Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Figure on the Shore

What is it about the image of a silhouetted figure on a lonely shore that is so powerful?

It could be called a cliché, except I think a cliché is just a rude term for an image or an idea that is so universally appealing, we can't really avoid it. Time and time again, directors and scriptwriters and painters and novelists turn to that solitary figure walking along the coast, as though it expresses something that no words or concepts can express.

It seems that there are some emotions, some yearnings that can't be put into words, that require an image or an embodiment to evoke them.

There are other images that seem to express this same atmosphere, this same territory of the soul. Men leaning over bridges and staring into the waters beneath. Or somebody sitting in front of a fire and contemplating the flickering of its flames. Or somebody walking through a deserted classroom or cinema or stadium and savouring its silence, its ghostly sense of presence.

When somebody says, "I need to think", and then promptly goes for a long walk, we don't make the mistake of thinking that person is referring to problem-solving or decision-making or mental gymnastics of any kind. "Thinking" in this context, we know, is a matter of the emotions as much as the intellect-- perhaps more a matter of the emotions than the intellect. And we know that what is happening inside that person, at that time, could not be described in conceptual terms, or using a flow-chart.

What are these strange needs that exist in the human psyche? The need to eat and breathe and sleep require no explanation, but then there are all the other human needs-- or, if the term "need" is too strong, the human yearnings.

Why do we yearn for such intangible things as a connection to our past? A sense of community? A desire for ritual and ceremony? A need for a sense of identity? A need for a sense of direction? A yearning for belonging and security? Contrariwise, a craving for independence and adventure? What need is it (and if it is not a need, it is something very close to a need) that is satisfied by telling and hearing stories? How is it that women and men have a deep urge to express their femininity and masculinity?

I love to think of these urges and drives within the human soul, because they seem like such clear evidence against all sorts of reductionism-- biological reductionism, economic reductionism, libidinal reductionism, political reductionism. They give the lie to every cynic who claims that money or power or sex is the beating heart of society. From the plurality of human yearnings, it is obvious that none of these things are the be-all and end-all of human fulfilment. It is obvious, too, that attempts to plot a hierarcy of human needs-- like Abraham Maslow's famous pyramid-- are interesting but futile. The glory of man is to mystify social scientists.

What is interesting to me is that it is not only individuals but whole societies that have these deeper needs. Why was there a Romantic movement in the eighteenth century? What was it in the collective soul that rebelled against the pellucid perfections of the Enlightenment, after having been apparently satisfied with it for so long? Why did nationalism grip Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and fade away (in most of it) in more recent decades? Why does horror cinema seem to enjoy a brief resurgence every decade or so? Why do we seem content with an almost entirely commercialized society now?

What is the individual and the collective seeking, in all these twistings and turnings? Balance? Wholeness? But the problem is that even to name such an ideal is to limit us. The Hellenistic ideal of "moderation in all things" and "mens sana in corpore sano", which might seem to be the goal we are striving for, is itself a particular ideal. It leaves no place for self-abandonment and baroque excess, for instance.

The kind of balance and wholeness we seek doesn't seem to be one that can ever be achieved in a single lifetime, or in a single historical period, or by a particular life philosophy. Whenever we seek to balance the equation, something seems to be left out; in fact, almost everything seems to be left out. Or, as one ancient text put it: The tao that can be named is not the true tao.

I am left with the solitary figure walking along the sea-shore. I am so very attached to that figure. He is a reproach to all ideologues, all cynics, all who would seek to simplify the human condition.

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