Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Territory, recognition, repetition: musings on biology and ego

When we speak about Ego, we rarely conceive of it in terms of biology, despite the fact that all of man’s psychological mechanisms—even those supposedly ascribable to what Gurdjieff calls “the organ kundabuffer”—inevitably arose, and continue to arise, from our biological roots. The fact is so obvious we rarely countenance it.

Sitting in the bungalows at silver lake, enjoying a moment of stillness, the air is filled with a lilting cascade of birdsong. The cadence is linguistic, as much as musical; after all, for the bird, this is his language. And the similarities between his assertive, repetitive lyric and the conversations we ordinarily engage in suddenly stike me.

Language is, in man, used—among other things, and perhaps above all—to demarcate the territory occupied by ego. We use words to construct the inner castles we hide in; words to advise others of our powers and proclivities, words to warn and ward, words to build political relationships (both inner and outer.) In short, the function of language in relationship to ego is perhaps comparable to the function of birdsong for male birds.

In both cases, a defensible territory is laid out and proclaimed. In both cases, repetitive phrases--based on a process of natural selection which has preserved that which is found to be effective--are used. In my own experience, men tend to engage in this kind of verbal territorialism far more than women do, using words in a form of competition, one-upmanship in which one’s manhood (read: biological fitness) is determined by who can be the wittiest, the cleverest, the most intelligent—or, in the intelligentsia, above all, the deepest. Deepest, of course, in what usually turns out to be a superficial kind of way.

In examining my own conversational habits—habits I observe in those around me as well—I see that I have a specific repertoire, a group of subjects, stories, expressions, approaches and techniques—which seems mutable, flexible and creative, but which is, in its own way, almost as limited as the relatively brief set of phrases that birds use. I say the same things over and over; tell the same stories, present the same set of relatively clever spins. I’ve watched myself presenting this way for years now, and it surprises me how often I repeat the same things. I construct and present the subjects I discuss in order to gain recognition: I’m laying out my territory.

Territory, repetition, recognition: it’s the standard repertoire of nature. It may appear to belong to me; after all, I’m the one who appears to be directing the show, even though it turns out to be a relatively mechanical set of habits. In the end, however, it’s the product and the property of nature herself; it stems from urges and behaviors that are rooted much deeper in the psyche than I suspect. And now, today, I suspect that ego itself has roots that run this deep: which may be why it seems so impossible to root it out..

Ego knows what kind of food it needs, and it uses language in much the same way that birds use song. One of the foods ego certainly needs is sex; like birds, we use language, our use of it—and not only the words, but (like birds) the very cadence of the delivery itself--in order to attract our mates. In Gurdjieff’s universe, where sex is the engine that drives “everything,” no surprise that language itself is driven by this mechanism. It furthermore raises, of course, the question of just how much of what emanates from ego has, as its ultimate aim, a sexual purpose: rather more than any of us suspect, I think.

It’s worth a careful examination, this study of our birdsong. Not so that we can fault ourselves for being this way: repetitive, competitive, territorial. Not so that we can find a way to pull the fungus of ego up by its mycological roots, either; that is—probably—not only impossible, but also even undesirable. We need the ego, after all; this is one of the unusual features of Gurdjieff’s teaching, as opposed to, for example, the Buddhists. In Gurdjieff’s map of the inner world, the ego has a value, one whose measurement is perhaps in part attributable to its biological roots. In this work, it is not the ego which poses the problem: it is our relationship to it.

And thereby hangs, perhaps, the whole tail. I mean tale.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad that you got the chance to sneak in a post while you are at the lake. Astonishingly, I just went to buy some books because I'm going on a month-long tour, and the first book I bought is called "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess", "the conflict between Word and image" by Leonard Shlain.

    In it he puts forth a theory that written language created the masculine religious impulses and denied the feminine goddesses, who previously were the majority of divinities.

    When you talk about language in your post, it strikes me that we are both engaged (as usual) on a similar path. Please enjoy your work week, and know that you have my spirit with you at all times. Tomorrow I leave on a road trip which lasts until August 17. I hope to be able to access your blog from somewhere on the road, but if I am not able to, I am very glad to see that there are others who have also started to comment more regularly. It's a wonderful endeavor.

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