At “I do”
All hearts for rent.
Each the lord
Of love that’s sent.
Our vows a chit
To lovers lent.
With bodies spent.
I’ve begun with a poem of mine, which attempts to describe some realities of human relationships. I wrote it last spring after I came to realize that the concept of perfect commitment might be only a dysfunctional artifact of our cultural evolution. I have come to believe that a perfect commitment is neither possible nor practical.
We own only our selves. We thrive only when we accept possession of our selves and defend our selves from those who would otherwise possess us. But we can own our selves in a manner that is especially relevant and meaningful to others. And others should own their selves likewise. Towards the preservation of our species, various combinations and collections of our selves are important and inevitable. One combination that is particularly important often begins when two individuals discover that there is something especially relevant, meaningful, and even interesting to each other about the selves each of them owns. These two individuals could inspect each other for further signs of relevance, meaning and interest. To be useful, that inspection would require that each other’s little hatches and latches be incrementally loosened and unlocked–with the pace of progress controlled biologically by a continuous re-balancing of fear and attraction. It comes down to sex.
To an anthropologist, it would be our ancestors’ rationalization of this process that helps define a point in our cultural evolution when we diverged from the realm of animals. And it may have been that rationalization that led to the usurping of biology’s balancing role, thereby changing the function of sex from a pinion into an impediment of the functioning of nature’s machine.
In some ways, our cultural evolution can be seen in terms of a continuous engineering and instituting of artificial systems of emotional and practical checks and balances intended to prevent our selves and this machine from tipping into Hell. The definition of Hell must be hidden somewhere in our DNA. None of us has been there. None of us can agree about what it is. But we all know that we can’t go there. To make certain we don’t go there, we strip our selves of personal armor to donate to the casting of ever-more intricate gears and levers to try to keep the machine level. The process leaves some of us feeling lighter, and others of us feeling exposed. For the armor we surrender, we substitute agreements. It comes down to survival.
Ten thousand years from now, an intergalactic anthropologist may be sifting through the rusted debris that is all that remains of our societies. He might conclude from minimal evidence that institutions, as a primary feature of humans’ invented response to the pressures of their evolution, were singularly responsible for human devolution and extinction. That would be a safe guess. What this anthropologist might fail to deduce is that there could never have been enough time to evolve a more complete set of orderly, successful evolutionary responses to the biological pressures implied by the first opposable thumb.
It may be more useful to wonder what mysteriously perfect chain of evolutionary events would have invested early hominids with the capacity to evolve controllably into a species that could face itself, perceive the moments and movements of its universe, carve spears, make deals, organize villages, pledge allegiances, refine cultures, declare a place for heaven and hell, describe perfection, build institutions, negotiate commitments that seem to fly in the face of all that is good in nature, and then give their selves up like ants for the sake of a perfect communion. What a lucky time and place this is for all of us. We are the weight of thousands of civilizations perched upon a single pin, balanced by an obligation to a gyroscopic sense of perfection.
But the language we use to define the perfection of this constructed communion is also the language that exposes it to us as a rocking and rolling artifice. The miracle of our cultural evolution then begins to look like an insidious, autonomous robot. As its gears and levers crowd closer and squeal louder, we scurry for the escape hatch. We try to take our selves back. Like Adam and Eve, we see our nakedness and steal fig leaves to cover our selves up. We reject the spinning illusion of perfection that supports us, but cannot accept what might be the real measurements of our imperfections. There are not enough fig leaves.
Cultural primitivism seems to suggest that the crisis is as inevitable as its resolution. Over time, as we gain knowledge of our predicament, we gain the ability to deal evermore ineffectively with it. That’s a safe guess. It at least leaves us hanging from the reins of the robot. But it doesn’t account for the fact that we’ve been here before. It says little about the quality of the responses the human species has made over thousands of generations, in the face of immense and varied pressures applied by both nature and culture (as far as we can distinguish the two). Above all, it does little beyond leading us from one illusion into another. The machine still spins drunkenly on its pin; we are all still riding upon it. If we should learn anything useful, it is that we should accept our selves, hold onto the railing, hold onto each other, and not be so distracted by the fictive squeal of that damned robot.
Benjamin Franklin had succinct advice on the practical realities of marriage that would apply to all the perfect commitments we attempt to make–
“Keep thy eyes wide open before marriage, and half-shut afterwards.”
Oct. 17, 2010