Tuesday 13 November 2007

Simon Turner - Marginal Notes (2)

The proliferation of media has resulted, too, in a proliferation of selves. We leave behind traces - in CCTV, digital photographs, emails, phone calls, comments on the internet - which take on a life independent of our bodies. When I die, the traces I have left behind will live on in a technological half-life, never to be erased. Such a thought is unsettling. When we write a book or compose a symphony, we are making a conscious choice to create an artifact that will, hopefully, outlive us. What is so unsettling about our technological ghosts is their ephemeral nature: we are leaving a monument of our most vacuous selves each time we send an email, every time we update our Facebook page. If we could clone ourselves from the virtual genetic trail of our technological journeys, I doubt that we would recognise the result. We would see a parody, a grotesque exaggeration of all those characteristics we had hoped would be airbrushed out of our obituaries. The proliferation of media does not allow for this rather old fashioned self-censorship: we are writing our obituaries on an almost hourly basis.


The self, in Buddhism, is a kind of learned behaviour: it is a matter, chiefly, of differentiation. 'I' is only 'I', that is, because it is not 'you', or it is not 'chair' or 'sky' or 'music'. It is a habit, in short, that we fall into at an early age, when we begin to learn how to distinguish objects and concepts in our immediate environment through the medium of language. Before this, before we take on the role of Adam, the world presents itself as an undifferentiated mass. Naming lends a certain clarity of purpose to the world and its objects. But at the same time, language serves to sever us, to deny us a total connection to the world. We can never know a tree, for example, if we have already named it, because the word 'tree' carries with it a whole universe of associations and embedded significances which are quite distinct from the physical fact of the tree in itself. Likewise, to truly know ourselves, we must do away with the semantic formality of 'I'. It, like 'tree', is simply a name - an arbitrary one at that - and as such an impediment to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. Sometimes I think this is why so many mystics and holy men choose to separate themselves off from the human community: the absence of speech means an absence of language, and the absence of language might well be the first step towards our reconciliation with the total being of the universe.


23/10/2007: A full moon tonight: a perfect silver-white disc. In the early evening I watched it make its first appearance, tentatively peeping from behind a chimney across the street, a peachy flush from the last of the sun tainting its colouration. Minutes later it was clear of the houses, more sure of itself now, slowly rolling towards the apex of its orbit. Later that night, walking home after a couple of drinks with friends in the local, I saw it flare from the centre of an absolute darkness, like a perfect unexpected thought.