A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
The American Patient
A number of years ago I saw a movie that seemed to contain a kernel of an essential human truth, albeit presented with some silliness. I recently saw it again and see more clearly my relationship to it, and perhaps a larger meaning.
In The English Patient, a movie about love and death in the Libyan desert, Count Almasy and Katharine Clifton are two people drawn together by forces natural to humans, deeply natural to humans, and yet seldom fully enacted; and so we do not understand them even as, on the rare occasions of their occurrence, we fall into their spell. It is difficult not to be drawn into the extra-dimensional space that such forces weave around the other person and it is almost impossible when mutual. Nothing else matters. I know it is hard to believe if you have not experienced it, but it is true: nothing else matters.
I know about these things because they happened to me. The English Patient is especially poignant for me since the woman who so powerfully attracted me and Katharine Clifton were named in so similar a fashion; it is almost the same name in my mind. And Kristin Scott Thomas, plays the part of Katharine, even to the shape of her eye lids and the incredible charm of the slight curve at the corners of her mouth, looked much the same in face and form. The woman in my life was, though, more lovely, more tender, more incomprehensibly appealing. It has been nearly 40 years since I last saw her and I can still make real, instantly, in my mind the sensation of a light summer dress moving on her thigh, the soft weight of her breasts as she playfully and tantalizingly brushed by me in a store.
She also, as was Katharine, married to a good human being. She also struggled with the attraction that was beyond attraction – that was occurrence, that was certainty. Some combination of writers, director and actors must really have understood; when she says, “Here, I am a different kind of wife.” It was the same; it was the same.
No, she did not die alone in a cave in the North African desert and I was not burned by real flames as my plane was shot down by German flak. But that was the only difference. And, of course, I was not a German spy.
It is not about something called love pulling us together that brings me back again and again to those days, those experiences, those feelings; love is a different thing. There was something so primal, so cellular, that all of society became arbitrary. That is what brings me here again and again.
There was never a greeting or a leaving over two years in which she didn’t look at me with wonderment and pleasure, a look that transcends the details of the face. I never looked at her without the pleasure of the experience seeming to show to the world like an actual glowing of some unidentifiable energy.
Even as the German flak began to fill the sky – no, that is the movie; even as the denial of society’s arbitrary conditions began to explode around us with all the power and pettiness of the rejected, the feelings remained and remained in all of their original power; even as it was clear that the world outside demanded to reenter, demanded to be included, and so would bring an end to what was terribly more real than the world outside our communion could ever be; even then we were together until that actual moment when we were not.
Count Almasy and Katharine Clifton’s primal passion, to use an alliterative simplification, was as star-crossed as mine and my “Katharine’s.” But this is not a morality tale. It is about a world that, while it often is not, has the potential to be generous with these kinds of experiences, a world that doesn’t deny or ignore what is best and most appealing in our species.
I bring this up now, in an essay surrounded by other essays about a politics gone mad, an economy in ruin and a social order struggling in a kind of savage hunt for safety and security, if not salvation, because of how easy it is to forget what social justice, economic equity, generous education and human communion can accomplish in individual lives.
Powerful emotional and physical connections with other members of our species should not be trivial afterthoughts set aside so that one can fit into political and economic constructions. But that has become the reality. The most appealing emotions and feelings, the most fructifying relationships are diminished so that time, effort, attention and value can be devoted to material accumulation, bullying others to act as one wishes and a general infantilized selfishness – and the vast machinations of coercive order to support and justify these behaviors.
It doesn’t matter if the story of my “Katharine” is true or not; it is your attention and sympathy of feeling that I am after. It might be that my attachment was not to a woman, but to a place; an attachment that formed me, was me. It is all of these that we must give up today. Our most deeply held feelings for our children must be set aside as we go to war or to work. The value and importance of what we feel for those most dear to us, or for the places dear to us, is challenged by demands for what is being called success, patriotism and wealth.
Think about what this society, today’s American society, can withhold and ration as it demands the denial of our full and magnificent selves: a magnolia tree grown in a narrow space between buildings still and always trying to make its huge and primal flowers have an existence. Of course, wealth is rationed, that is only natural, but time is rationed and joy is rationed. Happiness and satisfaction are rationed. Love and passion are rationed. They must all be purchased by giving them up.
It can be so clear that the human animal is formed to exist in bonds of feeling and yet our society honors and attempts to emulate the psychopath. The attachments ‘that matter’ must be mercantile, measurable in a money cost or established in a power relation. Only then by denying primal human attachment feeling can ‘acceptable’ attachments be made. The lie is perpetuated that desire for and the feelings of human attachment are dishonest, immature and unworthy. The depth of natural human feeling is thereby drained and filled with dry desert sand.
As the world around us begins to accelerate its changes, demanding more and more sacrifice of the human mechanism, perhaps it is time for those of us who can still recall, at least in some measure, our human selves to get them out, dust them off and defy the forces that deny them.
We have been trying to fight the massive madness of our society – Republican sociopathology and greed driven corporate collective behavior  – with the same weapons that they use. And we are losing. It may be time to stop fighting ‘back,’ but to rather fight sideways, fight around, fight beyond. A good place to begin is to become clear about what it is we are fighting for in the first place.
If everyone believes that the same things are valuable and it is only a matter of who has them and who does not, then there must be a scheme for acceptable distribution or a war; equity or abundance and deprivation. But if what is valuable can be attained and maintained with only limited and controlled association with the more toxic elements of the crazy world, then options can be formed, options that can challenge the crazy world by denying it the services of those who reject it. If enough reject the crazy world, it will be changed.
I have avoided two words until now, but can avoid them no longer: spirit and specieshood. Consider the difference: one lives in pursuit of the commercial goal and succeeds, and in the process fails their emotional life or one lives in pursuit of specieshood and comes as close to the fulfillment of the human spirit as possible in this time, and in the process collects only enough wealth to live simply. What would be the effect of millions of people recognizing their humanity, living simply and demanding that the world’s human generated wealth be devoted to the human species not to the exclusive uses of an infantilized insane minority?
There is little chance of such a thing, but if there is any chance at all it begins with realizing the exaltation of human communion and its absolute supremacy and consistency compared to arbitrary social expectations arising from political and economic expediency.
 It is like uranium: in the natural form uranium is mildly dangerous only if you associate with it in excess, but if its most toxic forms are concentrated, even brief exposures are damaging and once it reaches the level of critical mass its behavior can quickly spiral out of control and run its course without the possibility of intervention. In human terms, there are certain arrangements of people in certain activities that are toxic. Groupings of people engaged in the accumulation of wealth are almost always dangerous and increasingly so as they are centrifuged by the corporate spinning into greater and greater concentrations of pathology.