Sunday, May 16, 2010


In a recent "hmmm" I suggested that breaking one's moral code - in other words "doing something out of character" - can be a disorientating experience because it is a type of existential poisoning or infection, in a way that this phrase succinctly captures - in so doing one in fact morphs into a different character, contaminated with behaviours foreign to the former good character.

A first problem with that is it is too negative - the "something out of character" could just as well have been a good thing, like being uncharacteristically kind and generous - more like an existential tonic than a poison.

A second problem with that hmmm was that it may pop up on some police profiler's scan as being a cryptic confession to having a body buried in the back yard, resulting from some recent "out of character" behaviour, that I am starting to feel guilty about. Let me say straight off that while I am often foolish, feckless and flawed - not to mention alliterative, obscure and asinine - I am basically a good, generous, hard-working, kind, non-violent person - albeit one with several bodies buried in the back yard. I think there are 2 guinea pigs (damn those rodents can wriggle ! By heck cats are good hunters !), a mouse or two and even several pet beetles that were well loved.

(Though one of the worst types of nightmare I have had - a couple of times - involved a body buried in the back yard - I never knew who and there was no memory of the act, just that I was responsible somehow...the very worst sort of nightmare, far worse than being chased by monsters, falling over cliffs etc...waking up from that dream and realising I had done no such thing was such a relief !)

If I wanted a negative example, I should have used something that is much more commonly experienced - by me and I suppose most people, at various times - which is "failure to achieve one's goal / dream". ( pass the exam/ get the girl/guy/bring the project in on time and budget/ be the perfect father/partner, make a fat profit etc etc)....these failures can be disorientating because also a type of existential poisoning or infection.....the self that you now find you are is not what you thought or hoped it was. And you can kind of go around in circles trying to figure out what went wrong and where things are at, but never making much progress because just re-entering the same loops again and again....the problem being the self needs to morph along a bit and catch up with events.....or not (fight or flight - the big life decision for most living things).

Another problem of course is that all this seems rather tedious and perhaps even narcissistic - sic again the police profiler's scan. Pure narcissists are extremely dangerous and evil. Clayton Weatherston (the young Dunedin university economics lecturer who stabbed his ex-girlfriend several hundred times, to death, because of some perceived slight but could simply never see beyond his own reflection in the pool...) was a classic example of such a pure narcissistic personality. I remember how stunningly this was revealed during the trial. I hazard a guess and theory that the narcissistic personality trait is more common these days than it once was. Perhaps aided and abetted by technology and commerce, which is increasingly configured for extreme personal choice and the delivery of services tailored just-so for the individual self and its foibles, so perhaps encourages this trait. (Or perhaps not - its a nice theory but perhaps a bit too nice. There are still plenty of those wonderful personalities around that appear to have not a trace of narcissism - these tend to be the most attractive personalities of all....though perhaps there are the odd rare pure zombie psychopaths who, by completely lacking any developed sense of self at all, also completely lack traits such as narcissism - but not-in-a-good-way ). I'm getting a bit long in the tooth and faded in the bloom so fortunately past the stage where too much in the way of narcissism is at all possible - though then, in these later stages of life, the danger becomes excessive self criticism and re-calculations of past failures - one has generally accumulated a few of these by this time - excessive indulgence in which is in itself a narcissistic trait, and to be avoided and weeded out.

A really robust, lucid and sensible commentator about these sorts of things was Samuel Johnson, famous for taking 10 years to write one of the first (?) dictionaries of the English language, and maybe even more famous for being the subject of "Boswell's Johnson". The biographer Boswell himself was a fascinating character - and really something of a narcissist in his youth, if you read his London Journal, which I have just done and have now started his Holland journal. At the beginning of this he suffers from a very extreme bout of depression - presaged in retrospect by bouts of deep melancholy in the London journal ( between even more frequent bouts of cheerful rogering about the back streets and having a generally wild time with his mates). The story of the publication of these is really interesting - the London journal was written in the 1760's , but not published until 1950 !! So my copy, 1952, picked up for about 50 cents at one of Dunedin's great 24 hour book sales (can't remember if it was the Regent Theatre or Library sales, both good) is actually one of the first editions. Its a long story - but at least partly the delay was because his family did not allow publication - understandably. I loved Pepys' diary because it was a warts-and-all presentation of himself, but Boswell's journal is.....warts, gonorrhea, penis size ("....she wondered at my size, and said that if I ever took a girl's maidenhead, I would make her squeak...") and all....!!

Towards the end of the London Journal he starts spending alot of time with "The Great Man" (Johnson), and it is largely Johnson's writings and precepts ( from e.g. "The Rambler") that rescue him from what was clearly an almost fatal attack of depression, just after he went across to Holland to study law at Utrecht. (Boswell was a Scot, and finally decided to try and follow his father's footsteps into the Scottish legal system - apparently both Scots Law and Dutch law are quite different from English law, and both derive much from Roman law - hence it was common at that time for Scots to study law in Holland)

But to return to the subject - the syntax of sin - another problem with that hmmm was that I introduced a new half baked idea - "membrains" and the idea of social computation, which I am still developing - when there were already more than enough half baked ideas in there.

I should have stuck to the basic idea, which was a syntactical analyses of existential problems : the syntax of "I sin" is that there is an invariant I which sins, whereas this is both unlikely and unhelpful.

* "The giraffe stretched to reach a succulent branch"
* "The giraffe then lowered its head and turned to look in the direction of the roaring lion"

There is a basic symmetry conveyed by the syntax of these sentences - the subject, the giraffe, is an invariant substrate for the verb operators - stretching , turning of the head etc (...and mathematically these operators form a group as explained (?!) in "Operators and Morphisms....." , in this case a Lie group) : the giraffe after stretching for the branch is the same giraffe as before stretching.

Yet this need not have been the biological reality - according to Lamarck's theory giraffes obtained their long necks, and species morphed one to the other, by the morphing of individuals in their own lifetime - and he *could* have been right but for the contingent facts of evolution on this planet. In a Lamarckian world, the giraffe after the stretch is distinctly *not* the same as the giraffe before the stretch - though syntactically we would have a great deal of trouble expressing that.

And meanwhile back on the psychiatrists couch - we might say that it is largely simply syntax that forces us to be the same "self" after some intense event (failure / success/ sin / inspiration), just because we are forced to say "I came I saw I conquered/I failed/etc" - the same subject "I" throughout - yet maybe the "I" is in fact morphing or at leads needs to morph, but our syntax does not allow for this : confusion, anguish and delayed adaption to the various events of life - perhaps partly the result of a subject-verb syntax which does not reflect the Lamarckian existence we lead as selves.

Perhaps language is indeed all-enveloping, vast - all of what we are and see is language....even the scene that we see as we walk down the street, green and grey roofs and a smoking chimney and the red of the sun's sinking - is really a collection of visual nouns, verbs, participles, gerunds, phrases, sentences in an intricate unsuspected pictorial language....

Or to come at it from the other direction - we simply have a basic difficulty of grammar, if we want to express a continuous morphism of some subject such as a giraffe, or a self, along some trajectory.

We do have participles, that turn a verb into an adjective : "a smoking chimney". Then there are gerunds which turn a participle into a noun : "the red of the sun's sinking" - in this phrase the sinking is in possession of the colour red and red here is an adjective which must be attached to a noun. This is maybe getting us a little closer to what we need if we want to admit a "volatile subject" into our language - a subject which is morphed into something new every time we combine it with certain verbs in certain ways.