Posts in: Consciousness

Introductory note: This poem surely lies behind what I’ve written lately about self-consciousness (here, here), even if I didn’t have it in mind at the time. Jeffers describes consciousness here as “unreasonable excess, / Our needless quality”, a characteristic that must arise in some way from our biology but is also outside it. He imagines our bodies and our consciousness as the creations of two gods (hello, Gnosticism!). The “uncalled for God” (demiurge?) adds consciousness on top of the natural beauty created by the “austerer God” (monad?). Consciousness becomes a burden for human beings, the poison in the well that corrupts all our experience.

I.

What catches the eye the quick hand reaches toward
Or plotting brain circuitously secures,
The will is not required, is not our lord,
We seek nor flee not pleasure nor pain of ours.
The bullet flies the way the rifle’s fired,
Then what is this unreasonable excess,
Our needless quality, this unrequired
Exception in the world, this consciousness?
Our nerves and brain have their own chemic changes,
This springs of them yet surely it stands outside.
It feeds in the same pasture and it ranges
Up and down the same hills, but unallied,
However symbiotic, with the cells
That weave tissues and lives. It is something else.

II.

As if there were two Gods: the first had made
All visible things, waves, mountains, stars and men,
The sweet forms dancing on through flame and shade,
The swift messenger nerves that sting the brain,
The brain itself and the answering strands that start
Explosion in the muscles, the indrinking eye
Of cunning crystal, the hands and the feet, the heart
And feeding entrails, and the organs that tie
The generations into one wreath, one strand;
All tangible things or chemical processes
Needs only brain and patience to understand:
Then the other God comes suddenly and says
“I crown or damn. I have different fire to add.
These forms shall feel, ache, love, grieve and be glad."

III.

There is the insolence, there is the sting, the rapture.
By what right did that fire-bringer come in?
The uncalled for God to conquer us all and capture,
Master of joy and misery, troubler of men.
Still we divide allegiance: suddenly
An August sundown on a mountain road
The marble pomps, the primal majesty
And senseless beauty of that austerer God
Come to us, so we love him as men love
A mountain, not their kind: love growing intense
Changes to joy that we grow conscious of:
There is the rapture, the sting, the insolence.
…..Or mourn dead beauty a bird-bright-May-morning:
The insufferable insolence, the sting.


O happy fault!

Blyssid be the tyme that appil take was! Therefore we mown syngyn Deo gratias! – Final stanza of “Adam Lay Ybounden” Years ago, back when we all still went to public libraries, I checked out a collection of Christmas carols performed by the Choir of King’s College. One of the most curious carols was the one linked above - a six-hundred year old English song by an unknown author, existing only in this manuscript.

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When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he gave them a command and warning: do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest you die. They broke that commandment and were cast out of the place of perfect harmony and cursed with pain.

This, I would argue, is the mythological rendering of human self-consciousness. God wanted to prevent Adam and Eve from the knowledge of good and evil, a discriminatory knowledge that separates into subject and object. The tempting serpent correctly predicted “in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” They ate, saw that they were naked, and hid from God; that is, they became self-conscious.

This is the fundamental break from the more-than-human world. Somewhere in the deep past we became aware that we related to the world in a way that was unique and that created distance from the creatures around us. The cherubim crossed their flaming swords; there was no going back.

We continued in this break for ages upon ages. Some of us sought to understand and heal it through philosophy and religion. So often, though, these attempts to understand and heal only deepened the break by moving the promised healing into some future existence when the self is united with the divine or subsumed into the cosmos.

Meanwhile, technology increasingly replaced manual labor and freed our minds to develop and store knowledge. Now, in our time, the wealthy (by global standards) have almost no contact with the natural world. They have become knowledge workers, service workers, etc., who buy packaged and processed food in grocery stores.

Our ancestral memory points to a time when we broke from the more-than-human world. In the time since, we have drifted further and further away. Self-consciousness, the awareness that we are separate, has led to the abstraction of our lives. We live by ideas: nations, democracy, money, freedom, morality, and many more. We argue over ideas. We divide families over ideas. Ideas threaten to ruin our common life.

We have an epidemic of anxiety and depression because ideas are insufficient as a substrate for human life. We have multiple ecological crises because self-consciousness has unmoored us from the source of our lives. The head drifts free of the body and is sickened.

What is the solution? I don’t know. Solutions are just more ideas. “The Way that can be told is not the true Way.”