The essential inversion that takes place in the ‘post information-collapse world’ is the replacement of invisible compulsion for free will. The false (but very convincing) perception that we possess the freedom to exercise true volition or true choice may be said to be directly due to the tremendous increase in mental entropy that is concomitant with the symmetry break which creates both the self and the world which the self relates to. Why this should be proves to be surprisingly easy to explain. Mental entropy (ΨS) is short-hand for a basic type of deceptiveness – a whole chunk of information has been removed from the picture and we are proceeding, in all good faith, upon the basis that nothing has been removed and what we see is all that there is. Thus, although we proceed in good faith it must be the case that because the basis for our proceeding is false there must be consequences of this fundamental falseness. In other words, just because we can’t see the omission doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. One aspect of the consequences of ‘unavailable information’ is inverted volition. Obviously, there can be no such thing as genuine, informed choice when we don’t see the major part of the picture. We can go one step further than the obvious to say the following –
There can be no talk of any such thing as free volition (i.e. true will) when our basis for seeing and understanding anything is not representative but misrepresentative of the reality that it implicitly claims to be standing for.
This brings us back to the question of legitimate versus illegitimate (which is to say, deceptive) analogies, which is the point that we started this chapter with. At the risk of getting too tangled up, we can use an analogy (hopefully in a non-deceptive manner) to explain the difference between these two types of analogies. Let us suppose that there is a situation where are ten different roads down which one might travel, and I represent this situation to you in terms of only two choices. Even though my map of the situation [B] is a gross over-simplification of the actual reality [A] it might be argued that B is nevertheless accurately analogous of A in that the essential idea of choice is still preserved, albeit simplified (or collapsed) down to only two categories. It could therefore be said that although you haven’t been given all the information, you have still been given some information, and that you still have as a result some genuine freedom left you – the freedom to choose one category over the other. This argument is saying that there is a portion of truth remaining in the model of reality, even thought that model is constrained or limited, and so there remains as a consequence the possibility of some degree of free action.
The other – much more radical – argument that we could put forward is that the analogy, far from providing us with at least a smidgeon of the truth, actually embroils us in an entirely misleading picture of what is going on. It doesn’t just provide us with ‘zero information’ about reality, it provides us with less than zero information – if it provided zero information and we knew that it did then we would know something very valuable. As it is, we are left without this all-important bit of information (the information that there is zero information content to our model, which is to say, zero applicability) and so as a result we embark enthusiastically ‘up the garden path’, becoming as we do so more and more engaged in meaningless decisions. We can show how this ‘distraction-process’ happens by looking at the principle of ‘taking away freedom by giving choices’. Amit Goswami (1993) calls this ‘the Salesman Trick’, the idea being that the salesman immediately presents us with an enticing range of choices regarding how we can pay for the product that he wants us to buy. We can pay in cash, pay by visa card, pay in easy monthly installments, pay by installments after an interest-free period of six months, and so on. Empowered by this seductive feeling of choice and control, we find ourselves musing over which option suits us best; well and truly suckered by the shrewd salesman, we are quite unaware that we have overlooked the only choice that really matters – the choice of not buying the product in the first place. Douglas Flemons (1991) explains this suckering process in admirably precise terminology –
…As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness. This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the higher-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives. The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks – and in some sense precludes – choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.
Going back to the idea of genuinely representative versus falsely representative analogies, the ‘salesman trick’ whereby trivial choice is surreptitiously substituted for radical choice is of course an example of a false analogy because rather than giving us some sort of a realistic basis – however partial – to consider our situation, it gives us a structure that cannot be used a basis without secretly subverting everything we think and do to its own self-serving ends. An honest analogy ought to refer us to something outside of itself, to some wider or greater reality, but what is happening here in this ‘inverted analogizing’ is that we are being trapped in a way of looking at the world that has no general validity whatsoever. We are presented with spurious choices (i.e. red herrings) which dominate our field of attention to the exclusion of what really matters. The salesman trick is actually just another way of talking about psychological games. A psychological game can be defined as a set of possibilities or choices that only have any validity as choices when we look at them from the one-sided point of view that is implicitly assumed by the game in question. Outside of that point of view the difference between those choices is quite imaginary – they only exist within the context of the game, if transported outside of that context they immediately become absurd, laughable, ludicrous (the word ludicrous itself deriving from the Latin root ‘to play’, ludare).
Even talking about ‘games’ in general (rather than something as apparently specific as the salesman trick) doesn’t really bring home the utter ubiquity of the process where the absurd red-herring is cleverly substituted in place of what really matters. Just as the third law of thermodynamics holds sway in the physical universe so that universal regularity and uniform dispersion tends to gradually replace the idiosyncrasy of actual information, so too we could say that there is some sort of mental equivalent of this ‘law of degeneration’ which holds sway in our inner lives. The effect of this inner law of degeneration is that what genuinely matters to us gets replaced gradually and insidiously by the cancerous proliferation of mental garbage or nonsense that we end up devoting all our time to. Our initial reaction to the assertion that such an appallingly malign psychic law exists – and insidiously rules our lives – is likely enough to be one of incredulity since it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case that we are going around thinking very much about it, or discussing it very often with our friends, but upon a moments reflection this malign replacement of what we really care about in life by an endless procession of unimportant issues and trivial concerns. This ghastly but nevertheless deeply familiar process is well described by Sogyal Rinpoche (1992, P 19):
If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called “responsibilities’ accumulate to fill them up. One master compares them to “housekeeping in a dream”. We tell ourselves that we want to spend time on the important things in life, but there never is any time. Even simply to get up in the morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the cat or dog, do last night’s washing up, discover you are out of sugar or coffee, go and buy them, make breakfast – the list is endless. Then there are the clothes to sort out, choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair, or your make up? Helpless, we watch our days filling up with telephone calls and petty projects, with so many responsibilities – or should we call them “irresponsibilities”?
BEING ‘OVERWHELMED BY CONCEPTS’
Buddhist literature contains many references to the process whereby we wander away from what really matters in life into the limbo of what Sogyal Rinpoche has called ‘housekeeping in a dream’. In his essay on Buddhist psychology (Taken from The Authority of Experience, Ed. John Pickering, 1997, P 61) Padmal de Silva, Professor of psychology and philosophy, stresses the accidental or inadvertent nature of this process:
…Thus, the final stage of the process of sense-cognition is papanca. An examination of the use of the term in various contexts related to cognition shows that it refers to the grosser conceptual aspects of the process, as it is consequent to vitakka (reasoning). Once an object is perceived, there is the initial application of thought to it, followed by papanca – which in this context is best taken to mean a tendency to proliferation of ideas. As a result, the person is no longer the perceiver who is in control, but one who is assailed by concepts generated by this prolific tendency. He is overwhelmed by concepts and linguistic conventions. One’s perception is, in this way, open to distortion and elaboration due to the spontaneous proliferation of thoughts. This proliferation is said to be linked to tanha (craving), mana (conceit) and ditthi (dogma, or rigidly held views). They are all bound up with the notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. This marks the intrusion of the ego into the field of sense perception. In Buddhist psychology, there is no self (atta; Sanskrit atman), but the delusion of self affects all one’s behaviours.
FALLING (ACCIDENTALLY) INTO ERROR
Herbert V. Guenther and Chogyam Trungpa, in The Dawn of Tantra (1975, P 16-17), also stress the accidental nature of the proliferation of entrapping thoughts and concepts and relate this tendency to depart from reality to what in Christianity is called ‘the fall’:
According to the Yogacara view, the original source (the alaya-vijnana) is undifferentiated and ethically or karmically neutral. When the split occurs it becomes tainted, but still the particular mental movement in question is not determined as ethically positive or negative. This determination takes place through elaborations of the movement which further specify it. this elaboration takes the form of our perceiving with the five senses, and also with the traditional Buddhist sixth sense, which we might loosely call consciousness; that is, the categorical perception which brings categories into sense data without abstracting them from it. Thus the alayavijnana, the manas and the six senses are the eight aspects of citta.
This process of transformation we have described is one of growing narrowness and frozenness. We are somehow tied down to our senses, to the ordinary mode of perception. We dimly feel that something else might have been possible. If we try to express this situation in traditional religious terms, we might say that man is a fallen being. But here he has not fallen because he has sinned or transgressed some commandment coming from outside him, but by the very fact that he has moved in a certain direction. This is technically known in Buddhism as bhranti in Sanskrit and ’khrul-pa in Tibetan, and is usually translated as “error”. But error implies, in Western thinking, culpability; and there is absolutely no culpability involved. We might tend to feel that we could have done otherwise, but this attitude simply does not apply here. The process is a kind of going astray which just happens. The idea of sin is irrelevant.
Still we have the feeling of something gone wrong. If we accept our ordinary experience as error, then we ask the question “Is true knowledge possible?” Now the very question already implies that it is possible. That is to say, the sense of error implies the sense of truth. We could not know error without unerring knowledge. So there is this oscillation back and forth between error and knowledge; and this oscillation presents the possibility of returning to what we have referred to as the original or primordial state.
Here original does not have the sense of ‘beginning’. We speak of it as the original state because we feel that our charge of creative power came from there. We experienced an energy which we felt to be of the highest value, quite distinct from the tone of our ordinary experience. The existential apprehension of this original state is technically known in the tantric tradition as the mahasukhakaya.
…..sukha means “bliss”; maha means “than which there could be none greater”. …. Kaya is translated as “body,” but not in the sense of the purely physical abstraction which is often made in defining “body,” where we say that one thing is the mental aspect of us and another thing is the physical aspect.
….Thus the mahasukhakaya is an existential factor, which is of the highest value. This is not an arbitrary assignment of value that is made here. It is just felt that this is the only absolute value. This absolute value can be retrieved by reversing the process of error, of going astray; by reversing the energy that flows in one direction and becomes frozen, less active. It is this process of freezing which causes us to feel imprisoned and tied down. We are no longer free agents, as it were, but in samsara.
So in answer to the question of whether or not there is some alternative to the continual frustration in which we live, the answer is, yes. Let us find the initial, original, primordial, or whatever word you want to use –language is to so limited – as a value. This is the mahasukhakaya.
Instead of talking about a ‘proliferation of thoughts’ as Padmal de Silva does, we have been talking about a ‘proliferation of categories’, which is another way of getting at the same thing. What we have said is that at the same time as the information collapse [↓W] takes place there comes into being a veritable plethora of phantom categories – phantom choices which appear to us to be significant and real. Each of these categories derives its validity or meaningfulness by reference to the rule, the fixed standard which has been ‘accidentally chosen’ and then treated as if it is not an accident at all but the one and only true measure of things, which is an accident perceived not straightforwardly but in an upside-down or reversed fashion. The switch-over from accidental (fluid) to inevitable (fixed) is the quintessential inversion, and it is this which is responsible for the ‘freezing and narrowing’ process that Herbert V. Guenther and Chogyam Trungpa are talking about. Each of these categories is meaningful only with regard to the framework that has been assumed and the framework itself is only meaningful in the way that we take it to be because of the restricted field of perception which it imposes on us. To put it another way, the framework or rule or standard (or whatever you want to call it) is dependent upon the entropy – the invisible limitation – that exists within the system.
The existence of invisible limitation engenders a whole realm of absurdity which nevertheless takes itself with the utmost seriousness. When we solemnly deliberate between our mental categories we are deliberating between nullities – when it is considered how much time and effort we put into this business of choosing between phantom categories, not to mention the amount of stress and anxiety that is generated by the need that we feel to get it right and not wrong, one would not know whether to laugh or cry. Concern and preoccupation over mental categories (i.e. investment in control) is the very bread-and-butter of the everyday mind. This is all we know, and it is also all we care about – this is our eternal preoccupation. This is the very life of the rational mind – beyond this realm it has no interest whatsoever (in fact, saying that the rational mind has no interest in anything beyond its perennial categories is seriously understating the matter). This is not a weakness or flaw in the constitution of the mind-created self but the defining condition of its existence – if I started to see beyond my preoccupations or attachments then I would at the same time start to see beyond myself, and the one thing that the ‘me’ does not want to do is to see beyond itself.
TAKING A SHORT-CUT TO NOWHERE
The true nature of the ‘phantom categories’ is simply that they are there only because we choose for them to be there and that they are significant because we agree for them to be significant. If I were to see that my categories (and therefore the ‘things’ that are given definition by them) are intentional, then this would constitute genuine information. The way that we generally do see them however is as being independently existent and this is ‘inverted information’, since it advertises an alternative route that seems to go somewhere when it doesn’t. ‘Inverted’ means that it is not just ‘no information’, but something worse than that, it is a sort of photographic negative of information. It is easy to see that it is the fact zero information appears to be information which is entrapping – obviously enough, if we knew the road was a dead-end then we wouldn’t waste our time trying to go down it. If the superficially attractive alternative advertised itself as a ‘short-cut to nowhere’ it wouldn’t be a trap at all. The proliferating categories that spring into existence when the information collapse takes place are very good examples of ‘short-cuts which go nowhere’ – it is not enough that the alternative route should be there, for it to work as a trap we have to find it attractive, it has to offer us an ‘easy option’ and this is exactly what our thoughts do offer us. In this way, our thoughts are like candy offered to a child – they are nice to lick like lollipops are because they are so sweet. This sweetness however only exists on the surface, underneath the surface-level virtual world of ‘appearances only’ lies nothing but unremitting sterility – the deadly sterility of logic.
CLOSING YOUR ACCOUNTS WITH REALITY
This cancerous profusion of mental dead-ends, like a great crust of dreary yellow froth blown about on a polluted sea, is not some minor topic in Eastern metaphysics – a dry exercise in pointless philosophical pedantry of no earthly relevance to the pressing practicalities of everyday life in the busy modern world – but on the contrary it is of the most significance to us that anything ever could be. The tendency for mental activity to ceaselessly branch out over and over again into ever-more irrelevant ‘red-herring-type’ dead ends, and for us to become ever-more hopelessly and pointlessly side-tracked and isolated from ‘where it’s really at’ is (washed up on the foetid mud-flats by the side of the mighty river of life, so to speak) is nothing other than the psychological equivalent of the great Third Law of Thermodynamics. Whilst the inevitably increase of entropy predicted by the Third law of thermodynamics is traditionally seen in terms of the ongoing degradation of all available energy to less and less usable forms, leading eventually to the future state of what was called ‘the heat death of the universe’ (which is where temperature becomes uniformly dispersed until atoms and molecules everywhere – without exception – vibrate monotonously and uselessly at the same frequency) the psychological version of the third law looks at the entropic process in terms of the ongoing degradation of information. One way to envisage this degradation (whilst trying to remember as we do so that ‘envisaging’ itself inevitably produces an increase in entropy) is to say that it is as an ‘equilibrium-seeking’ process whereby unusual or idiosyncratic viewpoints gradually get replaced by standardized uniformity of outlook so that in the end there is only the one stereotypical (or clichéd) way of looking at and thinking about the world and all mental activity vibrates uselessly and dreadfully on this thoroughly unremarkable level.
What we are talking about here is of course ‘modern culture’, which James Moore calls ‘the blank tidal wave’. The blankness to which James Moore refers does not see itself as blankness but rather as something altogether marvellous and progressive – in fact it never rests from congratulating itself on being so great, and in pitying the culture of previous eras for being so backward and dull! The majority of us therefore accord with the blank tidal wave’s evaluation of itself and perceive ourselves to be existing in exciting times – whenever we think about it we look up from whatever tedious nonsense we are involved in and are dutifully thrilled to be on the cutting edge of the evolution of human kind.
On the other hand it is also possible that from time to time we will also see just how crass and superficial our world is and find ourselves being appalled that we are a party to it. This is in principle exactly the same thing as watching a soap opera on TV – in the absence of awareness (and our ‘mental absence’ is of course powerfully induced the second we turn the TV set on) we get sucked in, and what being ‘sucked in’ means is that we find it all thoroughly fascinating, albeit in a repellently mindless sort of a way. What is happening is that all the ‘hooks’ – the plot devices – seem to us fresh and intriguing – they seem to be radical and interesting, as if they are actually taking us into regions unexpected. With even a modicum of perspective on the matter we can see straightaway (it doesn’t take a genius to work this out) that the plot devices we are falling for are awfully old and dreadfully hackneyed that far from taking us somewhere thrillingly unexpected take us to exactly the same place yet again.
Whilst we should thoroughly sickened at this stage by the ghastly two-dimensional crudity of our entertainment we are not – we are not because we are on the same two-dimensional level as the entertainment and so we just can see it. Thus, we get spun on and on, eternally revisiting the same old situations and each time unfailingly seeing each situation time as something new. This is a very good illustration of mental entropy – soaps are in essence nothing different from the life of the unconscious mind which does nothing else but go around in circles without seeing that it is doing so – eternally and tirelessly revisiting its unreal, clichéd mental categories as if they were not unreal, not clichéd. This is what Buddhist metaphysical literature refers to as ‘the cyclic samsaric mind’ – the cyclical (or ‘forever-repeating’) mind of illusion.
LOSS OF PERSPECTIVE
The ‘degradation of information’ process essentially comes down to a progressive loss of perspective. What happens as we lose perspective is of course quite simple and everyone knows how it works – as perspective decreases unimportant issues become disproportionately significant, which is another way of saying that as the process sets in trivial matters make a greater and greater claim on our attention. Before we know it our lives are controlled by stuff that doesn’t really matter. We end up in thrall to a host of stupid arbitrary rules which compel us to struggle ceaselessly and pointlessly to achieve certain irrelevant outcomes (which also involves struggling to avoid the converse irrelevant outcomes). It is inevitable that we will only ever be able to be temporarily successful at this, at best, and so along with the pernicious absorption of all our time and attention on these trivial tasks there also comes into the picture the phenomenon of anxiety. This too is common knowledge – in the absence of perceptive small troubles appear large and terrorize us from one moment to the next. As the amount of perspective available to us steadily dwindles what would previously have been no more then the most harmless of molehills looms over us like Mount Doom and so as result of this process there is a constant supply of new troubles to plague us and torment us and rob us of our peace of mind.
The idea that loss of perspective means that we take small troubles altogether too seriously, that we end up spending our time being eaten up with fear over things that aren’t actually worth being afraid of, is as we have said a very familiar one. The reverse explanation – which though less immediately familiar is equally pertinent – is that loss of perspective causes us to be attracted to things that aren’t really worth being attracted to. Another way of putting this is to say that as perspective decreases we become increasing attached to worthless causes, which then gradually overtake us. Eventually we find ourselves in the unhappy state of being hopelessly submerged in a sticky swamp made up of useless articles which we ourselves had collected because they looked at the time as if they were useful. This useless accumulation of ‘stuff’ is what Philip K Dick calls ‘kipple’. In the following passage Dick (1968, P 56-7) explains through his character Isadore in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep what exactly kipple is and just how pernicious it actually is –
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”
“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.
“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody there to fight the kipple.”
“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.”
“Your place, here,” he said, “this apartment you’ve picked – it’s too kipple-ized to live in. We can roll the kipple-factor back; we can do like I said, raid the other apts. But –” he broke off.
Isadore said, “We can’t win.”
“Why not?” The girl stepped into the hall, closing the door behind her; arms folded self-consciously before her small high breasts she faced him, eager to understand. Or so it appeared to him, anyhow. She was at least listening.
“No one can win against kipple,” he said, “except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kipple-ization.” He added, “Except of course for the upward climb of Wilbur Mercer.”
Although Philip K Dick’s character accuses kipple of multiplying by itself, if we are to use it as an illustration of ‘personal entropy’ then it must be the case that we are complicit in the process – that it couldn’t continue to grow without us. Entropy in its impersonal sense will of course continue to increase, as it generally does, but my personal entropy is always associated with me. It could be said therefore that kipple proliferates in our lives as a result of us not having enough perspective on the matter to see that it isn’t really useful at all, and therefore to desist from accumulating it. Or to ditch what we have already accumulated and move on without it. Since however the tendency is very much for perspective to continually decrease as time goes on – as we get more and more comfortable and well-established in life, and more rehearsed in our comfort-bestowing routines – we are all pretty much stuck with our kipple and as the years add up so does it. Eventually it takes up just about all of our space, driving out (as Philip K Dick says) anything and everything else. In the end we are left there drowning in a stagnant sea of kipple – in fact it would be more accurate to say that our lives become so thoroughly kipple-ized that in the end there isn’t anything that isn’t kipple. We also get transmuted into kipple; we become indistinguishable from the useless garbage that we have surrounded ourselves, and about which we are constantly and wearisomely concerned.
DRINKING TO FORGET
A particularly interesting and pertinent feature of this business of ‘getting hopelessly mired in kipple’ is that it is addictive just as drugs such as morphine, Valium and alcohol are addictive. Although there is something sordid about allowing oneself to be swallowed up by the drug, it is horribly enjoyable at the same time. In general with this type of thing – which is to say, with any of the vices – there is a sort of basic principle involved which dictates that when the euphoric glow wears off we are left feeling appallingly bad. The marriage has taken place and once the honeymoon is over we discover the true nature of the person we are now due to share our lives with. With regard to the kipple analogy, we could say that the honeymoon is when we are still suffused with enthusiasm for the apparent ‘usefulness’ of whatever bit of junk we have just obtained, and the post-honeymoon phase is of course the phase with which we are all so familiar – the phase in which we are stuck with it, and have to give space over to it, despite the fact that it is no use to us whatsoever. Going back to the idea of kipple, like all vices, being addictive what keeps us in the trap is the stark fact that when we do feel bad, when the false euphoric glow wears off and reality starts to bite, the only thing that can make us feel better is to freshly engage with the very pursuit that made us feel so bad in the first place. This circular, self-creating predicament is well described here by Antoine De Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince (1945, P 40-41):
The next planet was inhabited by a tippler. This was a very short visit, but it plunged the little prince into deep dejection.
“What are you doing there?” he said to the tippler, whom he found settled down in silence before a collection of empty bottles and also a collection of full bottles.
“I am drinking,” said the tippler, with a lugubrious air. “Why are you drinking?” demanded the little prince.
“So that I may forget,” replied the tippler.”
Forget what?” enquired the little prince, who already was sorry for him.
“Forget that I am ashamed,” the tippler confessed, hanging his head.”
“Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.”
“Ashamed of drinking!” The tippler brought his speech to an end, and shut himself up in an impregnable silence. And the little prince went away, puzzled.
“The grown-ups are certainly very, very odd,” he said to himself, as he continued on his journey.
It is possible to generalize the predicament of the drinker who drinks to forget the sense of shame engendered by his drinking to a far wider realm than classic drug addiction. Just as we take morphine to cure the withdrawal symptoms that the morphine itself is responsible for and drink to escape the unbearable pain that our drinking is causing, we immerse ourselves once more in ghastly trivialities in order to escape the dreadful sense of sterility, isolation, futility and meaninglessness that our all-consuming obsession with trivialities has wrought in our lives. We have to keep on distracting ourselves in order to keep at bay the empty feeling that comes about as a result of spending all our time in distractions. The grim circle which we are trapped in as a result of our ‘addiction to self-distraction’ is big business indeed; it doesn’t take too much insight to perceive that this is in fact what modern living is all about. We are constantly, desperately hungry for meaningless nonsense that superficially appears – for a little while at least – to be meaningful; we have to keep on ‘chasing phantom realities’ because if we were to stop we would soon start to discover just how viciously meaningless the whole business is of having to pursue trivial games in order to escape the pain caused by our addiction to trivial games.
Our natural reaction is to recoil from the suggestion that self-fueling addictions comprise the predominant portion of our lives. It can be readily understood and accepted that there are such predicaments as such as that portrayed by Antoine De Saint-Exupery in the passage given above, but the idea that almost all of our daily behaviour falls into this same category – the category of the absurd – is not apparent to us. As well as not being at all apparent (which is to say, not apparent to the conditioned viewpoint of the everyday mind) the idea is downright insulting, it mortally offends our dignity, and so we have zero incentive to seriously examine it. All the same, insulting or not, it has to be said that we are indeed all just like the tippler in The Little Prince, that us grown-ups with all our serious ‘grown-up type’ business are unquestionably very strange indeed. Saying that we are ‘strange’ is in fact putting it politely – we are all participants in a bizarre ‘theatre of the absurd’, each of us has our part to enact in a play every bit as good as anything penned by Beckett.
One way of explaining what ‘absurd’ means in this connection would be to say that it has to do with redundancy (or futility, or circularity) that everyone involved enacts with an immaculate dead-pan humour –
The humour – or the joke – lies not in the fact that we are performing utterly futile actions, but in the fact we are performing utterly futile actions whilst throwing ourselves 100% into the act or pretence that it isn’t futile.
To see a play such as Waiting for Godot hits us on two levels. On the one hand we are automatically ‘taken in’ by the level of appearances where it all seems very meaningful. We can’t help being taken in because this is the level on which we habitually exist – we swallow it all as a matter of course just as we swallow any information that is presented to us within a conventional format. On the other hand we can plainly see that the whole thing is a nonsense – our unconscious mind accepts what we have been given just as it accepts everything else, without questioning, whilst at the same time we laugh at what we ourselves are automatically being led to believe. This sort of juxtaposition of viewpoints – for example a complete and utter fool who nevertheless takes his foolishness with magisterial seriousness – may be said to be the basis of all humour! The figure of Captain Mainwaring in the classic BBC series Dad’s Army comes to mind. In Beckett however we can see this basic gimmick elevated way beyond everyday humour to something that is funny and yet horrifying at the same time. When one has eyes to see it, there is no shortage in this world of bizarrely humorous situations and yet the humour is mixed with a poignancy and pain that is profoundly disturbing. The humour is tragic. Actually of course Captain Mainwaring is a tragic figure but instead of seeing this we tend to laugh in an unreflective way at him as a splendid example of a pompous twit. It would be perfectly possible to take his character and play it with a degree more depth, a degree more thoughtfulness and sympathy, and straightaway light humour would be replaced by a tragic comedy, the tragicomedy of unconscious living.
The reason life which is lived within the domain of ‘unconsciousness’ partakes so thoroughly in the quality of absurdity (so that all the values we honour end up being turned upside-down) is because we absolutely insist on having something that is flatly impossible. We demand, as a precondition to everything, a basis that could never ever exist. The fact that this ‘basis’ does not exist, and never could exist, does not deter us in the slightest – because we want it so badly, we simply invent the basis, we make it up and carry on for all the world as if it were there. We insist on making everything, our whole world, rely on its meaning (or validity) upon something that just cannot ever be. We invest so thoroughly in this illusion – the illusion that we implicitly hold as being absolutely necessary – that if ever an inkling of the truth comes through to us we are instantly stricken with a terror that is so profound, so deep-reaching, as to be utterly unspeakable. In a most peculiar and wholly unnecessary way, therefore, we have made ourselves responsible for the safety of the world – for it to go on having any meaning to us we have to safeguard the act of unconscious self-deception that lies at the heart of the construction. We have to safeguard this act, and at the same time safeguard against us finding out that we are safe-guarding it, and so as a result of this unnecessary responsibility the spectre of anxiety enters the world – an awful anxiety that has the doom-laden power that it does over us because it comes from the truth. The ontological anxiety that lies at the very heart of all rational life (all life that is based upon rationally-understandable certainties) is a messenger whose message we are infinitely reluctant to hear.
The basis, that ‘something’ that we are insisting on, is security. What we want is for everything to be based on some sort of eternal or immutable certainty, a rule that is forever true – true not by our decree but true because that is the way that it is. Because this type of rational certainty does not exist we invent it, we want it so badly that we get to have it even though it is impossible. The only problem with this is the problem that comes with all ‘cheating’ – the prize that we get as a result of our short-cut, our cheat, is worthless, tainted, jinxed. It is not just worthless, it is worse than worthless – it is a perennial, unquenchable source of suffering the true nature of which we cannot ever hope to understand. The taint can be looked at in many ways but one way is to say that the price of us getting what we want (even though what we want flies in the face of reality) is that our lives become an exercise in invisible absurdity. This is not to say that there isn’t any such thing as love or compassion or humour but rather that we place everything we love under the jurisdiction of a falsely-obtained framework of understanding. This has us banjaxed because whenever there is something that really matters to us we feel that we can’t leave it to chance and if we can’t leave it to chance then we have to have theories and use methods and calculate the odds. This is the basic inescapable irony that we are caught up in –
It is our natural ‘unwillingness to risk’ that drives us into the hands of the system of thought, which promises the security of tried-and-trusted certainties, but because we take out ‘insurance’ in this way and put everything under the jurisdiction of the reassuring (if false) authority of the rational mind the very thing that we wished to safeguard is lost, turned into a nonsense.
This ironic trap can equally well be seen in terms of pseudo-solution. As soon as there is a break in symmetry (which is to say, as soon as the information collapse takes place) false or deceptive analogies of the original reality are spawned in unending profusion, creating instant cascades of red-herrings leading to yet more red-herrings. When we get caught up with these red-herrings, as we are pretty much bound to do, and attempt in some way to solve the problem they represent we are engaging in ‘the pseudo-solution of life’, which is what unconscious living is all about. There are two forms this pseudo-solution can take – either the form that arises due to positive attachment to the false analogy, or the form that arises as a result of negative attachment to the false analogy. In the first case we try to obtain something and in the second case we try to avoid something, but either way because what we are doing is a pseudo-solution (i.e. because it is only empty tokenism) we are bound to go around in circles. We are not solving anything in reality, we are only kidding ourselves that we are solving something, and so of course nothing gets solved.
Alan Watts approaches the very essence of idea of circularity in human behaviour by pointing out that the attempt to obtain security – which is inevitably the basis for all our rational behaviour – creates insecurity, which then spurs us on to try harder to find security, and so on. Thus in The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951, P 77-78) we read –
It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.
To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of in security are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.
What Alan Watts is saying here is clearly pretty much along the same lines as the idea that we preoccupy ourselves with trivialities in order to escape the unpleasant feelings that the pursuit of trivialities invariably produces. It all comes down to the same thing, whether we’re talking about kipple, or morphine, or drink, or the avoidance of risk – it all comes down to loss of perspective [↓W] as a result of increased mental entropy. The more perspective we lose the more compulsivity we become subject to as a result and yet because we don’t have the perspective that would be necessary in order for us to see what is really going on, we ‘take this compulsiveness on’ and see it as our own free will. The compulsivity that has been created by the loss of perspective is ‘invisible’, therefore. A false sense of self is thus being created here – an entirely false sense of self that has been created by the increase in mental entropy in the system.
A game has been set up whereby I get to identify with a set of coercive mechanical rules and see ‘what these rules demand that I do’ as being ‘what I myself want to do’. How the replacement of free will by blind mechanical compulsivity takes place is very easy to see therefore – I perceive myself to be identical to the mechanical rules that are controlling both how I see the world and what I think I want to be doing in the world. This way there is no conflict – I just do whatever the mechanical rules tell me to do whilst deludedly imagining the whole time that this slavish ‘obeying of the rules’ constitutes ‘me living my life’….!