Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Core programming

Via Project Gutenberg

I was reading this article the other day by David Pratt (who wrote the book on the Intifada I blogged about a while ago), and it got me thinking about how the same themes keep echoing in our lives in spite of our efforts to escape them. Pratt talks about the books and action comics that shaped his fantasies, giving him an image of himself that eventually led him to wandering around real-life war zones. Thinking back, I certainly had books that I was passionate about, and that helped form my ideas of who I ought to be.

When I was 10 or 11, my favorite books were Jane Eyre, Black Beauty, The Once and Future King, and Rouse's Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece--all of them, in different ways, books of moral philosophy. Arguably, I guess, most children's books are concerned with moral philosphy, since we always think children are especially in need of ethical instruction--a theory not really supported by the evidence, but one to which we seem irrevocably attached. But books come at the teaching task from different directions, and I think my list of middle school faves all share a particular tendency of encouraging a child to look past the surface of things. The first two are all about finding a truer morality than the one presented by society. They're subversive in favoring empathy over authority.

The White book and the Greek myths, of course, are all about moral dilemmas, but they're also concerned with the unseen and unknowable forces that shape our lives, and how those must be taken into account. They're about mystery, in other words. They're filled with the clash of good and evil, but every hero has a weakness, every villain has a wound. Nothing is simple.

Looking past what's right in front of me, refusing to believe anything is simple, always questioning the ethics of a situation--those are probably my most marked habits of mind. Sometimes that's good. It means I don't run roughshod over people very often. Often, though, it's just pointless, and exasperating to everyone around me. Look how annoyed some of you got at my moral anxiety over rescuing stray dogs. But even when I know I'm being tedious, I can't seem to stop myself. It's a core bit of programming, my prime directive. No matter how many times I've tried to throw off that tendency to overthink things, it always overwhelms me.

So did those books make me this way? I don't know. They certainly had an influence, but I'm more inclined to think I latched onto those books because I already was a little moralist. I know I always had that sense of things being more complicated than they seemed, and if I could somehow get hold of the secret under the surface, it would guide me someplace good and right. My very first memory is of climbing out of my crib early in the morning--I was very small--and wandering around the house marvelling at the sunlight streaming through the windows. We lived in the country and didn't lock our doors, so I eventually found my way outside, where my horrified mother found me. (I think she started latching the door after that.)

I was so tiny, and my memory is dreamlike, but I know I had the sense of looking for something out there in the trees and the sunshine. It's exactly the same feeling I have now when I go tromping in the woods. I have a sense there's some vast goodness and wisdom out there, and I might get a glimpse of it in the course of fighting off the gnats and avoiding the poison ivy. I also get that feeling when I start drilling down into mundane life, looking for more complexity, for what's hidden. It's like a job I feel compelled to do--a cushy, but not terribly useful job. I can't decide if it's troubling or comforting to think I didn't choose it. But then, I'm not one for being decisive, am I?


Bozo said...

Nothing tedious about this post. Excellent essay. Reminiscent of a little, profound, poem by the estimable Richard Wilbur:

"Kick at that rock, Sam Johnson/Break your bones/But cloudy, cloudy is the/Stuff of stones.

"We milk the cow of the world/But as we do/We whisper in her ear/You are not true."

BitterGrace said...

Thank you, Bozo.
That poem is "Epistemology," yes? Have I ever let it drop here that I was a philosophy major? That's not my fault either...