Bridging the Island Universes of Our Expertise: Aldous Huxley on Making Sense of Ourselves and Every Different

“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary reward. Hardly much less vital is the capability to see others as they see themselves.”

Bridging the Island Universes of Our Experience: Aldous Huxley on Making Sense of Ourselves and Each Other

Conversing with a symphonic-minded physicist and a science-spirited musician on a small boat off the coast of a small island, I specific my skepticism that the swell of digital data would enhance posterity’s skill to know us higher than we all know our antecedents. A life, my companions argue as a thousand tiny waves scatter the late-summer solar right into a shimmering constellation round us, is immensely simpler to reconstruct from the mass of emails and textual content messages we’ll every depart behind than it’s from a handful of light letters in a Victorian desk-drawer.

There’s a floor logic to this reasoning. Regardless of my years-long immersion within the totality of Emily Dickinson’s surviving archives, I — and also you, and he or she — won’t ever have a remaining idea of who this particular person, this flickering constellation of poetic conceits and private contradictions, actually was. However at the same time as an archive-dwelling scholar continuously forestalled by the dearth of surviving data of bygone lives, I doubt that extra data equals extra illumination. We will hardly fathom our personal depths, a lot much less one other’s — regardless of the depend of waves.

Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea
Portray by Oliver Jeffers from his sequence Measuring Land and Sea

It’s much less an issue of data than an issue of reckonings. We habitually see ourselves not as we’re however as we aspire to be or worry we may be. Too readily, too unconsciously, we take up who the world tells us we’re, then reside into — as much as, or right down to — that picture, tender porous creatures that we’re. (That, in fact, is probably the most poisonous impact of bigotry — we come to internalize our personal devaluation by society, even when we consciously imagine in any other case.) All of the whereas, half-opaque as we’re to ourselves, we preserve attempting to speak to others what we would like, what we imply, what it’s wish to be us. Even at their most trustworthy and self-aware, these transmissions are irresolute and incomplete. Usually, they’re warped by our craving to look a sure technique to the receiver, to realize a sure impact with the sign — ripples on the floor of the self, catching the sunshine relying on the place of the observer and the fleeting climate system of the noticed. The Victorian love letter and the textual content message, the memoir and the Instagram selfie — they’re all fragments of self-expression frozen in time, expressing a self fragmentary and discontinuous throughout the sweep of a life, fragments that may by no means reconstitute for posterity an entire and cohesive portrait of an individual, as a result of to be an individual is to be perpetually contradictory and incomplete.

There’s unusual comfort on this, in realizing ourselves and one another solely incompletely — a mercy that saves us from the tyranny of a remaining verdict on who and what we’re.

The dialog on the boat jogged my memory of a passage by Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963), exquisitely illustrative of those ambiguities and ambivalences of personhood.

Aldous Huxley

In his 1954 basic The Doorways of Notion (public library), which explores a specific biochemical technique for plumbing these unfathomed depths of personhood far beneath the floor waves of the self, he makes this astute basic statement:

Human beings are immensely difficult creatures, dwelling concurrently in a half dozen totally different worlds. Every particular person is exclusive and, in quite a few respects, not like all the opposite members of the species. None of our motives is unmixed, none of our actions could be traced again to a single supply and, in any group we care to check, conduct patterns which might be observably related could also be the results of many constellations of dissimilar causes.

The confusion solely deepens when two complexities attempt to make sense of one another, as we do each time we join with each other:

To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary reward. Hardly much less vital is the capability to see others as they see themselves.

Such readability of imaginative and prescient throughout the abyss of subjective expertise is inherently difficult — we inhabit, in Huxley’s beautiful poetic picture, “island universes.” He writes:

We reside collectively, we act on, and react to, each other; however at all times and in all circumstances we’re by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the world; they’re crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately attempt to fuse their insulated ecstasies right into a single self-transcendence; in useless. By its very nature each embodied spirit is doomed to undergo and luxuriate in in solitude. Sensations, emotions, insights, fancies — all these are non-public and, besides via symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We will pool details about experiences, however by no means the experiences themselves. From household to nation, each human group is a society of island universes.

Most island universes are sufficiently like each other to allow of inferential understanding and even of mutual empathy or “feeling into.” Thus, remembering our personal bereavements and humiliations, we are able to condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (at all times, in fact, in a barely Pickwickian sense) of their locations. However in sure instances communication between universes is incomplete and even nonexistent.

Artwork from the 1750 e book An Authentic Concept or New Speculation of the Universe by Thomas Wright, who originated the “island universes” idea. (Out there as a print, as a face masks, and as stationery playing cards.)

In sure instances, Huxley observes, these different minds seem to “belong to a unique species and inhabit a radically alien universe” — none amongst us could be something greater than a bewildered customer to the wonderlands which Bach and Blake known as house. Even in much less excessive instances, even within the on a regular basis wonderlands we ourselves inhabit, the restrictions of language — our major instrument for outrospection — preserve us from inviting others into the place the place we reside. Drawing on that timeless line from Milton’s Paradise Misplaced — a line that may simply be probably the most succinct summation of all philosophy and all psychology — Huxley writes:

The thoughts is its personal place… Phrases are uttered, however fail to enlighten. The issues and occasions to which the symbols refer belong to mutually unique realms of expertise.

Complement with James Baldwin, writing in the identical period, on “the doom and glory of realizing who you’re and what you’re” and a sweeping Borges-infused reflection on probability, the universe, and the fragility of realizing who we’re, then revisit Huxley on the ability of music and the antidote to our existential helplessness.

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