By Apuleius Charlton
Special guest blogger
In Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs considers the curious provenance of Fountain, the urinal submitted as art, signed by “R. Mutt.” Higgs lays out the convincing case that Fountain was not in fact, created by Marcel Duchamp, as history and the artist himself remembered, but by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Lorinhoven. Higgs, instead of attributing Duchamp’s claim to be the original “R. Mutt” to any perfidiousness, instead discusses the psychological phenomena of the Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting and how it can lead to a misattribution of ideas. This is illustrated quite well in the South Park episode “Fishsticks” which revolves around Cartman taking credit for his classmate Jimmy’s joke; while Cartman is obviously a despicable character who is perfidious, the episode shows how Cartman’s memory continues to overwrite the “correct” memory until, beside single handedly writing a joke that become a national hit, his memories eventually have him simultaneously defeated a dragon and an army of robots.
Because we are on the “Modernism” chapter of Stranger Than We Can Imagine in class, I briefly asked the children if they could remember a time when they knew they had been the first to come up with an idea/say something for which another person later took credit. Most students raised their hands and many of them had the look of satisfaction that comes whenever you have found an attribution for a very real occurrence for which you had no certain context. I then asked them if it was frustrating, if they couldn’t understand how the other person could be so wrong. Most nodded. I then asked what it means if they were the ones misremembering; that was a surprisingly sobering thought for pre-adolescents. Which is good, because it was a lesson that was hammered home to me my first time reading Prometheus Rising when Wilson brings up the anecdote about Oliver Cromwell:
“Cromwell once addressed the Irish rebels, saying ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it is possible that you might be wrong.’ History does not record that Cromwell ever addressed the same remark to himself.”
Noting that is is highly unlikely Cromwell ever did ask himself the same question, as well as the anal-territorial invocation of Christs’ bowels, this is a clear example of how our main task as we grow neurologically is to doubt our own conclusions, not simply of others we perceive as misguided or lower on ladder of circuits. When Wilson talks about Rationalists, he does so with the bitterness of a model agnostic having to deal with dogmatic materialists; it is frustrating to deal with so-called “skeptics” that are incapable of being skeptical about their own prejudices and instead function as proselytes of their own narrow worldview. Agnosticism extends much further than the existence of a higher power and requires curiosity in being able to function as a useful and healthy philosophy.
Questioning everything, and developing an understanding of the malleability of those organs of our that we believe make up reality, namely memory, perspective and our very self-awareness, seem to be one of the primary purposes of Prometheus Rising. Of course, the corollary to this is using this uncertainty to feed our curiosity so that we may endeavor to do that beyond our realms of experience; to question death and the limits of consciousness. A noble game, and one I hope I play well with others in honor of my wise teachers. Happily, Higgs begins his study of the twentieth century with Relativity and Einstein, so students are first familiarized with the lack of an objective fixed point and the perceptual murkiness of space-time, before we begin chipping away at such fleeting notions as memory. The "Fishsticks" episode also revolves around Kanye West being unable to understand the nuance of a very simple joke and becoming murderous. Considering Kanye today, I think we can find a worldview that is truly baffling.