Fate and destiny run on invisible parallels towards the Western horizon, beyond which is the abyss of death. Fate, exhaling its foul breath of chance, is, well- represented in literature, poetry, and drama—and, in popular melodrama, tediously over-represented; destiny, which has as its subject the power of individuals to navigate difficulty with a canny eye that makes its own luck and frames a person’s agency, is the swashbuckling face of literary art. Fate is the curse of Tiresius falling on Oedipus; in crime novels, the chance meeting of adversaries on the train to Istanbul. Destiny is the heroic navigation of time, as when Odysseus survives sleeping with Calypso every night for seven years, finally breaking away on his dash for home. By fate, you are born to a monstrously alcoholic father, yoked to his genes forever. Your destiny is enduring the worst that his genes can dish out and becoming a fine third baseman. In the very large area between these parallel tracks is the “Everyday” with its humdrums and complacencies, its careers, marriages, trips to Disneyland and Thanksgiving dinners. We work, we sleep; we work again and sleep again. Between these invisible parallels we are, to paraphrase Malraux, “the miserable heap” of our secrets.
Sometimes I think it possible that Artaud is right, that we do “live in an environment of lies.” Surely, you say, this is an exaggeration. More likely is that we live in an environment exhausted by half-truths, evasions, clichés, slogans, backscratching, bootlicking, social grooming, genuine friendship and long-lasting companionship, seething cauldrons of failed romantic love and buckets of adultery. The list is not quite endless. But there is, nonetheless, a lot of head-long tumbling going on in this world flooded by ambition and failure, not to mention advertising, pop culture, and political hoo-hah. And while, philosophically, Descarte’s cogito defines the self in terms of an “inner life”, the modern science of the Everyday (as opposed to its philosophy)—the science of neurobiology and evolutionary theory— is called psychology. A disciplined authenticity (an end to the tumbling in favor of agency), a modicum of lithesome grace (a spacious well-formed judgment), periods of inner peace (especially at the end), and a certain (perhaps mildly false) sense of freedom, are linked to a number of undertakings requiring focus and dedication, precious psychic resources. We live most easily (sometimes timidly, sometimes gregariously) inside the boundaries of fate and destiny, where we take our “routines” for granted. They comfort us. They domesticate us; we become homebound, perfect bait for the TV and mystery novel. It falls to modern psychology to explain why mindful access to our psychic resources is restricted at best. Why is it so damn hard to think for ourselves? And, does the reading life hold even a partial answer to that question?
The ancient Greeks had an answer for a question they characterized as: Why is there a divided self? Why is part of our soul so mellifluous and reasonable? And why is part so heedless and sometimes violent? It was the passions, Plato argued, that led people away from the ideal life, which was a life spent in contemplation, a new ideal that rejected the older Greek worship of action, particularly in war. Metaphorically, the human soul was a chariot powered by unruly stallions. Piloting the chariot, controlling the stallions, remaining calm under fire, resolute, self-willed, finely tuned and admirably rational, took years of study (preferably as one of the Peripatetics in the Academy) and tutelage. The stallions were useful only when under the control of a governor, the tool of reason that regulates steam and pressure. This hypothesis (made without benefit of laboratory science), based upon observation and a small dollop of induction, makes pretty good sense given what everybody in Athens understood about lust, pride, avarice, and ambition, not to mention worry, pessimism and despair. It was a given in Greece that it was hard to think straight when a friend’s wife got frisky. And even harder when there was wine involved.
The Buddha, followed by other Eastern thinkers and mystics, believed that the “divided self” was symbolized most completely by the image of the rider and the elephant. It wasn’t, for them, that the “animal” part of the soul was so fast, violent, and uncontrollable, but more that the animal part was so large, heavy and unknowable. As people with divided selves, we seem to move imperturbably from experience to experience without much conscious thought. Life on the back of the elephant rumbles along quite readily, taking us through our normal cycles of birth, marriage, parenthood, work and death. The rider, on the back of such a large beast (even if it is often benign and intelligent), finds cognitive insight, reframing, and a change of direction hard to accomplish. The round of birth, existence, suffering, death, and more birth, existence, suffering and death, strides on steadily through the eons. A seeker attempting to access any dramatic insights into life, adopt and activate resolutions to “change”, or live by one’s toniest “epiphanies”, knows how hard the elephant is to turn. And turning the elephant around seems impossible.
Modern scientific psychology has adopted the elephant image while rejecting the hypothesis of the divided self, and has even taken giant steps to access the elephant and its neurobiological processes. Humans, like all animal species, must make decisions every moment, sometimes lots of them in a short amount of time. We humans, buried in a dense and complex web of social and environmental sensations, and lately encased in a carapace of culture, have developed a brain-limbic system that “governs” in lieu of conscious thought, making decisions regarding “like”, “dislike”, “approach”, and “withdraw”, as an internal biochemical “like-o-meter” purrs automatically and effortlessly. For animals like us, there is no need to stop and decide, after a rational period of contemplation and deep consideration, whether that alley looks safe in the dark or not, whether that’s a friendly face or not, whether this piece of food is spoiled or not, or whether to run or not from that big copperhead curled under the toilet. Moreover, millions of years of evolution have taught us many lessons that don’t need to be learned again. These too are part of the elephant processes. In the parlance of psychology, the elephant runs importantly on “affective priming”. Experiments involving affective priming have shown that it is possible to bypass what the rider has to say and access the elephant directly. In the work of Brett Pelman, for example, the elephant shows itself as a deeply self-involved beast with a host of likes and dislikes programmed ahead of time. People are more likely to marry those with names similar to their own. Sudden flashes of pleasure can cause someone to enroll in dental school. Our own names (when heard aloud) and our own faces (when seen in a mirror), squirt small amounts of pleasure hormones into the brain. We blush with barely disguised joy at the sound of our own names and think ourselves handsomer or more beautiful that we really are.
The elephant is strong on fear and dislike. Responses to danger and unpleasantness are faster and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasure. This “negativity bias”, part of the elephant’s stock in trade, is represented by a host of reactions in the human organism from “starting” at the sound of a stranger’s voice coming from behind to extreme nervousness while trying to ask another stranger for a date. We recoil from a nasty argument with our spouse and it might take five or six pleasant evenings to get that “bad taste out of our mouths” so that we can be in love again. We “make tracks” away from a “hissing” sound that might be a poisonous snake, our bodies on the move without a single shiver of conscious deliberation. We fall in love “at first sight” and get married at 19. We attach black faces to all criminal portraits. As Jonathan Haidt, a prominent psychologist writes:
“One final point about the amygdala: Not only does it reach down to the brainstem to trigger a response to danger but it reaches up to the frontal cortex to change your thinking. It shifts the entire brain over to a withdrawal orientation. There is a two-way street between emotions and conscious thoughts: Thoughts can cause emotions (as when you reflect on a foolish thing you said), but emotions can also cause thoughts, primarily by raising mental filters that bias subsequent information processing. A flash of fear makes you extra vigilant for additional threats; you look at the world through a filter that interprets ambiguous events as possible dangers. A flash of anger toward someone raises a filter through which you see everything the offending person says or does as further insult or transgression. Feelings of sadness blind you to pleasures and opportunities.” (The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Basic Books, 2006).
The elephant, it turns out, is an extraordinarily cognizant animal with an unusual emotional tuning system and deeply nuanced evolutionary instincts animated by brain chemistry and deep-time chance. Even so, many elephants out there are damaged by cruelty, abuse, drug-dependence, stress and just plain daily life. Many elephants are put in zoos, while others suddenly run amok in the circus and kill some of the audience. In the elephant lottery, there are plenty of losers. In sum, there is no real “divided self”. There is only the elephant and rider, a single biochemical system twitching along for better or worse.
And what role does the reading life have in turning the elephant? In light of what we know about the autonomic system, the limbic/hormonal/brain feedback chain, and our evolutionary history, is there really a noetic aspect to the reading life? Or, is it just a flash of bourgeois pleasure? Do all the bombastic claims advanced by Adler, Van Doren, Bloom and others, that reading (especially classics) is a project of self-improvement or preparation for Death have any validity? Can we really connect with other people by reading? Are we better for it? Could great poetry (or music for that matter) speak to the amygdala? These and other questions hum along as background to the daily grind.
Given the insights of psychology about how we really tick, it seems at best unlikely that the reading life can actually “change” things, head off that unfortunate extramarital affair, keep the lid on a terrible temper, or grant us a good night’s sleep in the face of a morning meeting with the boss. For no matter how we try to focus the eyepiece to account for our inordinate love of books, books are puny things that haven’t been around that long; and seeing our way through the days and weeks not that easy. What difference does it matter to the rider on top of an elephant that he has a few books along for the ride? Elephants don’t read and may not care what the rider reads.