Monthly Archives: January 2014

Who Are We to Believe, the Lion, the Scorpion or Circe?

People have been preoccupied with the nature of mind and personality at least since anyone realized that everyone’s first question is the same question – “Huh?”.

A slave named Androcles once escaped from his master and fled to the forest. As he was wandering about there he came upon a lion lying down moaning and groaning. At first he turned to flee, but finding that the lion did not pursue him, he turned back and went up to him. As he came near, the lion put out his paw, which was all swollen and bleeding, and Androcles found that a huge thorn had got into it, and was causing all the pain. He pulled out the thorn and bound up the paw of the lion, who was soon able to rise and lick the hand of Androcles like a dog. Then the lion took Androcles to his cave, and every day used to bring him meat from which to live.
But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to the lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several days.

The emperor and all his court came to see the spectacle, and Androcles was led out into the middle of the arena. Soon the lion was let loose from his den, and rushed bounding and roaring towards his victim. But as soon as he came near to Androcles he recognized his friend, and fawned upon him, and licked his hands like a friendly dog.

The emperor, surprised at this, summoned Androcles to him, who told him the whole story. Whereupon the slave was pardoned and freed, and the lion let loose to his native forest.

•Source: The Fables of Æsop, selected, told anew, and their history traced by Joseph Jacobs (London: Macmillan and Company, 1902), no. 23, pp. 60-61. First published 1894.

In Androcles and the Lion, the lion represents a certain view of mind. When Androcles meets him, the lion is preoccupied with the thorn in his paw. Nothing else matters; the lion is an animal in pain, above all. After Androcles removes the thorn, the lion is an animal relieved of pain, above all. Henceforth, in Androcles’ presence, all that matters for the lion is the presence of Androcles. The mindfulness appears to be contagious too. The emperor is caught up in the fellowship and, cries for blood, bread and circuses be damned, he releases the slave and the lion. In this view of mind, what happens is what’s at work. The lion is still a lion. Androcles is right to fear the cat on sight. But the lion-ness is something of an accident of birth. The creature is mostly damp clay. It may start as a lion-shaped lump, but it is a natural born empiricist. It responds to stimuli as any set of enzymes and neurotransmitters would. Androcles’ mercy is the lion’s mercy is the emperor’s mercy because Androcles’ pain is the lion’s pain is the emperor’s pain. The story is lovely. No one really thinks the lion would have let Androcles approach, though. Nor does anyone reasonably expect a politician, even a despot, to disappoint his constituents for the sake of a slave and a predatory animal. So much for the sovereignty of current events. What else, then?

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…”

The scorpion cannot escape his nature. Neither can the frog, and his is the nature which cannot tell the difference between helping someone across the river and helping a deadly scorpion across the river. In either case, the creature’s transcendent essence trumps the matter at hand. Just as the lion is ruled by the insistent facts of the moment, the frog and the scorpion move to the tug of their respective natures, with the facts of the moment as props and extras on the stage, setting the scene but not truly affecting the action. The frog feels mortified as the truth is uncovered. But the scorpion goes down happily, for he has apparently learned to love his fate.
However, his fate is to sting, not to cross rivers, though he speaks of it all as one piece. By nature, the scorpion has much in common with the frog, except the scorpion’s nature is one which cannot tell the difference between loving its fate and hurtling headlong to its doom. Stinging isn’t the issue for the scorpion, wanting a ride across the river on a stingable boat is. Circumstances are not just window dressing, and the closer we examine essences, the more they look like they’re ruled by circumstances, and might even be made of circumstances themselves.
If there is no absolute power in mechanism and no absolute power in identity, then what do we make of ourselves?

Listen with care to this now, and a god will arm your mind. Square in your ship’s path are Seirenes (Sirens), crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound! He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, crowding about him, home from sea; the Seirenes will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling. There are bones of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot. Steer wide; keep well to seaward; plug your oarsmen’s ears with beeswax kneaded soft; none of the rest should hear that song. But if you wish to listen, let the men tie you in the lugger, hand and foot, back to the mast, lashed to the mast, so you may hear those harpies’ thrilling voices; shout as you will, begging to be untied, your crew must only twist more line around you and keep their stroke up, till the singers fade.
– Translated by Robert Fitzgerald

The Seirenes will sing his mind away with a song based in a natural, essential property of man: to be motivated, and so ruled, by his desires. Circe advocates Amor Fati. Listen to the song; the desire it carries is an essential fact in you. No theory of desire will save you. But it is not a transcendent fact. It is a fact with an explanation. It is a fact made of things in history, the same as the joy of homecoming from the sea. Rooted as it is in history, it is a fact no more powerful than a column of cedar, beeswax and cords. Circe saw clearest when it came to mind and personality. Like, Odysseus, we’d be well advised to listen to her.

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12/22/13, 0200

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When I came back from the emergency call, I expected to find her drinking. She had been upset with me, with her job, with something big and shadowy which I had been trying to get her to describe for the last year. Actually, I hoped to find her drinking. Sometimes she got drunk and wandered, or drove, off and I had to go looking for her. I couldn’t afford to do a search that morning; I was on call.

Her car was in the driveway, but she was not asleep in our room. That late, there was one other place in the house to check. In the early hours, she liked to sit downstairs and watch the fire when she was feeling agitated. I walked down to the basement and there she was, sitting on a cushion in front of the wood stove. But her posture was wrong, and then I noticed the rope and saw that she was not sitting on the cushion, but was suspended a few inches above it. I ran to her and slipped a finger through one of her belt loops, but the stitching popped loose as I began to lift. When I did manage to lift her I heard no in-rush of air. In that moment, I knew that we had lost, me and her. I couldn’t accept it right away though; I had to try to get her back. I dithered for a for a few moments. To cut her down, I would have to let her weight come back on the rope. I knew I would not outlive that act. It took every speck of my mental discipline to let her hang again. I severed the rope and went through the motions of resuscitation, with the expected results. I’ve been going through the motions ever since.

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I spent seventeen and a half years with her. We met in medical school during an Ob./Gyn. rotation. After a prolonged reconnaissance, she talked a mutual friend into approaching me. The friend, a traditional woman who’d immigrated from Vietnam as a child, had been instructed to ask me if I was: 1) gay 2) married 3) in a relationship. All that came out was the question about marital status, mumbled quickly with eyes averted. Though it lacked the impact of the full set of questions, the inquiry was strange enough. It was strange to have any woman show any interest in my relationship status, period. I’m not exactly what most women would consider a “catch”. I cut my own hair. My nose has been broken on several occasions, and let’s face it, the thing sticks out enough in the first place to be at risk. Attempts at orthodontia undertaken during my childhood were not entirely successful. And although I’ve suffered from loneliness, much of it has been the consequence of a solitary temperament. Besides, I’m a climber, and so quixotic. Maybe my wife recognized a shared vision in that last quality, but if so we were probably ill-matched. She may have been better off had she chosen Sancho.

She was an artist. At the age of five, her parents caught her in the garage coloring in the fender of their new car with a crayon. The car was the wrong color, and she intended to fix it. As an adult, she spent a year trying to paint a scene from a photograph of Mt. Columbia. I tried to talk her out of it. The intriguing things about the photo were its detail and flatness. The brain could see different depths in the scene because the camera didn’t commit to any one perspective. The conventions of painting did not permit the same insouciance. She kept at it until she had a damaged trochlear muscle in her eye from looking back and forth from the photo to her painting. When she finally gave up, it was with a sense of bemused fatalism. Failures and frustrations brought up a black bile in her. My bile was always yellow.

When I had to forego climbing opportunities or persist in a profession which I have always considered ethically bankrupt, I boiled. I never got angry at her. On the contrary, she was my solace. But living in the same space as a whistling kettle begins to wear on a person. She finally set me straight. I got the parts of my life teased apart, once I realized that they must be kept apart or else destroy each other. As a climber who values climbing’s unitary action, the admission was difficult. I had to concede that, despite my wishes, all was not climbing, and acknowledging that all was not climbing did not invalidate anything.

She accomplished the turn-around by convincing me that some sentiments are irreconcilable. Feelings of frustration with everything, and so nothing in particular, real expectations based on our ideal desires of other people – and the same feelings toward ourselves – must be accepted as absurdities about us and byproducts of conflict within each of our identities. We cannot bring those feelings into line and make them reasonable in context of anything that we signify. She convinced me, but I could not do the same for her.

Since her death, I have had two dreams about her; the first, two days after I found her and the second, the day after I came back from the undertaker. I usually don’t remember dreams, but these were bad enough to intrude into waking memory. The first was a straight forward nightmare. She was sitting on the cushion in front of the fire with her eyes closed, crying. The tears were black and she just kept on crying them though they ate into her eyes and face.

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In the second, I had just walked into the house and she was standing in the kitchen. She was older and taller than she had been in life, and she was smiling. She began to explain that she hadn’t really died, she had just staged an elaborate ploy to get away and sort things out for herself, and it had worked. She said she was sorry for the trick; there was just no other way. I started to forgive her and asked what she wanted to do now, what she wanted to do differently. But as I spoke, I noticed that she was standing partly inside the counter and her eyes were sad. My arms felt heavy then, and I looked down to see the box of her ashes in my hands.

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The Art of Losing

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So, I had plenty of excuses from the start, which is good. The logistics alone were ambitious. Just getting everything in the car would be hard. We had to fit two dogs, a sled, climbing packs, boots, skis and three people into a compact station wagon. If we cleared that first barrier, we then had to drive the better part of three hours, with a nervous Husky and a Malamute prone to motion sickness crammed in the rear compartment. The concentrated dog breath alone might justify turning around. We had plenty of reasons to fail, but the boys were motivated to go and, more importantly, didn’t know any better. No savvy adults would have consented to the endeavor.

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The whole plan was to drive to Ten Sleep Canyon, ski and dog sled 3.5 miles down the fire road on the South side of the canyon to the frozen waterfall on Leigh Creek, climb, and come back. I looked at it as a climbing trip, which is how I rationalized even getting started. You see, no climbing trip can be taken as a given. It’s all provisional – if the weather, if the conditions, if the time, if the guidebook author is not a pathological liar, etc. Unlike some punk-ass managers and motivational speakers who say that planning for failure is planning to fail, climbers assume failure from the start of the expedition. Sure, we count out grams of food, lay out the gear, go through the pack again and again, and memorize route topos, but we also carry along our headlamps, space blankets and stoves. If the outcome of a trip was a foregone conclusion, we would probably stay home and watch a romantic comedy. The principle holds on the level of the meta-trip as well. In the words of my friend Andy, “Always bring all your gear,” on a climbing road trip.

The trick to making it all seem worthwhile is to declare victory early and often. Fitting the gear and the dogs in the car, we win. Arriving at the parking lot with a car free of dog puke, we win. Getting the sled assembled without any missing parts, we win. There is an art to winning the climbing game. There is a very similar art to losing it, too. You want to have a good look before you back off, and know just what you are looking for. You want to know just how thin the ice can be before you won’t risk it. You want to know just how late it can be before you need to turn around. You also want to be able to look for reasons to ignore your metrics. You want to be able to see that the weather man was wrong about the high pressure system or listen to last night’s burrito festering in your guts right at the start of the route.

For us, the snow conditions were the reason. As it crested the Southern rim of the canyon, the sun beat fluffy snowfall from the previous three days into mashed potatoes. By the time we’d gone half way, the dogs had stopped twice and their tongues were slapping their paws as they plodded along. The oldest kid was leaning on the sled handle. We were still on schedule, however.

“We’re just about half-way,” I noted, “Do you want to keep going?”

“Yes!” the older boy snapped.

This is the hammerhead mentality: “I pound on things, and that’s it. Now shut up and show me the next nail.”

It takes a few swings to deflect a hammerhead’s intention. After ten more minutes and a small hill, I asked again.

“Do you want to keep going? We have all this to reverse…”

“No,” he admitted, “Goddamit!”

He was mad at me and the dogs and himself. I assured him though, that we would be back in the next couple of weeks, without the dogs, for a meta-swing, and he was happy again. That is the final piece to the art of losing at climbing – the art of losing without losing. The game is over when you say so. You can always change the rules and call for another period.

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