The thing-ing of us
My Dinner with André, Louis Malle United States, 1981. Courtesy Janus Films.

The thing-ing of us

How we became the sum total of innumerable fragments

 7 minutes read in living 

In a segment of the film My Dinner with André, André and Wally discuss the tyranny of cultural roles:

André: You know, every day, several times a day, I walk into my apartment building. The doorman calls me Mr. Gregory, and I call him Jimmy. Already, what’s the difference between that… and the Southern plantation owner who’s got slaves? You see, I think that an act of murder is committed in that moment… when I walk into that building. Because here’s a dignified, intelligent man… a man of my own age… and when I call him Jimmy, then he becomes a child, and I’m an adult… because I can buy my way into the building.

Wally: Right. That’s right. I mean, my God, when I was a Latin teacher, people used to treat me—I mean, if I would go to a party of professional or literary people, I mean, I was just treated—uh—in the nicest sense of the word, like a dog. In other words, there was no question of my being able to participate on an equal basis in the conversation with people. I mean, I would occasionally have conversations with people, but when they asked what I did, which would always happen after about five minutes—uh, you know, their faces—even if they were enjoying the conversation, or they were flirting with me or whatever it was—their faces would just, you know, have that expression like the portcullis crashing down, you know, those medieval gates

The philosopher Josiah Royce said that, to us, our fellow man is a “little less living” compared to ourselves for we have “made a thing of him”, a half-living object whose life is “a pale fire beside our own burning desire”. A solipsism that has justified many a heinous act against our fellow man throughout history. Not to mention the cruelty with which we subdue and dispose of the lower creatures that inhabit our world. To Royce, we are all cut from the same fabric of consciousness and that “pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere … everywhere, from the lowest to the noblest, the same conscious burning, wilful life is found, endlessly manifold as the forms of the living creatures, unquenchable as the fires of the sun, real as these impulses that even now throb in thine own little selfish heart.”

What maketh a thing? A thing is something that is fixed, concrete, and exists independently, as a whole. Things change only slightly through changes in time or space. You can take apart the legs of a table and then put them back without any detrimental effects to the constitution of the table itself. But tearing leaves or petals from their stalk in order to analyse them is a process that must necessarily sever the functional continuity of the organic whole of which the leaves are a part. The integrity and interwovenness that define the organism as a whole are forever destroyed. This predilection to take apart things is a product of a scientific tradition that has dominated since the time of Descartes. While this approach works well for the study of inanimate objects or non-living things or inorganic things which are in fact things composed of a relatively small number of other things whose apparent movement is periodic and predictable, it doesn’t work, in principle, for animals, which are composed of billions of independently moving parts that work together symbiotically.

All living things, no matter how small or apparently immobile, are in perpetual motion. Their very form depends upon the dynamic motion of their constituent parts. The word live comes from the Latin vivus, which means to be moving and changing, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit jīv (जीव). Animals in particular are a dynamic arrangement of multifarious entities that subsist within the bodily ecosystem. Man on average is composed of 37 trillion cells that organise themselves into various functional units depending on their constitution. Some into sharp and hard boulders that dash together to reduce what we eat to a pulp, some band together to form the supple and delicate apparatus of sight, and still others roll themselves up into narrow tubes that absorb the nutrition from the food processing system and purge the waste left behind. Cells are built up from proteins; the basic building blocks of protein are amino acids; and the particular type of cell that forms the substance of all living things is called a eukaryote. Eukaryotes are composed from many simpler prokaryotes such as Mitochondria, which at one time were completely independent life forms1. Though they now abide symbiotically within the nucleus of host cells, they still have their ancient DNA, though in a diminished amount.

Somewhere along the evolutionary line, and perhaps at the development of consciousness2 and language, we began to designate ourselves and others in terms of the symbols that we used to previously identify the countless other inanimate objects in our world. More specifically, we began to look upon the mind as being the essence of us and our bodies as being the vehicle, the object, the thing that is. “I” am the master controller of that which is “me”. “I” am everything that I wish to be, while “me” is everything that I am and is thus only a poor representation of myself. “I” must continually make changes and improvements to “me” so that it conforms to what “I” believe it needs to be. What the “I” believes it should be is the I-persona or the self-system in today’s psychological parlance. This persona3 is an amalgamation of the innumerable loosely connected “psychophysical cysts4 in which we are steeped from birth through to our formative years—like social customs, conformity through schooling, religious indoctrinations, family values, and so on. A large amount of energy must be diverted and consumed in upholding this secondary, wishful monolithic entity “I”. It is a lie that is ingrained within the neural pathways of our being, so much so that, even if we want to, we cannot subvert the persona that we habitually and automatically pretend to be. We are expected to be firm in our convictions, to have an opinion and stick by it, to be consistent and predictable so that we can be relied upon by others and by ourselves. Our being scattered and multiple is seen as the cause of all our problems and suffering. If only we could gather ourselves together and take responsibility for who we are. When we try to conform to this characterisation, we must inadvertently identify with some parts of our being and reject others. The parts that we reject lead to further inner division and become the object of our scorn, when perceived in others. At the same time, the subterfuge necessary to preserve some illusion of coherence leads to suffering.

But surely we weren’t always like this? To perform a root cause analysis on this affliction, we must go back some two million years, to the advent of language. Until then, man had no way of communicating thoughts and ideas about the objects around him. He received impressions and sensations from the environment around him, which were shared by the entire species. Some of these common impressions were sunshine and darkness; the colour of the sky and stirring of its clouds; the twinkling of the night sky; the sun’s rising and setting; the shape and nature of the earth, its oceans, forests, lakes, and mountains; the calm of the earth’s surface or the tempestuousness of her upheavals. Sensations were also shared, such as warmth and cold; taste and smell. When man developed the special mechanism within his brain that gave names to these outer impressions, a common set of symbols emerged and spread among the entire species. The symbol was a means of holding on to the object in a universal context so that it could be referred to and recalled unambiguously. However, one of the elementary characterisations of language is its parsimony—because the name or symbol was an abstraction, other (similar) impressions could be grouped around the denoted thing. This ambiguity is a powerful construct of language, enabling us to flexibly extend associations indefinitely with a relatively small number of symbols. But in designating the countless myriad objects around us as symbols, language facilitated this social transubstantiation in the names and pronouns used to identify us: “I”, “he”, “she”, “you”. Language demands an agent and receptor, a performer of an action even when the agent and the receptor are one and the same and there isn’t a discernible action being performed. When we say “I decided…” or “I chose…” this conventional syntax implies that there is an active controller “I” who is influencing the action. Language even demands that an agent is conjured up for phenomenas and occurrences: “it is hot”, “it is raining”. But language was shaped by the mind and is only a manifestation of the mind’s need for stability in a constantly fluctuating universe. The faculty of our “reasoning”, seeks to make order out of disorder, because the chaos is only assuaged when the mind finds the recurrent and persistent in such a mercurial universe. “Static ideas”, according to Lancelot Law Whyte, drug the mind by “inhibiting excessive awareness of the uncomfortably pervasive fact of change by drawing the attention elsewhere.”5

Once man is torn away from the prehuman, paradisaical unity with nature, he can never go back to where he came from; two angels with fiery swords block his return. Only in death or in insanity can the return be accomplished - not in life and sanity.Erich Fromm, The nature of well-being—man’s psychic evolution, Harper Collins, 1970.

As the great humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm solemnly informs us, there is no going back to the state of unity that existed before awareness ever arose. The only way to overcome the separateness and alienation is to embrace those disparate parts of ourselves more fully; to stop treating them as objects and instead respond to the world in a real way and in the process, realise what is real within ourselves. The vita contemplativa (contemplative path) shows us that the pain and disappointment we experience is the direct consequence of the struggle and the effort we expend to try and maintain a consistent identity. This is the choice we must make when confronted with our innate need for personal fulfilment and the spiritual search for transformation and transcendence; when we seek to rid ourselves of the tranny and shame that comes with failing to meet the demands of an egocentric life.

  1. It is thought that the symbiotic union with mitochondria kicked off the evolutionary leap to multicellular organisms (Why do we still have mitochondrial DNA?). Also in Microcosmos, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (Summit Books, New York, 1986) summarise our four billion years of evolution from our bacterial progenitors. 

  2. Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1976. Jaynes hypothesizes that self-awareness was “installed” in the human mind as little as 3000 years ago. This he gleaned from reading the classics such as the Illiad and the Odyssey, where contemplation and decision-making were attributed to the Gods. 

  3. The Latin, persona (English, person) means a mask or “false face”. The persona thus implies a semblance of … rather than the reality. 

  4. This analogy is borrowed from Jacob Needleman. In his essay Psychiatry and the Sacred from Awakening the Heart, Shambhala 1983, uses the analogy of cysts to describe the parts of our identity that we have acquired into adulthood from our various childhood in indoctrinations and influences. 

  5. Lancelot Law Whyte, The Unconscious before Freud, Basic Books, New York, 1960. Whyte, like Jaynes has rummaged through a few thousand years of Western literature for the original genesis of Freud’s unconscious citing Shakespeare and Nietzsche along the way. 

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