Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Own Private Curiosity

I see the images and wonder: what would it be like to live there?

You know: Mars. The red planet. Turn left at Florida and travel 350 million miles in a direction opposite to the sun. You can’t miss it.

The first thing I think of is silence. Lush, beautiful, limitless silence. No more brain-shattering shrieks and squeals of the infant next door, thuds and crashes and screaming power saws coming from the neighbor’s endless remodeling projects on the other side of our condo building, abrasive hip hop inanities pounding out of the window of a luxury large SUV parked for over an hour on a nearby street, dogs barking incessantly in the local park, fireworks blasting like a Syrian fire fight at two o’clock in the morning, the washer going berserk in the laundry room and sounding like an Apache helicopter with a faulty bearing and a wobbly rotor assembly, Louis and his leaf blower shattering the last remnants of what might have been a calm morning into doltish mutilation.

I do not do well in the noise department. Susan Sontag, I read somewhere, did not mind noise. I wish I had her nervous system. Or brain. Or whatever it was that allowed her to hear noise and not mind it. Hear noise and still be able to concentrate and write deep penetrating prose. Hear noise and not want to rip her ears off. Hear noise and not feel her skull crack under a load of building pressure.

It amazes how some people can do a job and not mind what a total asshole their boss is, or what insufferable demanding children their coworkers or customers might happen to be. People who, like George Clooney in The Descendants, can take someone’s cruel imputation, refrain from reacting with righteous indignation, giving the offending party the response they had hoped to provoke, and maintain their dignity. Even if it looks a little like cowardice. Even if it means a smoldering pile of resentment will continue to eat at their insides until it finally goes out. Because they know: reacting will make things worse. Reacting will lead to bigger problems, deeper embarrassments, longer lasting biting remorse, and further incrimination.

That isn’t me, unfortunately. I have a hair trigger. I spring like a bear trap. There is a long trail of hurt and remorse behind me. I wince a thousand times a day at things I’ve said, things I’ve done.

My adjustments to life’s various bumps and curves have not been a shining success. My best moments have been pharmaceutically enhanced by Valium, Xanax, and Ativan. I would have said alcohol. I would have put alcohol at the top of my list. But those days are over. That marriage ended years ago at an AA meeting. Ended gradually, sadly, mournfully, over a long period of time. These days I gobble up L-etheanine like popcorn.

There is a place for people who have a hard time adjusting to life on planet Earth in the 21st Century. It’s called Mars.

This would be the Mars of my imagination, of course, not the Mars of scientific actuality. I’m dreaming of a Mars that more or less resembles Palm Springs. But without the palms. And certainly without the springs.

My fantasy is not at all scientific. What fantasy is? Is there such a thing as a scientific fantasy? I don’t think so.

Coleridge separated the imagination from fantasy. Fantasy, or the power to envision realities that we have never encountered, was inferior to the power of the imagination, which he divided into primary and secondary. Primary imagination begins and ends with perception: it is a creative act. It is how we choose to interpret lived experience. It is “the living power and prime agent of all human perception.”Secondary imagination is an echo of the primary imagination, and differs only in degree. It co-exists with our conscious will and involves our active thinking.

Mars is a fantasy. My perception of Mars is imagination. But I’m not on Mars to perceive it. My perceptions are limited to NASA photos. Where are pretty good, and pretty damned amazing, but photos nevertheless. I might as well be looking at someone’s vacation postings on Facebook.

But does Coleridge’s suggestion about primary imagination mean that I can interpret noises differently? Interpret them so that they sound more like, I don’t know, music?

Sure, why not. Or just random waves of pressure that happen to be propagated through a compressible media, like air or water. Harmless spurts and jerks of sound that mean nothing, add nothing, subtract nothing. Nothing meaningful or intrusive, just physics. Frequencies, amplitudes, sine waves, parametric arrays, and lattice vibration modes. Phenomena. Atoms and molecules doing what atoms and molecules do. Create neurological events that begin with the impinging of a stimulus upon the receptor cell of a sensory organ and end with a sonnet or a complaint to the landlord. It is not the stimulus itself that signifies anything. It is our interpretation, just as Coleridge said, that makes a cockatoo a cockatoo, a strawberry a strawberry, or a noise a noise.

And who says there are no noises on Mars? There may be the howl of winds. The finesse of solar rays caressing crepuscular rims. The rustle of silk in the gown of the Lizard Queen.

If there are noises on Mars, they won’t be like the ones here on Earth. Not until the manned missions begin. And colonies sprout up. And there is a Starbucks in the middle of Grindavik Crater.

Until then, Mars will be silent. Except for the occasional whirring and clicking of Curiosity.


David Grove said...

Noise is a bugbear for me, too--one that never hibernates. Probably most people would think me morbidly sensitive to noise. Until recently I was continually annoyed, not to say enraged, by a neighbor who paced in the driveway right outside the window of my basement apt, hawking, spitting, and yammering ungrammatically into his cell phone--all this with the most vulgar lack of self-consciousness imaginable. And naturally he'd drive into the driveway blasting the most vapid and ugly hip hop, the sound of which almost invariably plunges me into a brown study about societal entropy. Just wanted to say I totally hear your complaint about noise--yours and Schopenhauer's.

John Olson said...

Exactly. Your neighbor's behavior would drive me up the proverbial wall as well. I get mad just reading about it. I forgot about Schopenhauer. We're in good company.

William Keckler said...

Loved the comic spin when I got to "That isn’t me, unfortunately." I too have that wake behind my vehicle. A wake before the wake. But I'm more a wake without awake. Cheers. Keep up the great, grounded (in the Buddhist sense) writing.

John Olson said...

Thank you, William, for your lovely wake.