Thursday, January 29, 2009


John Updike died, night before last. I spent part of Wednesday evening listening to a radio broadcast of an interview with Updike from about twelve years ago. He stayed on one theme for a bit: the idea that his writing was a message from his present self to his past self. The impossibility of that set me off thinking about noncongruence.

A point I make in many of my classes is that perfect fidelity in understanding another person's reality is necessarily and forever beyond our reach. We are all locked up in our own skulls. We have absolutely zero way of knowing what the world feels like, seems like, even looks like, to any other human being. We can approach another person's perspective, we can grasp parts of it, we can rough it out, but we can never perfect our understanding of it. It's like calculus: we draw nearer and nearer, but we never reach precision.

That got me to thinking about seeing underwater. We see shapes and colors, but the shapes are wavy and the colors filtered. Of course, that's a pretty bad analogy for a lot of reasons: swimming goggles can minimize the effect by pushing the medium away from our eyes just a few centimeters, whereas there's no way to push away the chasm of difference that separates us. And fish do just fine with underwater sight, because their eyes are built for it. For that matter, air also distorts our vision, although not as much. It filters color as well, or the sky wouldn't be blue. So that connection really wound up more a dartboard than a springboard.

I did get a little taken with the nonreciprocity between nonidentity and age, though, because of the point from Updike that got me started. I am not the same as you, and that difference is unbridgeable. I am not the same as my younger or older self, and in one sense that difference is also unbridgeable, but in another sense, it might not be. It's nonsensical to talk about sending messages to the past; can't be done. But you can send a message to the future: in some ways, what I'm doing as I type this is exactly that. I've already gone back and read some of these older blog entries and been reminded of attitudes, opinions, powerful feelings that I held at the time, and I've watched the curve as they faded. But is that the same? Can I understand perfectly my mental state from before? Or am I making up an edited reconstruction of those moments, tainted by my changed perspective, and then fooling myself into exaggerating its precision? These previous writings, feelings, thoughts, all happened to me: can I recapture them? Heraclitus had an easy answer; I can't step into the same river twice. And an axiom of Communication is that each and every communicative encounter is unrepeatable. But is that true of intrapersonal communication? What about when a person returns to a childhood haunt, and the sights, sounds and smells bring back the feelings and the extremely vivid memories? Is that a reconstruction, or is that congruence with a former self?

That got me to thinking about God's freedom from limitation, and it occurred to me that when we say He's omnipresent, that means not just everywhere, but, as we already knew, everywhen. He's in every age, every second, every event. And what that tells me is that God is free from dimension, which limits us. Einstein had a lot to say about spacetime, about how distance is distance is distance, whether measured in separating space or in separating time. That's also true of identities, I think: from here to there, from me to an other, from now to long ago, or even one second ago.

So then, as I was walking to work, I was giving myself a dork's morning warmup by running through the labels for sense data from each of the five senses. Most people know the first two: visual, pertaining to data from your eyes, and audial, describing data from your ears. The other three make good trivia: olfactory, which is data from your sense of smell; gustatory, which comes from your sense of taste; and tactile, from touch. The interesting thing, though, is that while we refer to messages of scent as "olfactic," we change the term slightly and call messages through touch "haptic." Why the change, I wondered? And then I saw how many different words "tactile" supplies with a root: "tact," which you could define as having the right touch in an interpersonal situation that was touchy, and "tactics," referring to taking a strategy out of the planning room and onto the battlefield, where you actually touch (violently) your adversary. (Or where you deploy any strategy. It's obviously not limited to waging warfare.)

Maybe that's the way to understand the limit: we can't be perfectly congruent, we can't achieve perfect overlap, but we can touch. We can come in contact. The contact can be a full-stretch fingertips-only touch, or it can be an embrace of unconditional acceptance, or a grappling backed by strength in a bid to impose mastery. Maybe the touch metaphor is an entry point to understanding distance and the lower limit of its challenge.

This'll take more thought.

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