Robert A. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance drew a distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ modes of perception. Classical is concerned with inner workings, with gears and levers that lurk behind the surface; romantic is concerned with impressions and associations. (It does not, in this context, refer in particular to romantic love.) There appears to me to be some similarity to Jung’s ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ preferences, and probably to Snow’s two cultures of the sciences and humanities.
As I start fleshing out ideas, I am at my grandparents’ house, probably for the last time before they move out; I have looked around at the impressions and memories. What I realized a little while ago, with some degree of surprise, that my conceptual paraphrase, equating classical with what is deep and concerned with what lies beyond the surface, and romantic with what is shallow and only concerned with the surface, was mistaken. Perhaps it is a fair representation of Pirsig’s book, which defines ‘classical’ and explores its inner depths, but does not explore ‘romantic’ much at all — but it is not a fair understanding of ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’. The romantic mode of perception is also deep and is also concerned with what lies beyond the surface; this is true in a way that a classical perspective would not recognize. With this realization came an awareness of romantic impressions I’ve had — impressions which mean something.
The meanings that the impressions hold to me would not necessarily be evident to other readers; for this reason, and because I do not know of an existing genre that serves my purposes, I am writing about the romantic impressions in a non-romantic (some would say ‘classical’) manner. I will describe the romantic impression first — or, more precisely, the image evoked in my mind — and then talk about what it means to me.
Or that is one way to put it. A slightly more informative statement would be that there are meanings in my mind, and they are represented by visual symbols and romantic images. What I am doing is recording the image, and then recording the meaning behind it and which is manipulated through that symbol. It may be a form of writing that captures nonlinguistic thought better than a direct enfleshing in words — and perhaps something will shine through the poetic images directly that is not captured in the analysis.
Missionary’s Kid Room
A missionary’s kid jumps up on a top bunk, sitting Indian-style, and is eating noodles with chopsticks.
One of the entries in You Know You’re an MK When… says, “You worry about fitting in, and wear a native wrap around the dorm.”
One division experienced by most people is a division between public and private. It is mauled in various vulgarizations — C.S. Lewis begins an essay by talking about a bad sermon from a parson eulogizing the family as the perfect place where you can put off all of society’s artificial restrictions — and showed how in the parson’s case this translated to setting aside every human decency and treating his children in ways he would not consider treating a stranger. It is mauled in various distortions, but it is a legitimate distinction, and some people experience it more intensely than others. There is a public world where one conforms to the agreed-upon compromises necessary for a world of different people to live with each other, and then there is (inside a boundary) a private sphere where agape is still needed, but where there is unique room to be yourself (a cliché — and a cliché is a cliché because it’s true). The basic distinction is human, but metaculturals experience it more intensely; it is to us not simply a fact of life, but a basic tension of existence.
Finding another person who can pass through the glass wall is difficult; I’ve been burned many times. But I have found some people who can pass through, and it is a rich reward. Dealing with someone through the glass wall requires both agape and acting according to standards designed by and for people who do not function as I do — while dealing with someone inside the glass wall “only” requires agape. It is still a high standard, but there is not an expectation which distorts a person who is different and has not yet acquired a great deal of maturity.
What does “through the glass wall” mean? In the movie Time Bandits, the bandits are walking though a vast desert wasteland — and bump into a glass wall. It’s invisible, but they can’t pass through it. They have been walking for hours in pursuit of a castle, which is nowhere in sight — and they start bickering. Tempers flare, and one of them picks up a skull and throws it at another. The other time bandit ducks.
The skull shatters the glass — and through the hole, the bandits suddenly see the castle they were looking for.
What I mean by “through the glass wall” is that, after being burned numerous times in approaching people — in ways that I didn’t understand were unusual — I have erected a sort of glass wall that (badly) hides those aspects of me that are alien to most people, and then pull people through the glass wall to something inside that is very different. By ‘pull’ I don’t mean either force or deceit; I rather mean that I draw the other person into my world.
One of my friends is jumping along, her arms raised, cheering.
There is a certain quality, loosely that of being ‘unashamed‘. If the above impression is of having a private world, this is the quality of being unashamed of it, of being comfortable. It is self-awareness without self-consciousness. There is room — not absolute freedom, but definite space none the less — to publicly differ from what is usual. This impression of one of my friends captures this quality.
“VMWare: Providing Linux with backwards compatibility with legacy computational infrastructure.”
If you’re a hacker, any explanation would is superfluous. If you’re not a hacker, this one would take a while to explain. If you really want to know, ask a hacker (if you know any), or appropriate newsgroup or mailing list.
Tae Kwon Do Demonstration
At an Asian culture festival, a group of non-Asians (mostly white) in martial arts uniforms gives a Tae Kwon Do demonstration. The head instructor steps up to the microphone, and says both “If you’re surprised at seeing us at an Asian culture festival, don’t be,” and that they have taken the Tae Kwon Do tradition and removed its competitiveness and militarism.
The analysis on this one is a bit more complicated than most. I am not bothered perforce by the presence of non-Asians at an exhibition of Asian culture. What did stick in my mind, quite a bit, was the presence of non-Asians at an Asian culture festival who exhibited attitudes contradictory to those of Eastern culture, or for that matter of Western culture for most of recorded history. I mean specifically the regard for a tradition as something arbitrary, to be changed according to whatever the Zeitgeist is blowing. Environmentalists are fond of the proverb, variously attributed to different aboriginal peoples of Africa and the Americas, that says, “Be kind to the earth. It was not inherited from our ancestors; it is borrowed from our children.” Members of a great many societies across much of history embody an attitude that could be stated as “Be careful with this tradition. It was not inherited from our ancestors; it is borrowed from our children.” Jewish children grow up acutely aware that it would take only one generation of Jews to finish Hitler’s work, to sever all future generations from the heritage and identity that has survived for so long under the most difficult of circumstances. This attitude, quite conspicuous by its absence at an Asian culture festival, is present in the medieval mindset — the environment that made cathedrals possible, masterpieces that (in the words of Jeffrey Burke Satinover) “are as impossible for us on spiritual grounds as our photocopiers would have been to medievals on technological grounds.” The romantic impression is distinctive as the inverse image of something very, very important.
Traveller Addressing Servant in Servant’s Native Tongue
A traveler who is visiting a house turns to a servant, and addresses the servant in his native tongue.
The traveler is someone of grandeur, and he shows this grandeur in the un-thought-of courtesy of speaking to a servant in his native tongue. Speaking in another person’s preferred tongue — even if it is only with the twenty words of politeness — is a kindness, if one not often thought of in 21st century America. Showing this courtesy to a servant — someone who is looked down on and ignored when not needed — is a mark of moral grandeur.
This has application, not just in literal languages, but in entering another person’s world — “speaking the other person’s language” in a figurative sense.
Merlin Unlocking Gate
In Lawhead’s Merlin, Merlin stands stumped by a locked gate, then as it were shakes off a dust of sleep, remembers his powers, and magically removes the lock. He speaks of “that which men call magic”, learned from the fhain.
The meaning of “that which men call magic” — which for me signifies an incredibly diverse (non-magical) collection of skills, such as writing HTML, jury-rigging things, and reading languages (some computer and some human) — is a birthright of gradually collected abilities that is described for my temperament in Please Understand Me II. The meaning of what the fhain taught Merlin in Lawhead’s book, “that which men call magic”, is an intriguing idea which I will not attempt to reproduce here.
An authority figure starts to tell someone that a given rule applies, then remembers who he’s talking to, and readily grants an exception.
There are a couple of specific examples — grandfather clauses, pacifists under draft. A draft board might not simply say, “Oh, you’re a pacifist. Never mind,” but they are illustrations of a basic pattern.
When I read Please Understand Me (reviewed in my canon), I came across an explanation that both accounted for my actions (in a non-insulting way) and made sense of my feelings. The SJ (sensate judging) temperament, which comprises 38% of the population, including most of the people who create and enforce rules, tends to believe that “Having rules and seeing that they are followed is very beneficial to a community,” while my temperament, NT (intuitive thinking), which comprises only 6% of the population, could state its perspective as “Rules exist for the betterment of community and may therefore be set aside when they do not contribute to that end.” The difference in perspective could be stated as “Rules are almost always good” versus “Rules are good if they are helpful, and not good if they are not helpful.” There are a number of times I have been in situations not anticipated by rules, in which the rules did not serve their intended purpose, and I was reasoning from an NT background that “If I show these people that applying the rules is not beneficial in this context, they will naturally make an exception.” The assumption betrays a lack of understanding of SJ perspective on rules, of course, but it was appropriate given my temperament and what I did and didn’t know at the time.
This impression is of someone in authority who looks at a situation, sees that applying the rules is not beneficial in that context, and readily grants an exception. It may be born more out of hope than experience, but it is a little picture of paradise — a paradise that sometimes says to people who are different, “The rule in this case was not created in anticipation of your situation, and will not be applied.” And who knows? Perhaps some people in authority might read this and exercise judgment so that rules do not harm those people for whom they were not created.
It Doesn’t Work That Way
A child expectantly asks an adult, “You’ll make everything better, right?”
The adult sadly answers, “It doesn’t work that way.”
There are a number of things that are, in the minds of people who do not understand them, magical. Among these may be mentioned adulthood, exceptional intelligence, computers, counseling, and medicine. People on the outside have certain expectations. Children expect adults to know what to do in every situation; people of normal intelligence expect a genius to have perfect grades and never make mistakes; people want computers to have humanlike intelligence; codependent people want to enlist the counselor’s help in controlling everybody around them; patients want doctors to always have a pill that will make everything better. Those people who are inside the magic circle can only shake their heads and say, “It just doesn’t work that way.” Genius, for instance, is not an immunity to failure; a genius will actually experience more failure.
It doesn’t mean that these domains don’t have power — all of them do. Rather, it means that this power isn’t what people expect it to be. Christ came as the long-awaited Messiah — and when he came to preach spiritual deliverance from sin instead of military deliverance from Rome, disappointed many of the people who were waiting for him.
With giftedness, for example, there is a common assumption that it is an automatic badge to success: perfect grades in school, and being better at everything. Not so; many bright individuals have terrible school grades (Einstein was failed at math), and their intelligence functions differently, so that they experience difficulties like those of a foreigner in a very different land.
It may be that, in dealing with a great good, we need to be open to its being good in a way we cannot anticipate — even if our anticipation of its goodness is what draws us to it.
In Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith is raised in Martian culture and then brought to earth as a young man. He experiences terrific difficulty in adjustment, but adjusts to human culture first in author Jubal Harshaw’s den, and then explores the world on his own before creating his own nest — a unique place that combines Martian and human culture. Inside it, there is little clothing, and no need for money — but this is superficial; more deeply, there is a shared consciousness, a world that is entered when a person steps over the threshold.
Michael’s nest resonates with me in a very strong sense of home. I do not have any physical place with the external distinctiveness of Michael’s nest — a thief who broke in would probably think I am a boring person — but that is not the essence of Mike’s nest even in Heinlein’s book. It was almost a literary symbol — and people who saw through the external strangeness found an internal wonder, itself even stranger, that was preserved when the people in the nest moved to a hotel hideout. My nest, which I have just begun to build, is found in part in scattered places (here, there, everywhere: in the schoolyard during first-grade recess; with the cherubim and seraphim; among the farandolae) — most recently in the dance class I have started. I wrote above about there being a glass wall, and my having been burned again and again after inviting people to pass through it (perhaps I did not understand how difficult it is for other people) — and I have found a few friends who have passed through it without me being burned. With two of them in particular (Robin and Heather Munn, a delightful brother and sister), I am now not intentionally building so much as living inside a nest.
This nest is a symbol of Heaven, and I will never before death be able to have it in full — there are times when I long strongly for it, and am a bit closer, but this nest has the same fundamental beauty as the Romance described in Less-Wild Lovers: Standing at the Crossroads of Desire — or a related one.
Holy, Holy, Holy
In a room full of men, one man challenges another. The challenged man rises and begins to sing the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Immediately other men rise, singing, until the room is filled with song.
The song is a symbol of the Christian faith. It is something shared, something great that is common to many people. It is worship — that is to say, it is a touch of Heaven here on earth. The harmony among people — a harmony that is assumed not to be there in the challenge — exists in contrast to the classification of private, arbitrary beliefs, a sort of thing you can do as long as you hide it and don’t make it anything public to be taken seriously. The singing is public and intended to be taken seriously.
There are other dimensions to be carried as well, although I do not recall them now. It is not an allegory, with exactly one specific meaning; the symbol itself is more ambiguous — it carries multiple meanings, the primary one being the one referred to above.
A tall person in a black cloak sits in a large hole at the center of an immense circular chessboard, slowly, unhurriedly moving pieces in and out in an intricate and complex pattern.
This image is a symbol of genius, but not of my own gifts. My gifts mean experience of both spectacular success and spectacular failure; this image of genius is of a mastermind who has several projects in motion, giving attention to each in due turn. It is something I do in part — but this image is an image of perfection.
A man puts on a mask and through it shows himself in a way that would not have come without the mask.
Some of this is hinted at in what I wrote about my Halloween costume. The terms I have used in my own thought (though I don’t remember using them with anyone else) concern a “standard translation”. In the ordinary course of events, a person reveals himself in certain standard ways — which is not a straight copy, but a translation in which something gets lost. Sometimes nonstandard translations can allow things to be seen — good things — that are not shown in the standard translation. There are ways in which actions which are on the surface complete fantasy, allow the presentation of things that do not have occasion to be shown normally.
I think something of this is common — acting is concerned not only with using the actor to reveal an arbitrarily chosen different person, but with the development and revelation of the actor (to those who know him) — but my experience of it seems more intense than usual. I was surprised when some friends and I were playing a game I made, and one friend pulled a card from the deck that said to tell what about her she most wished other people knew, and she said that most people understood the things about her that she wanted to be understood. I had assumed that my intuitions applied to everyone.
This impression came to me as I was listening to some Argentinian tango music, and gave new reality to something a church friend, whose family is from Argentina, talked about how it was the most European of South American countries, but the Argentina she knew of is a lost world — the country and the people are still there, but inflation and other factors have made a drastic change.
(This is what I remember from a couple of sources; it is not the result of research, and is not intended to be taken as such. It is listed here as a romantic impression from a historical situation whose full details I do not understand.)
Europe has more the symbolic meaning of home to me than does America, and a piece of Europe in the beautiful land of South America bears some of the romance l’Engle conveys in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Its loss — the lost world symbol, or lost home — be it Atlantis, Ynes Avalach, Arthurian England for me, Gone With the Wind for many Southerners, and still other symbols for people of other backgrounds — is tremendously powerful, and those places live on as a memory inside people’s hearts even when they are only a memory.
Another facet is that my sense of self (my personal feeling? my experience of a universal human emotion?) is in someone from a lost realm. There is not too much external evidence that would suggest this — my high school has its own culture, and I can’t go back there, and my excursions into Malaysia and France cannot easily be repeated — but the country in which I have spent the bulk of my life is still the same country and has not changed with any particularly great violence — a society that embraces change will be more altered than one that tries to preserve traditions, but there is a strong continuity. Perhaps it is a part of adult nostalgia for a romanticized childhood — as Calvin put it, “People who are nostalgic about childhood were never children — but the symbol holds resonances for me, and is reflected in other works as well.
Sidhe Nobles in Cafe
Two people are sitting in a cafe full of people, talking. That is what can be easily seen. What is less easily seen is that they are færie nobles, an invisible minority and representatives of a lost world.
This is a part of the powerful romance captured in the online book excerpts for Changeling: the Dreaming. It bears a romance of a lost world, but it also captures something of those who, because of their intelligence, have minds more different than most people would dream to imagine before having encountered them. It also represents, as well as genius, Christians in naturalistic academia — and probably other things as well.
In a Hollywood action-adventure style, there is a hero wielding two shortswords, or two small automatic weapons (the visual symbol varies). It is in the midst of an intense battle, but under the surface of all the chaos there is stillness, control, and peace.
This one may surprise those who know me, and know that I am a pacifist and consider glorified violence in movies to be a significant problem. Why do I include it?
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a second rate treatment of first rate issues, Pirsig talks about being in Quality (the idea of Quality being similar to the Chinese concept of the Tao, as the book notes). He explains that this relaxed, peaceful state is not only found in meditation; it can be found in racing or heavy combat. I have not experienced this in sparring, but I believe it exists, and there is a powerful impression of a person who is in a situation of sheer chaos and hostility, but the chaos outside the person does not bring chaos within.
Boy chasing girl
In a room, a college girl dashes through, being eagerly chased by a college boy, who is asking a barrage of teasing questions. There are some adults who are in the room, and they continue on — one of them calmly sipping his tea — without anyone raising an eyebrow.
One of my friends, Ashley, has voiced emphatically that she doesn’t want to get married and is not domestic. It’s not that she doesn’t like men — she enjoys men a great deal, and can sit down at a table full of men and not feel self conscious at all. She just wants to be single.
At one point, she was spending a lot of time with one guy in particular, and the two of them started to sit together at Pooh’s Corner (a group of people who meet to read children’s books aloud).
I waited for a good moment, and then put an arm around her shoulder and said, “So, Ashley, when are you sending me a wedding invitation?”
The look on her face was classic.
(I’m glad Ashley’s such a good sport.)
I enjoy picking on those people who are close to me, especially girls and women. It’s a form of affection. Picking on can be mean-spirited — but need not be. I’ve heard people telling children “Don’t pick on people who don’t fit in,” but not (except by silence and possibly example) acknowledging that picking on someone in the right way, under the proper circumstances, can be part of a close bond.
Inside the glass wall, touch is important, as are teasing, tickling, horseplay, and the like. I don’t think that these are the most unusual things inside the glass wall — only that they play a part of the picture; they are part of the Nest.
The Bozone Layer
In a classic Far Side cartoon, there is a layer of stacked clowns hovering above the earth’s surface. The caption reads:
The Bozone Layer: Shielding the rest of the universe from the earth’s harmful effects.
This cartoon is funny, but in the way hackers call ‘ha ha only serious’ — it describes a truth. Our world is fallen — which means not only ‘sinful’ as positively understood, but at times positively goofy. I am a part of this, too — I do not see my own absurdities, as I don’t see my own blind spots, but from all the ridiculous things I have seen in others, I would be quite surprised if I was somehow exempt from this pervasive human law.
There is a peace that comes from the recognition of this absurdity, especially after trying and failing to make it go away. It is easy to hold an unstated belief that “If I only try hard enough, I can fix this — and if I can’t make it all better, I’m failing as a person.” The freedom and peace come from realizing that the absurdity is innate and out of our control, that it can perhaps be made better through our influence, but that if we try our best and it’s still positively looney, we can live with ourselves.
The Son of God incarnate did not cause the outrageous things of his countrymen to snap to where they should be; he attacked the absurdity tooth and nail, and his countrymen killed him. That at least should help us to accept that God doesn’t expect us to make the world anything near a perfect place: we should try to better it, and be at peace when our imperfect efforts achieve more imperfect results.
In the Wasteland
There is a hero who is powerful and respected, and has a fall — he is disgraced, his name made a laughingstock, and he is exiled in a wasteland — and forgotten.
In the wasteland — slowly, imperceptibly, not noticed by anyone — he slowly regains his strength. Nobody expects when he returns.
Perhaps the oldest recorded example of this impression is Samson’s story, but I was not originally thinking of that. I was thinking of what I hope part of my own experience to be.
I am in a wasteland now; I am not where I thought I would be five years ago. And I cannot tell the future, to confidently predict any glorious return. But I am in a sort of Sabbath, regaining my strength, refocusing, having lost certain things, and learning how to use other strengths to best advantage. The romance appeals to me; while ‘education’ commonly describes a first ascent to effectiveness, and ‘experience’ the slow refinement of skills as one works in the field, I do not know any single word to tell of regained competency after a fall. This image describes it, and it describes what I am trying to do now.