A Monarch explores blooms of ivy beside me, some of the latter grown up the side of a tree, with bees, too, attending to its nectars. Sarah and I received word today that we’ll have to move within months of the arrival of our child. It will be an in-town move, however — and while moves for us are difficult, not least because of my masses of books and records, our hope is that out of this will come purchase of a home, whereas before we’ve always rented. The hope, too, is that the home will be a place where we can grow a garden and assemble an herbarium. Birds come over and sing to me. The butterfly folds its wings, and in shadow, as if camouflaged, disappears in the ivy, before flapping open, the ivy leaf transfigured, hosting in its place beings of vast beauty, elegance, and intelligence. Our minds begin to play with a name, one we share with others. It’s the name of my mother’s maternal grandmother; in its history, it’s associated with patronage of animals and nature; musically, it evokes a flowering cosmos.
I read Frances A. Yates’s famous study The Art of Memory with the same enthusiasm that moved me when reading Nancy Drew mysteries as a child. “The Case of the Ancient Memory Palace.” Are there practitioners of this art today? Many people claim so, providing how-tos and demonstrations of various kinds on YouTube, as in Dean Peterson’s video for Vox about memorizing an entire chapter from Moby Dick.
Peterson takes for granted neuro-reductionist assumptions, consciousness translated into a two-dimensional illustrated map of a brain, bisected and divided into named components, like territories in a game of Risk. Birds interject, sending chirps from tree to tree. Fredric Jameson’s new book Allegory and Ideology has also been on my mind of late, causing me to think of allegory not as a two-fold but as a four-fold system of meaning, implying movement between an individual and a collective as well as a surface and a depth. Jason Louv’s book on John Dee approaches that level of complexity at times — as does the course I’m teaching on literature and consciousness. For late classical thinkers like Origen and the Christians of the early medieval period, the fourfold allegory’s levels of meaning consisted of the ANAGOGICAL (the fate of the human race), the MORAL (the fate of the individual soul), the ALLEGORICAL or MYSTICAL (the life of Christ), and the LITERAL. What would be the equivalent of these levels today?
On this autumn afternoon I don the role of sous chef, chop cauliflower and onions, mix with ground turmeric and paprika, the lot then brewed into a soup. My brother calls after dinner announcing wonderful news: he proposed to his girlfriend. The two are now engaged to be wed. A group-text ensues, my other family members and I all congratulating the couple, all of us filled with joy.
What would a revolution on the scale of the Copernican look like today? Sigmund Freud, whose works students and I discussed today in class, liked to pat himself on the back for his accomplishments, comparing himself to fellow paradigm-shifters Copernicus and Darwin. He believed the three of them had dealt “bitter blows” to humanity’s “craving for grandiosity.” Copernicus taught humans to de-center themselves, the earth a mere speck in a world-system of vast magnitude. Darwin robbed them of their self-regard — their sense of themselves as special, divine creations. Both figures dealt blows, in other words, to what Freud called humanity’s “Ego.” Why is the marriage of heaven and hell that Blake envisioned recast by Freud as cause for pessimism regarding humanity’s capacity for happiness? What happens when Blake’s “angels” and “devils” become Freud’s Superego and Id?
My imagination roves, like a cursor directed by an unseen, other-dimensional stylus. The one—an abstract, digitally mediated, floating point of view—sits across from and mirrors the other, the active ongoing envisioning of Being. About which, we somehow wish to write. Thus the following. To “project,” in the Freudian sense, is to turn reality into a metaphor. Parts of the object-world are substituted, refashioned, reimagined. And these actions are performed by a subject. Indeed—projective doings are not just done by accident. In the Freudian universe, everything is significant, everything has meaning. Yet the “I” who projects, Freud says, is still largely unconscious of its being, occulted from itself, its thoughts and feelings forgotten as they happen, buried, submerged, stored outside conscious awareness. The party responsible for projection is that preconscious part of us that wishes and dreams, Freud says, not the part of us that remembers afterwards having done so. Freud likened the mind to a landscape, a topography, a surface and a depth, as did precursors like Plato and Coleridge, the former in the Allegory of the Cave, the latter in “Kublai Khan.” What happens, though, when the unconscious arrives into consciousness as a thing? Both are transformed, are they not? Assumption of the unconscious is necessary, Freud says, to explain acts presupposed: acts of dreaming, acts of spontaneous self-governance that happen without any remembered, conscious deliberation. “Our most personal daily experience acquaints us,” he wrote, “with ideas that come into our head we do not know from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at we do not know how” (“The Unconscious,” 573). The happenings of the mind exceed what is known to consciousness—so, upon that excess, we bestow the title “Unconscious.” Energetic, creative, erotic, Dionysian: these are its attributes, this original portion of ourselves, deepest and most essential, guided by what Freud calls “The Pleasure Principle.” The Unconscious is the home of the Id: the pre-socialized self, the “Self in its infancy,” motivated only to seek pleasure and fear pain. This early self is later shackled by the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the Ego and the Superego; but the Pleasure Principle remains operative throughout our lives, in all subsequent stages of psychological development. The Ego and the Superego enter onto the stage of the psyche through our interactions with our parents. The Ego is the conscious portion of the individual, the part that thinks itself the star of the show, whereas the Superego is the culturing force, the Law of the Father, parental authority as it becomes internalized.
There, sing the birds. There, there. Let us materialize and mobilize, let us get up on our feet and go for a walk. Things click: memory palaces are what we’ve built for ourselves, only we’ve externalized them, turned them into digital media devices, software and hardware, computer beings co-evolving alongside an “us” that includes gourds, birds, gardens, neighborhoods, communities — an “us,” in other words, that is both Psyche and Cosmos. Speaking of which: perhaps I should read Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, with its proposed “participatory epistemology,” in which Nature is a self-unfolding reality, a “living, sensuous and ensouled matrix in which we fully participate and belong.” Up to now, astrology has never made much sense to me. But I have found that outer events meaningfully coincide, both with one another and, more importantly, with inner states of consciousness. Bringing the planets into it and assigning them characteristics, however, just seems a bit messy. Though the “fortune,” I suppose, is the genre that allows us to interact with astrology, playing with it as one would a language game or a narrative system. I’m not yet ready to ascribe to it any more meaning than that.
We need to organize. I mean organize on many levels: from the desktop upward. Do we want to “arrange” life? And if so, into what: something more? Or do we want a “range life,” as Stephen Malkmus of Pavement used to sing. What was that song about? There were times in my youth when it felt anthemic. I used to drive around a lot playing it on the car stereo. Yet where are we now? What would I hear if I listened to it today? After singing of his want of a range life in the song’s chorus, Malkmus follows the line with an echoey, oddly haunting if-than proposition: “If I could settle down, / If I could settle down, / Then I would settle down.” Is “range life” country-western? Is it a life of aim and ambition? And how does it relate to “settling down”? Biographically, the song was written in the midst of the band’s performance at Lollapalooza 1994. The music video—always-already a time capsule (the whole thing framed as if found in a lunchbox on a beach)—shows tour footage of the band wandering bemusedly among festivalgoers.
It’s like watching a home movie shot by visitors at a grunge-themed World’s Fair. Malkmus sneers somewhat haughtily from indie-land at the major-label acts sharing the bill, Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, his voice drifting off into the clouds of a dream during the song’s finale. These topical references are enjoyable reminders of a particular historical moment. Yet today they interest me less than the song’s sentiment. Youthful arrogance, maybe, mixed with exhaustion and a sort of wistful melancholy about a life of crime. Was Malkmus feeling wearied by the festival, wishing he could settle into a home? I struggle with the song’s verses. They don’t quite cohere for me into a consistent narratorial voice, resembling instead a range of romantic-bohemian characters and personas: skateboarders, druggies, members of the Gen-X “doom generation,” some a bit pulpy, some a bit self-absorbed. Maybe I’m just singing this song to myself after too many meetings, wearied by work. Maybe the song just rehashes in advance plot-points overheard in the minds of tour-goers, kids raised on MTV.