Monday, November 06, 2006

Infinite Split

Who is that third who always walks beside,
After the second speaks inside your mind
And, split into parts, you can’t decide?

The chatter in your brain’s on override,
Your thoughts repeat themselves and then rewind.
Who is that third who always walks beside?

Observing you observing you as guide
Brings others on like an unholy wind
And then, split into parts, you can’t decide.

You chant a Buddhist chant to quiet the ride,
Still, you proliferate, needled and spined.
Who is that third who always walks beside?

One voice becomes ten prophets multiplied.
You sue for peace but all are nonaligned.
Besides, split into parts, you can’t decide.

Your second comes to mourn by your bedside.
Your third, vomiting selves, follows behind.
Who is that third who always walks beside?
You, split into parts, cannot decide.

(Those conversant with T. S. Eliot will notice I stole a verse of his from the fifth movement of "The Waste Land.")

It’s a mistake for a poet to comment on his work, but I’ll make it; I like today’s poem, especially as it takes up the question of mental chatter I discussed briefly yesterday. The terrible thing about self-consciousness is that the awareness of self can be split into a seemingly infinite throng of observing selves, co-selves and anti-selves. If you listen to them you will not be able to do your best work or even achieve intimacy with another human being. But the ability to abstract ourselves is also what makes us human. We can choose consciously while animals respond by instinct and trial and error (never mind the chimpanzee with the twig and the termites; generalities always prove exceptions).

In my best Zen moments I don’t play the guitar, I become the guitar; I don’t cook, I flow with the cooking; I don’t shoot a basketball, the rim sucks it into the net. Such unity of consciousness and activity is rare, though Yogis tell us it is possible to be present most, if not all, of the time. Paradoxically, I was present as I wrote today’s poem about not being present.

Recent experiments have added the elephant to the chimpanzee as two animals who, with investigation, come to realize that their image in the mirror is only an image. (I believe there is a third animal in the group but I can’t recall it.) Thus an elephant can use a mirror to direct its trunk to grooming its neck. A cat, on the other hand, may confront the image aggressively, and, discovering it to be harmless, think no more about it. In this act I think the elephant shows mirror-consciousness, but I doubt it exhibits self-consciousness. To be self-conscious means to think in terms of ‘I.’ Once that line is crossed you end up with that human problem: the disintegration of the ego into alternate selves.

Imagine the relief of being only thing-conscious like animals. You have no word for food; there is a scent that directs your brain toward it, and then you deal, perhaps, with aggression and competition to obtain your food, but you never sit back on your paws and think about how best to approach food and whether you’re good at it or not. By trial and error behavioral improvements can be made, but they are not rational. (Whenever I put forward these ideas, some animal lover will invariably take me to task, but I think assigning an identity to an animal, usually a pet, is mainly an anthropomorphic projection.)

Some believe the Fall was a fall from thing-consciousness to self-consciousness; in the moment we remarked upon ourselves we became separated from “God” and ourselves. In evolutionary terms this would be seen as an advance, not a fall. In any case, when there is no conflict between being and doing, one is likely enjoying mental health. And to be present with one’s doing certainly helps with avoiding one’s undoing.

At 2.5 Kilorats,

Craig Erick


  1. Hi CE --

    This has nothing to do with your poem or post -- but, I know you have blogged about back problems before -- and I wanted to find out what mattress that was that you ended up buying.

    We just got the results from my wife's MRI -- she has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis -- then last week she lost the feeling in her leg. So a pinched nerve was suspected. Today they say she has a ruptured disc. Not sure what steps we are taking yet -- need to meet with a neurosurgeon.

    Anyway -- if you can give me the name of the mattress and other other advice it would be appreciated.


  2. Today's poem makes me think of Jung (I'm reading "Memories, Dreams, Reflections").

    I was surprised to discover in an art class that drawing, or trying to draw, particularly with pastels on brown craft paper, brings on a Zen moment in me and causes my mental chatter to stop altogether. It is a most peaceful feeling.

  3. Eliot stole his from the Gospels-- That's all part of it. Enjoyed your poem.

    I like your comment about the guitar and cooking. I know exactly how that feels.

  4. Anonymous8:33 AM PST

    "To be self-conscious means to think in terms of ‘I.’ Once that line is crossed you end up with that human problem: the disintegration of the ego into alternate selves."

    Doesn't crossing that line formulate the ego which soon thereafter disintegrates into a chorus of competing voices?


  5. Annie--glad to be read with Jung in mind. As Bob Dylan sang, "Forever Jung."

    Sam--again, congrats on a fine issue of Blue Fifth Review. I must visit your blog more. Eliot stole the idea from the road to Emmaus but not a specific line of scripture, to split hairs.

    Norm--aren't we saying the same thing? It's just voices vs. selves, and whether a separate voice qualifies as a separate self; of course no self can be completely separate except in cases of multiple personalities and some forms of schizophrenia.


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