Hypomnematamania

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a hypomnematamaniac, or anything. Actually, I just discovered the  concept of hypomnemata quite recently -a few days ago, in fact. I had a bit of time on my well-washed, socially distanced hands, I suppose, and the thought occurred to me that I had never read all of Plato’s Republic, nor had I ever completely conquered Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, although I had heard interesting things about him when I was in university. Imbued with the same spirit, I thought I might even tiptoe past the first page in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and see how far I could get.

But let’s face it, even assuming I had been able to accomplish these things, and that any of my friends had ever heard of the authors -or actually cared- would I be any better off? Sometimes, even if you’re terminally bored, you just don’t want to read the entire 2000 word magnum opus by some philosopher with an unpronounceable name -especially when, with a little luck, there’d be a three or four sentence synopsis of their thoughts in Wikipedia. You don’t always have to confess your sources to impress people…

At any rate, it got me wondering about the primacy of message over methodology. Do we enjoy poetry for its information or its enchantment; Shakespeare for instruction, or pleasure? Is there, in other words, something greater than plot -the messenger looming as large as the message?

There was a pre-internet time, millennia ago, when a younger me was enamoured of the précis. It first occurred to me when a friend reminded me that we were supposed to hand in a book report the next day on some assigned reading in my first year university English Lit course; I had been busy with other of my own reading. She recommended her copy of the Classic Comic Book version that managed to reify the story. Why in the world would I try to read something as unreadable as Spencer’s The Faerie Queene when somebody had already done it for me -even if it was only Book 1? It was my first hypomnema, I suppose -although it was not really a series of notes, or observations on the story, as much as a plot summary… Okay, a cheat-sheet. But any port in a storm, eh? And anyway, you have to start somewhere.

But the years have changed me -or perhaps it’s merely my reading material; I am now as impressed with the presentation as with the point it’s trying to make. The realization that I am the messenger of my own story is sobering. And, as with most stories, there are parts of it that might themselves be singled out for further study, lessons that could be learned even while the narrative continues apace. In fact, analyses of these snippets might well presage the conclusion -point to where it might all end up.

Indeed, the rather pedestrian thought occurred to me that these clues are embedded in most stories -it’s how they progress. So it was with some relief to find that I wasn’t alone in this line of thought -although in a way I hadn’t anticipated. In his essay, Andrew Hui, an associate professor in literature at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, suggests that much of the historical development of philosophy may be reducible to a series of short aphorisms describing their tenets:   https://aeon.co/essays/aphorisms-tell-philosophys-history-as-fragments-not-systems

He rather likes the tidiness of aphorisms and asks ‘What if we see the history of philosophy not as a grand system of sustained critique but as a series of brilliant fragments?’ Why indeed? Much as I enjoyed all of my university philosophy courses, there were only so many insights I could take home with me each night. Only so much wisdom I could store, let alone retrieve over the years.

So, the packaging was important; aphorisms are only lightly wrapped. And after all, even ‘science turns what is a mere aggregate of random thoughts into something coherent.’ But you have to start with the thoughts, the ideas, the intuition before coherence develops. And they may not all overlap. We, the beneficiaries can only hold so much.

I suppose I took what I thought was important from all and sundry: Descartes, no matter how many other fields he influenced, started me thinking with one simple aphorism: ‘Cogito, ergo sum’. Or Socrates: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’; Plato: ‘Time is the image of eternity’; Aristotle, Plato’s pupil: ‘What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies’; Thomas Huxley: ‘Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.’ But, although the list seems endless, whatever I quote still requires examination -the aphorism is merely the gate to a further field of thought -the fence only holds the idea, it does not describe it. That is the recipient’s duty. ‘Good aphorisms demand to be interpreted. And in their interpretation is an invitation for the readers to engage in their own philosophical enterprise – to do philosophy themselves. Aphorisms, then, are at once before, against and after philosophy.’

And yes, I imagine there is certainly a benefit for someone disciplined enough weld these pithy statements into lengthy profundities -organizing them much like putting similar essays in one box. I cannot argue that. But how much of that discipline would accompany me through the years? Only the wisdom, probably; only the succinct observations.

There was, of course, a time when I was closer to the source -a time when I was still in university and trying to decide what to do with my life. I had been asked to consider an academic career, and I think the idea probably went to my head; Margaret was not pleased, to say the least. At any rate, it resulted in the woman with whom I’d been in a rather tenuous relationship deciding to leave me. It was the 60ies, and the second wave of Feminism was crashing into the Vancouver beaches. I’m not sure whether that played a role in her decision, but she quoted Simone de Beauvoir at me on that fateful night in a West End restaurant, I remember.

I had just attempted to congratulate myself for being considered for the academic invitation with a toast. Perhaps I initiated it too loudly, though, because several people in the restaurant turned around to stare at me. Margaret, clearly embarrassed, scowled at me, gathered her coat, and stood up to leave. When I stared at her, wondering what I had done, she wrinkled her face, obviously furious, and hissed at me – “Qu’est-ce qu’un adulte? Un enfant gonflé d’âge”. We were both in the same philosophy courses, so I recognized it as a Simone de Beauvoir quote from her Woman Destroyed: ‘What is an adult? A child blown up by age.’ It hurt, and yet, as sometimes happens with a remark made in anger, she was right…  How could I forget it?

I thought about her accusation for years after we parted company, even though I declined my professor’s offer and wandered elsewhere instead.

And so, along with the likes of Santayana, Spinoza and Sartre, the aphorisms of Simone de Beauvoir have also  accompanied me into old age. Not their entire oeuvres, mind you, just the important bits of their thoughts: hypomnemata -much like another fragment that has wedged itself in my head from the poet Robert Frost: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

I would not have it any other way…

Who’s there?

The past is prologue, isn’t it? Or at least it can help to explain how we now think about things -whether we accept the inevitability of uncertainty or flee from it like a pestilence. Of course, nothing can ever be completely certain: the sun may not rise tomorrow and yet we must act as if it will or accept that any plans or dreams we harbour are pointless. On the other hand, certainty itself is a spectrum…

I didn’t mean to bathe uncertainty in such an academic light, but it underlies an age-old schism of thought that I hadn’t appreciated until I happened upon an essay contrasting the views of no less personages than René Descartes, and Shakespeare. Written by Lorenzo Zucca, a professor of law at King’s College London, I felt at times I was attending a seminar on 17th century thought. https://psyche.co/ideas/much-ado-about-uncertainty-how-shakespeare-navigates-doubt   I suppose I was…

That Shakespeare lived in an age of uncertainty is well known; one of the biggest issues was religious conflict. Zucca sets the stage: ‘In the premodern world, religion provided absolute certainty: whatever we knew was implanted in our mind by God. We didn’t have to look any further. Once that system of beliefs started to collapse, Europe was left with a yawning gap. Religion no longer seemed capable to explain the world. René Descartes and Shakespeare, who were contemporaries, gave opposite answers to the sceptical challenge: Descartes believed that our quest for knowledge could be rebuilt and founded on indubitable certainties. Shakespeare, on the other hand, made uncertainty a leitmotiv of all his works, and harnessed its creative power.’

Take Hamlet, for example. ‘The whole play is marked by a deep doubt about how perception can mislead us… This sweeping type of uncertainty, let us call it philosophical doubt, has to do with the limits of human ability to know the world from a subjective viewpoint. How can we be certain that our beliefs are anchored in an indubitable perception? What if we are dreaming or hallucinating? Hamlet is a young philosopher who is incapable of making up his mind about anything.’

And then, of course, there’s Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum -the certainty that although he could be deceived about the truth of what he saw or thought, the fact that there was something that was thinking could not be denied. Certainty could, and did exist, even in the fog of uncertainty that cloaked much else.

But, can we even compare the visions of poetry with the logical assessment of philosophy? Is it merely pears piled on top of potatoes? Can we –should we- accept uncertainty?

Well, according to Zucca, ‘Shakespeare’s vision from uncertainty brings together the imagination of a poet, the judgment of a philosopher, and the creativity of a scientist. Being capable to stare into the abyss without being swiped away emotionally is a great attitude for whoever wishes to further our understanding of the world and the way we live in it.’ After all, ‘Moralising is another way of creating certainty out of chaos, and that would impinge on the view from uncertainty. It would require creating cardboard characters: villains with no redeeming features… Uncertainty makes freedom and creativity possible.’

Zucca asks us to imagine a life of absolute certainty –‘We would know our time and place of death, when we’d fall in love, and what our job would be. Who would be our friends and who the enemies.’ Would that be a life worth living? Maybe ‘Violence and conflicts arise from the confrontation of dogmatic, certainty-obsessed worldviews. The vision from uncertainty asks us to keep making sense of our life without imposing our values over one another.’

In a totally different Magisterium, I suppose, I am reminded of the days when I used to make up little stories to tell my daughter before she went to sleep at night. She loved the fairy-tales that I read from books, of course. She liked the idea that the words printed on the page magically contained the stories -as if pictures and ideas somehow hid inside them and my job was to unveil them for her.

Sometimes, though, she would fold her little arms over her chest and chide me for changing the words, or skipping over parts that she particularly enjoyed. But one time, when we were on a trip in my Volkswagen camper van and I’d forgotten our regular books, I decided to try something different.

“How good are you at imagining things in your head, Cath?”

She looked at me with the perceptivity of a three year old. “Did you lose the fairy book, daddy?” was her first reaction.

“Well, I forgot to bring it, I guess. But would you like to see if you can imagine a new story in your head?”

After looking around me to see if I was just hiding her bedtime book, she sighed theatrically and nodded her head -better a new story than no story was written all over her face.

So I made up a story about the adventures of a little girl, Dorothy, who lived in a bread-box and Catherine loved it so much that she asked me to tell it to her again the next night. But she questioned me before I began.

“Dorothy and I had a nice time last night, daddy. Does she do something different tonight?”

“Are sure you want her to, Cath?” Certainty had seemed her gospel with the fairy-tales. But maybe that was because it came with the assuredness of pre-printed words and pictures. There was an order to them that was hard to circumvent. Dorothy and the breadbox, though, was a different world -a world Catherine had begun to imagine and it was open. Uncertain.

She nodded her head, excitedly. “I can’t wait to watch something different in my mind tonight,” she said and settled as comfortably on my lap as the cramped little seats in the van allowed. And then she looked up at me with a wiser, older expression on her face. “It’s nice when there’s no picture on the page that tells me what to see,” she added, and waited with an expectant smile, eager for the night’s drama to unfold.

The gift of accompaniment

I remember it from my medical practice; I remember it from dealing with friends with incurable illness: the feeling of helplessness in commiseration. The recognition that my often naïve suggestions, intended to help, were not what was required, nor even wanted, for that matter. Sometimes there are no solutions; sometimes presence –listening- in itself is enough… No, not enough, but at least comforting.

I suppose some people come to this realization naturally -instinctively understanding what is needed- while for others it is absorbed only gradually and after much trial and error. Some issues require solutions, guidance, and expertise, but some require the simpler yet more difficult task of companionship. Being there, often with wordless compassion. Silent empathy.

Not trying for control and directing things can be difficult, but usually there is a time for silence. Sometimes, there is an inevitability that simply has to be accepted. It’s a subject that many of us would rather not confront, and yet we have to -it is important. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to the short essay in Aeon written by Nicholaos Jones, department chair and professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. https://aeon.co/ideas/at-times-of-suffering-the-greatest-gift-is-accompaniment-by-another

Jones writes about the issues that often accompany suffering: ‘despair, dissonance and desolation: despair as hopes for the future confront the inevitability of fate; dissonance between an imagined future and present reality; and the desolation of being alienated and isolated when others withdraw.’ We want so badly to solve the problem, and console the suffering person that we find it hard simply to listen without interfering. Indeed, their despair can become our own.

A remedy he suggests -if that’s an appropriate word to use- is one of ‘accompaniment’, and his way of illustrating the process is, in itself, helpful and imaginative. ‘In music, the accompaniment is the musical part that supports the melody or main themes of a musical performance, as when an organist or guitarist accompanies a choir, or a drummer and bass player accompany a lead singer… accompanying another involves lending support to the other in ways that amplify or strengthen their efforts… accompaniment aims to acknowledge and engage with the efforts of another – not for the sake of helping the other achieve some goal that’s impossible to achieve on one’s own, but for the sake of enriching, and making manifest the value of, the other’s efforts.’

So, ‘To accompany another is to give companionship against despair… one who accompanies offers consolation, being with another in their solitude by creating opportunities for testimony, listening and hearing without judgment, and reinforcing the other’s dignity by acknowledging their experience and struggle.’

There’s something about that which strikes a chord, don’t you think? There are times when we need to recognize that not everything can be solved -an exceptionally difficult concept to accept. But, it’s important to embrace a truth the other knows all too well, and in so doing, embrace them. Indeed, ‘It succeeds not by resolving problems but by aligning with the other – experiencing the other’s suffering in common, allowing the other’s struggle to matter.’

I learned something about that in my early years of medical training when, as a third year medical student, I was assigned to the gerontology ward of a general hospital. In fact, it was a sort of bribe, I suspect: in turn for doing entrance physical exams and handling the nighttime preliminary calls by the nurses for the elderly patients, I was given free room and board.

There wasn’t really that much to it, so I spent a lot of time reading, and talking to the patients. One patient in particular, still stands out in my memory, however. Jane was a 94 year old, frail looking woman who always seemed to have her wheelchair placed near a window overlooking a little park in front of the hospital. Loosely strapped in the seat so she wouldn’t fall out when her head occasionally fell forward in a medication-enhanced somnolence, she never seemed to bother with any of the other patients who talked to each other while similarly positioned by the same window.

I was new to gerontology, and, apart from my recently retired parents, I had never before had much interaction with the elderly, so I wandered over to talk to her. I have to say I was a little unnerved by the thinness of her skin, the sparsity of the spiderweb hair remaining on her scalp, and the degree to which her cheekbones were so prominently on display. She kept grinding her gums together, almost as if her tongue was searching for some teeth and she barely looked at me as I pulled up a chair beside her.

“Hi,” I started, a little nervous about how to talk with someone so old. “My name is G -well anyway, that’s what everybody calls me- and I’m the medical student assigned to your ward…”

She turned enough to allow me into her head through two large rheumy eyes that rotated in their sockets as easily as well-greased ball bearings. A tentative smile appeared briefly on her thin lips, and then quickly disappeared. “How do you do?” she answered -rather formally, I thought. “My name is Jane… Did they send you over here to cheer me up?” she added, as if it was what the nurses did if they remembered.

I shrugged, rather embarrassed at the thought that I had been sent on an errand. “No… I’ve just seen you sitting here day after day, and thought I’d introduce myself.”

She studied my face for a moment and then blinked. “I thought perhaps they sent you to convince me to take some more of their pills.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that -I was just learning to be a doctor. “Pills for what, Jane?”

Her face relaxed into another brief smile, and she looked away again. “Cancer, and pain, mostly…”

“So… Are you not taking them?”

“Sometimes -when the pain gets too bad, I relent a bit.”

“But…”

Her smile broadened and she finally turned her head to look right at me. “But you can’t convince me, G.”

I was confused. “But why don’t you take them?”

She sighed and her eyes softened as she tried to decipher my question. “I’m 94 years old,” she started, her voice soft and confident. “And I’ve had a good life. There’s no cure for Age, nor is there a cure for my cancer. The pills just make me miserable…”

“Are there no other pills they could try?” I was trying to make sense of her rebellion and she must have seen that.

Like two little birds, she sent her eyes to slowly circle my face before she allowed them to rest on my cheeks. I could tell she was trying to read my expression. I must have looked puzzled, because she reached over and grasped my hand to reassure me.

“I’m sure this is hard for a young doctor like you to understand, but I don’t fear Death…” she said, smiling at the notion. “…No more than I fear Life at any rate,” she added.

The idea of accepting death was new to me, and I suppose it showed on my face because she squeezed my hand more strongly this time.

“None of us can live forever, Dr. G. Life’s not a battle we have to keep on fighting… Eventually, we’re allowed to walk away if we want.”

I smiled and stroked her fingers with my hand. It was her eyes that smiled at me in response.

Thinking back to that time, I realized I had learned something they’d never covered in my lectures. Of course, Jones was right in his essay about the value of accompaniment, but I have to wonder if it was Jane who was actually accompanying me

I am undone

By now, you’d think we’d have a pretty good idea who we are. I mean, we’ve been assessing and predicting things about each other since… well, a long time. And because each of us feels a pretty unbroken identity from when they were a child, it probably makes sense to assume others do as well. ‘I am that I am,’ is the transliteration of what the voice in the burning bush told Moses. Identity is fixed; it’s only the attributes that change… Or are they actually co-dependent?

Is there another way of assigning identity other than by characteristics, or traits? One obvious way is by appearance, of course, although that changes over time. So, what is the form of identity for which we are searching in, say, a long lost friend? What are the interpersonal interactions all about? What is it that makes her that same person you knew, even if she now seems… different? Imponderables all.

I began to wonder if the whole question of what I’ve relied on to determine a friend’s identity may be couched in my expectations -as if they were buried, somehow, in what their peculiarities had meant to me, and therefore, perhaps, in what I hoped to get out of the  encounter. Who I, not they, in other words, had become.

Not certain if this was a helpful insight, I decided to keep an eye peeled for writings touching on the subject. An article, written by the journalist Carlin Flora, a former features editor at Psychology Today, but writing this time in the online publication, Aeon, seemed close: https://aeon.co/essays/are-novelists-or-psychologists-better-at-describing-people

Entitled ‘Indescribable You’ she asks ‘Can novelists or psychologists better capture the strange multitude of realities in every human self?’ She starts by quoting a paragraph of an author describing some of the attributes of a character in his novel which ‘touches upon [her] looks, social class, psychology and behaviours. It’s hard to imagine a better description, and it’s certainly superior to what people provide to each other conversationally or on dating websites. And yet, any particular reader will project his or her own stored images, memories and worldview upon [her]… we’re constantly describing ourselves and others.’

But, ‘Writers search for emotional granularity, consequential details and apt metaphors, while sociologists and personality psychologists have come up with sorting tools such as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness… But across time and contexts, any of these characteristics can change… A million tiny human factors – tone of voice, brand of shoes, frequency of smiles – form a gestalt as difficult to pick apart as it is to pin down. If a person contains multitudes and is perhaps even infinite, how can we compare infinities? … This fluid state of affairs is often captured best by writers, who tend to have an agenda when delineating characters.’

Indeed, ‘Novelists know that behaviour is always more revelatory than a grocery list of traits… writers often expose not the ‘truth’ about someone, but rather the gaping distance between how they see themselves and how others view them.’

We seldom have omniscience, however: what we experience, is what we get, and any analysis is, by necessity, only temporary. Even if we have used the ‘Big Five’ personality traits in an attempt to categorize their tendencies, as Flora writes, ‘Tendencies, while real, are not as revealing as countertrends: a friend is an extravert, except when she’s with her colleagues. A daughter is agreeable at school, but pretty cranky at home.’ We are all contextually fluid in other words, and our -and their- personalities, quirks, and preferences are all bundled together.

This was on my mind when I saw her: the short thin woman apparently holding court with a friend in the middle of the Food Area of a large shopping mall. With her shock of fluffy red hair, and gesticulating arms it was typical Jane. If there were people around, she’d find a table somewhere amongst them, hoping for inquisitive glances that she could return with interest.

She had always been like that -all through university, at any rate. But I hadn’t seen her since graduation. We were frequent lab-partners in our biology classes because our last names both started with the same letter. Even when we first met, it was as if I’d known her for years -and since I hadn’t, there was a lot of ground for her to cover. Her curiosity was insatiable, both about me, and about whatever classes we shared.

I remember the time of our first assignment, when I found it difficult to risk dissecting the long-dead-and-pickled Taenia solium (pig tapeworm). I tried, unsuccessfully, to hide behind my eyes I think, but she just laughed, picked it up with her bare hands, and pointed out its frightening scolex through a magnifying glass she’d brought for the occasion. Jane was like that.

She was always a pleasure to be with, even if I didn’t want to talk. And if I didn’t ask her a question about something, she’d answer as if I’d meant to ask -always with a warm smile that threatened to break into a laugh if she caught me staring at her.

We both enjoyed each other’s company, so I’m not sure why we lost track of each other, but I imagine my being shy didn’t help. And then, of course, our career paths diverged and, well, new memories greeted us both.

And yet I never forgot her, so when I saw her unmistakable hairdo even from across the Food Court, I knew I had to say hello. I waited until her friend left to pick up their orders, and decided to walk over and say hello.

“Hi,” I managed to rasp, feeling dizzy because my heart was pounding so fast.

She looked up from her coffee with a start, and managed an embryonic smile for me. “Hi,” she answered, warily, and stared at me for a moment.

There was an awkward silence.

“I… I’m G,” I stammered, using the nickname she’d always called me. “Biology at McMaster…?”

The smile never left her lips, but her eyes scanned my face as if it contained a barcode somewhere that might help.

There was no question in my mind that it was Jane. She had the same olive-green eyes, the same slightly lob-sided grin she had always unleashed whenever she was puzzled in Biology class. “We were lab partners, in Biology… maybe nine or ten years ago…” I explained to the still baffled face

But, except for the little grin, her face remained a blank slate, and her eyes continued to sample my expression, hoping for a clue. Suddenly, they stopped, mid-scan and seemed to fixate on my hair. It was always bursting with unruly curls that I’d never been able to tame.

“Oh, yes… Now I remember you,” she said slowly, and a little uncertainly for my liking. “Didn’t you have trouble with a tapeworm or something…?”

I nodded hopefully.

“It’s nice seeing you again,” she added, obviously pleased with herself for remembering, even though her voice didn’t seem that happy I’d suddenly re-appeared in her life.

The painful silence returned and obviously neither of us could think of anything more to say. The thousand questions that had been bubbling through my mind seemed suddenly inappropriate. Things had changed.

I suppose time does that, though…