And yet, as I sit at one of the tables outside Picnic on Church Street, eating lunch and discussing where to go next – this was the Sea Shanty Festival last Saturday; Falmouth is full of music in the Summer – I notice that without any conscious input from me, without conscious permission, my eyes just happen to be following, um, people of a certain appearance as they pass along the street. Not all the time, but - picking them out one at a time and following them, like a very slow-motion tennis match: watch one out of sight; pick up another coming the other way.
No, it wasn’t exactly like that; I just liked the tennis metaphor. Just occasionally, you know, just occasionally noticing and, well, my eyes were doing it, that’s the point. Nothing to do with me – yes, okay, something, but unconscious, like I don’t tell my heart to beat. “As a writer,” to use a phrase popularised in the media, I’m using the example of – well, that – to kick off yet another post about the human condition: we are more than our conscious minds, which contravenes a lot of what we seem to believe about ourselves these days. We may think we’re in charge, but. There are aspects of ourselves, little behavioural thingummies, that give the lie to rationality and planning.
I was with Somebody at that table, capital S, which – who – was enough to fill my attention, and (spoiler alert) we then failed to get into The Grapes (packed), stood outside Mango’s (big open windows; we could see as well as hear the band) and then spent a very happy afternoon following the music and meeting people through the pubs and cafes and, er, Watersports Centre along Church Street, Arwenack Street and into Events Square … and then later, back again to The Moor and to the marquee outside the Seven Stars, and then to the upstairs bar where the Strumpets were singing.
And finally, not to leave the story incomplete, to Asha, the Indian restaurant. There are moments in life, moments typically brought on by sunshine, music, the news that you’ve just walked 11,792 steps, when the answer to every question seems to be: a cold pint of Cobra beer. Every question except one. Why am I attracted to women? Or rather, to refine the question down to what I’m really asking, what’s with this unauthorised person-watcher lurking on the edge of my consciousness, looking out through my eyes, directing a fragment of my attention towards opportunities to, um? I mean, at my age. It just doesn't fit. It’s so incongruous!
He’s presumably part of the team that handles the sub-routine for the fight-or-flight response. And working in the same office in the primitive part of my brain is the sub-William who presses the buttons to make me crave a Cobra when I’m, I don’t know, or an apple when I’m short on Vitamin C, or, er, something full of protein when I need protein (with my conscious mind, I don’t even know enough to construct the example). I wonder if there’s something slightly more than just “She looks nice!” in what that subterranean sub-William sees.
I wonder if combining that woman’s qualities and my qualities would … perhaps I won’t continue this train of thought. But – yeah. DNA. Genetics. Every now and then two pairs of eyes meet, and maybe there’s a level at which two people assess … I believe I said I wouldn’t continue this train of thought.
I wasn’t born yesterday. I know about the birds and the bees. That thing with the stork. Peacocks, peahens and those apes with the red bottoms. I know what happens when two beautiful young people with perfect dentistry Like Each Other Very Much But Can't Admit It Until Nearly The End. I’m a rational, et cetera, and I know the answer to the question at the top of the page. It’s just that, frankly, that answer strikes me as, yes, incongruous. My italics. I mean, I’ve actually read Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. I own an iPhone. I can clear a whole pub full of sea-shanty enthusiasts with the strength of my views on Brexit (actually, I can’t, and I’ve got the bruises to prove it). I’m here, now, writing a blog post in the slatted sunshine through the window, feeling quite good about myself, feeling quite, I suppose, civilised. And yet I’m sharing my head-space with this – ooh, look at her!
And sharing it with a vivid imagination, given that I’m on my own in here with the blinds not yet up. Alone except for the sub-routine that’s telling me it’s time for another coffee. Don’t entirely trust that one, but – hold on. Aaah, yes. Coffee. Just what– Where was I? Yes, I realise that this isn’t just me. Everybody has a version of the same thing going on. We argue about – everything, these days – and yet relationships keep on happening and the human race keeps on making babies. The Victorians wouldn’t have begat the Edwardians without the occasional intrusion of incongruous thoughts, after all. And so on back through history – and up and down Church Street, and throughout nature. At the duck pond the other day, I watched tiny fluffy baby ducks grubbling (yes, spellcheck – grubbling; look up “neologism” – no, don’t; it isn’t) around in the shallow weed for whatever they eat, and I thought: that isn’t learned behaviour. It’s there already.
Those ducklings were carrying pre-installed software to deal with hunger. I have pre-installed software to ensure (a) that I eat an apple occasionally, and (b) that the human race survives. My installation of (b) is not very useful on a day-to-day basis, not to me, quite embarrassing actually, but look around you: that program has been very successful over the centuries. All these people! And it occurs to me to wonder: if the ongoing success of the human race (and animals, and of course plants) is being handled by the unconscious primitive-brain department, what does that say about the conscious mind? Not an easy question to ask, as we negotiate our way through today’s big issues, but … did we check the foundations, before we moved into this building? Did you hear that?
Hold off on your playing of the glass-bead game while I go slowly down this narrow creaky staircase to the basement and reach out my hand – slowly – to the handle of that door standing ajar with the darkness behind it. What do you mean, let’s separate? Have you been watching television again? We’re in this together. This is our metaphorical house. No, I don’t think we were ever consulted on the design. Yes, I know about that dark patch on the blueprint for the basement, but I thought we agreed to ignore it. Hang on while I just – argh!
And then – because there’s also an inbuilt instinct to worry about disaster, from the Apocalypse of Revelations through to the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction and all the way to today's Global Warming – it crosses my mind to ask – what if the whole of human civilisation was just a defensive primitive-brain move against the darkness? What if we grouped together to defend against predators, built that into tribes, built that into nations, went too far and built that into globalisation? What if all that was driven by the unconscious – by instinct? And what if, now, it’s all unravelling because we built something beyond what we intended to build? Are we all – wait for it – doomed?
Brexit, nationalism, populism, localism (no, wait, that’s a good thing) and borders closing. If nature built in a bunch of unconscious primitive-brain fail-safes – fight or flight, band together, et cetera – to handle the existing threats of day-to-day life in the wild, and unchecked they all led to civilisation, then globalisation, what new sub-routines will emerge now that we’re civilised? And globalised?
As you might ask if you thought in these terms: what rough beast is this, its hour come round at last, slouching towards us out of the darkness, refusing to take the rational, sensible, economically literate answer? Whatever will we vote for next?
Chosen? Good. In front of me is a piece of writing. Tapped in quickly with a pair of thumbs (smartphone scenario), scratched hastily on the parchment by a scribe with a hangover (jungle), the piece of writing reads as follows:
“Let us imagine that you start with/as a lump of clay, and are gifted somehow with the ability to mould yourself into whatever human being you want to be. At some point there’s the fingertip-to-fingertip thing of introducing consciousness, and you are allowed to give yourself all the qualities that the good, bad or morally ambiguous fairy would impart at your naming, christening or equivalent ceremony. The goal is to end your clay’s life with a positive score on morality. Problem is, if you start good, you have to be really good. If you start bad, every good impulse counts for something. Who would you be?”
I do this. I trudge through the pre-dawn neighbourhood (hack my way through the pre-dawn jungle) wrestling with metaphysical speculations about the nature of reality, morality and anything else that occurs to me. And sometimes, I write the results down. On this particular morning, I think it must have crossed my mind that in all the myths and most of the realities, bad-to-good gets more traction than stayed-good-throughout. To be saved, for example, you first have to be unsafe. The prodigal son really has to mess up before he’s welcomed home.
What does that say about the human mind?