06 August 2008

Ponderings, Deep and Broad

Thomasina:   When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas.  But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again.  Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before.  Do you think this is odd?

Septimus:   No.

Thomasina:   Well, I do.  You cannot stir things apart.

Septimus:   No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging, and unchangeable, and we are done with it forever.  This is known as free will or self-determination. 

This exchange is from perhaps my favourite play in the world, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (that's Rufus Sewell as the original Septimus there).  The first interesting thing about this exchange is
that what Thomasina says is true, and once you've read these lines and had your attention drawn to it, you can't help notice and find it odd.  I don't eat much rice pudding, but I do eat quite a bit of yoghurt, and over here Marks and Spencer makes a delicious plain yoghurt with mashed-up raspberry at the bottom. When you stir your yoghurt, the first proper stir brings a streak of bright red raspberry to the top, which is very arresting and beautiful indeed, and thus is enormously satisfying. But if you reverse your spoon and try to stir it back down, it just disperses into the yoghurt, which is not so beautiful, and thus is rather disappointing.  And when I watch this dispersal I am always puzzled and taken aback: surely it ought to stir back?

The second ineresting thing about this exchange is what Septimus's final comment says about human relationships, or the way it can be extrapolated to be about human relationships.  One might think of human motivations as the jam in the rice pudding, or the yoghurt: they are there, but any attempt to unstir them from puddingyoghurt of events just leads to more and more pink, and other people's free will or self-determination always pinkens the white expanse of life.

I've been musing on this today, maybe because I spent the morning in the BL reading philosophy and about philosophy, but also probably because over the past few days a number of things have happened for which I'd love to have known the motivations of those who performed them.  My last therapist, who was terrific, told me once that it's pointless to try to figure out what other people will say or do, because almost always they will not do what you expect: there are simply too many factors and influences that you don't know about.  Experience has proven this to be true for me.  I can try to guess what someone will do, and I have (everyone does, I think), but almost without fail, unless the situation is very simple, I guess wrong.  But if this is true of actions, how much more true is it of motivations!

Let us take a simple example:  I saw James McAvoy across the theatre when I went to see
Black Watch a couple of weeks ago.  Let's have a picture of James McAvoy, shall we? (Actually, he looked almost exactly like that.) For reasons I won't go into here, but which don't involve my having a crush on him, I kept casting glances at him all through the play.  Now, Black Watch is a play about a Scottish regiment, and, as you no doubt know, James McAvoy is a Scot.  And the play has many funny lines or moments, but James McAvoy laughed at perhaps two of them. I found this odd, especially since some of them were specifically jokes about Scots.  So, being me, I began to ponder why he didn't laugh.  Was he a very serious fellow?  Was he strongly anti-war, and he felt the message to be a solemn one, felt this so deeply that it precluded laughter? Was he intently scouting for a part for himself? (I especially favoured this last one.) Does he have no sense of humour?  (This is the first one that occurred to me.)  Any of these could be the case. But so could countless others:  maybe he doesn't laugh aloud; maybe he'd had an upsetting phone call before he came; maybe going out in public is such a hassle that he's too tense to laugh; maybe he has a fabulous sense of humour, but not of the kind the play required; maybe he doesn't laugh at Scottish jokes on principle; maybe he was absorbing and would laugh later. And then there are the countless other motivations or precurrences that would never occur to me.  And this, it seems to me, is the problem with motivations, as it is with communication and comprehension generally:  I can guess your motivations or influences based on my own, and I can guess your motivations and influences based on the opposite of my own (that is, having considered why I would act in such and such a way, I can then consider that just the opposite of my "why" might influence you - maybe James McAvoy had been expecting a phone call and not got it, e.g. - and I can also cook up some stuff that I would never experience but you might), but there are so many possibilities outside my knowledge or even imagination (since you could never imagine stuff that you can't imagine), that the chances are vastly larger that you will have been influenced by one of those.

And this brings me to my second thought, which is that as life goes on it seems only to lead to negative realisations:  I can't know what you think, really; I can't have a perfect experience; love will probably end, and end badly; if I eat ice cream every day I will get fat.  I remember a little over seven years ago I told my writing class a story, in an effort to show them that some stories cannot be written down, only told orally.  I told them the story of how I fell in love with the person I'd loved most in the world (a love that involved much pain, as it happens).  And at the end of class one of my students came up to me and said, "I'm going through something similar with a friend of mine.  Do you think those kinds of things can ever work out?" I don't remember what I said to her, but I know what I would want to say to her now.  I'd want to say,  "Don't worry, because even though that person will probably break your heart, you'll recover, and then someone will come along and break your heart much worse, and someone will come along after that and break your heart much worse than that."  If I had known when I fell in love with that person at 21 how much more pain I was going to experience connected to future relationships, I wouldn't have shed one tear:  I would have known such tears, and the pain that engendered them, would be as nothing compared to the ones to come. 

But surely it can't be the case that growing up just involves grasping pain and unhappiness with greater depth and complexity?  I believe that it must also involve greater happiness and contentment.  I just haven't seen it, and I'd be interested to know what it's like.  Well, I suppose I certainly get more happiness, and more complex understanding of my happiness, when listening to music these days, but that seems a rather small payoff.  Or perhaps not.

On a totally different note, when I was packing to come here I briefly considered NOT packing to come here, but rather just buying all new clothes when I got here.  I didn't do that, obviously, not least because such buying would have taken me into the thousands of dollars, I'm sure, but walking around town looking in shop windows a part of me regrets that I didn't.  The clothes are beautiful, and all so beautifully constructed.  What a pity I don't have a large private income!  

1 comment:

Adam said...

If you assume the stirring of the yogurt/fruit produces a random, unpredictable event, then unstirring should be, at the very least, highly improbable. A successful unstirring would rely on another random reaction leaving the yogurt/fruit in its initial state. However, a mathematician might draw a distinction between events that are chaotic and events that are random. You stir the yogurt/fruit and the resulting swirl seems random, but the reaction of the spoon passing through the crushed fruit molecules and the yogurt molecules are determinable. The system is, instead, chaotic. The spoon has measurable contours that produce a measurable turbulence in the pudding/fruit that behaves in a predictable manner. If the initial swirl is determinable, then it stands to reason that the inverse is determinable. Thus, the trouble with unstirring is not that it is impossible (or even, highly improbable); it is that reversing the direction of the spoon doesn’t produce a reaction that is the inverse of the initial stir. Likewise, the trouble with determining Mr. McAvoy’s state of mind is that guessing is inefficient.

From what I understand of color theory, producing a certain color – say a pleasant olive green – in a composition doesn’t necessarily rely on the painter using a green pigment; rather, you just need the pigment to be the olivest greenest thing in the composition. In other words, perception is not only a necessary factor in the coloring process; it is predictable. I would argue that the goodness of one’s life is similarly reliant on predictable perception. Sample any one person’s life and you’ll find an array of events that are, if presented to this person one by one, ratable in terms of goodness. The array of events taken as a whole is irrelevant for my thought experiment because I’m going to claim that no one actually takes all the events of their life into their calculation of the goodness of their life. Instead, they take a sample certain events from their life and base their calculations off only those events. If we were to choose these events for the person, we could control this person’s perception of their life. Choosing mostly good events net a good life, mostly bad nets bad, average begets average. So, perception, in this case as well, is predictable. Thus, the trouble with an unhappy life is not the total number of unhappy events or even their magnitude; it is the sampling of unhappy events the unhappy perception is based on.

If I am to be believed then, the questions are: beyond reversing the direction of the spoon, how do I unstir? and what good has happened to me lately?.