Marginal Thoughts

Now that my salad days are merely photos staring forlornly at me from a tattered album, I sometimes wonder what they would think of the one squinting back. Would it be as difficult looking forward in time, as it is in looking back? Not only do features change, but so do goals. Thoughts. I am no more the bright-eyed child petting the dog in the picture than he is the wizened old man desperately trying to remember him. So what, except for the chromosomes that are slowly losing their telomeres, is permanent enough to link us together?

I think about that a lot, nowadays; perhaps I am drafting my own eulogy, although I’d prefer not to put it in those terms. There are always clues we leave for those who follow, but can we leave a trail for those who are in front? A diary might help, I suppose, but in my case I was sure my mother would find it along with the magazines I had to hide; it simply wasn’t worth the risk.

So my childhood followed obediently behind me like a silent shadow, detected only if I turned around. I regret that now, of course, but not when I was young.  I would never have thought that my past would seem as loosely attached as the buttons on my shirt are nowadays; sometimes I think there are more memories sewn to the books I’ve read than to the experiences I’ve no doubt had but haven’t specially saved and organized on shelves…

I was thinking of that recently, as I cast my eyes over some familiar book-covers. If only life was as revisitable as the covered books seem to be… I doubt if I’m still as easily recognizable as the stories. The titles I read were varied -perhaps even precocious- and I suppose they should have cast some light on the younger me, but they could as easily have been the futile attempts of a short, bespectacled boy’s attempts at braggadocio.

I have vague and ill-defined memories of reading the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary on weekends hunting for obscure words I could use in class: words such as ‘tarn’, ‘lugubrious’, ‘threnody’ and even ‘sesquipedalian’ briefly materialized in the linguistic mist when I thought more about those days. Still, maybe that was just a phase; surely I wasn’t that embarrassingly desperate the whole time. But who was I then?

Without ancient bones, or cave art to map the changes though, how can I now chart the evolution of my thought through what seems, from this end, to have been a rewarding, if idiosyncratic, life? Only the occasional photograph remains of those days. I’ve moved a lot, I suppose, and books seem to maintain their integrity in the dust of relocation that the loose scraps of unorganized photos do not. Well, at least that’s how I’ve rationalized it over the years.

So, here I am, approaching the terminus wondering about who it was who travelled along the largely solo route. I have to hope it’s not dementia kicking in, nor the result of expunging undesirable aspects of my personality. No,  it’s more of a philosophical conundrum: how do I know if I am the same person over the years? There is a chromosomal continuity perhaps, no doubt traceable despite the random copying errors, but how about the I? What knits all the I’s together -or must I just accept that they are the same ?

I was reminded of the almost apocryphal destruction of ancient knowledge that was stored in the great library in Alexandria when it was destroyed by fire around 48 BCE by Caesar. How could I ever really know who I was if there are no records of it? My books -or at least the ones I have managed to keep- are all I have of those days.

And then it occurred to me that I might have written comments in them: marginalia. Not in my medical textbooks, of course. Those I underlined, I remember -underlined and then wrote précis on foolscap pads to prepare for exams. Nothing personal in those – at least nothing sentimental; nothing of lasting value.

I decided to search for some of my favourite authors from high school and university. I started with Alan Watts -a writer I devoured in my late high school days, but the only book I could still find on my shelves of his was The Wisdom of Insecurity, and it was bare of comments. Then I turned to Hermann Hesse –Steppenwolf– but apart from a ‘Thank you for supporting the Girl Guides’ card hidden as a bookmark on page 134, it too, was bereft of clues about who I used to be -except that I have maintained my love of Girl Guide cookies through the years.

I moved on to my years in Medical School with my collection of the books of the famous Dr. Lewis Thomas (who I initially learned about through his column in the New England Journal of Medicine), but although I loved his style and ideas, there were, alas, no personal marks -indeed, nothing but the crinkled and sometimes smudged pages that bore witness to my passage.

I almost gave up at that point -there were just too many books- but in a final grab, I liberated Loren Eiseley’s The Unexpected Universe from a collection I found on an Ikea bookcase along with some old LPs. Unfortunately, there were no comments in the margins, no little snippets of my thoughts about the prose or images of the author -nothing quaint and revealing- but there were a few tick marks in the margins beside sentences or metaphors I’d evidently found appealing. Then, in a chapter titled The Hidden Teacher, looking more closely at the little marks I’d made to draw my attention should I ever pass that way again, I was suddenly captured as of old. It was Eiseley describing how he’d been taught a profound lesson by a spider and its web. He suddenly understood, after touching its web, that ‘spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best, raw material for spider.’ And as he proceeded on his way along the gully he had been exploring, he realized that in the world of the spider, he did not exist. And similarly, for the white blood cells of his blood, the conscious ‘I’ of which he was aware, had no significance to them either. He was, instead, ‘a kind of chemical web that brought meaningful messages to them…that among the many universes in which the world of living creatures existed… we were creatures of many different dimensions passing through each other’s lives like ghosts through doors.’ Something surfaced in my mind -something that had once stirred me to reverence was performing its magic once more.

I started to read the book again and began to remember what I was -what I am: I am the ghost passing through the dimensions of a different time, following the same thread, and caught in the identical web I wove so many years ago.

There is far more to me -or any of us- than the changing face in the mirror…

Yet Death will seize the doctor too

Death seems a lot closer now than in my youth; but it was always just around a corner, peeking out from traffic lights, hiding in the limb of a tree I might have climbed. And it’s not as if it suddenly surfaced when I retired either -death is a fact of life; we come from the void; we return to the void. But there are as many questions about death as about life, aren’t there?

What, except as polar opposites, are we to make of either? Is one the absence of what was once a presence –or is that too simple? Too much of a question from those who live? What might we ask in the void from which we sprang? Would we not now be considered equally absent from there?

It’s hard enough to winnow through the ageless questions without having also to wade through the countless theologies with their parochial answers. As if they themselves had arisen in the vacuity from which we are currently the temporary precipitates.

No, Death needs to be handled gently. Sensitively. I happened upon an empathetic essay with an intuitive feel to it a while ago by Stephen Cave from the University of Cambridge. A philosopher by training, he has also served as a British diplomat. https://aeon.co/essays/if-death-comes-for-everything-does-it-matter-what-we-kill

He was reminded of mortality when he accidentally squished a little fly that had been buzzing around his desk as he worked. It wasn’t so much guilt from his act, as the sudden transition from life to not-life that intrigued him. The parts that he once could identify were ‘in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are – or were – the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings.’

All things die, and if not here and now, then there and whenever. It wasn’t that he’d changed anything significantly, but more that he’d ‘destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any [he would] ever create.’ Thus it seemed to him ‘quite reasonable to think that the death of the fly is entirely insignificant and that it is at the same time a kind of catastrophe… highlighting the inconsistencies in our philosophies, our attempts to make sense of our place in the world and our relations to our co‑inhabitants on Earth. The reality is that we do not know what to think about death: not that of a fly, or of a dog or a pig, or of ourselves.’

The death of one, sustains the life of another -that’s how it works, isn’t it? So what should we make of that? ‘In the language of ecology, life and death are obligate symbionts, each wholly dependent on the other. We too are built on a bedrock of old men’s bones. Our evolution to Homo sapiens is a product of the endless winnowing out of the unfit and the unfortunate.’

And yet, when the author squished the fly, he writes that he summoned the Reaper to his desk. ‘If only briefly, I caught his eye. If I had turned away fast enough, the fly’s death would have remained as insignificant as those of its invisible brothers and sisters caught by the swifts. But I was drawn instead inside its tiny head, drawn to imagine the great finger coming to squish me, my little life flashing before my bulging, compound eyes. Through a lapse in my indifference, I was drawn into the catastrophe, drawn to make its death my death.’

But does this polarity impose meaning on it? Should it? Cave talks about Tennyson’s concern on seeing animal fossils, and on Nature’s seeming indifference: ‘how she is so careless of whole species. She cries: ‘I care for nothing, all shall go’, and Tennyson concludes: ‘O life as futile, then, as frail!’

And yet we all create meaning -especially, perhaps, Tennyson: ‘death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning – one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles… Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway… the alternative is the most desperate and convoluted of denials.’

You can see the picture the author is painting: the tension of simultaneously holding two opposites in one’s heart. ‘To take both sides seriously and to seek some way to live with them is part of what it is to be human.’ The canvas is at the same time mysterious, yet affirming.

It takes me back to what could have been a destructive moment in my early childhood. One morning, after getting out of bed, I found my dog, Boots, lying on the rug by the door, but when I called him he didn’t move. He was quite old at the time, and had been slowing down on his walks with me, so my father had warned me that he might not live much longer. But Boots was so entangled with my own life, I couldn’t even imagine a life without him.

When my father heard me crying on the steps outside, he sat down beside me, put his arm around me, and waited for me to speak.

“Boots is dead, daddy,” I managed to splutter. He tightened his embrace. “He’s gone… forever…”

I remember my father taking a slow, deep breath and then sending his eyes to rest on my cheeks. “But he hasn’t gone, G -not really…”

I remember staring at him through my tears. “But…”

“He’s going to return to the earth again, but he’ll live in a different form.”

I thought about it for a moment. “You mean, as dirt, or whatever…?” He nodded. “But…”

He smiled sadly at my tears, and wiped one away that had made it down to my mouth. “Suppose we plant a baby tree over his grave?” He watched my face for a reaction. “Then you’ll remember him whenever you see the tree.” He smiled softly. “And when the tree grows, he’ll still be with us.” He winked. “Maybe even longer than us…”

In the moment, they were just words to me, I suppose -a dog is more than that- but in time, I came to realize just how healing it was. And although I have long since moved from Winnipeg, and even though my own leaves are now falling off, the Boots tree is still there whenever I return to check. Nature has a way of re-creating us as something else. We are, after all, the world.

Breathing health into a stone?

Are my emotions mine? That is, do they live inside me, or are they things that are shared -exist between me and others, in other words? Are they more the combination of genetic predisposition and situational features which are dependent on societal norms that we were taught from our early years at home and in the community?

It seems to me that it is an important point: where should we direct our efforts if we feel  emotions are getting out of hand? Is simply treating me sufficient, or am I the fabled canary in the coal mine? I’ve been retired from specialist medical practice for some years now, and I can feel my loyalties shifting. It’s not that I have joined the dark side, or anything -more that I can see both sides better from the border.

If we are to confront medical skepticism, it is a good idea to examine it from a historical perspective. I found a helpful essay by Bernice L. Hausman, professor and chair of the Department of Humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania: https://aeon.co/essays/what-explains-the-enduring-grip-of-medical-skepticism

Early in her explanation, she writes that ‘while medical therapeutics have advanced considerably, many current treatments are also aggressive… Consider the expansion of disease categories to include personality quirks and body types, side-effects that demand further medications, drug interactions that are deadly, and medical supervision of things left well enough alone. If 18th-century medicine lacked a scientific basis, our problem might be too many therapies for our own good. The expansion of treatment has led to a critical response – ‘medicalisation’, which describes a skeptical approach to mainstream medicine’s social role in defining health.’

Indeed, what is ‘health’? Is it merely a state of being free of injury or illness, or is there something else involved as well? Something that medicine often fails to address: who has the social authority to decide what constitutes health -not so much for society as a whole, but for the individual? And how it should best be treated, for that matter?

Take an old example: TB. The proximate cause, of course, is the tuberculum bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, but in some sense the bacterium is merely opportunistic. The ultimate, or distal cause may well be something like impaired immunity from malnutrition or poverty. So, which cause should be addressed -the proximate one, of course, but should we leave it at that? Is it enough to rub our hands and say ‘done’? For that matter, to whom should we look for a remedy?

But, the problem is still with us -for example, the current pandemic of Covid 19 with its massive social and economic upheavals. From time to time, there has been promulgated the exculpatory mantra that the virus knows no boundaries; the virus does not discriminate, unlike our political borders. But of course it does. The communities of colour -African American and Latino, in America at least- seem to be disproportionately affected. Why? Well, there are a few obvious factors at play. ‘African-Americans have higher rates of underlying conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease, that are linked to more severe cases of COVID-19′. And, ‘They also often have less access to quality health care, and are disproportionately represented in essential frontline jobs that can’t be done from home, increasing their exposure to the virus,’ according to a report (May30/2020) from NPR.

And, from the same report, ‘Latinos are [also] over-represented in essential jobs that increase their exposure to the virus… Regardless of their occupation, high rates of poverty and low wages mean that many Latinos feel compelled to leave home to seek work. Dense, multi-generational housing conditions make it easier for the virus to spread.’ Of course, by now that is old hat… isn’t it?

I suspect I saw it differently when I was in practice, but perspective is often beguiling -the old aphorism about the hammer and the nail, perhaps? ‘In Medical Nemesis (1975), Illich [the intellectual iconoclast, Ivan Illich, a Croatian-Austrian Catholic priest] made a starkly prescient argument against medicine as a dangerous example of what some call ‘the managed life’, where every aspect of normal living requires input from an institutionalised medical system. It was Illich who introduced the term ‘iatrogenesis’, from the Greek, meaning doctor-caused illness. There were three levels of physician-caused illness, as far as he was concerned: clinical, social and cultural. Clinical iatrogenesis comprises treatment side-effects that sicken people. Social iatrogenesis describes patients as individual consumers of treatment who are self-interested agents rather than actively political individuals who could work for broader social transformations to improve the health of all.

But, cultural iatrogenesis is the one that interests me the most, I must admit: that ‘people’s innate capacities to confront and experience suffering, illness, disappointment, pain, vulnerability and death are [being] displaced by medicine.’

Illich thinks that ‘medicine takes a technical approach to ordinary life events, hollowing out the rich interpersonal relations of caring that defined being human for millennia.’ But to be fair, Illich still felt that ‘Sanitation, vector control, inoculation, and general access to dental and primary medical care were hallmarks of a truly modern culture that fostered self-care and autonomy.’ He was more concerned with the impersonal bureaucracy that surrounded medicine. An interesting criticism, and one that I also share -albeit one that seems to stem from the medical system as he saw it from south of our Canadian border.

And yet I think the thrust of Hausman’s essay was more a reaction to the disillusionment that followed the initial promise of modern medicine. Things like delegating the definition of health to professionals who have a vested interest in defining it in a way that seems to mandate the continued need for them. I think this view is unfair, but, given Illich’s iatrogenesis concerns, I can see how that attitude might seem plausible.

Have we doctors been -are we still- sometimes too aggressive in our treatments, too arrogant in our knowledge, too certain of our advice, and too resistant to alternative approaches? I’m not suggesting that we cave to pseudoscience, or acquiesce to theories just because they are currently fashionable; Science is never perfect, and is open to change. But still, primum non nocere is a good aphorism to guide us: First of all, do no harm. I seem to remember promising something like that in my medical oath…

Gedankenexperimentophobia

It’s fun to play with thoughts, to riffle through ideas, don’t you agree? Take ‘thought experiments’ for example -think up a problem, set some parameters to confine it and see what your brain, unconstrained by external reality, comes up with. It’s almost akin to the Scientific Method some would argue: ask a question; form a hypothesis about it; make a prediction based on the theory; test the prediction; and finally, come to some conclusion. But is it? Can a mind sitting quietly by itself in an armchair, circumvent the need for external reality?

Ever since I first heard it, I have felt uncomfortable with ‘the Trolley Problem’. There have been several iterations of it over the years, but by and large it consists of a runaway coach on a track that is approaching a switch. Down one track is a single person, whereas down another are several people. The coach cannot be stopped, the person (or people) cannot get out of the way, but the switch can be thrown to direct which track is used. The question, of course, is which track to use -either track will result in death.

What does the choice of one track or the other say about the person who has to decide? About their morality? About ethics? About anything, really? It seems far too monochromal for my liking. And, unlike its real-life cousin, by definition a thought experiment cannot really be subjected to any rigorous objective analysis. It’s more like an experiment done in a lab where all parameters are carefully controlled, unlike what would happen in the real world.

But for years I’ve wondered whether my discomfort was misplaced. After all, Einstein used thought experiments. My concerns, like an unused city lot, lay fallow until I wandered into an essay by James Wilson, a professor of philosophy at University College London: https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-the-problem-with-ethical-trolley-problems

As he writes, thought experiments are ‘short hypothetical scenarios designed to probe or persuade on a point of ethical principle. Such scenarios are nearly always presented context-free, and are often wildly different from the everyday contexts in which ethical sensibilities are formed and exercised… Even when scenarios are highly unrealistic, judgments about them are thought to have wide-ranging implications for what should be done in the real world. The assumption is that, if you can show that a point of ethical principle holds in one artfully designed case, however bizarre, then this tells us something significant.’

Sometimes, however, when considered as things that might happen in the real world, we can envisage other conditions that would invalidate, or at least complicate, any conclusions drawn in the thought experiment. We know too much, as it were. ‘Thought-experiment designers often attempt to finesse the problem through an omniscient authorial voice that… is able to say clearly and concisely what each of the thought experiment’s actors is able to do, their psychological states and intentions. The authorial voice will often stipulate that choices must be made from a short predefined menu, with no ability to alter the terms of the problem. For example, the reader might be presented with only two choices, as in the classic trolley problem: pull a lever, or don’t pull it.’ Exactly.

So constraining the choices limits the possibility of novel approaches to the stated problem. ‘Imaginative ethical thinkers look beyond the small menu of obvious options to uncover novel approaches that better allow competing values to be reconciled. The more contextual knowledge and experience a thinker has, the more they have to draw on in coming to a wise decision.’

But there are at least two other difficult challenges with thought experiments: internal and external validity. ‘Internal validity relates to the extent to which an experiment succeeds in providing an unbiased test of the variable or hypothesis in question. External validity relates to the extent to which the results in the controlled environment translate to other contexts…[but] the very features that make an environment controlled and suitable to obtain internal validity often make it problematically different from the uncontrolled environments in which interventions need to be applied.’ In other words, the world just doesn’t work like that.

I remember trying out the Trolley Problem on the guys who meet for coffee some mornings in the food court. I wondered if they felt the same unease with it as I did.

“So, which track are you going to switch the trolley onto?” I asked, after giving them a brief summary of the thought experiment.

Burt put his doughnut back on the paper plate, and wiped some sugar off his cheek. “It’s so obvious, G -I’d ring the bell. All trollies have bells, eh?”

“But what if the workers on the track don’t hear it…?”

Burt rolled his eyes, as he brushed a lock of his paper-white hair off his forehead. “I’d keep ringing it. The workers would hear it when it got closer…”

“But suppose the workers are tied to the track.”

Burt glared at me for a moment. “You didn’t say that. And anyway, why would they be tied to the track? That’s a bit Little Orphan Annieish, don’t you think?”

I decided to relent a little to make it more -what?- real worldy. “Okay, let’s say they’re just deaf…”

Burt was clearly unmoved by my compromise. “Still…”

Jason, who had been quietly munching on a bagel put his hand up.

Burt sneered at the hand. “You’re not in school, Jas…”

Jason blinked and lowered his hand, and then glared at Burt. “Whatever. Anyway G, you said they were working on the track. They’d be able to feel the vibrations on the rails from a moving trolley, so that would warn them to get out of the way.”

I had to sigh; the guys were not really getting into the spirit of the ethical problem I’d offered. “I don’t know how much warning that would give, but let’s say they weren’t actually standing on the rails…” I had to think quickly here. “Let’s say they were on the ties between the rails then.”

Arthur, who had been teacher before he retired, sighed loudly and shook his head. “You folks are missing the point.”

Burt took a big bite from his doughnut. “The point being…?” It was hard to distinguish word from doughnut, but Arthur ignored the sounds.

“It seems to me the problem is bimodal.”

I smiled and nodded my head at him -finally somebody understood the ethics at stake. “Correct,” I interrupted, “There are two choices: the left track or the right track -several deaths, or one death. Which one would you choose, Art?”

He glanced at me quizzically. “I didn’t say there were two choices; I said bimodal: values occurring most frequently in the data set we were given…”

Jason, Burt and I stared at him, but it was Burt that summed it up. “You had too many cookies, Art…?”

It was Arthur’s turn to roll his eyes. “What I mean is that we have to consider two data streams that affect the choice of track…”

“Too much sugar in his coffee,” Jason whispered to Burt.

Arthur ignored them. “First of all, there’s the trolley driver. He would be ringing the bell, of course, but presumably to be allowed to drive the trolley, he’d have been expected to know about things like the switch signs that indicated which track was open.” He stared at me. “Would that not be the case?”

I shrugged, but I had to agree with him.

Then a wry smile appeared to hover tentatively along his lips. “And then there is the person whose responsibility it is to work the switches.” His smile softened briefly. “A very important job, as you can imagine.”

None of us disagreed. I was more interested in where this was leading, though.

“So,” he continued, “We can assume that the switch person knows that the driver has to have some expertise in reading the switch signs…” He looked at each of us for a second to see if we were following him. Nobody moved. “Therefore, the switchman flags the approaching trolley to let the driver know he understands the trolley is out of control, and then sets the switch only at the halfway position. The driver would see this as an uncompleted switch and realizes it will derail the trolley, so he jumps clear.”

Arthur sat back in his chair this time with a big sloppy grin on his face. “So, nobody dies. Problem solved…”

I suddenly remembered that scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I wonder if Hamlet could have resolved the Trolley Problem as quickly as Arthur, though.

Preposterosity

What is it to be absurd? Can we even wrap our heads around the concept when to do so threatens to unravel the fabric we each wear from day to day, risks unweaving the very rainbow we have come to worship?

But, just because something doesn’t make sense, doesn’t necessarily make it absurd, of course. Many things don’t make sense until we invest some time and effort into interrogating them further. And even if the effort comes up fruitless, we often throw a pattern over it to make it accessible -or should I say acceptable? Without a framework to compare it to, there is a tendency to reject it -or worse, to regard it as nonsense. Pointless. Unsettling.

Still, is there a universal threshold for absurdity -something everybody would agree makes no sense? Or is that a silly question, and one that is dependent on culture, expectations, or previous exposure to inexplicable incongruity?

In that regard, art springs to mind, I suppose -abstract art in particular, perhaps. Depending on the type and the artist -Kandinsky, for example- it is sometimes just a jumble of different colours with a title attached to it. Sometimes resolvable, yet equally often not, it is difficult to know how to process it. Eventually, however, it is usually possible to step back and appreciate it as, well, interesting, if not beautiful. But is it still absurd, in that case? Or is it just the expectation that was created by its title that was confusing?

Maybe the ultimate example of artistic absurdity would be Malevich’s Black Square -a black square of paint. I’m certainly not an art critic, and although I know a little bit of its history and subsequent versions, as well as his intention of having it symbolize a sort of beginning: “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins” a black square is difficult to process meaningfully; we have to judge it differently. Of course, perhaps that is the point… In which case, it is no longer absurd.

Clearly, I have to admit that I find the very concept of absurdity a little absurd, and this confusion no doubt contributed to my interest in an essay by the science writer, David Robson: https://psyche.co/ideas/a-touch-of-absurdity-can-help-to-wrap-your-mind-around-reality

‘Many works of art deliberately challenge our understanding of the world in this way, including other films by Lynch [of Mulholland Drive fame], the writing of Franz Kafka and the humour of Monty Python, to name but a few. All feature illogical and incongruous elements and the uncanny juxtaposed with the familiar… According to research on the ‘meaning maintenance model’ of human reasoning, surreal and absurd art can be so unsettling that the brain reacts as if it is feeling physical pain, yet it ultimately leads us to reaffirm who we are, and sharpens the mind as we look for new ways to make sense of the world. The findings also suggest new ways to improve education, and even help to explain our responses to some of the more absurd political events of recent years.’

‘Heine [psychologist Steven Heine] and his team proposed that our mental representation of the world is like a delicate web of interconnected beliefs, documenting the relations between ourselves and the people, places and objects around us. When we are confronted with an apparently inexplicable event that appears to break that framework, we feel profound uncertainty – the ‘feeling of the absurd’.’

Heine describes three ways in which we might process the absurd: building a new mental representation to incorporate the inexplicable event, reinterpreting the event so that it fits our existing mental model, or strengthening other beliefs and values -even those relating to a completely unconnected domain- and then retreating to a safe place where the world makes sense again: so-called ‘fluid compensation’.

I can see how using absurdity might have an interesting affect on education –‘teachers could deliberately create feelings of uncertainty to prompt students to look harder for meaning in the material they’re studying.’ On the other hand, I suspect this would only make sense in situations where the students are prepared for this beforehand; I don’t think it would work for everybody, either -me, for example.

I think back to when my daughter was small and, of course, bringing back artwork from her kindergarten and Grade 1 classes. One of them I remember well. It was a largish sheet of white art-paper with random sine-wave type squiggles on it in green crayon, and then a straight red line through it diagonally across the page.

I smiled when I saw it, and by now I was used to her drawings so I started to put it on the fridge door with her other creations.

“No, no Daddy,” she almost shouted at me, “That was just an extra that I didn’t hand in.” She was quite adamant about it and went into her usual arms-across-her-chest scowl. She did that whenever she thought I didn’t understand something.

I took the magnet off and put the drawing on the kitchen table. “Why didn’t you hand it in, sweetie?” I asked.

She climbed on a chair and looked at the paper. “ ‘Cause I made a mistake, daddy…” She studied my face for a reaction.

“Oh,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could and examined the drawing more closely. “It’s nice, though…” I stopped, because I hadn’t the slightest idea what she’d been drawing. “What were you drawing?”

She screwed her little face up and stared at me as if I really should have known. “It’s attack art, of course…” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not s’pposed to be anything…!”

I had to think about the word for a moment. Was she telling me it was meant to offend the viewer…? She sometimes got new words mixed up, though, so it could have been anything. I just nodded my head as if I suddenly understood why she hadn’t handed it in. I didn’t, of course.

“So, what did the drawing you handed in look like?” I thought maybe I could figure it out from that.

A little smile surfaced on her lips and her eyes twinkled at me. “Same thing, but I did the wavy lines in blue…” She thought about it some more, and then added “Except for the straight line, of course.” She fixed me with a knowing stare. “You only put the straight lines in when you’ve made a mistake and want everybody to know.”

I thought about her drawing that night after she went to bed. ‘Attack art’? And it’s not supposed to be about anything…? Then, suddenly it dawned on me: she meant Abstract Art. I went into the kitchen and revisited the drawing. I thought it was pretty good for abstract art, you know -although I agreed with her, the squiggles would  probably look better in blue.

The things they were starting to teach kids about in school impressed me. In my day, if I’d handed in something like that to the teacher, my mother would have got a phone call from the school counsellor that evening… or did they even have counsellors then?