Following are passages from the book that will give you a feel for the overall business and how I conduct it.
Thus quietly began a discussion, debate or culture war that goes on still. To what extent can we let experience be our guide through this world, even if that means ignoring or defying outside sources of authority commanding us to hear and obey? How valuable is our experience after all? or, How much is our experience worth? or, more broadly, What does our experience mean to us?
Chaucer probably first heard some form of this question on one of his trips to Italy around 1380; he is the prime suspect of carrying the bug back to England with him. But in passage the bug mutated: in Italy the question was, “To what extent should a man let his experience be his guide?” But as we see, Chaucer changed it to, “To what extent may a woman let her experience be her guide?” That little change is one of the main reasons why The Wife of Bath is immortal.
In the Western Tradition this bundle of questions has been argued up and down, back and forth, as far back as the records go. Ink by the barrel has been poured over such questions as, Which experiences are the really valuable ones, the ones that turn a life around? Not the humdrum, every day kind of thing T.S. Eliot pointed to when he complained, “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” —*—
Questions about the worth of experience have come to diminish the status of eyewitness testimony. Eye-witnesses have forever, it seems, been a preferred source of evidence. “I was there,” eyewitnesses say, “I saw what happened, and I can tell it straight from the horse’s mouth.” This is what the Wife of Bath says. And when eyewitnesses swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” judges, lawyers, jurors and journalists all agree to take the testimony seriously. But here at the beginning of the twenty-first century eyewitness testimony has lost much of its traditional luster. How many times, now, have eyewitnesses pointed at the accused and testified, “He’s the one. HE did it! I saw him do it,” only to have DNA evidence, years later, show that the accused was not on the crime scene at all? —*—
The Clint Eastwood film “Changeling” (2008) retells a classic example, from Los Angeles in the 1920s, of how women’s reports of their experiences get only deaf ears. Christine Collins, the mom in the film, played by Angelina Jolie, has her nine-year-old son Walter kidnapped, which she reports to the police. After a while the L.A.P.D. recover a boy from Iowa, decide he is Walter and ‘return’ him to Ms. Collins. She says, “This is not my boy. I know my boy and this is not my boy.” But L.A.P.D. Captain J. J. Jones as played by Jeffrey Donovan insists, “Of course he’s your boy, Mrs. Collins. We have identified him as Walter. Just give it some time and you’ll see.”
Evidence piles up: this ‘Walter’ is much taller than the real one; this one is circumcised. Capt. Jones denies the evidence just as he denied value to Ms. Collins’s experience. He calls her upset, then agitated, then hysterical, finally insane and has her committed to the loony bin in Camarillo.
Eventually the full story comes out, Ms. Collins is informed that Walter was murdered and Capt. Jones gets (most of) what he deserves, but along the way we go through stages of reaction from ‘this is outrageous’ to ‘what a son-of-a-bitch he is’ to ‘how can he get away with this?’ . . . Eroding people’s belief or trust in their own experience is a fundamental kind of violation, a first stage of torture or a violation of their very right to life. —*—
We each train our hands to hold onto things: our bottle of milk, our little spoon, Mommy’s hand, our Teddy. No sooner do we solve one problem than the next problem presents itself — we have to find our mouth with the bottle and the spoon — and we go on to the next stage of training our hands. We learn to outsource bits of the brain’s work to the hand, so the brain gains freedom to address other problems. If we continue on into specialized work like juggling we discover a unique state where the eyes, brain and hands establish intimate, immediate contact, bypassing all the usual communication lags. —*—
At the street level of Western culture Fortuna, Lady Luck, has remained the deity of everyday life. She is the Goddess of Risk, to whom we pray when we roll the dice, and to whose home among the lucky stars we may give thanks when we win a jackpot.
In the daily scrimmage for survival she becomes the random. We know that most of the species on earth have died out in the long course of earth history, thanks to the work of the random. We also know, when we refer to the random as ‘Murphy’s Law,’ or Murphy’s Axiom, that if something can go wrong it will go wrong, and that no good deed goes unpunished. So we hedge our bets, try to manage our risks, don’t stick our necks out too far and pay taxes to insurance companies because they promise to reimburse us when fortune turns against us and bites us in the ass.
One thing I haven’t been able to understand: why is there such cross talk between believers and evolutionary science? Why can The Creator not be The Random? The Mystery, the ultimate true One is beyond our understanding no matter what, so why cannot the One be the Random? Random is as good a word for mystery as any. —*—
Prometheus, who disobeyed the older generation of gods and brought us fire (which is to say, arts, or technologies), seems to precede Hephaestus. and before Prometheus was Ares/Mars, god of war, inspirer of warriors everywhere, keeper of the secrets of victory in war, especially the little circle of order at the core of war’s chaos. Similarly hunter gods and goddesses can be found almost everywhere, hunting being an appropriate activity for warriors during peacetime. —*—
In the historical record, Confucius (551-479 BCE) in far Cathay seems to have had the first say: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” As a boy I heard my elders locate this essence of learning-the-hard-way as taking place at a “college of hard knocks.” Adam and Eve paid the ultimate price for their awakening: by them “Death was brought into this world,/And all our Woe,” according to John Milton. And the Hebrew Bible characterizes the world of experience as cursed:
17 And to Adam he said, because you gave ear to the voice of your wife and took of the fruit of the tree which I said you were not to take, the earth is cursed on your account; in pain you will get your food from it all your life. 18 Thorns and waste plants will come up, and the plants of the field will be your food; 19 With the hard work of your hands you will get your bread till you go back to the earth from which you were taken: for dust you are and to the dust you will go back. —*—
Mindfulness is a special combination of total awareness or concentration and not thinking about anything. Flint knappers have to keep their minds on their work. So do jugglers, weavers, tennis players, blacksmiths, winemakers and voyagers. Across the board — in musical or dramatic performance, circus, gymnastic or other athletic performance, even carrying through a procedure you’ve done a thousand times — everything can be going along fine when suddenly out of nowhere a thought crosses your mind and your performance road goes blank before you. You’ve lost your place and don’t know what to do next. You can blow the game, botch the job, injure yourself, be embarrassed in front of a huge audience, bring down a whole pyramid of people, start a left turn into the path of a speeding semi, set the place on fire, get mauled by your own favorite tiger. It could be the last experience of your life. Mindfulness pays, and with it experience pays even more. —*—
I find this argument of Aristotle’s appealing because I think he’s right, we do have an intelligence. In my experience there are things that we know without knowing how we know them, things that we say just feel right and true. We don’t know where they come from but we trust them without hesitation, we go with them as we go with our childhood notions of fairness. They ring true. We get hints and hunches we know not from where, we pick up vibes at special locations, we feel presences like someone breathing just behind our backs (at six o’clock, as pilots might say), and when we turn around there’s no one there. But we maintain the certainty that someone is still there. We can go along with Aristotle and his outsize estimation of the intelligence’s importance to and impact on our lives. We surely would be different creatures without those messages from the intelligence, those intelligences, that reach us from time to time
But I still prefer the feeling of my pick against the guitar string, even though I have received intelligences throughout my life and thus feel I know what he’s talking about. —*—