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Open in Case of Ignorance

Vital Strategies and the possibility of happiness

Fernando Blasco

I attended Catholic primary school. My father was a discreet unbeliever and my mother was not particularly religious, but their Spanish immigrant parents had conveyed to them the very Spanish concept that, regardless of belief, priests are inevitable in every childs education. As there never were many things for my grand-parents to pass down to their descendants, my parents strongly hung on to this particular piece of advice that so definitively influenced my upbringing. It was very important for me to be a good student because it was one of the reasons why the good priests tolerated our delinquent payment record. The other reason had to do with the fact that, as I was always willing to please, for a while it looked like I was ready to enter the seminary. In recognition of the priests fairness I must mention here that, regardless of the disenchantment that my continuous procrastination in accepting Gods call must have meant to them, they awarded me the golden medal for best primary school student at the closing ceremony of my elementary education. In those days, being a good student implied that you were frequently selected to participate in special activities; without ever volunteering, when I was about eleven years old I became a member of a New Testament study group. I was one of six students that met every Saturday morning under the purview of the schools main catechist priest. The work was rather simple: from Sunday to Friday you paid attention to events that happened to you, and wrote them down in a special copybook; on Friday evening you selected the one event that had impacted you most and analyzed your behavior; then, you looked for a passage in the life of Jesus where He had to deal with a similar situation. On Saturday mornings, while the catechist and your fellow students listened, you read from your copybook and shared your ideas on how Jesus would have acted had He been in your place. Your performance had to include a plan to improve your behavior based on your learning experience. This exercise was in permanent competition for my free time with soccer and reading, and I found very difficult to abide by its rules. From the very first meeting I fell in the habit of working on my material just the night before by a rather expedient method. I randomly opened any of the four Gospels and read a short passage to copy into my copybook; I then invented an event reasonably related to the passage which had me as the protagonist. The rest of the work was, not only much easier, but much more fun. Of course, I was always careful to appear appropriately improvable while, at the same time, never fully off the mark. For a while I thought that everybody else must have been using a similar technique; but the relationship between my stories and my passages of the Gospels was so much more attuned than those of the rest, and my anecdotes were so consistently much more interesting, that I finally concluded that I must have been the only one. I was conscious that my turn at reading was the highlight of those Saturday mornings for everybody in the group, and the pleasure I derived from it encouraged me to continue to apply myself more fervently to the use of my imagination. Simultaneously, I started to enjoy more and more my Friday evening work. I had

no friends to whom I could confess it at the time, but the reading of the New Testament suddenly became as enjoyable and adventurous as the stories of Sandokan that I had so much loved to read a couple of years before. Neither could I talk to the priests about my fresh appetite for the Gospels because the reasons that made me find them so appealing diverged so much from what I knew they expected. The familiarity I was acquiring with the text and, perhaps, the particular liberties with which I was approaching the whole exercise of the study group, made me read the Gospels as books (as any other books) and the idea of their being the Word of God began to recede in my mind. The different emphases or slight discrepancies that I discovered in the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, created in my young intellect, and in spite of myself, certain uneasiness (which I later regarded as an incipient questioning of the priests exegesis) that prompted me to read the Acts and the Letters of the Apostles, the Revelation and, finally the whole Christian Bible. I experienced, at a very young age, the paradox of becoming one of the very few people I have ever met who has completely read what the Christians consider their Sacred Book while, at the same time, becoming convinced that there was nothing sacred about it. Later in my life I walked through many different paths, as we all do, but I have never stopped reading and writing. I married and helped raise a family with four daughters. I studied engineering in Buenos Aires, business administration in New York, and literature in Madrid; I worked for IBM, twelve years in Argentina and three in the United States; I ran my own consulting firm for nine years and worked as an independent management consultant for five. I lived in Buenos Aires, New York, Madrid and Rome; I live back in New York now. I did some travelling. Eventually, I granted myself a sabbatical year to read and to write from which this book is the main product. It is possible that I would have read and written during all my life with equal fervor even if I had never passed through my New Testament study group; but I believe that I would have done it in a very different manner. My approach to the written expression was, and is, very deeply influenced by my experiences of those Saturday mornings and, therefore, it becomes the introduction to this book to further reflect on them. It is possible that, at this point, an ethical concern about my behavior has insinuated itself in my readers mind. Was I being dishonest by my approach to the study group? Was my concealed invention of the stories cheating? I admit that these and other similar questions beset me since the beginning and that, as I recall, my thought process then was not very different from what it is now. Since the time I was eleven I have had copious opportunities to feel, think, talk and read. Mostly, I have endeavored to make the best of these opportunities. But I reckon that my perception and intelligence have not sustained any considerable modifications, and I am convinced that the deep recess of my brain where vital decisions are made remains unchanged. Hence, in the treasured occasions when I can interact with a person in the eleven-year-old range, and if we are both able to free ourselves from the awkwardness that our age difference stirs up, I take her views and feelings very seriously; I do the same with the eleven-year-old person that I was. But I have found this not to be the norm. As children are overpowered by adults, their insight and wisdom (I do not mean this in a relative manner) are generally overlooked. It is, therefore, not surprising that when people consider my behavior at the New Testament study group, although they mostly condemn it as dishonest, I get 3

immediately acquitted on account of my age. However, as I have so vivid a recollection of my childhood, I do not get any satisfaction from the age alibi, nor did I get it when I was a child. The bare facts did not escape me: my behavior was initially motivated by the intention to dodge the effort implied in an exercise in which I was invited to participate and that I was not candid enough to reject for fear of some hypothetical retaliation; later, as I have already recognized, the laziness of the first days disappeared and it was replaced by the vain pleasure of my insignificant literary success that spurred me to continue. Having discarded the absolution by incapacity in the terms that were appropriate to my age, I later considered the utilitarian justification. I entertained two viewpoints: on the one hand, the products of my imagination made Saturday mornings more enjoyable for everyone; on the other, the purpose of the exercise was to make the New Testament known and the derived behavioral principles explicit for all, and my writings served that purpose better than anybody elses work. Therefore, the use of an un-approved method did not detract from the worth of the results and, moreover, those same results were enough to make any qualms that might have sprung from the use of such a method irrelevant. If I had written the internal deliberations of my childhood I would now be able to convey their uncouth precision and the undisputed power that I allowed them to exert over my mind, because, while I was able to deceive everyone in my group, I lacked the ability to accept any reason or any authority as long as it did not agree with my unsteady logic. All I can say at present is that I intuitively opposed the utilitarian approach with the same type of rather obvious moral objections that Machiavellian proposals usually arise. This was enough for me to disregard that path of reasoning; and I was forced, again, to face reality in terms I disliked: I was unethically beguiling the priest and my fellow students. However, in spite of what I regarded as evidence inculpating my behavior, I was neither ready to modify it, nor to accept that I was an evil or unprincipled person. Being of the age of eleven years did not prevented me from realizing that it was not possible to be a good person and, at the same time, to behave unethically. I desperately needed to resolve this conundrum to be free again and able to go and play soccer like everybody else. At that point the idea occurred to me that the reasonable next step would be to question the principles that made my behavior unethical. In the following paragraphs I will briefly introduce the investigations and inquiries that followed that idea because they constitute the subject of this book. The development of my thought process as I have presented it so far is not coincident with reality. Ideas do not develop sequentially; language does. Our perception of our own past is not fixed, and the very process of thinking about it modifies that perception; the past cannot be considered a stationary occurrence. It could be argued that even the most skilled and honest of speakers, writers or philosophers always belie the truth, either by the flawed workings of their brains or by the modest actuality of human communication. This is one of the obvious limitations of our species that we attempt to bury under the myths that we create about ourselves. But the consciousness of this limitation is always latent in us (this is what affords myths their spell) and it often re-emerges to remind us of the impossibility of truth. Our constrained ability to perceive, our need to focus and simplify, and our simple reasoning, keep us away from a comprehensive version of our past, but also prevents us from grasping 4

the present beyond a trivial level of complexity. Truth with any pretense of objectivity or comprehensiveness is absolutely elusive to us. Barthes argument that to make art means to consider the desire for the impossible reasonable, only points to a particular instance of a concept with wider implications. He stresses arts impossibility to access truth, but art is only one of the paths that some tread in their quests for truth. All other paths attempted by other people lead to the same disappointment because the flaw is not in the routes but in the walkers. The ignorance of a truth capable of integrating our consciousness with our cravings, our fear of solitude with our curb on love, our attachment to life with our flirting with death, is at the base of the human experience, and the possibility of any ethical principle must derive from satisfactory dealing with this ignorance. The previous contention cannot be sustained without the recognition that the existence of truth and the possibility of knowing truth have been the subject of philosophical debate for centuries and that most influential philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and the philosophical tradition that followed) have agreed on a positive position. Those on the negative (starting perhaps with Pyrrho) have been much less influential. The set of events that made and maintained the believers in the existence and accessibility of truth more influential than the skeptics is in itself a powerful indication of human behavior and of the role of philosophy. In the following chapters I will discuss these historical events and will suggest that reason alone does not suffice to account for the different positions adopted by men, because it is not possible for men (from simple to sophisticated or from philosophers to scientists) to operate at a purely intellectual level. The human behaviors that we classify as emotional and intellectual are produced by psychological states that are difficult to differentiate in terms of the underlying physical processes. Our understanding of those processes is so imperfect that the simplifications laid out by Aristotle separating reason from emotions are still prevalent to a surprising degree. These simplifications are at the root of the very imperfect rules that control interactions among human beings both as laws and as ethical principles. It is enough to stop for a second and review the pervasiveness of conflict and suffering in the world (present in the difficult relationships of couples as well as in the massive destruction of wars) to realize how inadequate the Aristotelian explanations of human functioning are. I will further develop this concept later, but this succinct reference prompts the evaluation of the intertwined intellectual-emotional nature of the childhood developments that I presented earlier as the consequence of only intellectual deliberations. Childhood is filled with explorations of possibilities of being. Although our explorations of possibilities of being continue during our whole lives (I will reflect about this with more detail in the discussion about love) they are particularly important in the earlier years of development: we imagine different aspects of our future, from labor life to love life, and we try to feel what it would be like to become a person with the attributes we conceive. The ideas that I was entertaining as a result of my participation in the New Testament study group and the secret questioning of the teachings that I was being imparted suggested in me a vision of myself that I liked. When filled with that vision, I was able to inhabit a realm where I enjoyed greater freedom and where I accessed a feeling of superiority. I perceived that even the highest ranking persons around me abided by rules beyond their control, while I was starting 5

to be master of my own rules. This realization was deeply rewarding. Moved by these emotions, I looked for others who might be undergoing similar processes that could accompany, facilitate, or even inspire my transformations. With the exception of one person, my classmates did not care to discuss questions of truth, ethics or authority. It was not that they were not exploring options for themselves, but they would have rather play soccer than ponder on their condition. To them, reality consisted in getting together with others and doing things; meditation was something that they were forced to do every now and then, but the sooner that they could liberate themselves from those moments of introspection, the better. To me, on the contrary, kicking a ball around with others was fun, but it was only a temporary relief from reality, a reality that consisted mostly in self-regard. These different approaches (which I continued to verify in my adult life) are the product of developments which could not be called intellectual but for which we design reasons and justifications. The New Testament study group unleashed in me questions and sensations beyond my understanding that, as I grew up, while altering my allegiances and my friendships help me to develop the pleasure of reading philosophy. Reading philosophers is useful to write books; it is less useful to eradicate human ignorance about a comprehensive truth. Pyrrhos contention that for every argument that can be put forward, another one, equally valid, can be construed to demonstrate exactly the opposite seems to apply. With the beautiful a-synchronicity allowed by ideas, Nietzsche's claim that philosophers should be exempted from any concerns with daily life to engage more freely in philosophical thinking was rejected eighteen centuries earlier by Petronius when he had Encolpius calling masters of idiocy those who devote their lives to the schools because they are unaware of the common run of life. In this case (as in all debates of ideas) it is difficult not to find merits in the opposing views. The problem with impartiality in a world of conflicting positions is that it ends up questioning the validity of the tool. The confrontation with the feeble results of human thought leads to the question of the capability of human reason and, even more basically, to the question of the essence of human reason. The brain-mind problem derives from there. The brain-mind problem has not escaped the fate of all philosophical debates: it has lingered for centuries and it has fostered completely opposite views. By the early nineties neuroscience was ushering the Decade of the Brain and the intensive use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) started to open new windows into the functioning of the mind. However, while it is becoming continuously clearer that the processes that we have for so many years associated with the word mind can be fully explained in terms of cerebral activities, dualist theories continue to be imagined and sustained (albeit with increasing difficulty). It is now possible to speculate that we may be at the threshold of the end of the controversy: nanotechnology could transform the study of the brain into the design of the brain. The incipient manipulation of matter at atomic level and the capability for molecular manufacturing presage a future when mind could be constructed according to specifications. As a result, dualistic theories loose all grounding but, far from the satisfaction for the clarification of one of the classic philosophical debates, this resolution brings about a profoundly disquieting perspective. As the Huxleyian fantasy becomes reality, it presses the 6

unsettling question of who will define the specifications for human minds and who will have access to the possible improvements. Perhaps because of the unpredictability we have learned to expect from tomorrow, human beings have ascribed most value to the study of the past and the present, and had regarded the preoccupations with the future as less important. We have allowed ourselves to be utterly inadequate planners. Now, we face a situation in which the future may no longer consist just in the interactions between men, their environment and their conditions, but in what men will make men be at their biochemical level. The discussion about the possible uses of the manipulation of matter at atomic level has started in very limited and isolated forums. In all probability we will face extremely dangerous challenges for our race under the leadership of men whose only capacity consists in deceiving and manipulating others to accumulate power. This has been the pattern in human history. *** It took the dexterity of Borges just about four thousand sequential words in The Garden of Forking Paths to suggest the infinite labyrinth of perpetually forking time in which new possibilities spring at every moment and in which, in spite of the appearance of singularity of each mans life, all men might perhaps be simultaneously alive in different dimensions only to become finally lost. It takes me this whole book to present my explorations in that labyrinth. The discovery of incipient literary pleasures combined with an interesting acquaintance with the Bible at a rather young age, does not, in itself, imply any specific outcome. Why it fostered the questioning of authority and the interest to investigate and to understand the reasons behind human ideas and beliefs cannot be answered simply; it has to do with my conception and birth as much as with every successive experience that I had of my environment but, once started in my explorations I soon became convinced that specialization is as unlikely as integration. Perhaps a as a reaction to the predominant trend, the second impossibility enticed me more and I explored history, philosophy, science and literature, and I carefully considered myself, other human beings, and other fellow animals, always with the aim to embrace and to unite. As a result I will propose that the unifying theme of human behavior has much less to do with logic than with a complex set of physical reactions, and that, regardless of the apparent diversity of individuals, human behavior operates within a limited set of patterns dictated by our constitution and by the circumstances that demand our response at every moment. I will call the behavioral patterns of our responses to the demands of life Vital Strategies. Even if we do not comprehend the biochemical processes underlying our Vital Strategies, we can identify their characteristics and learn to accommodate our expectations of ourselves to their unavoidable impositions. Incommensurate expectations breed suffering and preclude any possibility of happiness. *** This succinct discussion so far has touched on most of the subjects to be developed in the course of the next chapters. As this book is a report on explorations its style takes into consideration, in particular, the reader who has enjoyed (or would enjoy) reading Cyriacus of Ancona, Marco Polo or Sigmund Freud. None of these writers was particularly respectful of authority, they all traveled different geographical or psychological territories and, while 7

conscious of their own limitations, they all considered the desire for the impossible reasonable. The question of the style of a text is evidently not answered by its ascription to a literary tradition; much less when that literary tradition is loosely defined as that of reports on explorations (with the provision of assuming a rather broad sense for the word exploration), and by naming three significant authors within it. However, I would submit that the discussion of style benefits from the consideration of authors and tradition. The mention of authors might suggest a confrontation with the variously accepted notion of the death of the author. If, as Barthes maintains, the author dies in the act of writing, what is the importance of the author in the style of the text? It would seem that, as the text becomes independent, it assumes a set of qualities that comprise its style, and those qualities are no longer linked to the writer. So, by proclaiming the independence of the text from the tyranny of the author, Barthes rejects all information about the writer and his situation and announces the birth of the reader as the new master of the meaning of the text. The reader would perceive and settle on the style of the text as one of the necessary components of its meaning with independence of the author. What is, then, the link between writer and style once the text is in the hands of the reader? The research on the concept of style shows how difficult its definition has been. While experts on stylistics tend to discuss style as something that actually happens, writers are usually more inclined to approach it as an aspiration or a development. The former study style; the latter commit their whole persons to achieving it. This is so because the act of writing affords the writer the (possible) access to a modality of his own being that is not available to him while engaged in other activities. In the painful process of writing the writer gets as close as it is possible for him to being the version of himself the he would love to be at that time. Through writing he can experience versions of himself that are not available to him within the restrictions of time and space imposed by life. To live implies the continuous denial of all but one of the unlimited options open for us at each instant. We live with the tension created by these latent aborted states within us. The text produced by the writer allows him to give expression to some of those states. From his point of view, style is the set of qualities in a text by which his desired modality of being finds expression. The presence we recognize behind Marlows narration expresses Conrads desired modality of being at that particular time, not the actual Conrad. This presence is important for Conrads readers; how close to that modality of being the actual Conrad was able to come is not. The writer is only partially aware of the multiple factors forming his desire for a particular modality of being and, as a consequence, writing also becomes an exercise of (partial) selfdiscovery. The presence behind the text may, according to the design and the exertion of the writer, purport a particular set of traits (that might include, for example, an excellent memory, a breathtaking encyclopedic knowledge, an inspiring humility, a corrosive superiority, or any other of so many possibilities), but this presence will also convey, in a perhaps transformed and intertwined manner, the weight of the writers genetic predispositions, his scars from lifes deceptions, his myths and prejudices, or his wisdom and aesthetic values, that flourish from beyond the writers conscious efforts. From the perspective of the writer, the style of the text that he has produced is not only the product of his intellect or of his craft, but also of his 8

experiences and aspirations and of his genetic code and his history; it is the product of his complete person, including the areas of which he is not aware. The readers experience of style also brings into play a complex set of personal characteristics that involves reactions at different levels of consciousness and in which the basic human need for identification of causes plays an important role. We can only achieve a certain degree of comfort in our elementary need for safety when we feel that we can identify the causes of the events that affect us and, in consequence, when we read, we need to imagine the cause behind the text, the presence that makes this experience possible. The reader experiences style as the set of qualities in the text that allow him to imagine the cause that created it. All reading, regardless of genre, incites the readers imagination so that the presence of the perceived cause of the text allows him to exercise some of his own desired modalities of being (the pleasures of the imagination). The ambiguity that undermines our attempts to frame a text within a rational scheme derives from the impossibility to constrain an integral human experience to an intellectual process; an ambiguity that will make Menards friend to conclude that there is not exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. Thus, as the readers appreciation of style involves his perception and his imagination, all the information surrounding the text contributes to sharpen this unique experience. The information about the author and the historical perspective of his time are not indicators of any true significance of the text, but they contribute to the readers involvement in a way which is acceptable to him and enhances his experience. *** I will confine the introduction to the previous discussion about the author, the subject and the style of the book. All three will join the reader to create a new experience to which, finally, the last line of Phaedrus prologue to the fables will apply: remember that we play with fiction, where all is fable. The exposition of the Vital Strategies and their consequences will resort to art, history, legend, stories and experiences. This will be done in recognition that no essay, no concept, no idea contained in a book, is ever the product of an isolated intellect. It is always the result of the interplay of all the human aspects of the author reaching to meet with those of the reader, both of them consciously and unconsciously conditioned by their personal constitution, their history and their environment. The result is a shared product that can impact both, author and reader.