Wast thou o’erlook’d, even in thy birth?

That Age can do some funny things to the mind seems fairly obvious. The accumulation of years, brings with it a panoply of experience that, hopefully, enables a kind of personalized Weltanschauung to emerge -things begin to sort themselves on the proper shelves, and even if they remain difficult to retrieve, there is a satisfaction that they are there, if not completely codified.

Of course, admixed with any elder ruminations are the ever-present intimations of imminent mortality -but it’s not that Age constrains the thought process to memento mori, so much as a flourishing of its antithesis: memento vivere. Age is a time for reflection about one’s life with a perspective from further up the hill.

And yet, for all the experiential input, there are two time frames hidden from each of us -what happens after death, is the obvious one to which most of us turn our attention as the final act draws to a close, but there is an equally shrouded area on which few of us spend any time: what, if anything, was preconceptual existence like? Is it the equivalent of death, perhaps minus the loss of an identity not yet acquired?

I wonder if it’s a subject more understandable to the very young, than the gnarled and aged. I remember the very first time I was taken to a movie theatre, somewhere around two or three years of age, I think. When I say ‘remember’, I mean to say I have only one recollection of the event: that of a speeding locomotive filmed in black-and-white from track level, and roaring over the camera. It was very exciting, but I remember my father being very puzzled when I confessed that I’d seen it before. I hadn’t, of course, as he patiently explained to me, and yet it seemed to me I’d seen the same thing years before.

No doubt it was my still-immature neurons trying to make sense of the world, but the picture seemed so intuitively obvious to me at the time. And through the years, the image has stayed with me, as snippets of childhood memories sometimes do, although with the meaning now sufficiently expurgated as to be innocuous, as well as devoid of any important significance.

And then, of course, there was the Bridey Murphy thing that was all the rage when I was growing up in the 1950ies. I read the book The Search for Bridey Murphy in my early teenage years about a Colorado woman, Virginia Tighe, who, under hypnotic regression in the early 1950ies, claimed she was the reincarnation of an Irish woman, Bridey Murphy from Cork in the 19th century. I even went to see the movie of the same name as the book. It was all pretty well debunked subsequently, but I suppose it was enough, at a tender age, to make me wonder about what might have happened before I become me.

At any rate, I am puzzled about why the seeming non-existence prior to conception is not something we think about more often. True, we would likely have no identity to put into that side of the equation, nor, for that matter, the loss of anything like friends or, well, existence, on the other, but still it is a comparable void. A wonderful mystery every bit as compelling as death.

I suppose the issue resurfaced for me a few years ago when I had a very vivid dream about our three-score-and-ten of existence. I saw myself as a bubble rising through some boiling water. While I was the bubble, I thought of myself as singular and not only separate from, but possessing an identity totally differentiated and unique from everything else around me. My life was the time it took me to rise to the surface. And yet when I arrived there, and my bubble burst and disappeared, when the me inside dissolved in the air from which I started, it all made sense. In fact, the encapsulated journey itself was an aberration, as was the idea of identity…

The dream lay fallow for several years and then reawakened, Phoenix-like, when I discovered an essay in the online publication Aeon, by Alison Stone, a professor of philosophy at Lancaster University in the UK. https://aeon.co/ideas/thinking-about-ones-birth-is-as-uncanny-as-thinking-of-death

‘Many people feel anxious about the prospect of their death,’ she writes. ‘Indeed, some philosophers have argued that death anxiety is universal and that this anxiety bounds and organises human existence. But do we also suffer from birth anxiety? Perhaps. After all, we are all beings that are born as well as beings that die… Once we bear in mind that we are natal as well as mortal, we see some ways in which being born can also occasion anxiety.’

I don’t believe she is thinking of what it must feel like to be born, so much as the transition from, well, the nothing before sperm and egg meet, to a something -to a somebody. She quotes the thoughts of the bioethicist David Albert Jones in his 2004 book The Soul of the Embryo: ‘We might be telling someone of a memory or event and then realise that, at that time, the person in front of us did not even exist! … If we seriously consider the existence and the beginning of any one particular human being … we realise that it is something strange and profound.’

Stone continues, ‘I began to exist at a certain point in time, and there is something mysterious about this. I haven’t always been there; for aeons, events in the world unfolded without me. But the transition from nonexistence to existence seems so absolute that it is hard to comprehend how I can have passed across it… To compound the mystery further, there was no single crossing point. In reality, we don’t begin in [a] sudden, dramatic way… Rather, I came into existence gradually. When first conceived, I was a single cell (a zygote). Then I developed a formed body and began to have a rudimentary level of experience during gestation. And once out of my mother’s womb, I became involved in culture and relationships with others, and acquired a structured personality and history. Yet the zygote that I began as was still me, even though it had none of this.’ Wow -you see what I mean?

Stone seems to think that all this is rather distressing, but I disagree. All I feel is a sense of profound, unbounded wonder at it all. Reflecting on that time-before-time is not unweaving the rainbow, as Keats was said to have accused Newton of doing because he had destroyed its poetry by actually studying it.

In fact, I’m reminded of something the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: And when you were a silent word upon Life’s quivering lips, I too was there, another silent word. Then life uttered us and we came down the years throbbing with memories of yesterday and with longing for tomorrow, for yesterday was death conquered and tomorrow was birth pursued.

I have to believe there will still be poetry in the world -with or without us…

Virtues we write in water

I’ve only recently stumbled on the concept of virtue signalling. The words seem self-explanatory enough, but their juxtaposition seems curious. I had always thought of virtue as being, if not invisible, then not openly displayed like chest hair or cleavage. Perhaps it’s my United Church lineage, or the fact that many of my formative years were spent in pre-Flood Winnipeg, but the idea of flaunting goodness still seems anathema to me -too social mediesque, I suppose.

Naturally, I am reminded of that line in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water. And, although I admit that I am perhaps woefully behind the times -and therefore, hopefully, immune from any accusations of what I have just disparaged- it seems to me that virtue disappears when advertised as such; it reappears as braggadocio. Vanity.

Because I had never heard of the issue, it was merely an accident that I came across it in an article in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/is-virtue-signalling-a-perversion-of-morality

It was an essay written by Neil Levy, a senior research fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and professor of philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney. ‘Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of a kind of hypocrisy. The accused person claims to be deeply concerned about some moral issue but their main concern is – so the argument goes – with themselves.’

And yet, as I just wrote, ‘Ironically, accusing others of virtue signalling might itself constitute virtue signalling – just signalling to a different audience… it moves the focus from the target of the moral claim to the person making it. It can therefore be used to avoid addressing the moral claim made.’ That’s worrisome: even discussing the concern casts a long shadow. But is that always ‘moral grandstanding’?

Levy wonders if ‘virtue signalling, or something like it, is a core function of moral discourse.’ Maybe you can’t even talk about virtue, without signalling it, and maybe it signals something important about you -like a peacock’s tail advertising its fitness.

The question to be asked about signalling, though, is whether it is costly (like the resources that are needed to create the tail), or enhances credibility -honesty, I suppose- (like the sacrifice that might be involved in outing, say, an intruder that might harm not only the group, but also the signaller). And while the latter case may also involve a significant cost, it may also earn a significant reward -not only cooperation in standing up en masse to the predator, let’s say, but also commendation for alerting the group: honour, prestige…

Seen in this light, Levi thinks, virtue signalling may in fact be a proclamation to the in-group -the tribe- and identifying the signaller as a member. So would this virtue signalling occur when nobody else was around -when only the signaller would know of his own virtue? Would he (Okay, read I) give to charity anonymously? Help someone in need without identifying himself? And if so, would it still be virtue signalling, if only to himself? Is it even possible to be hypocritical to oneself…?  Interesting questions.

Of course, memory is itself mutable, and so is it fair to criticize someone who honestly believes they acted honourably? Would it be legitimate to accuse them of virtue signalling, even if evidence suggested another version of the event?

Long ago, when I was a freshman living in Residence at university, a group of us decided to celebrate our newly found freedom from parental supervision and headed off to a sleazy pub near the school that catered to students and was known to be rather forgiving of minimum age requirements for drinks.

For some of us at least, alcohol had not been a particularly significant part of our high school experience and so I quickly found myself quite drunk. I woke up, apparently hours later, lying on my bed and none the wiser about the night. I was wearing my roommate’s clothes, and I could see mine lying clean and neatly folded on the chair beside my desk. My wallet and watch, along with a few coins were arranged carefully on top.

“You passed out in the pub,” Jeff explained when I tried, unsuccessfully, to sit up in bed. “I thought I’d better wash your clothes, after you were sick all over them,” he explained, smiling proudly at his charity. “Well, actually, Brenda put them in the washer -I’m not good at that kind of stuff.” He stared at me for a moment, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “Boy, you were really wasted! It took three of us to get you back…”

I remember trying to focus my eyes on him as I attempted to think about the evening, and then slumped back onto the pillow and slept for most of the morning.

My memory of the pub night is vague now, but I do remember going to the store the next day to buy something, and finding that, apart from the coins, I had no money left -none in the pockets of the freshly washed clothes, of course, but none of the money my parents had given me for my first month’s expenses that had been in my wallet either.

None of this is particularly consequential, I suppose, but it did surface at a class reunion many years later. Jeff was now a high school teacher, Brenda a lawyer, and I had just finished a medical residency and was about to open a consulting practice.

Jeff, as had always been his wont, was holding his own noisy court at the bar, and Brenda -now his wife- was glaring at him. He was slurring his words already, even though the socializing part of the evening had just begun.

Perhaps in an effort to deflect her attention he glanced around the room and when he saw me, waved.

“Remember old G?” he shouted to nobody in particular, and immediately embraced me as soon as I got close enough. I saw a few people I recognized, but even under Brenda’s worried look, Jeff wouldn’t let go of my arm. “G was my roomie…” Jeff explained and signalled the bartender for another beer with his free hand before Brenda waved him off. “He used to get so drunk,” he explained, although I had trouble untangling his words. “Thank the gods that I was around to take care of his, though…”

His what,” I asked, largely to break the palpable tension between Jeff and Brenda.

Jeff looked surprised. “Take care of him…  Take care of you, roomie. You!” He looked at Brenda and finally let go of my hand. “One night he got so drunk, I had to carry him home, and then lend him my clothes because he’d been sick all over his own…”

The others in the group shuffled nervously and glanced at each other. Brenda seemed angry, but I just shrugged.

“That was good of you, Jeff,” I said. “I obviously needed help that night…” I hadn’t forgotten about the missing money, but now wasn’t the time to mention it.

The others smiled and nodded -rather hesitantly, I thought.

“But, that’s what a real friend does, eh?” Jeff added, as Brenda tugged on his arm to leave. She blinked self-consciously at me as she led him away from the bar. “Nice to see you again, G,” she said, her eyes silently apologizing to me. “Maybe we can talk later, eh…?”

I think she knew more about the missing money than she was willing to admit, even to friends.

Maybe we were all virtue-signalling, though…


Popular opinion to the contrary, it seems to me that there are advantages to cultural naïveté -well, literary innocence, at any rate. Being seduced into a novel or short story solely because of the reputation of the author, or the ravings of a friend, risks disappointment -if only in your friend’s lack of sophistication. And even if the choice was successful, there remains, for me at least, a lingering sense of manipulation, of being swept along in a crowd: just another nameless member of the flock. I would much prefer to watch it from the edge, untouched by all but the gentle murmur of its passing.

There is far more pleasure in the unguided discovery of a title or an author unbesmirched by popularity, and hiding, perhaps, in a used book store, or on the shelf of one of those take-one-give-one piles I seem to frequent at neighbourhood bus stops. For me, their anonymity -however transient- is an adventure. But I suppose I’ve always been drawn to the potential of the unsigned, the wisdom of the incognitive with no particular affiliation. Graffiti -the polite ones anyway- can be compelling, too. With them, there is seldom need for attribution, and indeed, the recognition of authorship might well detract from the message, and relegate it to partisan politics rather than liberate it to a vox populi, if not a vox dei.

I had feared this was merely a personal conceit, a longing for an unspoiled hilltop from which to evaluate the countryside, but as sometimes happens, I discovered there were others who also wandered lonely as a cloud -although with much more erudition. Tom Geue is perhaps a good example. He is a lecturer in Latin in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and wrote a thought-provoking essay on anonymity for the online publication Aeon:  https://aeon.co/essays/lessons-from-ancient-rome-on-the-power-of-anonymity

‘Not knowing the author of a literary work does something powerful to the reader: it makes her experience the words as an exemplary, representative, far-reaching burst of culture, a spark of art that seems to transcend the limits of the singular intelligence… The potential of the anonymous work is in its ability to throw the reader into the realm of apparent universality.’

As a scholar of classical Latin literature, he illustrates many of his arguments with examples from the period. ‘Literature for the Romans was primarily the product of a singular intelligence… A literary text without authorship was often thought of as something dark, mysterious, lacking and disabled. In fact, a whole part-industry of scholarship sprouted up around securing attribution, making sure, that is, that the right texts had their proper authors, and that readers could know the worth of what they read…  Even when there was no clear single point of origin for a work – eg, when the authorship was genuinely shared – Ancient readers invented one: it could never just be the Iliad or the Odyssey; it had to be the Iliad or Odyssey of Homer. There was little space in the culture of authorship for works whose author was properly unknown; and many modern readers have inherited these exclusionary tastes.’

Despite -or maybe because of- the ‘anti-anonymity biases of the Classical canon’ though, Geue seems intrigued with an anonymous historical novel Octavia that he admits we have probably heard nothing about. ‘The play is an anonymous masterpiece, and it is about the divorce and exile of Nero’s first wife, Octavia, set in 62 BCE. It stages the domestic tension and revolutionary springback of absolute power spinning out of control, and it does so with more ambition and urgency than almost any other piece of drama to survive from Ancient Rome.’ But it is unsigned for an obvious reason: probable political retribution if the author were known. And, as Geue suggests, ‘Names tame certain forces; anonymity unleashes them.’

I see that as a cause for concern, however: information -or propaganda- can obviously wreak havoc if it is false, unattributable. Graffiti are one thing, but social media is another. Since antiquity, it has always been important to know if the source of the information possessed enough expertise to justify acceptance -or, was at least trustworthy and otherwise neutral. No doubt this is why Science and its scientists have hitherto enjoyed wide public acceptance. The recent rapid emergence of social media with its anonymous sources, and agenda-laden dis-information, however, has cast some deep shadows over expert opinions. To say the least, this is a troubling development.

And yet that type of writing is not what I am celebrating. Fact-driven compositions will likely continue to need scrutiny -to mislead is to harm, if only the Zeitgeist. But when we’re talking about literature and poetry, anonymity can be tantalizing. Enticing. Character and subject development, skillful storytelling along with evocative metaphors and a seductive plot-line are far more important than author identification in that idiom. Whether, in other words, the Iliad, was actually written by a poet named Homer -if he even existed- or whether the stories are merely compilations of the works of many unnamed authors, subtracts nothing from the brilliance of their contents. I think the mystery adds to the allure.

There is beauty in discovery, there is wisdom in metaphors- but there is also a certain charm in the as yet unknown. My father was a Baptist, and came from a non-dancing, non-card-playing family, so his cursing was, well, imaginative to say the least. Most of them were evocative of frustration, or folk wisdom -like ‘it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog…’ That sort of thing.

Some, though, defied my childhood comprehension and vocabulary, and I assumed they were special remnants of a world I was too young to have experienced. There was a phrase he said that I always enjoyed: ‘jumped-up mackinaw’. It was my father’s favourite expression and it always made me laugh, so he would too, and then reach out and hug me. I’ve always associated the expression with what I loved about him: he made me happy.

It was long before Google and the internet, and I remember my friends thought ‘jumped-up’ was  something bad: swearing. So with considerable trepidation, I asked a teacher what it meant one time after class when she seemed to be in a good mood.

“Well,” she said, after thinking about it, “I know about Mackinaw shirts… They were made of water-repellent wool, or something.” She looked at the ceiling for a moment. “Loggers wore them, I think…”

“So… what about the ‘jumped-up’ part?” I said, and watched her with anxious eyes.

I remember her smiling and shrugging her shoulders. “I don’t know why he’d say that, G. Maybe he read it somewhere, do you think?”

I could only think of the Reader’s Digest books in our bathroom, but I’d read most of them, too, and I was pretty sure I’d never seen it there. Apart from the Bible, I’d never seen him read much else. “I wonder who would write something like that,” I said, frustrated at being no closer to the meaning. “I don’t think it’s in the Bible, is it?”

She shook her head. “Sounds like an anonymous author, don’t you think?”

I looked at her, obviously puzzled at the word.

She smiled and explained. “Anonymous means unknown, or unnamed. So perhaps nobody knows who wrote it.”

After reading Geue’s essay, though, I remembered my father’s expression, and wondered if my teacher had been correct about the anonymity of it’s generation. I considered Googling it, but decided not to. After all, his expression defined my childhood as much as my father’s smile did, and I’m happy to think he wrote it. It’s ours -and I don’t need it to be from someone I don’t know.

Of course, maybe most of us are actually anonymous, anyway…

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

I love it when I hear a new word, wrestle with a new concept. Pyrocene -don’t you adore it? Even just sounding it out quietly in your head, it’s  hard to miss the excitement, or the imagery.

It takes its shape, as with all great epochs, by combining two Greek words, pur (or pyro), meaning ‘fire’, and the suffix kainos (or cene) -added to whatever noun, and meaning ‘new’. In other words, the Pyrocene is the fire epoch.

When you think about it, Pyrocene is an evocative and descriptive name for what has been going on for some time now. Fire has been tremendously important for our species. First came lightening and its effect of setting nature alight, and then, once we discovered we could tame fire, it kept us warm, it cooked, and it protected us from whatever predators remained afraid of it.

But that was just the beginning of our love affair: we began to invent new things it could do -like smelting metals, and boiling water to produce steam. All you needed was enough wood for fuel. And then, serendipitously no doubt, came the discovery of other less obvious sources that burned even hotter such as coal and, eventually, oil. It seems that hominids have embraced fire almost from the beginning; we are the fire-animal.

Unfortunately, fire seems to be in the news a lot lately -too much, in fact: bush fires, forest fires, the Amazon, Fort McMurray here in Canada, California, Europe, Australia… I can’t help but think of the poem by Goethe: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice -or at least its depiction in the animated Disney film Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse, to the music of the unforgettable symphonic poem by Paul Ducas, tires of his job of cleaning the room of his mentor (the sorcerer) and tries to use magic to make the broom do it for him. He quickly loses control, however.

I have to admit that my thoughts about the history of fire were otherwise quite embryonic and unfocussed until I came across an epiphanic essay about Fire in Aeon, written by Stephen J Pyne, an emeritus professor of Life sciences at Arizona State University: https://aeon.co/essays/the-planet-is-burning-around-us-is-it-time-to-declare-the-pyrocene

He identifies different sources of fire -different ways of producing the energy: ‘Three fires now exist, and they interact in a kind of three-body dynamic. The first fire is nature’s. It has existed since plants first colonised continents… The second fire is humanity’s. It’s what humans have done as they moved from cooking food to cooking landscapes, and because it feeds on the same grasses, shrubs and woods as first-fire, the two fires compete for fuels: what one burns the other can’t, and neither can break beyond the ecological boundaries set by their biotic matrix… Third-fire transcends the others. It burns fossil biomass, a fuel which is outside the biotic box of the living world. Where third-fire flourishes, the others don’t, or can burn only in special preserves or as genuinely wild breakouts. After a period of transition, third-fire erases the others, leaving ecological messes behind. Because it doesn’t burn living landscapes, those combustibles grow and pile up and create conditions for more damaging burns; because it isn’t in a biotic box, its smoke can overwhelm local airsheds and its emissions can clog the global atmosphere.’

So, why does he feel the need for a new name for the epoch in which we live? I mean, we seem deluged by names -some admittedly hubristic and anthroponomic: centered mainly around us, as if everything revolved around our presence; Anthropocene comes to mind.

‘The Pleistocene began 2.58 million years ago. Unusually among geologic periods, it is characterised by climate. The Earth cooled and, atop that trend, it repeatedly toggled between frost and thaw, as 40-50 cycles switched between glacial ice and interglacial warmth. Some 90 per cent of the past 900,000 years have been icy. Our current epoch, the Holocene, is one of the interglacial warm spells, and most calculations reckon that the Earth is due – maybe overdue – to swing back to ice.’

But Pyne argues that we’re really still in the Pleistocene: ‘Other than the fact that it’s our time, and we are sufficiently special in our own eyes to merit our own era, there is little cause to have split it off from the Pleistocene… By the metrics that established the Pleistocene, the Pleistocene persists. Only humanity’s vanity insists on a secessional epoch. The ice will return… Or not. Something seems to have broken the rhythms. That something is us…

‘Or more usefully, among all the assorted ecological wobbles and biotic swerves that humans affect, the sapients negotiated a pact with fire. We created conditions that favoured more fire, and together we have so reworked the planet that we now have remade biotas, begun melting most of the relic ice, turned the atmosphere into a crock pot and the oceans into acid vats, and are sparking a sixth great extinction…  fire has become as much a cause and consequence as ice was before. We’re entering a Fire Age.’ And yet, in the old days, ‘there were limits to human-enabled burning. Burn too much, too quickly, and living landscape cannot recover, and the fires ebb. Once humans started burning fire’s lithic landscapes – fossil fuels – there seemed to be no such limits.’

Apart from nuclear energy -be it fission, or the long-promised fusion technology- the options currently available to power industry and society’s ever-increasing needs, seem in great need of innovative thinking. In a time of changing climatic conditions, reliable sources that are independent of the vagaries of weather events such as droughts or unexpected flooding, unpredictable or destructive winds, not to mention massive uncontrollable fires, are urgently required. Renewable technology is only as good as the foreseeable conditions upon which it depends.

Our addiction to fire has really left us with a Sophie’s choice: either accept the consequences of the damage it is doing to everything that allowed us to flourish in this geologically opportune -albeit temporary- interregnum between Ice-Ages, or… What? Abandon our overweening hubris and slip back into what forests still remain on the horizon’s edge -but this time aware that we are no more important, no more entitled than anything else that shares our world?

And yet, even then, would we make the same mistakes again…? Would our too-active brains mislead us once more? I don’t mean to end with an existential crisis, but I’m reminded of the observations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth -a creature of that old, untethered world: I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other. . . .