Know Thyself (And As Much More Additional Information As You Can Manage)


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There’s no sense in teaching history, especially if the audience isn’t interested. For one thing, it’s difficult to say exactly what happened five minutes ago, or yesterday, or last year. For another, to truly learn the complete history of a thing requires more time than that subject requires to actually happen.

Like the famous one-liner: “I have a map of the United States, it’s actual size. … It says, ‘One mile equals one mile.’ …” – Steven Wright— there’s no way a history can be complete—plus, we would waste a great deal of our present in such recreations when, ultimately, even those would only be approximations of the history, congruent but not equal.

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But the true difficulty isn’t in knowing all the facts—it is in approximating the state of mind of these people in the past, people who saw everything so differently than we do today. Such luxuries as electric lighting, indoor toilets, and railroads come to mind. These people didn’t merely live before the invention of these things, they literally had no conception of their existence. Not so long ago, everything was a precious resource, and even emperors had no occasion to worry about waste. A piece of chilled fruit from Hawaii? –ridiculous! The existence of God can be questioned without anyone being condemned to death?—impossible! Kings and Queens have no inherent ability that makes them undisputed rulers?—then why has no other way ever existed, throughout the history of man? Do something after the sun goes down?—why?—It’ll be back tomorrow—in the meantime we better sleep through the total darkness, or waste a candle seeing in the witching hour.

"Planet Rise" by Xper Dunn

“Planet Rise” by Xper Dunn

Magic was real. Just as science is real to us. It was indisputable. Variety in one’s diet was unknown—local farms were the sole suppliers of food—and in winter, when nothing grew, you had better done a good job of laying up provisions. Otherwise, you’ll starve. Just like that.

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I can try to imagine it, but I’ll never really see it completely in my mind—it is the ancient past—and even that word ‘ancient’, until recently, always included anything that was done a century ago—without sound or video recording , without printing (and literacy) the time stream just slipped along—and only ones own memory, and the stories told one as a child, were ‘history’ as it was lived through.

This great scam pulled off by the wiseguys of yesteryear—this tradition of handing down power as an heirloom, within a single bloodline—or at most a handful of bloodlines, remained unassailable for centuries, millennia even. And it was all based on ‘I said so’ and ‘I’m the one with armed guards’. They did their con so well that even when a nation was suffering from misrule; it only made the citizens more loyal to the person who was messing everything up!

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Some would say that the Judeo-Christian religions were even better at tying up the minds of their ‘flock’, making them more afraid of imagined, future punishment than they were of starvation or exposure—and convincing them that they would be rewarded for their obedience to the Almighty’s earthly representatives. And, strictly as a Psy-Ops tactic, it was very effective in controlling the narrative of what people did, and how they were treated, with the full cooperation of the entire population. The idea becomes even more outrageous when one considers that many of the clergy were themselves caught up in belief in this magical hierarchy of power and purpose.

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But the monarchs had absolute power, instantly obeyed and never questioned. To maintain their own personae, I imagine every ruler had to plow through plenty of self-indulgence, fantasizing, and the horrible possibility of doubt. Many were mad, many were simply callous, some were overthrown by their good intentions, and others, great warrior kings, were idolized for their inhumanity and bloodthirstiness. Pride and glory, like the monarchy system, were considered perfectly real and acceptable concepts. Religious belief abetted by teaching that such glory was recognized in an afterlife.

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But I don’t buy it for a second—there are hardnosed-types in real life—I can’t be convinced that no kings or cardinals ever saw through their own BS, and ruled by manipulation and stratagem—perfectly aware of the nonsensical, arbitrary nature of their roles in past civilizations. I know there had to be a few—even Shakespeare shows us kings that saw through convention and grappled with the conflict between honesty and ritual, reason and faith, or love and duty.

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And I was reminded of this idea a few days ago, when I glimpsed a headline of the Science Section (guess it had to be Tuesday, then, i.e. yesterday—o well) of the New York Times: “Mentally-Challenged At Greater Risk From Crime”. I thought  to myself, “Well, sure, it’s always easier to dupe someone when they are unfamiliar with stealth and betrayal.”

Older Mailing (2008)

Older Mailing (2008)

I imagined a mugger just gently whispering some special-needs teen into a dark alley, without them even suspecting that this wasn’t a safe idea. And this possibility is even worsened by the fact that special-needs people are conditioned to accept help from strangers, and nothing but. Then I thought further, “Well, sure, but it’s not a special case—in reality, the smarters always take the dumbers for all their worth and, if done it right, their victims are grateful for all the kind assistance and attention!”

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Take these derivatives that float about in the air above Wall Street—who do you think is the smart one in those transactions? Or take buying a new car—a good car salesperson knows how to flatter and attend to the mark. He or she has a toolkit of sales techniques—things that make the Prospects doubt their images without a new car; things that make the cost of the car seem fairly unimportant in the ‘big picture’; and ways to suggest to those Prospective Buyers that they are freaking geniuses, and that the salesperson is just glad to be there to witness their brilliance in picking out the perfect car. These sales tools are a specialty—salespeople use them while the rest of us ignore them, except when facing the salespeople in question and trying to sort the wheat from the chaff of their patter. Different parts of life require different subsets of the manipulation equation—police draw out the truth, scientists draw out the wonder in their ideas, managers draw out cooperation and teamwork—we face each other as two sides but there’s usually only one side that is using their mind to manipulate the other, for good or ill—and there can be great good in manipulation (‘tho, like ‘power’, it can certainly be misused, as well).

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Smart people have the ability to take advantage of less intelligent people, just as big, strong people have the advantage of physical force. While civilization has brought out a theme, over the ages, that seeks to restrain the advantages of physical bullying in society, little protection is offered against those who can outwit us—like the physical strength of bygone eras, we tend to excuse the devious and cold-minded because it is only natural that the strong should control the weak.

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We nerds know all about physical intimidation—but we are strangely blind to our own excesses when we use our mentality to take advantage of others. ‘Flaming’ and ‘trolling’ are just the online ‘meringue’ topping of the pie. We try to calculate if the drive to an outlet store will save or lose us money, once you add in the gas and man/hours. We try to determine if it’s worth buying the I-Phone 5, or should we just wait for 6? Mid-managers try to figure out if it’s easier to ask their assistant to do something, or to do it on the PC themselves?

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And feelings—what are we supposed to do about feelings? If we reason too coldly, we run the risk of doing permanent harm to ourselves or others—but if we allow our hearts a voice, what is the likelihood that someone flintier will end up making money off of us? And who wins there? Is it the money-maker or the person who feels good? And isn’t true intelligence the ability to find a balance between the two?

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We hear a lot about the media controlling the spotlight of attention—moving it here and there, deciding which subjects we should pay attention to, and which we should neglect. But there is a ‘man in the mirror’ component to this issue as well. What are our priorities? What do we want? And is there anything we are completely overlooking because we’re too busy with our less recent decisions and goals? Is there an entire framework of vision we are ignoring because it’s too new-fangled and intimidating? Do we know ourselves? And is our self-image our own, or the result of numerous manipulative acquaintances? And is our self-image current, or is it still what we thought ourselves to be ten or twenty years ago?

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2 responses to “Know Thyself (And As Much More Additional Information As You Can Manage)

    • Thanks–I wasn’t sure about my illustrations for this essay–I meant to show a selection of my online efforts, and I was concerned someone might try to see a connection where there wasn’t any…

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