consciousness than anyone who keeps insisting on logic, fact, and understandable narratives.

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