Saturday, November 26, 2011

Becoming Singular in That Hideous Strength

CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“That is the point,” said Frost. “One must guard against supposing that the political and economic dominance of England by the N.I.C.E. is more than a subordinate object: it individuals we are really concerned with. A hard core of individuals really devoted to the cause—that is what we need and are under orders to supply. We have not succeeded so far in bringing many people in—really in..."

“Of course,” said Wither, “nothing is so much to be desired as the greatest possible unity. Any fresh individual brought into that unity would be a source of the most intense satisfaction—to—ah—all concerned. You need not doubt that I would open my arms to receive—to absorb—to assimilate this young man."


I. Ice-burgs in the Oceanic Mind

Following my post on Fragmenting Minds, I wanted to address the benefits and dangers of Defragging a mind, or making it singular.

The benefits are in many ways clear to me during brief vacation to Chicago for Thanksgiving where I get to eat, sleep, and hopefully reset my brain some before returning to work. Fragmenting requires creating walls and distinctions which take much effort to maintain and which ultimately fail. We might loosely think of the efforts of structuralism to hold off deconstruction, or normativity to hold off queerness.

Things relax and we can focus (or not) on singular things. We can thus shake off the strain of stress and complicated mental processes. This simplicity makes thought and work easier, often because it involves simplifying our reading of the environment. This may even be relatively harmless, given we don't need to make any complicated or consequential decisions. Following our "gut" may be dangerous when electing politician, but is less so when electing which glazed doughnut to buy.

The dangers of Defragging however can be illustrated by the complimentary pair of antagonists in CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength: Prof. Frost and Mr Wither. Both have effectively made their minds singular.

The former has sharpened his thought (we are told) to a point, coming as close to a singularity as possible. The latter has broadened his thought (we are told) to be utterly open, becoming as global in his thinking as possible. Both, as is seen, in doing so not only dissolve the distinctions of other bodies, but themselves come as close to 0 as possible in their attempts to become 1. They are either too narrow or too wide to seem to be anything at all.


“Before going on,” said Frost, “I must ask you to be objective. Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to one another are chemical phenomena. You must observe these feelings in yourself in an objective manner. Do not let them distract your attention from the facts...Motives are not the causes of action but its by-products. When you have attained real objectivity you will recognize all motives as subjective epiphenomena. You will then have no motives and you will find that you do not need them...”

“And that,” continued Frost, “is why a systematic training in objectivity must be given to you. It is like killing a nerve. That whole system of instinctive preferences, whatever ethical, aesthetic, or logical disguise they wear, is to be simply destroyed...."

He understood the whole business now. Frost was not trying to make him insane; at least not in the sense Mark had hitherto given to the word “insanity”. To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity—the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes. Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-nature would doubtless follow.


II. Prof. Frost: the Frozen Mind

Prof. Frost appears to embody the critique that is often made against Modernism: it becomes increasingly focused and narrow in its parameters until next to nothing fits into it.

This form of singularity can be incredibly efficient and justified, as simplistic thinking often can. People like seeing hard decisions made quickly and willfully, hard questions answered easily and with brevity, and things getting done in sensitive and consequential circumstances. But this usually depends on setting values and methods which set up unsustainable ecological conditions and which do great violence to anything that does not fit within the real of valued bodies.

Focus, logic, and objectivity are great. They are however ideologies. That is to say, we may be able to imagine them in the abstract, 1 + 1 = 2, but they are hard to "prove" or much less "use." Without going into the entire history of pre-modern, modern, post-modern critiques of reason, it is enough to say that it may seem pragmatic to give your new step-cousin roller-blades for Christmas, to stay up all night preparing for a meeting, or to try to set up your lonely co-worker Jim with a woman from the mail-room. But then you find out after doing so, that your new cousin is in a wheel-chair, your workplace burned to the ground that night, or that your co-worker prefers to date men.

It is often required that we make decisions and act as one person, but the more diverse things we can be conscious of at once, the better decisions we can make. It may be straining, especially when many important thoughts are operating at once, but we experience the benefits and pleasures of having those "nerves" active. I wrote earlier derogatorily of following your "gut" but your "gut" or emotions or subconscious or however you come to understand the less articulate parts of your consciousness is information as well. 

It seems from my experience that when two choices seem equally logical, then following my various feelings can put me in touch with lots of "little" observations or memories. This also fits in with what last post I negatively described as "choosing what you really want." I may want the burger and the hot-dog and the salad but can't eat them all at once, but listening to the various parts of me that just aren't in the mood for meat right now may lead me to selecting what is really the healthier choice. Plus, I may be more likely as a result to enjoy the results. 

Such are the joys and perils of being "Frosty."


"The Deputy Director [i.e. Wither] hardly ever slept. When it became necessary for him to do so, he took a drug, but the necessity was rare, for the mode of consciousness he experienced at most hours of day or night had long ceased to be exactly like what other men call waking. 

The manner and outward attitude which he had adopted half a century ago were now an organisation which functioned almost independently, like a gramophone. While the brain and lips carried on his work, and built up day by day for those around him the vague and formidable personality which they knew so well, his inmost self was free to pursue its own life. A detachment of the spirit not only from the senses but even from the reason was now his. 

Hence he was still, in a sense, awake an hour after Frost had left him. His eyes were not shut. The face had no expression; the real man was far away, suffering, enjoying, or inflicting whatever such souls do suffer, enjoy, or inflict when the cord that binds them to the natural order is stretched out to its utmost."


III. Mr Wither: the Oceanic Mind

Mr. Wither on the other hand appears to embody the critique often waged against many post-modernists, which is that they become relativists, and become so open as to lose any sense of form, position, or decision making ability.

The benefits of this frame of mind are also pretty apparent. Being able to listen without speaking over another or pushing them aside, remaining flexible, at least appearing to be able to accept new persons or new ideas with ease. But these also presume that at some point a response will be given, a position enforced, and acceptance given which effectively denies certain possibilities from becoming realized. If trying to persuade Frost is like running at the point of a sword, then trying to persuade Wither is like running through mist. Nothing really happens, but you might become a bit more disoriented.

Fluidity is great. But this too is ideology. While Frost once again illustrates a kind of fanatic or fundamentalist ideology, Wither illustrates an ideology which never rises to the level of articulate thought. A person who exhibits too oceanic thought in this sense may seem like they are on every ones side, but when push comes to shove, they slip away. It is fair to say "I do not know" or "I cannot say definitively" because totality escapes us as it does Frost, but to presume you do not know anything is deny your vary ability to think (however imperfectly) and your ability to speak (however inarticulately). 

It is often required that we remain open to change and unexpected outcomes, but refusing to move ahead because you cannot know or control all things will lead to either bring about little good for the things you do value (which in the extreme may be all things or effectively nothing) or bring about negative effects by refusing to participate or use the things you are given. Using the example from before, it may be that you are not sure on the ability of your cousin to roller-blade, your business to be there in the morning, or the sexual orientation of your co-worker, but to be too Withered would mean potentially slighting your relative by not giving a gift, being unprepared for a meeting, or leaving your co-worker totally alone when he could use some company.

Gathering further knowledge and view-points is helpful, as is expecting the unexpected, but not acting because it might be a mistake may be more or equal an act of pride as Frost's assertions of self. Both refuse to admit the possibility of failure. Is that not a critical element in the stress of Fragmenting? We fear failure in our thinking and our work. What singularity offers us is a way to ignore the potential for being wrong. This is itself almost an insurance that failures will occur, you just won't be worrying or cognizant of them. You become like Wither, a tool of great violence but with no idea of what he is doing.

Such are the joys and dangers of being "Withered."


"Neither at this stage of the conversation nor at any other did the Deputy Director look much at the face of Frost. But either Frost or Wither—it was difficult to say which—had been gradually moving his chair, so that by this time the two sat with their knees almost touching...

They were now sitting so close together that their faces almost touched, as if they had been lovers about to kiss. Suddenly there was a crash. Who’s Who had fallen off the table, swept on to the floor as, with sudden, swift convulsive movement, the two old men lurched forward towards each other and sat swaying to and fro, locked in an embrace from which each seemed to be struggling to escape.

And as they swayed and scrabbled with hand and nail, there arose, shrill and faint at first, a cackling noise that seemed in the end rather an animal than a senile parody of laughter."


IV. N.I.C.E.: The Meeting of Single Minds

In addition to being another example of CS Lewis attaching queer sexualities and gender identities on his "evil" characters, the meeting of Frost and Wither to form a unified body illustrates that in their extremes the Frost and the Oceanic come together.

As noted, both arise out of a desire to become 1: Frost by becoming a single colonial power and Wither by disappearing into a sort of pantheistic mind (which as articulated earlier, in equating a = b and b=c says that effectively a and c do not exist; all is b). The one becomes narrower and wider until they effectively become 0. With a diversity of things always at work, both methods commits violence against the self and others (in a sense by refusing to acknowledge the ways they coincide and conflict).

For those who suffer with anxious-depressive tendencies, this may seem lall too familiar. The deep desire to do one thing perfectly and the despair of doing anything both freeze up the body. Tricks to overcoming episodes of both are likewise similar: do something else. It sounds flippant, but to quote GK Chesterton's critique of rationalism and madness, he notes that usually monomaniacal thought streams cannot be argued out from because they are extraordinarily logical. They simply are very closed loops. Pushing on them or trying to think through them may not be effective because it just pushes things around the circle. The trick, as I said, is to loosen or divert thought out from its path. Get it to do "other" things which may very well not be logical. Get the mind to make mistakes and accept different thoughts at once; such as "mistakes are okay." This is at least one example.

Again, Fragmenting the mind has its strain and Defragging has its perils, but both prove useful in their own ways. Working under a lot of deadlines and also enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with family, I am experiencing both right now. In fact, adding these blog-posts has been a useful way to Fragment and do something different to help get my mind out of its loops; in addition to being an interesting line of thought in its own right.


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