Are you really my friend?

There was something that Albert Camus, the Algerian-French philosopher, once wrote that has continued to inspire me since I first read it, so many years ago: “Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend

Friendship is a magical thing that is hard to define; it is like St. Thomas Aquinas’ view of Time: you know what it is until someone asks. Poets, perhaps, with their metaphors come closest to capturing it -Shakespeare for example:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.

Or, the wisdom of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet: ‘Friend, our closeness is this: anywhere you put your foot, feel me in the firmness under you.’

And even the humour of Oscar Wilde:A good friend will always stab you in the front‘.

And yet, despite the feeling that its essence remains just at the tip of our tongues, there has always been an abiding faith in friendships, a trust that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, ‘I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends’. In more modern times, however, the concept of ‘friend’ has undergone a not-so-subtle shift -everything from ‘friending’ people on social media, to online bullying, to trolling individuals for their putative beliefs, to unintended disclosure of confidences in internet postings.

So should a friend always bear his friend’s infirmities, as Cassius asked Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? There was a time when the answer seemed obvious; now I am not so sure.

Quite by chance, I came across an essay by Leah Plunkett, an associate dean at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law which raised the question of whether friendship should be policed. Whether it should remain a simple state of loyalty or, if declared, entail a legal obligation -like, say, marriage.   https://aeon.co/ideas/friendship-is-about-loyalty-not-laws-should-it-be-policed

The concept caught me totally by surprise. ‘Friendship is the most lawless of our close relationships,’ she writes. Somehow, the idea that there might even be a need of a legal framework for friendship seemed dystopian to me, so I read on.

‘Friends are tied to each other through emotions, customs and norms – not through a legally defined relationship, such as marriage or parenting, that imposes obligations. Anybody can become friends, we believe…  But with the advent of the digital domain, friendship has become more fraught. Online and off, we can share information about our friends without their permission and without legal restriction (except for slander and libel).’ But, of course, that means that ‘Information shared between friends can wind up being seen by people outside the friendship network who are not the intended audience…  confidences can inadvertently find their way to the public domain; all it takes is one careless email or the wrong privacy setting on a Facebook post.’

And there may even be legal consequences to what we or our friends have posted. ‘Digital social networks are already used to detain people trying to cross into the United States when statements by friends in their network are deemed by border agents to be suspicious or threatening.’ And, although most of us are aware that most social media platforms are collecting and selling our information, ‘Fewer recognise the third-party companies typically behind the scenes of our interactions, often using our information in unknown and uncontrollable ways in pursuit of their own goals.’

And yet, ‘Amid all this chaos, friendship itself remains unregulated. You don’t need a licence to become someone’s friend, like you do to get married. You don’t assume legal obligations when you become someone’s friend, like you do when you have a child. You don’t enter into any sort of contract, written or implied, like you do when you buy something.’ There’s no legal definition of ‘friend’, either.

But, Plunkett has an interesting idea: some U.S. states (like New Hampshire, her own) have definitions of bullying: the state’s Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention Act (2000) for students in primary and secondary school defines what bullying would entail. She wonders if it might be possible to apply its converse to define friendship. So, instead of saying you can’t harm somebody, a friend should need to support a peer or their property; cause emotional comfort, and so on. And, ‘To engage in cyberfriendship, this behaviour would need to take place electronically.’ Interesting idea.

But, although promoting friendship -online or in person- is worthwhile, one clearly has to be careful about how rigorously it is applied. ‘If you could be punished for not being a friend rather than for being a bully, that would undermine the lawlessness that makes friendship so generative.’

And Plunkett feels one has to be particularly careful about this lawlessness. ‘As friendship becomes less lawless, [and] more guarded by cybersurveillance… it might also become less about loyalty, affinity and trust, and more about strategy, currency and a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts (‘I won’t reveal what I know about you if you don’t reveal it about me’).’

It seems to me, she is correct in suggesting that we would be unwise to imprison friendship in too tight a definition -we might find ourselves confined to stocks for punishment and public humiliation like misbehaving villagers in the 16th and 17th centuries.  So, ‘Let’s keep paying our respects to those bonds of friendship that are lawless at heart, opening new frontiers within ourselves.’

And listen to the words of poets like Kahlil Gibran:

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught
.’

If only…

Look the other way, please.

There really are inconvenient truths, aren’t there? There are some things that seem to slip quietly under the radar -things that go unremarked until they  are brought our our attention. And even then, they are perhaps dismissed as unimportant -or worse, accepted and rationalized in an attempt to justify them as tools that enable the greater good of humanity. We, after all, are what it’s all about; our welfare is paramount, not to mention our survival. And when you frame it in those terms, there is little room for noblesse oblige. Survival of the fittest, quickly becomes survival of the ruthless -of the remorseless.

Perhaps I should explain. I live on a little hobby farm in the country, and when I was actively breeding sheep, chickens, and llamas, I was well acquainted with interested visitors, both two and four-legged. Everybody, it seemed, had or wanted, a stake in the game. Friends wanted eggs for their breakfasts, colleagues wanted lamb for their dinners, and I wanted an escape from the city. But, to share with some, was to share with all.

That’s how Life works, I suppose: word gets around, and soon there are all manner of uninvited guests -not all of whom knock, or ask permission. Some just appear -like carpenter ants- but some try not to advertise their arrival, and in fact seem to want to stay out of sight, if not out of mind. They’re the ones I used to worry about -if they’re in the barn, where else might they hide?

Of course I’m talking about rats -not so much the mice which kept my three cats busy in the night. No, the rats who hid in the engine of my pickup truck and ate the plastic off the wires to my distributor, or the battery wires in my car; the rats who patrolled the barn and left their distinctive trail through the uneaten bits of grain I fed the sheep; the rats who also holed up in the woodpile in my garage, and wherever else they could gather relatively undisturbed.

And yes, I declared war on them with spring traps baited with peanut butter, and put warfarin-like pellets in short, narrow little PVC pipes so the cats couldn’t get into them, but alas, the rats outlasted my efforts. Only when I retired and the chickens died in a well-fed old age, and only when I sold the sheep and llamas did the supply of grain eventually disappear -only then did the rats disappear. And I’ve never seen a rat, or droppings since. It reminded me of  the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem The Day is Done:

                                 And the night shall be filled with music,

                                      And the cares, that infest the day,

                                Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

                                     And as silently steal away.

I know, I know -they’re only rats, but their leaving seemed so sudden; I came to think of them as having made a collective decision to move their troupe away to greener fields -sort of like the Travellers in Britain with their little trailers, able to leave when conditions are no longer hospitable for them. I suppose I Disneyfied them in my over-active imagination, and yet there was something about their migration that softened their attributes. I’ve never been fond of rats -especially their tails- but on the other hand I’ve always found it hard to believe all of the sinister lore attached to their sneaky habits. After all, they’ve lived with mankind and our middens from the beginning, I would imagine… and we’re both still here in spades. You have to assume a certain degree of intelligence to coexist with us for so long, despite our best efforts to exterminate them.

As these things happen, I tripped over a tantalizing essay co-written by Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, and Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates

The first three sentences of the article hooked me: ‘In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter.’ And then, okay, they tickled them. ‘They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves.’

Of course, there were some other features, that if further substantiated, we likely don’t want to hear: ‘We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret.’ I’ve left the links intact, for reference, in case the reader’s credulity level sinks to the Fake News level.

But, for me at least, ‘The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy…  It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a rat suffering. Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness; that they would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.’

The reason the essay intrigued me, I’m sure, is because it has long been a practice to utilize rats (and mice, of course) as mindless fodder for our experimental quandaries. And, there’s little question that it is better to experiment on an animal than on a human, and especially a time-honoured nuisance and villain like a rat rather than a chimpanzee, or whatever. I don’t think I would be prepared to argue their utility for this, nor that until we have devised non-living alternatives -cell cultures, or AI modelling, perhaps- some things will require validation in functioning organisms to advance our knowledge for the benefit of the rulers (us).

My hope, however, is to point out that our hubris may tend to blind us to the increasing likelihood that rats, are not mindless protoplasms living forever in the ‘now’ of their experiences. Are they sentient beings…? I suppose their sentience , like ours, is on a spectrum, isn’t it?

But if we are to continue to utilize them as unwitting research subjects, it seems to me that we should treat them with kindness and a degree of respect. Remember the words of Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall, in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Let us not stoop to that…

Sine fide, sine amicis

Have you ever wondered whether or not you could trust someone? Or wondered what that would mean for the person you’re thinking about; what it might mean for you; what it could mean for the very idea of trust itself? These are difficult issues -uncertainty itself is difficult. But, the fact there is even a question suggests that there are reasonable doubts about the reliability of other person -because if there were no doubts about them, would you still be wondering if you could trust them?

Trust risks betrayal, but it also builds something; if it turns out to be justified (when it might not have been), something valuable has been gained, even if it is only belief in the other person. Let’s face it, most of what we know about the world is because of the contributions of other people; some things -like, say, the the advice you receive from your doctor, or the knowledge that it is possible to recharge your cell phone- you are unlikely going to be able to work out for yourself from first principles. So, there are some things you are probably better off to take on trust. Some are far less clear cut, however; there are fewer guideposts. Therein lie our doubts.

There is another reason for trusting, however: the informational asymmetry between trusting and not trusting. I happened upon a brief essay by the French evolutionary and cognitive psychologist Hugo Mercier from the CNRS (Institut Jean Nicod) in Paris. I suppose it was the title that initially attracted me: ‘The Smart move: we learn more by trusting than by not trusting’. https://aeon.co/ideas/the-smart-move-we-learn-more-by-trusting-than-by-not-trusting

In a way, that sounds counterintuitive; surely it’s the other way around -the lesson is more strident if our trust is discovered to be unwarranted. It makes one wary of doing it again; it is not easily forgotten. Then again, whatever one learns from trusting -whether good or bad- is important, too. Trusting advice -solicited or not- often tests more than just the individual giving it. As Mercier points out, ‘when we trust, we learn not only about specific individuals, we learn more generally about the type of situations in which we should or shouldn’t trust. We get better at trusting… People who trust the media more are more knowledgeable about politics and the news. The more people trust science, the more scientifically literate they are.’ Uhmm, I didn’t just make that up…

But there is more to it than that. ‘When our trust is disappointed – when we trust someone we shouldn’t have – the costs are salient, and our reaction ranges from annoyance all the way to fury and despair. The benefit – what we’ve learnt from our mistake – is easy to overlook. By contrast, the costs of not trusting someone we could have trusted are, as a rule, all but invisible. We don’t know about the friendship we could have struck… We don’t realise how useful some advice would have been… We don’t trust enough because the costs of mistaken trust are all too obvious, while the (learning) benefits of mistaken trust, as well as the costs of mistaken mistrust, are largely hidden. We should consider these hidden costs and benefits: think of what we learn by trusting, the people whom we can befriend, the knowledge that we can gain.’

I admit that Mercier doesn’t make his case about the informational asymmetry as strongly as I would have liked, but although he hasn’t convinced me, the idea is an interesting one, and something which had not occurred to me before. Still, trusting someone you know is different from trusting a bot that sends you an Email, or a voice that tries to interest you in something on the phone. And nowadays, with the economy still reeling from the pandemic, there seem to be a lot of entreaties on a lot of venues trying to get you to trust what they say -of course, they’re often simply trying to survive…

I do not have a land line phone -I gave that up once I had retired; I rely on my cell phone on which the name of the caller is displayed if they are on my list of contacts, or at least the phone number if they are not. I mention that because I seldom answer the call if I don’t recognize the caller -or at least the number on the screen.

 A few days ago, however, I did answer without full compos mentis -I had been snoozing if you must know, and I am never at my best when I initially awaken; my croaky voice gives me away, I fear. The caller’s initial confusion at its huskiness usually allows me time to collect my wits, so I see it as a plus, really. And anyway, that day I couldn’t understand the message I was being given. The voice spoke with an accent and a rush of syllables that baffled me, although the caller did know my name and used it to suggest there was a reason I should listen to what he had to say. The slowness of my response worked in my favour, however, and it only increased my advantage when I asked the caller -a gentle sounding man, from what I could tell- to repeat the purpose of his call.

He did, of course, but although I still couldn’t make out the name of the company he represented, I could tell my hesitation was having an effect on him. I gathered he was advertising some online teaching course, and that he, in turn, was beginning to hesitate. But there was patience in his voice, and the softness in his words softened mine.

Normally, if I think I am being unfairly solicited, I either end the call, or become quite rude. For some reason, though, his voice was one which, under different circumstances, I would be inclined to trust. I just couldn’t hang up on him -it would have been impolite, I thought.

“No, I’m not interested.” I added after his second repetition, but the yawning silence that ensued made me feel I had disappointed him, or something. I quickly reconsidered my response. “But, while perhaps I should be interested in your product,” I continued, searching for an excuse to end the call politely, “As you can tell by my voice, I am rather old…” It suddenly occurred to me that I was now playing the ‘elder’ card. “I’m not sure my brain still works the way it used to at University,” I chuckled. “I don’t really want to have to confront that though… My kids would have me in the Senior’s Home in no time if they found out.” He laughed at that. My god, I was actually having a conversation with the man -befriending him almost.

The tenor of his voice changed and he apologized for bothering me -I don’t think that has ever happened to me before on one of those crank calls. And then he thanked me for being so polite over the phone. “You’ve been very patient with me sir,” he said, almost as if he was talking to his aged father. “And I’m going to take your phone number off our call list, so we don’t bother you again.”

I was beginning to like the guy, and without even hesitating, said “I really appreciate that, you know. Thank you!”

“You take care, G,” he said, using my first name.

“And you as well,” I added as I ended the call, feeling a little sad that I hadn’t asked for his name.

You know, Mercier may be on to something – there really is something to be gained by trusting…

A spur to prick the sides of my intent

Suppose it were possible to change things about your own birth? What a great idea, right? Just think what that might mean: at the very least, perhaps, that you would not be imprisoned by whatever genetics you were allotted; you might actually have a chance to be the master of your own fate; and if you chose, be able to excel in fields currently beyond your reach.

And yet, would it even matter if it were yours to choose? Surely, not every daughter born to university professors succeeds as well as her parents; not every wealthy scion is able to make use of the educational opportunities he is able to access. It seems to me that there is more to it than the circumstances of birth -or the ticket you were issued in the chromosomal lottery: even hereditary instructions are malleable.

Genes are only blueprints -guidelines in a way- and what gets built in the end, often depends on how consistently each instruction is followed. Sometimes, circumstances prevent, or simply delay, completion of the initial plan. One of the mechanisms that allows this is epigenetic interference with the chromosomal directions: chemical signals that turn genes on or off -changes that are not inherited through DNA but rather result from interactions between genetic processes and experience. And these signals, or switches if you will, can be activated by a variety of circumstances: environment, stress, illness, diet, and even intrauterine factors- just to name a few. Genes are not the handcuffs we once thought they were.

But, I think most of us suspected that the exigencies imposed by birth were not absolute long before we knew anything about epigenetics. Or genes… or inheritance, for that matter. Philosophy has long wondered about who, what, and why we are; I was reminded of this by an essay written by Ada Jaarsma, a professor of philosophy at Mount Royal University in Calgary. https://aeon.co/essays/in-genetics-as-in-philosophy-existence-precedes-essence?

She writes that ‘In the early aftermath of the war, the French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used the term ‘existential’ to mark a radically first-person approach to history. Instead of the seemingly implacable nature of an event in time, these existentialists pointed to the subjective meaning that such events hold.’ Indeed, ‘I need to choose the circumstances of my birth, Sartre explained in Being and Nothingness (1943).’

On its own, his statement seems more metaphor than prescriptive, and yet, reality is conditional, isn’t it? To some extent, we all control how we perceive it, and therefore what it is like for each of us. I, like many of those in my philosophy lectures, was attracted to existentialism, and yet, although the poster figures were people like Sartre and Camus, I was drawn to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s long-time friend. I loved her metaphor of existence being a drama.

And yet, one of their rallying cries was ‘existence precedes essence’ which I never understood. The only thing I could figure was that they were simply saying that you couldn’t become anything unless you existed -and that didn’t seem particularly profound to me at the time. But Jaarsma helped me with this when she explained that ‘Beauvoir and Sartre were drawing attention to the utterly singular way in which we each become the selves that we are, with our own memories, stories and storytelling habits.’ There is for each of us, some control, if and when we weave these into some form of meaning. It’s the process of weaving that marks our humanity: that takes us from being a ‘thing’ into a ‘project’, to paraphrase Beauvoir from her Pyrrhus and Cineas. To choose our own births, in other words.

Jaarsma’s essay deals with far more than my brief précis has included, but I suppose we only take what information we need from any text. For me, it was the memory of those introductory philosophy lectures in my early years at university -my impressionable years, perhaps, but maybe also my formative years.

I loved philosophy and thought long and hard about it for those all-night discussions that my three close friends and I seemed fated for every Saturday night over a few beers. One of them, Arvid, was a Science major, and another, Bertram, was in Engineering, and then there was Judy who was enrolled in Arts, but intended to switch to philosophy when she had enough credits, or whatever. The discussions were really arguments, but isn’t that what philosophy is all about?

At any rate, the time that sticks out in my memory, was when Judy and I had just been to a seminar on Simone de Beauvoir earlier that week and were both primed with her feminist perspective.  Feminism was still considered quite radical at the time- and although I didn’t understand most of it, she decided to spring it on the other two.

“That’s just crap,” was Arvid’s traditional response to feminism -most of us were still trapped in the Zeitgeist of the time, I’m afraid. Even Bertie, who professed to a neutrality he couldn’t maintain for more than two or three sentences in an argument, wasn’t able to see why we men should have to yield anything to ‘the other side’ as he put it.

“We are the stories we tell,” I tried to interject to calm him down.

“Well, I was brought up with a different story, G,” he said with clenched jaws as he tried to stare me down.

Judy was sitting on the floor, her head leaning against the wall in the little dorm room where we had gathered, and had a sip of her beer. “And what was that story, Bertie?”

His expression softened as he tried to put it into words. “Well…” -Bertie hated confrontation- “I guess that I don’t see the need to capitulate…”

“Is that what it would be if you accepted women as equals, Bertie: capitulation…?”

He looked confused. “But I do accept women as equals.” Judy wrinkled her nose at that and he blushed. “I mean, we should all do what we’re good at, right…?”

“And what are women good at?” She pinned him to the wall he was leaning against with her eyes. “Having babies? Cooking? Cleaning the house?” She blinked seductively. “Being a good wife for her man?”

“Well, no…”

“A woman philosopher named Simone de Beauvoir once said ‘I am not a thing, but a project’. What do you think she meant, Bertie,” she said with a glance in my direction.

Bertie seemed flustered at the question. “Uhmm, that she was still working at what she was good at? Or…” He hesitated; he had obviously not thought about women like this before.

“Or that she could become somebody else?” Judy interjected, smiling at his discomfort. “Maybe whatever she wanted…? Perhaps her project was to tell a story –her story?”

“But…” Bertie had a quick swallow of his beer, and stared at her. “Just because you tell a story about yourself doesn’t make it true, or anything.” He thought about it for a moment. “I mean, maybe you’re just making it up -telling yourself something that will never happen…”

“It’s a goal though, isn’t it Bertie? Something to aim for.”

He shook his head. “But suppose it’s unrealistic…”

She sighed and smiled at him -sadly, I thought- then put down her beer. “What’s your story?”

He closed his eyes, as if he wished he’d never said anything. “I… I don’t really have one, I don’t think.”

Judy smiled again, this time like a mother, or maybe a sister. “Yes you do, Bertie,” she said softly. “You want to be an Engineer.”

He slowly shook his head, eyes still closed as if she’d hit a sore point. “I told myself I did, but now I’m not so sure.” He opened his eyes slowly and let his eyes rest gently on her cheek. “I don’t think I can do it, you know…”

Judy got up off the floor and went over to sit beside him. “Sometimes you just have to believe the story you wrote, Bertie.” She touched his shoulder affectionately. “At this stage in our lives, the story is all we have…”

I don’t remember much of the night after that, but I did happen to run into Bertie years later. “So, what are you doing with yourself nowadays, G?” he said after we shook hands and did the man-thing of slapping each other’s shoulder. “You always wanted to be a doctor, I remember…”

I nodded my head. “And you were going to be an engineer, weren’t you…?” I was curious about what had happened to him. Circumstances change as semesters bring new classes, and our little group of friends gradually dissolved. Within a year, we’d pretty well lost touch with each other…

“Flunked out after a couple of years,” he answered. “Anyway, I switched into science like -what was his name? Arvid? Now I’m a teacher.”

He looked happy enough, but as I was leaving, I saw the wistful expression on his face. I think I must have stirred some long-buried memories; I think he remembered he’d had a different story once…

The raven himself is hoarse

There was a time when I thought I finally had a handle on gender: it’s a spectrum, right? It’s not defined by biology or chromosomes -it’s how you think, how you feel, who you are. It should not merely be assigned, it should be assumed. And just when I thought I was escaping from the biases of another era, and beginning to see the wisdom in Bell Curve thinking, I found myself wandering in yet another labyrinth. It was only a matter of time before I met the Minotaur, I suppose.

But it all made sense: we are what we feel inside, no matter our outward assignation. And, let’s face it, none of us is always the same person -we evolve both in time and place; who we are at work, or in public, may not be the same as who we are at home and with friends. I am large, I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman confesses in his Leaves of Grass.

I am old now, and have never felt the urge to leave my tent; I do not feel imprisoned, nor deprived, and yet I can understand that others may wish to leave the flap unfastened. My own multitudes are those of ideas, not identities -sexual or otherwise- but as I say, we are all different and I have no problem with that.

Still, I enjoy opinions and ideas that trespass on Shibboleths, so I was intrigued when I came across an essay about the gender spectrum by the philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, from the University of Warwick: ‘https://aeon.co/essays/the-idea-that-gender-is-a-spectrum-is-a-new-gender-prison

As she writes, ‘The word ‘gender’ originally had a purely grammatical meaning in languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. But since at least the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, this distinction has been important, because it enables us to acknowledge that some of the differences between women and men are traceable to biology, while others have their roots in environment, culture, upbringing and education – what feminists call ‘gendered socialisation’.’

And, in what Reilly-Cooper sees as the radical feminist view, ‘[G]ender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.’ That view, by the way -although I have difficulty with it- is the one which I had finally come to understand: imposed gender is a caste system, a hierarchical one in which males occupy the highest rank, and socialization proceeds accordingly. ‘So, for the radical feminist, the aim is to abolish gender altogether.’

The author, however discusses another view of gender -the queer feminist view- that  ‘what makes the operation of gender oppressive is not that it is socially constructed and coercively imposed: rather, the problem is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders.’ The choice isn’t simply a binary one -gender is a spectrum.

But now Reilly-Cooper’s training as a philosopher enters. ‘If’, she posits, ‘gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, because it would fail to pick out a special category of people.’ Even the binary of Tall/Short is relative, because nobody is absolutely tall -it is merely a comparison between that individual and the average height in whatever population we are considering.

And, ‘If gender, like height, is to be understood as comparative or relative, this would fly in the face of the insistence that individuals are the sole arbiters of their gender. Your gender would be defined by reference to the distribution of gender identities present in the group in which you find yourself, and not by your own individual self-determination.’

An interesting conclusion, especially if you expand the concept. If gender is a spectrum, that means it’s a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is located somewhere along that continuum. I think of myself as a man, and yet someone is likely to be further along the spectrum towards manhood, and would therefore be more of a man than me… Whoaa.

The author takes it further, of course: ‘In reality, everybody is non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce with others, and positively rail against others still. So to call oneself non-binary is in fact to create a new false binary.’ Or, if you want to ‘identify as pangender, is the claim that you represent every possible point on the spectrum? All at the same time?’ And if you don’t ‘accept that masculinity should be defined in terms of dominance while femininity should be described in terms of submission… whatever you come up with, they are going to represent opposites of one another.’

I love the way philosophers approach things, don’t you? The next question she asks is ‘how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? Just how many possible gender identities are there?’ Her answer: ‘7 billion, give or take. There are as many possible gender identities as there are humans on the planet… But if this is so, it’s not clear how it makes sense or adds anything to our understanding to call any of this stuff ‘gender’, as opposed to just ‘human personality’… The word gender is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes or preferences. It is not simply a label to adopt so that you now have a unique way to describe just how large and multitudinous and interesting you are. Gender is the value system that ties desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviours and characteristics to reproductive function.  Once we’ve decoupled those behaviours and characteristics from reproductive function – which we should – and once we’ve rejected the idea that there are just two types of personality and that one is superior to the other – which we should – what can it possibly mean to continue to call this stuff ‘gender’? What meaning does the word ‘gender’ have here, that the word ‘personality’ cannot capture?’ Bravo!

So, should the default then, be ‘cis’ (i.e. personal identity conforms with birth sex)? She has an answer to that one, too: A ‘desire not to be cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you are female. I too believe my thoughts, feelings, aptitudes and dispositions are far too interesting, well-rounded and complex to simply be a ‘cis woman’… Once we recognise that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to concede that nobody is deep down cisgender.’

And remember, ‘To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless… The solution is not to reify gender by insisting on ever more gender categories that define the complexity of human personality in rigid and essentialist ways. The solution is to abolish gender altogether… You do not need to have a deep, internal, essential experience of gender to be free to dress how you like, behave how you like, work how you like, love who you like. You do not need to show that your personality is feminine for it to be acceptable for you to enjoy cosmetics, cookery and crafting.’ Amen.

Somehow, I feel that Reilly-Cooper has allowed me to peek under the canvass just a little -sort of like what I used to do when I was a kid and the circus came to town. I’m sure it did not go unnoticed, but nobody seemed to mind that I was fascinated with what was going on, and that I wanted to know how it all worked -and maybe even be invited in to ask some questions.

After all, curiosity is what leads to understanding -and isn’t it better to be interested than indifferent? Or worse, intolerant?

What about Now?

Now can be a tricky thing to police, I think; it keeps changing its clothes, and each time I think I finally recognize it, I realize I’ve mistaken it for somebody else. Someone from a different time, perhaps; someone who looks a lot like a friend in another place, but who is a stranger here with a similar face…

We should all try to live in the now I’ve read, but where, exactly, is that? And if I ever did run across it as I wander along the streets of my life, how would I recognize it? Or, perhaps more to the point, how could I pause there long enough to know I was in the right place -long enough to use it before it vanished as if it never really was?

There’s a lot of mystery to a now, you have to admit. Quite apart from it being infinitely evanescent, I imagine each one of them is different, if only by shades. A now on, say, Thursday, is no doubt different than a now on any other day, although I’ve never stopped long enough to analyze the contents, let alone committed any one instance to memory well enough for an accurate comparison.

Still, even if each now is in fact unique, why should any one example be privileged over any other? With an ocean to choose from, what advantage can be accorded to a single drop? And anyway, if the drop merely attests to the value found all around it, and is merely a representative of the whole, then is it sort of like the trailer-teaser of a movie, or the sample of a product that is intended to interest you in buying more? In which case, it is the whole that is being advertised, not the part. The part is incomplete: one page of the story, only.

And is any previous now equivalent to any new one? If not, are there any characteristics that should mark it for special consumption? Or should we just draw lots, throw dice, to choose? Even if I could stop long enough to find a now and valourize it, I am concerned I’d end up being saddled with the wrong one. A plain one; a defective one…

Metaphysics is certainly confusing; I see why it, and the most famous of its three children -ontology- has become the province of the Philosophers. Fortunately I stumbled upon an essay on the now in an essay by John Martin Fischer, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside; I have to confess it took me innumerable nows to read it, however. There’s nothing surprising in that, I suppose -still, it made me wonder if I could ever stay put in a now. https://aeon.co/essays/the-metaphysical-claims-behind-the-injunction-to-be-in-the-now

Fischer outlines the belief of various adherents -religious and otherwise- that ‘although it might seem to us that other times – past and future – are appropriate targets of attention, we can come to understand (intellectually and affectively) that in a fundamental sense… there is only the now, and thus our attention should be focused on it.’ The singularity of the now.

He is not convinced of the uniqueness of any particular now, however; he suggests that although we are, in reality, only present in the now, it is actually a trivial observation. Indeed, ‘now is an indexical term. That is, it’s employed flexibly to point to the particular time when it’s used, not the same time every time it’s used.  Similarly, the term here is an indexical term, employed flexibly to refer to the place where it’s uttered, not the same place wherever it’s uttered. Now is a temporal indexical, and here is a spatial indexical.’ I like that.

‘It’s thus not true that it’s always now, in the sense that it’s always the same time… Interpreted so that it’s correct, the intuitive idea that it’s always now doesn’t support the crucial inference that we should focus on the present because of its singularity.’ To paraphrase that apocryphal woman who, when challenged to answer what supported the turtle she believed held the world in place, it’s nows all the way down -an infinite number, in fact. Each may well be a singularity… but so what? What makes any one of them so special? There will no doubt be others each claiming to be exceptional, but only because they are indeed different from the rest.

As Fischer says, ‘it’s that there’s no necessity or inevitability to focusing only on the present moment, based on the fact (if it is a fact) that it’s the only moment that exists or is real.’ And, since it is obviously true that we can neither act in the past, nor in the future and only in the present -the now– then shouldn’t we try to stay in it…? Uhmm, I’m not convinced there’s an option, frankly. And anyway, there are inevitable consequences of acting in any given now that spread into the future and so are not a part of that special ‘singularity’. So, let me repeat, why is it so special -and why would I ever want to privilege it as if it actually contained something more than temporal instantaneity? After all, as Fischer points out, ‘every way of inhabiting the now (including ‘being here now’) is also a way of taking up the past and orienting ourselves to the future.’

No, I’m afraid I’m not really convinced there are any special values to the nows that flash past us like individual frames on a celluloid movie reel. It’s the movie as a whole that is ultimately what each now contributes to: the story. That’s where we all live, after all.

I suppose that if we find the story unpleasant in passages, we might benefit by pausing for a now or two -perhaps in meditation, or conversation with a friend- but in the end, we have to join the succession of picture frames and get on with our lives. It’s how it works.

As Fischer concludes, ‘We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one. We are free to choose how we wish to be. We should indeed be here now, but not because the now is all we have.’ We think in Time, we love in Time, we live in Time. Perhaps we should enjoy what we have left of it. All of it…!

Fake lies?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, but not for the reasons you might expect. Not because of the abundance of ‘fake news’ about which we seem to be constantly reminded, and not necessarily because I’ve been occasionally embarrassed in a lie, nor because of the tangled web you wove when first you practiced to deceive.

Fake news and deception, not to mention outright lies, have been in the headlines in recent years, but deception is certainly not unique to our era -nor even our species. Think of bird behaviour to distract predators from their nest, cowbirds that lay their eggs in other nests to trick the foreign mothers into raising the alien young, or squirrels that pretend to bury acorns in one place, but in case they were observed, actually keep them in their mouths while they find another spot to cache them.

I grant almost universality to the practice of intended deception -especially where there is something being protected, if only reputation or status. And, given its ubiquity and seemingly relentless practice in humans, it has a long history of ethical debate. Deception, of course is different from lying -deception is more a case of misleading, whereas lying is saying something known to be false.

I am concerned by something a little different, however. I am vexed by what, at first glance, would seem to be a more trivial concern: does a writer of fiction actually lie? And if the medium is one that does not purport to be factual -a novel, say- is it even possible? How important is truth in a fictive world -as long as it is internally consistent? A character in that story can lie, to be sure, but how analogous is that to a real-life character doing the same thing?

Writers have strange thoughts -perhaps that’s why they end up writing- but nonetheless I have been curious about this for some time now. I wonder about the ethics of fiction -not malicious, or scandalous fiction, you understand (although I suspect even those are merely the far edge of the spectrum). As it applies to writing, the very definition of ‘fiction’ -from the Latin fingere, to contrive- suggests imaginative creation, not investigative reportage where false attributions are indeed ethically problematic.

I’ve written fiction for years now (putting aside the fact that I am not at all widely published) so have I been lying all these years? If one of my characters lies, or deceives, and it happens to be read by someone in the ‘real-world’ -trespassing, in other words- have those lies in some sense transgressed the real-world ethics? Soiled our nest?

You’re right, it is perhaps a trifling concern, and yet bothersome nonetheless; I despaired of ever seeing it as the subject of an understandable evaluation. But, on one of my wide-eyed explorations, I happened upon a thoughtful essay by Emar Maier, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen. https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-tell-fact-from-fiction-in-fiction-and-other-forms-of-lies

He starts by considering the work of another philosopher, H.P. Grice who considers that ‘it all comes down to the assumption that communication is fundamentally a cooperative endeavour,’ and postulates what seem to be almost ‘Golden Rule’ maxims of quality in communication: ‘‘do not say what you believe to be false’ and ‘do not say that for which you have insufficient evidence’.’ And yet, we violate these all the time -we tell jokes, we exaggerate, we deceive, we use metaphors, we use sarcasm, and, of course, we tell stories. ‘In all of these cases there is a clear sense in which we are not really presenting the truth, as we know it, based on the best available evidence. But there are vast differences between these phenomena. For instance, while some constitute morally objectionable behaviour, others are associated with art and poetry.’

There is a difference, though, between violating one of Grice’s norms, and flouting it with, say, a sigh and rolling of the eyes. However untrue the assertion, it is readily recognizable as an exaggeration or even a lie that is not meant to be taken as true. On the other hand, ‘Liars… violate the same maxim, but they don’t flout it. Theirs is a covert violation, and hence lying has an altogether different effect on the interpreter than irony, sarcasm or metaphor.’

Fiction, however, is more complicated. A work of fiction ‘consists of speech acts that, for the most part, look like ordinary assertions.’ And yet, ‘As with lies and irony, there is no dedicated grammar or style for constructing fictional statements that would reliably distinguish them from regular assertions.’

So, ‘Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions.’ There are two ways to look at this, Maier says: either that ‘both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth’ or ‘we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.’

‘[T]he idea that both lying and fiction are just assertions of known falsehoods can be traced back to eminent philosophers such as Plato, who wanted to ban poets from his ideal society, [and] David Hume who called them ‘liars by profession’’.

I, however, am more convinced by the opinion of Albert Camus, who believed that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. At any rate, Maier goes on to observe that a ‘striking difference between fictional statements and lies is the fact that, while most lies are simply false… many philosophers have argued that the statements making up a work of fiction, even those involving clearly nonexistent entities, are not really false, but at least ‘in some sense’ true – viz… true relative to the fictional world in question.’ Now we’re getting somewhere -it’s context that matters.

A second difference between fiction and lies, is the emotional response -the paradox of- fiction. ‘[W]orks of fiction induce… a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, allowing us to be emotionally engaged with commonly known falsehoods. Lies evidently lack this property: once a lie is exposed, suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement in accordance with the story’s content become impossible… the difference between fictional statements and regular communicative assertions lies not in some hidden logical operators in the fictional assertion, but in the fact that telling fictional stories is an altogether different speech act from the act of assertion that makes up our talk about the weather, or our newspaper reporting.’ Kind of what I suspected all along. ‘As the English poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney put it in The Defence of Poesy (1595): ‘Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.’

So, ‘it seems that fiction and lying are mutually exclusive, for they belong to distinct speech act categories, conform to different norms, and affect different cognitive states… since it is the text itself that generates the fictional world, the statements that make up that text should automatically become true in that world. When George Orwell wrote that ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it thereby became true in the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) that the clocks were striking thirteen. Unlike for the historian or the journalist, there is no relevant world outside the text, relative to which we could fact-check whether Orwell miscounted. This line of argument can be summed up in the principle of authorial authority: the statements that make up a work of fiction are true in that fiction.’

Of course there are things like ‘imaginative resistance’ where internal inconsistencies disrupt belief, but writers -and certainly proof readers and editors- are pretty good at resolving these gaffes before they are hung out to air on the clothesline of publication.

At any rate, I’m not sure I’ve discovered many immutable truths in Maier’s treatment of fictive lying, but I feel better about my own ethics of make-believe. I do still wonder about the boundary markers at that razor-thin edge where well-written fiction seems real and induces real emotion. I suppose edges are usually like that, though: porous…

Counterfactualities?

Remember Plato’s Cave allegory? In his Republic he describes a scenario in which some people have spent their lives chained in a cave so they can only see the wall in front of them. There is a fire behind them that casts shadows on the wall that they have no way of knowing are only shadows. For these people, the shadows are their reality. There seem to be many versions of what happens next, but the variation I prefer is that one of the people escapes from the cave and discovers the sun outside for the first time; he realizes that what he had assumed was real -the shadows- were just that: merely the shadows cast by the actual objects themselves.

Sometimes we become so accustomed to seeing things a certain way, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe there could be an alternative view. Or assume that, even if there were another version, it must be wrong. But can we be sure that we are evaluating the alternative fairly and without prejudice? Can we assess it with sufficient objectivity to allow a critical analysis? Or are we unavoidably trapped in the prevailing contemporary Weltanschauung? It’s an interesting question to be sure, and one that begs for examination, if only to explore the world behind the mirror.

I stumbled upon an essay by Julie Reshe, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, who, after recovering from a bout of depression, began to wonder whether depression itself was actually the baseline state, and one that allowed a more accurate view of how things actually are: https://aeon.co/essays/the-voice-of-sadness-is-censored-as-sick-what-if-its-sane

I have to admit that I had to temporarily divorce myself from my usually optimistic worldview to be able to fathom her argument, and I found it rather uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s instructive -even valuable- to look under a rock.

As a philosopher, Reshe felt the need to examine both sides of an argument critically, putting aside preconceptions and biases. ‘Depressogenic thoughts are unpleasant and even unbearable,’ she writes, ‘but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are distorted representations of reality. What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the very illusions that help us to not realise this? What if, to the contrary, positive thinking represents a biased grasp of reality? … What if it was a collapse of illusions – the collapse of unrealistic thinking – and the glimpse of a reality that actually caused my anxiety? What if, when depressed, we actually perceive reality more accurately? What if both my need to be happy and the demand of psychotherapy to heal depression are based on the same illusion?’ In other words, what if I am actually not a nice person? What if there’s a reason people don’t like me?

Whoa! Suppose this is not a counterfactual? After all, other philosophers have wondered about this. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer whose deeply pessimistic writings about the lack of meaning and purpose of existence I have never understood, or the equally famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger who felt that anxiety was the basic mode of human existence. ‘We mostly live inauthentically in our everyday lives, where we are immersed in everyday tasks, troubles and worries, so that our awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of our existence is silenced by everyday noise… But the authentic life is disclosed only in anxiety.’ My god, where’s my knife?

And even Freud wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of psychotherapeutic treatment, and was ‘reluctant to promise happiness as a result.’ He felt that ‘psychoanalysis could transform hysterical misery into ‘common unhappiness’. Great…

And then, of course, there’s the philosophical tradition called ‘depressive realism’ which holds that ‘reality is always more transparent through a depressed person’s lens.’ And just to add more poison to the cake, ‘the Australian social psychologist Joseph Forgas and colleagues showed that sadness reinforces critical thinking: it helps people reduce judgmental bias, improve attention, increase perseverance, and generally promotes a more skeptical, detailed and attentive thinking style.’

All of which is to say, I suppose, ‘The evolutionary function of depression is to develop analytical thinking mechanisms and to assist in solving complex mental problems. Depressive rumination helps us to concentrate and solve the problems we are ruminating about… depressive rumination is a problemsolving mechanism that draws attention to and promotes analysis of certain problems.’

I have presented these deeply troubling ideas merely as an exercise in perspective, I hasten to add. Sometimes it is valuable to try to grasp the Umwelt of the stranger on the other side of the door before we open it. We can only help if we are willing to understand why they are there.

Part of the solution may lie in puzzling out Reshe’s counterfactuals. She seems to want to assign meaning to her former depression, as have many of the other people she mentions, to buttress her point. She also seems to feel that there was a time when that point of view might have seemed more mainstream. That nowadays there is just too much expectation of happiness -unrealistic expectations by and large, which presents a problem in and of itself. If we constantly expect to achieve a goal, but, like a prairie horizon, it remains temptingly close and yet just out of reach, we are doomed to frustration -a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, it seems to me that resigning oneself to unhappiness, or its cousin depression, doesn’t represent a paradigm shift, but rather a rationalization that it must be the default position -and therefore must serve some useful evolutionary purpose; a position benighted and stigmatized because it advertises the owner’s failure to achieve the goal that others seem to have realized.

I’m certainly not disparaging depression, but neither am I willing to accept that it serves any evolutionary strategy except that of a temporary, albeit necessary harbour until the storm passes. And to suggest that positive emotions -happiness, contentment, joy, or pleasure, to name just a few- however short-lived, are illusory, and unrealistic expectations, is merely to excuse and perhaps justify an approach to depression that isn’t working. A trail that only wanders further into the woods.

I’m certainly cognizant of the fact that there is a spectrum of depressions, from ennui to psychotic and that some are more refractory to resolution than others, but that very fact argues against leaving them to strengthen, lest they progress to an even more untenable and dangerous state.

Perhaps we need to comfort ourselves with the ever-changing, ever-contrasting nature of emotions, and not expect of them a permanence they were likely never evolved to achieve.

Goldilocks, it seems to me, realized something rather profound when she chose the baby bear’s porridge after finding papa bear’s porridge too hot, and mamma bear’s too cold: it was just right…

Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.                                                                                                                   
Theseus, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare had a keen appreciation of the value of imagination, as that quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests. But what is imagination? Is it a luxury -a chance evolutionary exaptation of some otherwise less essential neural circuit- or a purpose-made system to analyse novel features in the environment? A mechanism for evaluating counterfactuals -the what-ifs?

A quirkier question, perhaps, would be to ask if it might predate language itself -be the framework, the scaffolding upon which words and thoughts are draped. Or is that merely another chicken versus egg conundrum drummed up by an overactive imagination?

I suppose what I’m really asking is why it exists at all. Does poetry or its ilk serve an evolutionary purpose? Do dreams? Does one’s Muse…? All interesting questions for sure, but perhaps the wrong ones with which to begin the quest to understand.

I doubt that there is a specific gene for imagination; it seems to me it may be far more global than could be encompassed by one set of genetic instructions. In what we would consider proto-humans it may have involved more primitive components: such non-linguistic features as emotion -fear, elation, confusion- but also encompassed bodily responses to external stimuli: a moving tickle in that interregnum between sleep and wakefulness might have been interpreted as spider and generated a muscular reaction whether or not there was an actual creature crawling on the skin.

Imagination, in other words, may not be an all-or-nothing feature unique to Homo sapiens. It may be a series of  adaptations to the exigencies of life that eventuated in what we would currently recognize as our human creativity.

I have to say, it’s interesting what you can find if you keep your mind, as well as your eyes, open. I wasn’t actively searching for an essay on imagination -although perhaps on some level, I was… At any rate, on whatever level, I happened upon an essay by Stephen T Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and his approach fascinated me. https://aeon.co/essays/imagination-is-such-an-ancient-ability-it-might-precede-language

‘Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become… We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance.’

Interestingly, many archaeologists seem to conflate the emergence of imagination with the appearance of artistic endeavours –‘premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago)… [and] that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work.’

Asma, sees the sequence rather differently, however: ‘Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.’

Further, Asma supposes that ‘Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be.’ I love his idea of a ‘cognitive gap’. It imagines (sorry) a cognitive area where something novel could be developed and improved over time.

I’m not sure that I totally understand all of the evidence he cites to bolster his contention, though- for example, the view of philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon that there are ‘deep embodied metaphorical structures within language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).’ Although, ‘Rather than being based in words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images.’ But at any rate, Asma summarizes his own thoughts more concisely, I think: ‘The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.’

In other words, you don’t need to have language for imagination. But the discipline of biosemantics tries to envisage how it might have developed in other animals. ‘[Primates] have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding [sic] sequence, otherwise their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.’ So, as a result, ‘The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning.’

Imagination has been lauded as a generator of progress, and derided as idle speculation throughout our tumultuous history, but there’s no denying its power: ‘The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge.’

Without imagination, we cannot hope to appreciate the Shakespeare who also wrote, in his play Richard III:

Princes have but their titles for their glories,                                                                                                      An outward honor for an inward toil,                                                                                                                And, for unfelt imaginations,                                                                                                                                They often feel a world of restless cares.

Personally, I cannot even imagine a world where imagination doesn’t play such a crucial role… Or can I…?

 

Is the thing translated still the thing?

When I was a student at University, translated Japanese Haiku poetry was all the rage; it seemed to capture the Zeitgeist of the generation to which I had been assigned. I was swept along with others by the simple nature images, but -much like the sonnet, I suppose- I failed to realize how highly structured it was. In fact, I can’t really remember all of its complex requirements -but maybe that’s the beauty of its seeming simplicity in English. However, the contracted translation of the Japanese word –haikai no ku, meaning ‘light verse’- belies the difficulty in translating the poetry into a foreign language while still conserving its structure, its meaning, and also its beauty.

It seems to me that the ability to preserve these things in translation while still engaging the interest of the reader requires no less genius than that of its original creator. While, both in poetry as well as in the narrative of story, the ideas of the authors, and their images, plots and metaphors are an intrinsic part of the whole, sometimes the concepts are difficult to convey to a foreign culture. So, what to do with them to maintain the thrust of the original while not altering the charm? And when does the translation actually become a different work of art and suggest the need for a different attribution?

Given my longstanding  love for poetry and literature, I have often wondered whether I could truly understand the poetry of, say, Rumi who wrote mainly in Persian but also in Turkish, Greek and Arabic; or maybe, the more contemporary Rilke’s German language poetry. I speak none of those languages, nor do I pretend to understand the Umwelten of their times, so how do I know what it is that attracts me, apart from the beauty of their translations? Is it merely the universality of their themes, and perhaps my mistaken interpretations of the images and metaphors, or is there something else that seeps through, thanks to -or perhaps in spite of- the necessary rewording?

Since those heady days in university, I have read many attempts to explain, and even to justify, various methods of translation, and they all seem to adhere to one or both of the only two available procedures: paraphrasing, or metaphrasing (translating word for word). And no matter which is used, I have to wonder if the product is always the poor cousin of the original.

In one of the seminars from university, I remember learning that as far back as St. Augustine and St. Jerome, there was disagreement about how to translate the Bible -Augustine favoured metaphrasis, whereas Jerome felt that there was ‘a grace of something well said’. Jerome’s appealing phrase has stayed with me all these years. Evidently, the problem of translation goes even further back in history though, and yet the best method of preserving the author’s intention is still no closer to being resolved.

In my abiding hope for answers, I still continue to search. One such more recent forage led me to an essay in the online publication Aeon by the American translator and author Mark Polizzotti (who, among other honours, is a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the recipient of a 2016 American Academy of Arts and Letters award for literature, and a publisher and editor-in-chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). https://aeon.co/essays/is-the-translator-a-servant-of-the-text-or-an-original-artist

He writes, ‘as the need for global communication grows by proverbial leaps, the efficiency of machine-based translation starts looking rather attractive. In this regard, a ‘good’ translation might simply be one that conveys the requisite bytes of information in the shortest time. But translation is about more than data transmission, and its success is not always easy to quantify. This becomes particularly true in the literary sphere: concerned with delivering artistic effect more than facts simple and straight.’

So, ‘We might think that the very indeterminacy of literary translation would earn it more leeway, or more acceptance.’ And yet, ‘many sophisticated readers view translation as no more than a stopgap… it would be disingenuous to claim that the reader of a translation is truly experiencing, in all its aspects, the foreign-language work it represents, or that in reading any text transposed from one language into another there isn’t a degree of difference (which is not the same as loss). The heart of the matter lies in whether we conceive of a translation as a practical outcome, with qualities of its own that complement or even enhance the original, or as an unattainable ideal, whose best chance for relative legitimacy is to trace that original as closely as possible.’

Polizzotti goes on to catalogue various approaches and views of translation and then suggests what I, at least, would consider the best way to think of translation and the obvious need it attempts to fulfil: ‘If instead we take translators as artists in their own right, in partnership with (rather than servitude to) their source authors; if we think of translation as a dynamic process, a privileged form of reading that can illuminate the original and transfer its energy into a new context, then the act of representing a literary work in another language and culture becomes something altogether more meaningful. It provides a new way of looking at a text, and through that text, a world. In the best of cases, it allows for the emergence of an entirely new literary work, at once dependent on and independent of the one that prompted it – a work that neither subserviently follows the original nor competes with it, but rather that adds something of worth and of its own to the sum total of global literatures. This does not mean taking undue liberties with the original; rather, it means honouring that original by marshalling all of one’s talent and all of one’s inventiveness to render it felicitously in another language.

‘To present a work as aptly as possible, to recreate it in all its beauty and ugliness, grandeur and pettiness, takes sensitivity, empathy, flexibility, knowledge, attention, caring and tact. And, perhaps most of all, it takes respect for one’s own work, the belief that one’s translation is worth judging on its own merits (or flaws), and that, if done well, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with the original that inspired it.’

Polizzotti has nailed it. There’s a spirit inherent in good translation -one that inspires a confidence that the original intent of the author is appropriately, and befittingly displayed.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Polizzotti’s essay was a recent book I read (in translation): The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery and translated from the original French by Alison Anderson. So seamless was the narrative, and so apt were the translated dialogues, I have to confess that I had difficulty believing the book had not originally been written in English. And as it stands, it is one of the most rewarding books I have experienced in years. I’m sure that Ms Barbery is well content with Anderson’s translation, not the least because their efforts earned it accolades from various critics, including a posting on the New York Times best-seller list.

It seems to me that one could not expect more from a translator than that.