Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?



Filed under Material World

6 responses to “Notes From an Alien Shore

  1. Sally Rose

    Dear Dario,

    I say we are our connections. We are what we leave behind. We are not just specks of Star Stuff (Thank you NdGT) but we are the impressions we leave on others and how we help make the world around us a better place to exist.

    I love Pop Culture. I do. It is the trivia of my interactions with the world. I do not love Celebrity TV shows or the “Real X of City Y” style shows or the competitions show where the contestants are humiliated. I don’t understand those. Yes I like sitcoms as they are escapist shows. I like food competitions where the contestants are given things that are a Challenge but not humiliations to use- Ex: Chopped or Iron Chief vs Cut Throat Kitchen comes to mind. These shows are interesting to me. They show me things I would not think to create and it is creation on a level I have not tried to master.

    But The “reality” shows are more SHOW than Reality. I don’t feel like wasting my escapism time on those. I don’t want to see people being horrible to one another. I know this happens and can see it on my news shows any time I like. I don’t care that Flavor Flav is looking for love. Glad he is but that is not what I need to see. And I think as mentions elsewhere the world can watch a show like that and think” My life may suck, but I am doing better than that guy!” And sometimes that helps one not just give up on their one path. It also has the benefit of “If they can do that So can I!” for other shows.

    But that still doesn’t answer your “What ARE we?” question. I think as I started to say, We are our connections to each other. We are entities that can work together with one another for great joy or great pain. But that is just how I see it, with a bit of rambling on as you see. This may have only partial answered your question.. ask me again as I am going to go off to think on it more.

    • Hi SallyRose 🙂

      Mmmm, connections: I really like that. Sometimes I think we humans come in “overfamilies”, extended groups connected at some level beyond our understanding. The connections idea is of course a good metaphor in the Internet age. The question then is, is it possible for there to be connections without nodes or servers?

  2. I am, indeed, real… as real as you are… Otherwise, this conversation isn’t happening. Which is the real house of sand. To put it another way, if a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Oh, most certainly it makes a sound. The laws of Physics are not dependent upon my puny butt for their validity… otherwise, were I to close my eyes, you would fly off into space… assuming you didn’t just disappear altogether…
    Honestly, just how special do you think you are… (8^)>
    To quote a passage from your post: “Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map.”
    To be free from any and all ideologies is to be without a framework. How do you know what is true, if you have no idea what the word ‘true’ means? You cannot be truly free from your reference points. Even the English language is a restraint. The key is (perhaps) in not looking upon your map as a finished product, but as a work in progress…

    • Hi, and thanks for commenting 🙂

      You’re right–though language is necessary to communicate, it does come with baggage; and the type of and flavour of that baggage is dependent on the language and the culture that gave rise to it. But it’s a minor biasing factor compared to trying to grok the cosmos through the filter of, say, fundamentalist religious belief, or Marxism.

      Work in progress? Absolutely.

  3. Maybe we dive into these stories – or situations – to answer the very question you asked: “What are we?” As in – are we like other people? Are they like us? Do their secret vices, hungers, and depravities echo our own deepest secrets? Shows like American Crime (which I have not seen) and True Detective (which I have) assures us that this is so. Grit-lit, too, is extremely good at bringing the scum of our souls to the surface, making us face that which is not beautiful or desirable, yet is still intensely human.
    As for the reality shows – which I so agree with you are an empathy-numbing exercise in public humiliation – they serve a purpose, perhaps, in elevating the viewers’ sense of self-worth, as in: “I am no Einstein, but I’m sure smarter than that schmuck getting a new one torn for him by gutter-tempered Chef Ramsay, or by Donald Trump.”
    It is, however, when we try to be like characters rather than see that characters reflect shards of ourselves that, yes, we lose our authenticity, become banal and mere shadows of the mind-body-spirit that comprises us all, each as similar as the other, yet completely and marvelously unique.
    My opinion, dearest Dario. xo

    • Hi Bonnie 🙂

      That’s a thoughtful and optimistic view. You point up the potential good, and I appreciate that–I too often forget it. It disturbs me though when I see in discussion, even among the very smartest people, the lack of thoughtfulness and listening and consideration, especially in a heated discussion. But since we do learn by mimicry, and now we have the internet meme and YouTube to compound and reinforce the power of the visual medium…well, we’re pretty well fucked. It seems such a tragedy that such mysterious and, as you say, “marvelously unique” beings as ourselves are so often reduced to small packages of stereotypical, programmed responses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s