Strange World, Strange People, Strange Self
How often have you looked at a baby and marvelled at the directness of its gaze? It is a clear and honest look that must, it seems, be linked with its helplessness and innocence, and with the trust it has no choice but to give you. Now think about it again: a child is not innocent, but ignorant. It may start from zero knowledge, but it’s busy from its first breath with learning to model itself as part of the real world. Every minute, it sticks a little more substance to its armature of experience as it makes its journey through the valley of the shadow, leaving childish things behind. The actual world gets left behind in the process. The horizon that describes the spherical earth, the gravity that binds us to it and the line of evolutionary mutations that gave us form become part of the background, overlaid by the complex of culture that we call the real world. The child learns how to measure everything, and to prise apart the elements. Eventually its freedom is eclipsed by its knowledge. Maintaining the lamps that eliminate the shadows from the valley becomes a full time occupation, and because it knows how to act, it has no choice but to act. Because it has a choice, it has no choice but to choose.
Here is a different child. This one, against the grain, has grown up innocent, in and out of the shadow; he sees a fresh world both strange and beautiful every time he turns his head. It is not the real world he sees but the actual world. It is wonderful: awesome. Every time is the first time. Today, visiting earth, he is struck by the horizon and its almost imperceptible curve. He is walking on a surface so riven by strangeness that he has to take great care where he places his feet, and the fierce light in the sky, much too bright to look at, seems to be millions of miles away. This strangeness clicks in and out of being beautiful every time he turns his head; strange, beautiful, strange beautiful. The beauty ebbs and flows like waves, or like swooning. It makes him unsteady. He loses touch with the edge of his body and he has to stamp his feet and shake his wrists to find it again.
Why does the number 16 bus go the same way every day? Is it magic? No – it’s because the driver signed a contract. Why do children go to school? Because it’s not just a good idea – it’s the law. What is money? A promise to pay. Why do you need a passport? To prove you are who you say you are. This myriad of petty contracts is how the real world works. But besides these enforceable arrangements there is a galaxy of more subtle socialisms, from small talk to oratory, that describe the boundaries of our lives. We are human, but we live bound by social arrangements of varying intensity, as do the other primates. Take, for example, the Anubis baboons, whose adult males have huge manes of thick hair and canine teeth like swords. They live in big packs – not like wolves, in dozens, but in troops of several hundred. The hierarchies in these packs, these tribes, are delineated as strictly as if Dickens had written them. The alpha male is literally the father of the tribe, as they used to say of Scottish clan chiefs, because he has first choice of all the females. The baboon’s change of government is rougher than ours, but it retains a metaphorical value for what we do. It arrives in the shape of two young males with brand new manes and useful muscles who gang up together to overcome the leader, the alpha male. There is a big scuffle that kicks up the dust and gets the rest of the tribe hooting and jumping but before too long they have him on the ground. He retires immediately and goes to sit in a tree while the two deposers beta-and-gamma the daylights out of each other until there is only one left standing.
The elaborate gamut of snarling and grimacing that accompanies this revolution is like a parody of the facial expression exercises given to special needs children as part of their instruction in the ways of the real world. They have to be taught how to read faces because of their apparent difficulty with social communication: but to be fully integrated you need the flared nostril and the bared teeth, the quizzical smile and the raised eyebrow, the ambiguous frown and the crocodile tears, not just happy face, sad face, angry face, frightened face. It is not a light task, this kind of social-adaptive teaching. Once taken on, the world reveals layers of complication so deep that everything presents itself as a potential problem with a potential solution. An ordinary child will spend a few years asking basic questions, following each answer with a further why, until the tautologies of its tribe are revealed thus: it is so because we believe it to be so. That is the foundation of the real world. But the special need in question here is having to live without that basis. The trust in enquiry, in Science and Philosophy and their related experiments, needs to be replaced with something else.
If science and philosophy are too enmired in tribal value, what about art? The image conscious world is a modern thing, but not a new thing. The acceleration in digital processing of images may have taken us by surprise and rendered the world of representation a complex economico-philosophic proposition full of the furore of real world territories, but still, art survives. In the cave painting days it was the main subject, both technology and magic too – but now we know so much about everything the mimesis of the actual world that art is can take its place alongside science and philosophy as a kind of equal but different enquiry. In this picture, the actual world is the more-than-real place that frames not just human life but all of life, and the perception of another world beyond the real is the subject of art’s enquiry. Perception of form and engagement with material are the stuff of it. When taken like this, suddenly, the critiques disappear and become appreciations. Discrimination disappears and becomes judgement. And most of all, the strange self appears, and makes its mark.
The great featherweight Gertrude Stein had amongst her writings this simple bon mot: ‘there is knowing, and there is what you know’. By knowing she meant public knowledge, by what you know she meant personal experience. Her mission had been the disarming of prejudice, and her ‘knowledge and what you know’ is part of a modern and non utilitarian understanding of democracy in which the individual is more important than the majority. You don’t cut off their heads for the sake of difference, you have their heads examined. And how strange it is in there! Difference turns out not to be revolutionary, nor radical even, but strange. And through this door the art of self expression walks in and plays its part.
Self expression does not mean meaningless. Does not mean uncommunicative. Does not even mean non representational. The forms of the actual world are made by gravitational compressions of elemental chemistries, by atmospheric action spurred by the sun and moon and by mutations of the biomass. It is some combination of these fundamentals that you see every time you open your eyes, however stirred together by five billion years of the solar system’s passage and however complexified and over-coded they have been by our crazy, baboon-like human history. To see these great simplicities for what they are sounds like it could be a lifetime’s work. But maybe it’s not the seeing itself but the breaking through to the strangeness of yourself that is the job at hand.
Because of the role of chance in the coming into being of the world, because of the serial coincidences of the condensing nebula, the particular coalitions of space rocks making the planet, its distance from the sun, the embedded chemistries in the atmosphere, the still as yet unknown origins of the biomass and the mutations that have led it to its current configuration; because of this massive weight of contingency, we can say that form, in detail, is arbitrary. So, in detail, is the human brain. The lines leading to the present moment may be qualified by their origins, and that is the prevailing explanation for the differences, and the similarities, between the baboons and the humans. But in the present moment itself, anything might happen. Every time a life is conceived there is a shuffling of the pack of genes that might lead anywhere. It may be a threat to our sense of communities – the tribes, the packs – to say such a thing, but under this interpretation of the world, everyone and everything is strange. In some sense, we are all on the margin.
Paul Shepheard is a writer, lecturer and architect