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Metaphoric Being

METAPHORIC BEING

Inspired by a reading of Milan Kundera’s Immortality, this was meant to be an enquiry into ‘journalistic truth’ as opposed to ‘novelistic truth.’ It grew instead into a consideration of the significance of the metaphor in our understanding of reality. This happened as a result of several coincidental occurrences: my discovery of Milan Kundera, followed by Vilayanur Ramachandran’s Reith Lectures 2003, Steve Hagen’s, Buddhism Plain and Simple, Michael White’s The Pope and the Heretic, Simon Wiesenthal’s The Murderers among Us and Tutu as I know him – an unplanned bibliography for this essay.

If you are trying to find a way to connect this random selection of readings, you are engaged in what Vilayanur Ramachandran calls, “cross-modal abstraction,” the ability to abstract common elements from very unlike items. According to the Professor:

“cross-modal abstraction,” evolved as a survival mechanism in prehistoric times and became an automatic function of the brain. Once human beings developed the … ability to engage in cross-modal abstraction, that structure in turn became an exaptation for other types of abstraction that us humans excel in, be it metaphor or any other type of abstraction.” (4th Lecture, Reith 2003, p. 5)

While Ramachandran, making correlations between neural and physical activity, searches for reality in brain functions, Buddhists see reality and Kundera seeks reality in the way we function in the world. Both Kundera and Ramachandran attribute changes in human perceptions of reality to revolutions that displaced human beings from the centre of the universe, disabused them of the notion of predestination, and questioned their under-standing of being in the world.

In Kundera’s words:

As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values, distinguished good from evil, and endowed each thing with meaning, Don Quixote set forth from his houseinto a world he could nolonger recognize. In the absence of the Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity; the single divine Truth decomposed into myriad relative truths parcelled out by men. Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world. (The Art of the Novel, 6)

In Ramachandran’s words:

The history of mankind in the last three hundred years has been punctuated by major upheavals in human thought that we call scientific revolutions – upheavals that have profoundly affected the way in which we view ourselves and our place in the cosmos. First there was the Copernican revolution – the notion that far from being the centre of the universe, our planet is a mere speck of dust revolving around the sun. Then there was the Darwinian revolution culminating in the view that we are not angels but merely hairless apes … And third there was Freud’s discovery of the “unconscious” – the idea that even though we claim to be in charge of our destinies, most of our behaviour is governed by a cauldron of motives which we are barely conscious of. Your conscious life, in short, is nothing but an elaborate post-hoc rationalisation of things you really do for other reasons. (Reith 2003, Lecture 1, 1)

For Buddhists it is the reverse:

Consciousness divides what is otherwise the direct experience of a seamless Whole into the world of multiplicity, the world of space and time. (Hagen, 140).

I interpret this to mean that for the Buddhist the relative emanates from human inability to comprehend the Absolute[1] (“a seamless Whole”). Religions see the Absolute (God) as the starting point out of which relativity emerges; for atheists there is no beginning or end and humans create absolutes to cope with relativity.

While Buddhists calmly make their way, like particles in waves, through life’s diverse and continuous flow, regarding commitment to a particular point of view as denial of the comprehensiveness of the Absolute, the rest of humanity continues the struggle to stop the flow with fixed formulations of truth and identity.

In the search for meaning, coincidences, unexpected yet seemingly related happenings, tease us with glimpses of certainty. Coincidences call into play Ramachandran’s cross-modal abstraction (metaphor) which allows us to derive coherence from disparate happenings. In creating metaphors, we give meaning-definition-consistency to existence. For Ramachandran, this was a means of survival; for Kundera, according to Jan Čulik, the metaphor turns reality into myth.

 

Kundera scrutinizes closely man’s myth-making propensity.He finds that the basic vehicle of myth-making is the metaphor. Out of a large number of characteristics, pertaining to two facts or events, we arbitrarily choose one isolated feature which they both have in common,because this superficialsimilarity happens to please us (it emphasises an aspect that we momentarily, for no good reason, find important, to the exclusion of all other aspects, most of which we are often not aware of). (Čulik, A self-referential Paradox, 3)

In an infinite universe, our material existence is a metaphor for certainty and certainty is a myth.

“Imagology”

Once life was shown to be indeterminate and uncertain underneath its superstructure of myth, some languished in existential angst while others, seeing the gap left by the departure of the Divine, seized on the notion of uncertainty and turned it into metaphor for profit. These pragmatists, whom Kundera calls imagologues – image makers – demonstrate great expertise in milking our insecurities and have conquered the world with a new dogma:

Imagology!” …this word finally lets us put under one roof something that goes by so many names: advertising agencies; political campaign managers; designers who devise the shape of everything from cars to gym equipment; fashion stylists; barbers;show-business stars dictating the norms of physical beauty that all branches of imagology obey.” (Immortality, 127)

Impermanence and change, the business principles of imagologues, and metaphor their modus operandi, made concrete in updates and make-overs, restore weight to existence as they proliferate a material democracy.

The word change,… has been given a new meaning: it no longer means a new stage of coherent development (as it was understood by Vico, Hegel or Marx) but a shift from one side to another, from front to back, from the back to the left, from the left to the front (as understood by designers dreaming up the fashion for next season) … Imagologues create systems of ideals and anti-ideals, systems of short duration which are quickly replaced by other systems but which influence our behaviour, our political opinions and aesthetic tastes, the colour of carpets and the selection of books ... (Immortality,129 - 130)

Now we no longer fear change, we fear being out-of-fashion, out of step, not politically correct. Imagology, which has given us a way to cohere, to be in community with ever-changing, fashionable identities, is a new, more effective form of ‘democracy.

“Imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology. All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously. For example, communists used to believe that in the course of capitalist development the proletariat would graduallygrow poorer, but when it finally became clear that all over Europe workers were driving to work in their own cars, they felt like shouting that reality was deceiving them. Reality was stronger than ideology. And it is in this sense that imagology surpassed it:imagology isstronger than reality…” (Immortality,127-8)

While ideologists theorise, plan and create structure upon structure to implement democracy, imagologues with no bureaucratic controls to impede their progress, have, with the aid of the media, immersed us in a practical form of democracy that has spread throughout the world – a form of democracy that is ‘kitsch’:

The most pernicious metaphorical constructs of reality are those which consciously set out to exclude the negative aspects of life. Kundera calls these constructs ‘kitsch.’ (A self-referential Paradox, 3)

Imagologues have ensured the support of the people for kitsch democracy through their powerful means of consultation:

 

Public opinion polls are the critical instruments of imagology’s power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people… Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth and although I know everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that could break this power … the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth.” (Immortality, 128-9)

In addition, having turned supply and demand into a metaphor for democracy, imagologues propagate it through the media.

The imagologue is a person of conviction and principle: he demands of the journalist that his newspaper (or TV channel, radio station) reflect the imagological system of a given moment. And this is what imagologues check from time to time when they are trying to decide which newspaper to support.” (Immortality, 127)

The globe has thus become the constituency of imagologues who are homogenising the planet while we, in our designer jeans, embrace this new form of totalitarianism, and simultaneously lament the loss of diversity and cultural uniqueness. Though imagologues, with their swiftly changing metaphors, demonstrate that there are no absolutes and existence in an infinite universe is transient, we cling to their metaphors as our reality because they are absolute in the moment. Thus they have become coping mechanisms for being-in-the-world.

Imagologues, working in the moment, have resolved the absolute/relative paradox by making change consistent. And the phrase “living in the moment” has become a mantra.

The Paradox

But imagology is really a form of escapism. It has allayed our fear of change but it cannot deal with its root cause – the insecurity of random existence. Religion has dealt with this insecurity by explaining that worldly existence is transient not random; it is a prelude to permanent existence in an afterlife. But constant strife based on religious differences serves only to confirm the relativity of truth and the randomness of existence.

Those who accept the randomness of being see society and its institutions as a human reaction to arbitrary existence. Through our institutions, we have created ‘absolutes’, – the rulesand regulations that have allowed us to build a secure existence. Society, a fortress against the relative, is the human creation of ‘absolute’ truth. In Hinduism this is maya, illusion, mistaking the relative for the absolute. Society, a metaphor in an ever expanding universe, is our reality on earth.

Kundera, however, is critical of our desire for absolutes.

Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. They can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic [1] and dogmatic discourse. They require that someone be right: … This “either-or” encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. (The Art of the Novel, 7)

But in daily interaction people are forced to translate the “language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse”. Even Hamlet, who couldn’t act because he didn’t have conclusive proof, eventually accepted his suspicions as fact and acted on them. ‘To be’ means to live in the world, in a practical situation; if we do not act, we cannot be. And decisions and actions are based on a reduction of relative to a single truth. We must choose and can choose only one from the many options for action that relativity offers.

And that is the paradox of being. In order to be (act, create), we have to reduce the relative to the ‘absolute’. That makes what we call ‘absolute’ a human construct; it arises from the human condition. And we are not unaware, though our awareness may be subliminal, that the choices we make are reductionist rather than Absolute. Why else are capital punishment, abortion and euthanasia, such dilemmas? Why else, even after a judge has made up his mind, are there appeal courts? Why else do we have contradictory views on how to treat AIDS? On stem cell research?

When we still believed in the dichotomy of good and evil, it was easier to make categorical judgments. But after Einstein, we could no longer be in denial. Perhaps, it was to overcome the horror of uncertainty, the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ that led to the mass psychosis that gave rise to the atrocities of the holocaust. Perhaps, by demonstrating that they had control over life and death, the Nazis sought to wipe out uncertainty, impose certainty on the world, make truth and knowledge absolute and remove ambiguity from our existence. Their actions fit into Anthony Giddens’ definition of fundamentalism:

Fundamentalism is not about what people believe but, like tradition more generally, about why they believe it and how they justify it. Fundamentalism can develop on the soil of traditions of all sorts. It has no time for ambiguity, multiple inter-pretation or multiple identity – it is a refusal of dialogue in a world whose peace and continuity depend on it. (1999 Reith Lecture 5, p.6)

Fundamentalism has its roots in the reductionism to which we resort to lessen uncertainty and from which it gains its brute power.

But the complexity of existence cannot be willed away in this crude manner. In the practical world, where ‘truth’ is relative, it takes courage to face up to the fact that we do not have ultimate control over our actions; that we cannot foresee all the consequences; that the principles on which we base our lives are pragmatic not Absolute; that our decisions and actions gain validity from confirmation by others as we cannot know with certainly that they are right in themselves.

So we resort to majority decision-making and the opinion poll. But consensus only gives us the confidence to act; it cannot guarantee the rightness of our decisions.

Even the decisions of arbiters of truth in a Justice System are not guaranteed. When a crime is committed, opposing metaphors are put to the test at a trial. The defence puts one construction on the facts; the prosecution another and whichever has the most sway is declared the truth. In countries where trials include juries that represent public opinion, the construction accepted as truth carries the weight of the people. Even so, it is not final. In our country, which does not use the jury system, a judge weighs the evidence and makes a decision. But his decision is also not final.

Decisions of judges or juries are subject to appeal. Thus, despite our striving for the Absolute, we demonstrate through our judicial processes that we can only produce relative truth. It can change from High Court to Supreme Court and needs further consent to become ‘the truth’.

In the end, what we accept as ‘truth’ depends on consensus: if a meaning carries the weight of numbers or power, it becomes ‘the truth’ –hence our dependence on public opinion polls.

Journalists

Reduction is most clearly manifest in the work of journalists and judges who in their search for truth, must reduce the relative to the categorical. This is a form of fundamentalism and it has given journalists tremendous power. According to Kundera,

The whole moral structure of our time rests on the Eleventh commandment [Tell the truth]; and the journalist came to realise that thanks to a mysterious provision of history (Woodward and Bernstein) he is to become its administrator. (Immortality, 123)

Journalists, as Woodward and Bernstein have shown, are defenders of democracy. They see it as their function to expose actions and procedures that threaten democratic rights and freedoms.

But democracy, which means individual rights and freedoms, translates into myriad truths – relativity. And the journalist’s search for indisputable fact is his weapon against relativity. The journalist, therefore, functions in a paradox. The immediacy of reporting with its requirement of indisputable fact ties him to the moment, forces him into reductionism. In contrast, the novelist, with no compelling deadlines, searches at his own pace for truths that contextualize facts.

Journalists are thrown into further contra-dictions when they are unable to penetrate the labyrinths of bureaucracies. The lack of transparency throws them off course.

 

TRANSPARENCY: A very common term in political and journalistic discourse in Europe. It means: the exposure of individual lives to public view … Axiom: the more opaque the affairs of State, the more transparent an individual’s affairs must be; though it represents a public thing, bureaucracy is anonymous, secret, coded, inscrutable, whereas private man is obliged to reveal his health, his finances, his family situation, and if the mass media so decree, he will never again have a single moment of privacy either in love or in sickness or in death. The urge to violate another’s privacy is an age-old form of aggressivity that in our day is institutionalized (bureaucracy with its documents, the press with it’s reporters), justified morally (the right to know having become first among the rights of man) (The Art of the Novel, 150)

As Kundera explains, journalists unable to probe the affairs of State, turn their focus on the personal lives of individuals who become scapegoats for governments, institutions and organizations. The following newspaper headlines about problems in the Health Department, demonstrate the point.

The Sunday Times, 12 Aug 2007: MANTO’S HOSPITAL BOOZE BINGE

Pretoria News, 17 August 2007: MANTO GETS RECORDS BACK: Minister in urgent bid to gag Sunday Times after its claims of her ‘boozing’

The Sunday Times: Aug 19, 2007:MANTO: A DRUNK AND A THIEF

Sowetan: 21 August 2007:  ‘MBEKI ORDERED MANTO LIVER’: DA wants public protector to probe claim that president used his power to get ailing minister rare life-saving organ.

The focus is on the personal rather than the public performance of the Minister. And the facts or fact? Abuse of alcohol. “Purely positivist factual truth” (Immortality, 124) is mundane, but the metaphors abstracted from such demonstrable facts move ‘truth’ from the absolute to a superstructure of relative truths that can topple politicians from positions of power.

Some put the facts together to form a picture that exposes dangerous incompetence and apathy; others find in them a conspiracy aimed at toppling the President. There is no way to establish the absolute truth or falsity of these metaphors, but the total effect is to discredit the integrity of the individual and throw doubt on her competence to hold office.

Journalistic vs. Novelistic Truth

When the focus of the journalist shifts to the personal, to the individual in her private capacity, he makes moral judgments about her. He places her actions against accepted norms and values to determine her character. And as he is restricted to being in the moment, he knows her only in a particular set of circumstances so what he presents is a one dimensional portrait, a stereotype, a metaphor.

In contrast, a novelist presents a character in multiple situations. As Kundera explains, it is not about defining character traits.

To apprehend the self in my novels means to grasp the essence of its existential problem. To grasp itsexistential code … (which) is not examined in abstracto; it reveals itself progressively in the action, in the situations. (The Art of the Novel, 29 - 30)

And the scientist asks,

What exactly do people mean when they speak of the self? Its defining characteristics are fourfold. First of all, continuity. You’ve a sense of time, a sense of past, a sense of future. There seems to be a thread running though your personality, through your mind. Second, closely related is the idea of unity or coherence of self. In spite of the diversity of sensory experiences, memories, beliefs and thoughts, you experience yourself as one person, as a unity. (Ramachandran, Lecture 5, p. 6)

Is this unity a metaphor, an abstraction, a reduction? Buddhists have no doubt:

We have seen that the abiding self or soul we commonly assume we are is an illusion, a figment of imagination. (Hagen, 134)

And Ramachandran agrees:

(In) the Hindu philosophical view there is no essential difference between self and others … the self is an illusion,” … (Reith 2003, Lecture 5, p.7)

There seems to be consensus among those I have quoted that there is no categorical self. Though consensus does not mean Absolute truth, this view of the self accounts for the differences in modes of operation between journalists and novelists.

As journalists take conformity to social norms and fixity of identity for granted, they deplore inconsistency of behaviour. The novelist, however, sees each action of a character as an individual action, so consistency of behaviour is quite irrelevant. Each action exposes a different aspect of her nature. And as the novel pursues the “wisdom of uncertainty” (The Art of the Novel, p.7) she cannot be reduced to a metaphor, a standard identity.

If a novelist took events surrounding the Health Minister and placed them in a novel, he would not be concerned to verify or deny facts. He is interested in the human being and his concern is to examine her actions and the situations in which she is involved to discover her unique responses to them. The novelist searches for understanding from within, from subjective consciousness, the heart of relativity, and does not judge. To judge would be to impose his understanding of truth rather than discovering the truth of her being.

The journalist, however, searching for ‘incontrovertible truth’ is not looking at the human being; he is measuring her conformity to predetermined human norms and values.

This is his bias and it is reductionist and prejudicial; it precludes a search for real understanding of her actions. In Kundera’s novels, truth is not based on any form of predetermination and represents the search for comprehensive, all encompassing truth.

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think.’ That is the novel’s eternal truth.” (The Art of the Novel, 30)

And in the end it comes back to constructs of the Absolute – Buddhism’s “a seamless Whole,” Hinduism’s Oneness of Being – but not in a supernatural context of faith – in the human context of relativity – in our struggle to comprehend the unity of our diversity.

References

Crawford-Browne, Lavinia. Ed. Tutu as I know him: on a personal note. 2006. Umuzi (Random House): Johannesburg.

Čulik, J. “A Self-referential paradox: Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being,” http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/Slavonic/KUNDERA19.htm

Kundera, Milan. Immortality, 1991. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. 1988. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1985.London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

Reith Lectures: bbc.co.uk: 1999. Giddens, Anthony. The Runaway World. 2003. Ramachandran, V. The Emerging Mind.

Tutu, Desmond. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, (2004),” The Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. 2007. Johannesburg: The Nelson Mandela Foundation.

 White, Michael. The Pope and the Heretic:    A True Story of Courage and Murder at the hands of the Inquisition. 2002. London: Little, Brown and Company. (The story of Giordano Bruno)

 Wiesenthal, Simon. The Murderers among      Us edited by Joseph Wechsberg, 1967. London: Heinemann.

  • In this essay Absolute = Comprehensive truth, ‘absolute’ = human reduction to a single truth


 

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