Friday, September 24, 2010

Neocortical lipstick

The widespread reluctance to acknowledge (let alone to explore or elaborate) how deeply we remain embedded in "animal" life has serious practical consequences, as it accelerates our destruction of the world we commonly inhabit. This is obvious in the sense that our failures of identification with other species remove barriers to violence and rapacious exploitation; it is less obvious in our expectation that "uniquely human reason" will rescue us from our own greedy appetites. We wishfully suppose ourselves ennobled by our comparatively well-developed cortices, but the reasoning (or rationalizing) power supplied by those wrinkly blankets obfuscates as much as it elucidates; it has made us masters at self-deception.

Jonah Lehrer makes the excellent point (in Proust Was a Neuroscientist) that the neocortex, in its very novelty, may be regarded, should be regarded as less developed than supposedly more primitive parts of the brain-- there hasn't been time to smooth out its kinks, or make its wrinkles perform most efficiently and effectively (that is to say, most adaptively). It remains fundamentally less reliable than older structures, though the dialogue that ensues between them has clearly been productive in the (geologically) short term: it has allowed us to overrun the planet. Yippee.

This is my point: the emanations of the neocortex (e.g. reason and faith) have not yet produced any notable constraint on our "animal" compulsions to consume and procreate, and to expect that they ever will is patently ridiculous, when our brains have been "designed" bottom-up for the opposite purpose. Even our most hopeful discoveries in neurology (of mirror neurons, for example, with their strong suggestion of a built-in capacity for empathy) can only embellish the fact of our dominant hunger, that is, to live beyond ourselves in the proxy of our genes. That superobjective (says the theatre gal) spawns an astonishing variety of more trivial hungers in day-to-day life, few of which consent to be curbed by reason or faith (though both propose compelling accounts of why other people's appetites should be suppressed or refused outright). Even those of us who have abdicated our procreative vocation find alternative modes of proliferation (hello, blogosphere!), and our consumption continues apace, as if we were not genetic dead ends (and indeed we may not be, if we help our nieces, nephews, or cousins to thrive).

Yes, this is to say that I am extremely pessimistic about our ability to pull ourselves by our elastic bootstraps into an enlightened state-- of mind or self-government. But if we do, the mechanism will not, I think, be reason or faith. I think it will have to be pleasure, unless it is desperation. If we cannot channel our appetites in less destructive directions (e.g. by encouraging people to remain "selfishly" childless, by cultivating our inner resources and capacity for pleasure), we will sprint ever faster toward that great brick wall of finitude.

I'm pretty sure it's already too late, at least for anything like the life I happen to lead (the outrageously wasteful kind). But crisis is normal in the long life of the planet. The dinosaurs never dreamed of us, and we can't imagine what (or who) will flourish when we're gone. I can still rage against the dying of the light in my visible spectrum-- the snuffing of lives I am disposed by evolutionary accident to cherish.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The teacher taught

Well, hallelujah! Barley and I have made it through our six-month course with the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior. As I wrote to my sister and brother-in-law this morning, if we hadn't passed our final evaluation last weekend, Barley would have shared in none of the blame, but because we did pass she takes 75% of the credit. Yes, this is the way things tend to go around here, under the reign of the Queen B (or, less formally, Miss B Have), but it's only right. She has been a remarkably patient trainer throughout, teaching me more than I ever could have hoped to learn about communication, collaboration, imagination, and timing. Her willingness to try, fail, fail again, and fail better has inspired me to take more risks in my own learning; I've been continually astonished by her energy and resilience in the face of every new challenge. It's especially impressive when you consider her partner's stubborn clumsiness and frequent stupidity.

I tried a while ago, in my post about behaviorism and The Manchurian Candidate, to zero in on the critical element that distinguishes a brainwashing relationship from a training/teaching one (specifically in those instances when a teacher seeks to manipulate a student's automatic responses and tries to tinker under the hood of the conscious mind). Emotional involvement, even if characterized by mutually positive regard, doesn't seem to be enough to rescue this transaction from creepy-crawliness. My experience with Barley in the last few months suggests another answer: the willingness of the teacher to be taught. If one expects and tries to ensure (through various measures of control) that the teaching goes in only one direction, that only one party emerges from the encounter transformed, then the shared process will (perforce) squeeze teacher and student alike. The resulting postures may fit the preconceived shape, but they will be marked by pain, and pressed dry of the vitality that might have animated the next shape.

We had visitors at our final workshop to play students in mock classes for the "people teaching" part of our evaluation. Barley made a great hit with them, not least for her unusual beauty. One complimented me on the "great job" I'd done with her, and I think she thought I was being falsely modest when I denied any credit. But she understood better when I said that the one thing Pete and I take pride in with regard to our sweet golden hussy is never having subdued her spirit. Viva la Bunk!

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I’ve just finished reading an excellent book by the witty and dashingly erudite self-appointed chronicler of "wrongology," Kathryn Schulz. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Schulz doesn’t argue in favor of error, exactly, but she makes a persuasive case that we urgently need to acknowledge and make peace with our bottomless capacity to be wrong. She describes the myriad ways that our perfectly natural fear of mistakes (and the psychological upheaval that mistakes sometimes entail) can stunt our growth and stifle our noblest impulses. Our terror of error has an especially corrosive effect on our ability to feel compassion: it compels us to reject, sometimes violently, any perspective that challenges our own. Only a humble appreciation for our limitations (of apprehension, of intellect, of moral standing) can restore a healthy suppleness to our lives and interactions. Schulz also notes that, while the gap between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it can sometimes gape terrifyingly wide, without it we would lose a vital element in human experience: Art lives there, and only there. As she charmingly puts it, “Art is an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness.” Yes, it's good to make Plato roll in his grave, and keep him rolling!
The theatre seems to me an especially inviting place for the exercise of humility and compassion. Sitting more or less safely in the audience, we can vicariously rehearse a thousand ways of being horribly, disastrously wrong. In their very structure, plays insist on a multiplicity of perspective, and the best of them never come to rest in any definitive point of view. Moment to moment, they encourage us to embrace one truth, then another, to inhabit competing theories about our place and purpose in the world and to live out their repercussions for an intensely distilled hour or three. Some see this as a means to teach the avoidance of error: here’s what not to do. I see it as a means of reminding ourselves (because we continually forget): we err, we have erred, we will err again. We had better get used to it.

Thus I am drawn in my playwriting (and elsewhere) to the murky territory where good intentions collide with reality, where common passions steamroller “common” sense. I love smart characters who do stupid things for excellent reasons. Problems of scale fascinate me especially: in a world that technology has virtually collapsed, we live at once too close and too far from each other. The temptation to abstract other people’s suffering seems dangerously high, so that compassion itself sometimes becomes a blunt instrument, and the law of unintended consequences prevails. 

Errors of scale and distance lie at the heart of a play that lies close to my own heart, Trailing Colors. It's set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, not in the midst of evil but in its confused wake, and it concerns most centrally a species of blundering that may not be uniquely American but appears endemic: call it oblivion heroicus. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound! Then it lands splat in the boggy boggy mud. Graham Greene skewered it beautifully in The Quiet American, and Philip Caputo made a palpable hit with Acts of Faith. I'm too sentimental to be so mercilessly satiric, but I do have sharp words for privileged women writers who feed their fictions on others' pain.

It's never too early or late to embrace being wrong, which is why I have tentative dates set for a production of Trailing Colors next year: May 5th-29th, 2011. More details to follow.