essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Have you ever noticed than when you take the English word ‘apart’ (as it were), and separate it into two, ‘a part’, you change its meaning 180 degrees? The word ceases to separate, and now joins.
A journey we all make goes along this axis, between ‘apart’, separate, individual, ourselves, and ‘a part’ belonging to a whole, joining with something or somebody else. These are nodes, not starting or ending points.
Of course I shouldn’t use the word ‘we’, it’s presumptuous of me to speak as if I knew what others felt. Yet making that presumption, if made with caution, is a kind of progress. Only I, me, can know me; only you can know yourself, but my belief is we can both know each other in some way. Perhaps not in a very intimate way, but a way that preserves us both.
Being apart is our dominating experience. Our senses, our brain, and others under such influences, constantly reiterate it. Pleasure, pain, illness, wellness, and the emotions of others, all happen to us as a separate person and make us aware of that state.
We reinforce this, because it is a social value. Rank, position, dress, wealth, learning, culture are all statements about the self. So are tastes, neuroses, and prejudices.
‘Prejudice’ means to judge in advance of the evidence, as we all do when reading a newspaper story or during a trial. It means to look at others from the point of view of the self, when from another perspective they may be part of us. Believing what we want to believe, not what we have reason to.
Look at sexism. A sexist view a man has of a woman goes like this. This is a physically weak, overly emotional, and hence inferior, man. Not a being with a sensory and emotional range of a different frequency. A sexist woman is similar: she sees an emotionally bound, simple and clumsy, inferior woman and not a male.
Look at racism. A racist view a white person has of a black one is that this is a dirty, disgusting, white man. Not a man whose ancestors have evolved to cope with a tropic sun, or humid air.
The prejudiced person is trapped in apartness, and lashes out at something in their awareness of self that doesn’t belong there.
On another node we experience empathy. ‘Empathy’ means being able to understand and share the feelings of others. Unless we believe we are an alien, or that others are not human beings, we can all do this. What others feel is the same as what I feel, as the Roman playwright Terence put it.
Though we are overwhelmed by our individuality, we start out every one as a duo, mother-and-child. This is our prenatal experience. Every heartbeat, every surge of tenderness, every unease, is our common one. The experience must be a positive one, for when we are separated, we cry.
In our second most important passage we strive to be a couple again, man-and-wife. And in our third important passage we join the rest of life, a place from where we originally emerged.
“Dust to dust”, with respect for the bible, is hardly the all of it. As part of life we have seen suns explode and galaxies form, heard the whales sing and felt the lava movements at earth’s core. We’re a bit like replicant Batty in Bladerunner, except we feel our tears in rain experience rather than speak it.
These three transitions, birth, love and death, are ones where we experience being a part of something other than self. Yet in all three we are never more apart. The three passages are our most fully egotistical experiences.
This is because we find that being part of something gives full range to our apartness, and allows us to develop even more fully as an individual. You are never more you than when birthing, loving or dying. You are travelling healthily between the nodes of ‘a part’ and ‘apart’.
These reflections first came to me after watching Gilles Mimouni’s L’appartement, with its play on meanings in the word, which can signify in English and French both togetherness and separateness. A living space, an apartment, like a relationship, can keep us apart or keep us together.
Although the nodes I’m talking about are not causal, and we don’t necessarily go between them in any kind of order, there is a sense in which being apart is important. As part of mother-and-child we are undeveloped. Before being a part of something or somebody, we need to learn how to be individual. Only in that way can we enrich a partnership.
Consider a crowd, or even worse, a mob. We are not individuals as part of a mob, but some LCD we once in our evolution belonged to but have long since transcended.
If we travel between the nodes of ‘a part of’ and ‘apart’, what is it that sometimes stops us and keeps us in a state of ego fixation, of being apart? I think it is neurosis. The word means to feel a nervous preoccupation: it is of our nerves, our senses, in its origins, and so of our apartness. It is an awareness of a threat to the self, the ego. It might be real or unreal, justified or not.
According to Freud this obsession, or fear, can take an extreme form, psychosis, which interferes with how we perceive the world, what we call, hopefully, ‘reality’.
So as we travel in life, enriching our self, or ego, and preparing it for symbiosis of a kind with other entities, sometimes we get stuck because of neurosis. We stay in the self. It’s a kind of prison really, and little things throw huge shadows. Depression works upon us and saps our will power. Often the only way out is to find a scapegoat. They are the one with the problem, we pretend, and we punish them as if it would solve our own problem. A more positive way out is laughter: see the absurdity, laugh out loud. Leave the self.
I think we’re here to learn how to evolve and form part of a larger entity. But first we have to qualify to join the crew. I have to admit I was and am very influenced by Olaf Stapledon’s Star maker.
One way to develop is through the experience of a personal culture. When I was younger I came across the Penguin Classics series, a library of translations into English of the world’s great books. I loved the idea, and collected and read as many as I could afford. To know these books, I thought, was to belong to the great club of culture which bound civilised people together across racial divides. It was to meet like minds of another age and converse with them. It was to better understand the world I lived in.
But no, I was mistaken. Some books I read I just couldn’t understand (I was 14 when I started to read them), some left me cold. Should I finish a book I disliked because it was a ‘good’ book or throw it aside? Over the years, too, I found books that had resonance once but no longer did, and others I had rejected which turned out later to be rather good. My choice might have started out part of a common culture, but the way I choose is my individual way.
I discovered that ‘culture’ was individual, a form of being apart. More than that, culture also depended on age and circumstance. Though we speak a common language of culture we mean different things by it at different times, and to different people.
It is a language. Like learning any language, we have to both learn it, and have something to say in it.
I look around a little platform, like the people I happen to know, or the WordPress community, and see that everyone makes the effort. Like wavelets moving up the beach on an island. Sometimes they carry a bottle, and in that bottle a note. Donne was right. No man is an island. Or, perhaps, each man is an island, but together they form a world.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.