Thursday, December 10, 2009

All Over Again

I was sitting in my living room the other evening, talking to b&c on the phone about rescheduling tickets to see The Solid Gold Cadillac at the Studio Theater when I was struck by a wave of deja vu.

The wording in that last sentence is important. The sensation was a lot like being at the beach and standing in maybe waist-high water and looking back toward the shore and waving at YFU and, hey, I'm underwater, and possibly upside down. It's very disorienting to feel like you're living through a moment that you've lived through before, especially when you add the logistical impossibility (I haven't owned that chair or that house for long enough to have had the experience before) to the ordinary impossibility (time and tide being the things that wait for no man) of living the same moment twice, and then balance all heavy logical impossibility against the very light emotional probability that nonetheless manages to win out.

The disorientation is key here. Deja vu is something more than the normal oh-my-God-not-again-please feeling you get from the inevitable redundancy of life, or at least of most of our lives. The perception that you're stuck in a rut is something that exists and that you might want to deal with, but it's not deja vu. Deja vu requires something extranatural. Something eery.

You will likely recognize this poem, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

I am not much given to the reading of poetry, (This is a lamentable fact, and I set aside at least forty-five seconds every decade to berate myself over the narrowness of my reading habits.) and I would likely be unfamiliar with "Sudden Light" were it not for the splendid choral setting that our choir does at church every two or three years. It's got a great bass part. I searched for a worthy performance on YouTube, but the best I could come up with was almost certainly a worthy performance captured by an execrable recording. You will especially, I am sure, appreciate the distortion in the forte sections.

There are not so many examples of good poems made into good songs, and the above is one of my favorites. Oddly, another of my favorites is something that I have sung as a solo at church around this time of year:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I say "oddly" because the author of that poem, Christina Rossetti, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sister. The universe is a wonderful place for coincidence. And, not quite coincidentally, for deja vu.

Apparently ("Apparently" means that I did some research, and that, in turn, usually means that I read a wikipedia article and maybe followed a link. Or, in extreme cases, even two. I wouldn't want you to think that I applied for a grant and ran a study or anything, but I also want you to understand that I didn't pull the discussion entirely out of my own ass. Other people's asses have contributed.) some people believe that deja vu can be either reliving a bit of your own life [Ok, look, people. I can't get through this discussion without attempting to work in this clip from Doctor Who, so let's just pretend that I somehow managed to seamlessly blend in the notion of chronic hysteresis into this paragraph, ok? This is more or less where it would belong, and the alternative would be for me to rewrite and/or edit, and nobody wants that. So, watch:
] or living a bit of someone else's past. So the sense of disorientation, if not necessarily familiarity, comes from momentarily sharing someone else's experience. Hmmmm.

It is tempting -- though illogical, the ill logic likely intensifying the temptation -- to feel that you're revisiting a moment from someone else's life, that the sense of deja vu is another example of the veil slipping from the universe's collective unconscious, granting you a glimpse of that which lies beneath, above, around, and beyond. This is doubtless true in at least a metaphorical sense: regardless of whether there's truly a collective unconscious, the intense similarities existing in diverse human conditions create a sense of the collective, and with something as abstract as the hypothesized collective unconscious, the sense of it and the belief in it are more important than whether it actually exists.

There are any number of phenomena that are not deja vu but that are somewhat related to deja vu. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
Reduplicative paramnesia is the delusional belief that a place or location has been duplicated, existing in two or more places simultaneously, or that it has been 'relocated' to another site. It is one of the delusional misidentification syndromes and, although rare, is most commonly associated with acquired brain injury, particularly simultaneous damage to the right cerebral hemisphere and to both frontal lobes.

If I were given to hypochondria, I would likely be alarmed just now.

And then there's anamnesis. Here's another quote, from someplace other than wikipedia.
Socrates' response is to develop his theory of anamnesis. He suggests that the soul is immortal, and repeatedly incarnated; knowledge is actually in the soul from eternity (86b), but each time the soul is incarnated its knowledge is forgotten in the shock of birth. What one perceives to be learning, then, is actually the recovery of what one has forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.

I should be especially grateful to find the midwife who can assist me in unforgetting Sanskrit, but I suspect it would be a long and painful birth.

[Inappropriate anecdote alert! This past weekend, I may have been in a social situation that may have resulted in another man responding to a particular position I may have been trying (and maybe even succeeding) to put him in by saying, "I'm not Play-Do," and I may have responded by saying, "He was fucking Socrates, wasn't he?"]

My logic may be shaky here, too, but I'm going to posit that if the extralogical explanations for deja vu were valid, then I wouldn't have the experience at moments of such breathtaking mundaneness. I mean, deja vu would probably be most valuable if, say, I were meeting some guy and I suddenly had the feeling of recognition because he was my soulmate from several past lives. A discussion about scheduling a theater performance with my ex: not so much.

At this point, I'm going to fall back on that old bromide: the only honest discussion of a metaphysical phenomenon is one that reaches no conclusion. (Yes, I just made that up on the spot, and, yes, it can still be a bromide even though I just made it up on the spot. Because I said so, that's why.) It's not that I'm not smart enough or diligent enough to get to an answer: it's that I'm too honest. (Again, because I said so.) In any case, let's consider the abstract discussion, or at least this particular abstract discussion, of deja vu closed and move on to the practical application.

I can't decide whether I can stretch the definition of deja vu to the feeling that I have about being single again. Certainly, there's a bit of the upside-down-at-the-beach disorientation going on, though some might reasonably posit that the disorientation is largely due to my inability to unpack my boxes and organize my house correctly. Apartment Therapy readers might tell me that putting a couple of new cabinets in the kitchen would set me right in no time, and, well, Cthulhu knows some extra storage space couldn't hurt. Regardless, I feel a little bit at sea, so we've got the disorientation. And the experience of singleness is certainly familiar, both to me and to pretty much everyone else.

On the other hand, there's no eeriness, so, by my own definition, there's probably no deja vu. And there are ways in which the experience is utterly unfamiliar. I'm a lot less vulnerable than the last time I was single, or, for that matter, the time before that. And at the same time I'm feeling a bit at sea, I feel like I'm in control. Control is always an illusion, but it's a very pleasant illusion. In the past, I've always been content, happy even, to drift or settle as events saw fit to move or place me. It's good for once to feel like I created the situation that I find myself in.

There are still moments, of course. I can't help feeling that anyone over, say, 35 who doesn't stop at least once a week to say "My God, what have I done?" or, at the very least, "Well -- how did I get here?" has a fundamental (and perhaps blissful) ignorance of the way the universe operates.

Part of the way that the universe operates is that opposites are simultaneously true. You have no control, but you have control. You could frame the matter in terms of fate v. free will, but it should be obvious by now that the only honest discussion of that issue is one that reaches no conclusion. You can look at all of that, and you can cry, or you can laugh. I choose both, but these days, I'm mostly just smiling.

1 comment:

  1. Coincidentally, I have been meaning to listen to "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti for weeks now but haven't found the time.

    Also: the woman in the Doctor Who clip within the Doctor Who clip is Lalla Ward, biologist and vigorous atheist Richard Dawkins's wife. Coincidence?