What quackery is this?! Is your pronoun going to be “that”, or is “that” already taken? No woo-woo here, folks. I’m not saying I don’t have a shape, color, or gender, or that those things don’t have importance, I merely point out what should be so obvious that everyone takes it for granted. It is our minds that make humans exceptional among all living organisms, and it’s what we do with them after we are born that truly matters. However, in the 21st century, we’ve woken to discover we are merely the body, and our core identity was defined before we were born. Curiously, according to this belief, we find ourselves with little or no agency to self-determine who we are. On the contrary, I believe that at our core, we are the self-determining agency itself, and that is both our freedom and our burden. The soul is an excellent metaphor for the invisible thread of sentience that maintains continuity throughout our lives (even as most the cells of our bodies are completely replaced) and witnesses our every action.

Oddly, in my lifetime, there’s been an ongoing, concerted effort to eradicate the concept of a (literal or figurative) soul, and this includes arguments against free-will; attempts to expunge certain religious beliefs; and the more recent insistence that we are defined by race, gender, age, nationality, and culture, all of which share that they are external forces we have no control of. We are assumed to be almost entirely conditioned by biology and circumstances: we are merely along for the ride. Some scientists will even argue that consciousness has no purpose, and is just an after-effect. All of this is shooting ourselves in both feet. Surely we are the fully conscious, thinking, reasoning, imagining mind that experiences and remembers; makes choices; makes plans; and acts in the world. We are responsible for our actions and our decisions, and I suspect part of the resistance to acknowledging our free-will, or the notion of a governing soul, is a desire to shirk the perpetual burden of responsibility and accountability.

In this way we appear to liberate ourselves to do whatever we want, right or wrong, and may go so far as to say the only crime is getting caught. We may believe that we can do no wrong ourselves because anything we do is a consequence of our subjugation by the ultimate wrongdoing of an oppressor. But to the degree right or wrong are relevant, ones true judge and jury is oneself, in any and all circumstances. No matter how minor a part we may find ourselves playing, or how few options are available to us, we can’t evade the perpetual necessity of making decisions and acting. Any act is meaningful, as it reflects on the quality of our shared nature of being an actor. A single movement of a pawn can win or lose a game of chess. We might say that it’s our duty to make the most of whatever situation, and we can’t escape being part of a greater whole which we compromise by being weak or self-defeating. The worst hand can be played brilliantly, and it is better to be the brilliant player than to have merely been dealt a winning hand.


On Trusting Your Own Mind

At 55, I’m old enough that I don’t defer to authority. I’m discovering, to my surprise, which individuals are younger than me, as I tend to assume famous, influential, or powerful people are older. Joe Rogan, I recently learned, is younger than me. Damien Hirst is my same age. Being older that 55 isn’t an advantage over me, either, because I’m clearly old enough to have my own opinion and frame of reference. On top of that, I was never one to yield to authority.

When I was in high school my favorite band was Gentle Giant. The only other person I knew who listened to them was my best friend, who I introduced them to. Everyone else was listening to AC/DC, Rush, Van Halen, and whatever was on continual rotation on our two Los Angeles FM rock stations: KLOS and KMET. I knew a keyboardist who liked Emerson Lake & Palmer, which was a bit out of the norm, but in keyboard circles they would be admired. There was no internet to confirm the greatness of Gentle Giant: no external affirmation of what I could hear with my own ears. I discovered them by buying a used record in a sleeve — there wasn’t even an album cover — and putting it on my turntable. I was the direct judge of the music, and didn’t care what anyone else thought; that none of Gentle Giant’s songs were ever played on the radio; or that none of my peers had ever heard of them. It was the most interesting, complex, challenging, intricate, and thus satisfying rock music I’d discovered. They were also the weirdest and sometimes, initially, the most irritating.

[The following is the first song of theirs that really hooked me.]

This is 1973?!

There’s a funny thing about Vincent Van Gogh that I think people miss. We think he was crazy not just because of the ear incident, but for staking his life on the obsessive pursuit of paintings that were ridiculed as clumsy and ugly. The problem here is that he knew what he was looking at, and what we would all come to discover. The village idiot, out getting heat stroke in the wheat-fields, hopelessly slathering paint on canvas, was creating paintings that were so vibrant, luminous, and energetic that they would become a permanent fixture in art history. There is an element of discovery and excitement in realizing imagery nobody has seen before: the same enticement that explorers will sacrifice their lives for. When we consider that this fascination with what he could uncover with his own brushes spurred him on, and that he was aware he was creating phenomenal paintings, his sacrifices seem less crazy than simply a matter of necessity.

If he wasn’t out at night making a spectacle of himself — painting with burning candles mounted on his hat so that he could see — the Starry Night would never have materialized. Here’s my favorite of his nighttime paintings:

Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1988.

Was it madness to make this painting, or would it have been madness not to? Would it have been sane for him to have remained as an assistant in an art gallery where he worked as a young adult, and to have maintained a comfortable existence, with his evenings free to indulge in whatever entertainments or distractions?

How did he know his paintings were great? How was he so sure it was all worth it? As plainly evident as it is to his true admirers today, it was to him, but coupled with the thrill of the paintings unfurling before his eyes at the tip of his fingers. To capture the night sky reflected in water, while painting outside, and to make the dark colors brilliant, and then to carry it home and admire it indoors by lamplight, must have been glorious.

And so, Vincent is, for me, a bright, shining example of being true to your own internal compass, trusting your own eye and mind. Yes, he may have been more than a little mad, and may have even driven himself to it. But to invent a fresh, potent, and gorgeous style; to develop and manifest his personal vision; and to do this in concord with a profound understanding of human civilization and the human condition, required a great depth of clear, brilliant sanity.


The soul as metaphor

No, I’m not talking soft-headed, wishful thinking, spirituality for bored housewives here, folks. Au contraire. We’ve lost something in abandoning the notion of a soul, because it’s an excellent metaphor for the immaterial consciousness. We’re guilty of being overly materialistic, to the extent where we conceive of ourselves as bodies with minds instead of as minds with bodies. We’ve come to define people by their DNA. Race and gender are now all important. People will preface what they are about to say by qualifying it with the fact of their DNA, “As a woman of color…”. And yet, if you were burned in a fire to the point where you were unrecognizable, and you’d even lost limbs, you’d still have your identical mind.

The body is a set of circumstances the mind endures (or celebrates). This is not to say that the mind isn’t dependent on the physical brain for its existence. We only see evidence of consciousness where there is an advanced, living, biological brain (which is also why conscious AI, with its own volition, is unlikely). However, the essence of the conscious mind is not material, hence the old phrase, “mind over matter”. There is no contradiction in recognizing that the immaterial state of consciousness is wholly dependent on the physical body. A flashlight is solid, opaque, and can’t fly: but it can create a beam that illuminates its surroundings, soars at the speed of light, and can pass through glass. In the same way a simple flashlight can create a beam of light which is entirely unlike itself, so can the most complex biological brain create an immaterial self-awareness.

Imagine if you suddenly found yourself in the body of a preying mantis. What would be the most important trait that distinguished you from other mantises, or insects in general? Would it be your sexual organs? Your carapace? Your diet? Whether you could fly or not? Or would it be that you were self-aware, could think, imagine, and deliberate? We’ve ended up defining ourselves and our fellow human beings in the same way we define insects: by their bodies at birth. And so you find yourself a fully conscious, rational, preying mantis, who thinks in English, and you have convinced yourself that your most important trait is whether you are a green or brown insect.

If that analogy was too far fetched, let’s go with a more established sci-fi scenario. Your brain is transplanted into another person’s body, and vice-versa. Pick someone of a different race and gender. Now, which person are you? Are you your old body with a stranger’s brain in your former skull? Or are you where your mind is at, in the new body, with all your old memories?

This is not to underplay the societal barriers placed on, exploitation of, and persecution of people because of their biology, or what is associated with it. To begin with, most such social crimes are based on the belief that some biological types are inherently inferior, possess certain deleterious qualities, or are automatically guilty. If we conceive of people not as fixed bodies, but as invisible agents, then not only does it not make sense to suppress or harm anyone else, it’s the reason to oppose practices that do, as well as the reason we can overcome such obstacles if given the chance.

Those of us that have started to get a bit older may marvel at how we’ve lived as long as we have, and through so many different chapters. A little surprise is that even as the body ages, if one is healthy than the mind doesn’t especially. You may find that your aging body doesn’t represent who you are. Are we the same person we were when we were 18, or 12, or 6? Which body should we identity with? Was I most essentially me at 30, or at 18, or now, at 55?

Which is the real William Shatner?

His body has completely transformed, but he’s the same individual.

When I think back to my teens, it’s odd to imagine that that Eric and the one writing this post are the same person. Fortunately, I saved all my childhood art for a very long time, and photographed or scanned most of it (especially as it may all now be landfill). When I look at an old drawing, the connection between me now and the teen me becomes more seamless.

Hey. I’m going to recreate this in Blender, even if I crumpled it up as a kid because it wasn’t good enough.

The ballpoint pen drawing above is from 40 years ago, when I was 15 or 16 years old. See the long, slender pipe in the back? I can still recall the decision to make it partially covered, and to put those rectilinear gaps in it. I’m planning to recreate this vehicle in Blender.

Below is something I completed last week.

What continues? What is the thread between the 15-year-old and the 55-year-old me? While many cells regenerate within 7-10 years, it turns out that the gray matter of the cerebellum remains with us since we were two years old. Almost every cell in my material body, with the exception of that gray matter, is not the same. In effect, I have undergone a brain transplant. If we want to define ourselves by our physical person, and for that physical being to have continuity throughout our lives, then we are all essentially only our gray matter. That gray matter, though, independent of a changing body, is mere sludge. People who preface what they are about to say by stating the fact of their relevant physical embodiment, would be more precise if they said, “As an amorphous blob of gray matter, I maintain that …”.

Obviously, you aren’t a schmear of hideous grey cream cheese. You aren’t the same physical matter you were 50 years ago, or 5 years ago. You aren’t what you outwardly appear to be. You aren’t what everyone else sees. You are what you see. You aren’t the objective physical thing: you are the subjective immaterial experience. You are the movie you watch on the inner screen of your consciousness. For anyone else to truly see you, they’d have to be able to watch that same movie running in the theater of your inner mind. You are not the proverbial cover of the closed book, but the contents of the words contained within.

If your brain were transplanted to another person, what would then matter most is what you would do from then on. What decisions would you make, and how would you behave in the world? How would you manifest your inward reality?

Which is the more accurate and important depiction of Hieronymus Bosch? Is it the posthumous sketch of his visage made in 1550, or just a detail of his depiction of hell, from 1995-1505?

The former is the external perception of him. An alien species of superior intelligence, if they were to visit our planet and discover only this drawing, wouldn’t know that the animal depicted wasn’t just a pet who its owner clothed for amusement. But if they saw Bosch’s painting, they’d know that whoever or whatever created it was conscious; intelligent; imaginative; deliberated on right and wrong; and lived in and thus could depict a vast reality teaming with sentient beings.

And this is where my browser went into some twilight zone of perpetual auto-saving that never finished, and the rest of my essay was lost. I don’t want to rewrite it, because my “rants” are fairly stream of consciousness, and I can’t recreate the flow (though I did go back later and edit what I’d already written, but hadn’t lost). So, there’s a big chunk missing, but some new additions and clarification.

And so I will leave it off here. I’ve probably said enough. I’ll just include a couple more images I produced, which were part of additional paragraphs.

Which is the real Vincent?

and

Salesman, Gregor Samsa, awakens in the body of a cockroach, in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

I probably don’t need to spell it out, anyway. You can intuit the rest on your own. The gist was that it’s far better to think of people, including oneself, as an invisible agent than as a glorified zombie. I was going to tie in thinking for yourself, and being a soul, to the self-preserving necessity of resisting narratives that define you by your biology, which places false limitations on the scope and capacity of our humanity. That might have gotten a little political, so it may have been fortuitous that an internet fluke killed the second half of my essay. It’s enough to remember that one is an invisible actor, who is not defined or limited by biology, and that every actor and every act matters. Whether the pawn or the king is moved by the grandmaster* chess player, it is the grandmaster who made the move. You are not the pawn: you are the grandmaster. It’s up to you to play like one.

~ Ends

  • Grandmaster is a familiar term for the best chess players. Think of a black belt in karate. My use of the term is for convenience, and has nothing whatsoever to do with masters of slave plantations, or gender, or any social hierarchy. Everyone, regardless of biology, or other circumstances, is the grandmaster.

17 replies on “Runaway Rant: I identify as a shapeless, colorless, genderless soul

  1. Eric,
    Your a person who thinks for himself in a world that does not want free thinkers. That’s probably why it frustrates you so much. Most of the mass of people are zombies and you want to wake them up. One thing that confuses me is why most artists are in with the non thinking mass of humanity. For some reason, for a long time I believed artists were a kind of special person who thought for themselves and searched for truth. Then I read your thoughts and think, maybe Eric is one of the only true artists left on earth and most of the rest are just phonies acting as artists. They are really just programmed people from “art school” who think they know what’s best for the world and are really just being used and will be the 1st to be sacrificed when the time comes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Matt. I think most of those phonies don’t even know they’re phonies. Just bits in the big machine more-or-less controlled by whoever it is or whatever it is. I’m guessing it’s a mob led by the ultra-rich, who I dub the URBMFs but with inputs from other generators of memes. Y’r [new] ol’ Bud, Fike

      Liked by 2 people

    2. “For some reason, for a long time I believed artists were a kind of special person who thought for themselves and searched for truth.” I thought that, too, at least until I went to grad school. Probably because in the past we associate artists with free thinkers, but we are really only hearing about the best artists. Today, I suspect that the education system isn’t doing its job of teaching students to think for themselves, how to think rationally, or how to make and defend sound arguments. Nowadays, it’s considered imperative that students come to believe and express the correct conclusions. Even when I was in college, there was a strong push to convert students to a certain way of thinking. I wasn’t coming to the table with an empty cup, though, and already had enough education under my belt for the graft not to take.

      I was lucky that in my early college years, I got a decent foundation. I got your more standard philosophy, history, art, art history, and literature courses before I went to art re-education camp.

      So, yeah, just being an artist — and especially by the new, much more loose definition of “artist” — doesn’t mean one is an independent thinker. It almost guarantees the opposite.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. 60 is just around the corner, though, considering it seems like I turned 50 a number of months ago. I try to take really good care of myself so I’ll last longer in good condition. But, yeah, it’s not anywhere near as bad as I would have though being in my 50’s. In fact, if I didn’t know my age, I wouldn’t know I’m that old.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love that Van Gogh.

    Two cheers for this article. I definitely agree with your thesis, that mind is a real thing. In fact, I don’t think “soul” is even a metaphor … it’s more of an ancient technical term for what you’re describing.

    But I also think our body gets a vote. It’s just as dehumanizing to be told your body doesn’t matter, as that your soul doesn’t exist.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, yes, the body does matter, but that might be a different post. Today, all we hear is that we are the body, so I’m giving the other perspective that is gradually disappearing. They are not of equal importance, however, as our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, have bodies, and last I checked they haven’t even begun a space program.

      Our over emphasis on the body today — which is considered progressive and a political imperitive — is, when one pans back from the immediate presumed benefits of the agenda it serves, backwards and self-defeating.

      When it comes to the body, I’m exploring an idea that it’s not really ours to abuse as we see fit. Rather, it’s more like it’s ours on loan, and our first responsibility is to take care of it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Fair enough.

        If you haven’t already seen it, may I recommend Love Thy Body by Nancy R. Pearcey. She identifies the problem as a two-tier split between mind and body, where they are assumed to have nothing to do with one another. This allows us to exalt either at the expense of the other.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sounds interesting. For the record, I certainly don’t think mind and body have nothing to do with each other. The mind is, as far as I know, totally dependent on the material brain for its existence, and our mental experience is shaped by our bodies, sensory apparatuses, and how that operates to allow us to interface with our environment.

          One could put body and mind of equal importance according to a certain angle, such as which is more important for a sense of well-being, or for quality of existence. That makes good sense. You can say that a human is not just a mind or just a body, but inextricably the amalgam of the two. You’d get no argument from me. And there’s a reason I put a lot of effort into taking care of my health. To be human is to have a body, and to be mortal.

          But I was talking about who one is in the world, how one acts, and what one accomplishes. The question isn’t whether having a human body is important, but which human body, or body parts. Obviously, you could get a heart transplant and still write your next novel. George Eliot wasn’t less of a writer than her male contemporaries because of the configuration of her gonads.

          I was talking about identity, quite clearly in my title, which was poking fun at people saying they “identify” as this or that body and its proclivities. Which is more important for Shakespeare’s identity, his plays, or his hair? What contributes more to human achievement, our minds, or our opposable thumbs?

          But, I’m sure you get all that, and are making some other point I would handily discover upon reading a few paragraphs in the opening chapter of that book.

          Because of my cataract, and living in SE Asia, I have a very hard time getting ahold of books, and physically reading them. Better to send me links to YouTube videos.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. I watched at the original of “Wheat fields after the rain” for a couple of eternal minutes…It was the only one painting I really saw in my life, cause I still see it now, feel it through my eyes. The only one which went deep into me. I have never experienced nothing before, though I like art galleries.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, it’s good to hear you had such a rich moment with a Van Gogh painting after the rain. Sometimes little things like the weather — or maybe they are very big things — help us get out of ourselves a little and really appreciate a work of art for what it is.

      Liked by 1 person

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