Thursday, July 16, 2009

Looked at, Talked to, and Touched

Three things my dog Tom Ripley demands of me every day. He wants to be looked at in the eye. He wants to hear his name said out loud, with some sort of command (Sit) or promise (Treat) following. And from time to time when I’m reading or writing he presents his neck and back to me to be rubbed.

These are the three forms of discourse a dog understands. According to a dog training manual I read when Ripley was a puppy, the only time you should strike your dog is when he attacks a person—corporal punishment is overkill for any other sin a dog can commit. Usually, it’s punishment enough to ignore the dog—don’t look him in the eye, don’t say his name, and don’t touch him. Thirty minutes of this for a dog is worth two hours of waterboarding for human beings. He’s a social animal—and denied social recognition, he suffers.

These forms of communication represent “belonging”—that odd craving for security as found in a firm sense of fitting in and being accepted, in collaboration with another being, or perhaps a whole pack of other beings. Perhaps this craving is unique to dogs, perhaps not. Belonging sounds a lot like what we humans usually exalt as “love.” All the higher traits philosophers, poets, and preachers have cited as proofs that the human animal is superior to other animals are magnifications—perhaps even dishonest exaggerations—of simpler traits common to animals. Devoid of the exact, material, immediate, and objective “language” like looking, naming, and touching, human ideas can become mere abstractions—“love,” “freedom,” “family,” “democracy,” “health,” “wealth.” The more abstract the idea and the word used to refer to it become, the less connected it becomes to the external reality—and thus it loses meaning, except perhaps as some kind of fetishist symbol of some vague, disconnected feeling or yearning.

The philosopher George Santayana used the term “animal faith” to describe the biological urges that keep human beings from drifting off into abstract idealism and a totally virtualized existence. You don’t have to be particularly smart to “over-intellectualize”; you simply have to have reached the point where your ideas, your politics, your doctrine, and your word choices no longer correspond to the everyday reality around you. Animal faith is that part of ourselves that requires tangible evidence, rewards, and justification for ideas. It is animal faith that saves us from bullshit. It is animal faith that saves us from loss of meaning and identity. As Santayana expressed it, “Knowledge lies in thinking aptly about things, not in becoming like them.”

Extreme idealists reach a point where their thoughts are disconnected from material reality. They wonder things like whether they really exist, whether reality is real, or what “meaning” means. Dogs, as a rule, don’t raise these questions—and neither do most humans, and for 99% of their conscious lives, neither do even extreme idealists. Biological urges, such as animal faith, keep us connected to the material world. Mystics may seek to transcend these urges, and the spiritual may hope for the “life after death” that frees the “soul” from material reality—but for the time being, all of us are pretty much trapped in our natures as biological beings, for better or worse.

In attempting to communicate non-reality-based concepts, swamis, gnostics, saints, and tyrants use self-contradictory or paradoxical language: “war is peace,” “ignorance is strength,” and “freedom is slavery” (Orwell, 1984)—or say things like “atheism is a form of faith” or “he’s a politician who eschews politics.” Nonsense, unless these statements are understood “spiritually” or “figuratively.” Now, me, I have no problem with spiritual or figurative language—it is the language of transcendence and romance, both of which I like from time to time—it is, in short, the language of feeling, specifically unique, untranslatable, and exclusive feelings. Language being logical, it is primarily concerned with communications “between” and “among” people—but it often fails to communicate well the experienced feelings “within” an individual person. Therefore, we tweak language designed mainly to express the expressible to hint at our inexpressible feelings.

The problem emerges when (1) we abandon our animal faith in the concrete reality surrounding us or (2) we attempt to make our personal and ineffable feelings the basis for society—that is, a functioning collective of unique individuals with their variant value systems and unutterable egos. For society to work, there has to be a common language. It does not have to be the only language or experience available to individuals, but there have to be common, agreed-upon definitions and sentence structures—and a common respect for reality, over fantasy, over idealism, over escapism, over individual interests and values, over private wisdom.

The other animals do not have to struggle with their connection to social reality. They are attached to their pack and/or in tune with their senses and environment. They have no platitudes, no cant, and no “higher truth.” They have the “one” truth revealed through their senses, and through experience they learn to varying degrees to distinguish appearance from reality. As highly developed animals, we humans have perhaps pushed this distinction too far—in contradiction to our senses and better instincts—to imagine “realities beyond reality.” Fine. But we need to keep one foot on the ground—our advantage in dicing and splicing ideas into various ideologies, faiths, and political principles can be our undoing as a species if we lose a sense of the immediate, apparent, and real. Being right and certain is seldom as effective in addressing present circumstances as being wary and keenly observant.

My dog won’t believe I “love” him unless I look him in the eyes, speak his name, and rub the bony part behind his ears. In fact, he can take or leave the word “love.”

How different, then, are we? Can you accept that “your call is important to us” if you’re left waiting on the phone for 15 minutes? Can you believe me if I say “I love the sinner but not the sin,” if all I do is harp about your sin? What will it say about us when we become a society that is satisfied with merely “right ideas” and “virtual experiences”—each of us independently wrapped up in our own private wonderlands and frustrated that our sincerity and deep feelings can no longer connect with what other people’s bodies and instincts tell them.

No, I’m fairly certain that, however subtle and sophisticated we become in our manipulation of ideas and words, some part of ourselves, even as homo sapiens, yearns to be looked at, talked to, and touched.

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