When we’re infants we don’t have much in the way of ideas about our perceptions: we just know that we have them and that they seem to improve with experience. As we age, and keep aging, if its our fortune to keep aging, things go the other way: things deteriorate, you know you’re weakening, can’t do anything much about it. For the bulk of our lives we trust our perceptions, attack those who cast doubt on us, live amid preposterous cosmologies.
Driving from Taos to Denver with my mother, headed north, not long past Kit Carson’s house, me driving the Olds, I spotted a spectacular mountain in the distance, just west of our heading. I said, Wow, look at that. Oh, yes, my mother agreed, beautiful. Hours passed, we gobbled the miles, I continued to exclaim as what can only have been Pike’s Peak continued to loom. Oh, yes, echoed my mother, every time.
It was only as we were actually driving through Colorado Springs that my mother suddenly shrank in terror. What’s that? she asked, flinching.
“That’s Pike’s Peak, Mom: what I’ve been raving about for the last hundred-odd miles.”
We think we live in the same world? We don’t. Not just bees and men, sloths and bats; men and men: men and women: mothers and children …
The amputee feels pain in the limb he no longer has. So is the pain false? fake? No, the pain is pain: there’s just no leg to be hurting. The drunk sees pink elephants, no one else does, the drunk still sees them. “Seeing” is subjective at base; only society begins to establish things as objective, and not very well, not intelligently: especially not where we crucify the nicest guy, don’t publish the odd writer, pretend the bride didn’t fart, interrupt the odd ball, don’t repeat the accusation of genocide …
The word for things we sense that other’s don’t is “eidetic.” Gregory Bateson illustrates using Shakespeare’s line from Macbeth: “Is this a dagger that I see before me, its handle toward my hand?”
Well, that day in the 1960s I was hearing Nat Adderly’s tune without the radio being on, no neighbor’s radio being in hearing that I could tell: but as I did turn on my radio, the solo swelled as though I had merely turned the volume up a tad! perfectly in synch: I was “hearing” FM radio waves! ? See Human Antenna. I can’t explain it, I don’t have to, I’m just reporting it.
Well, now I’m old, deaf, blind, poor sense of smell, my mind weakening, my body … ugh. The VA, bless them, finally gave me some hearing aids: one fed ddivision smaashes me down, eventually, another picks parts of me up a bit. But it’s not that I was back in the world I used to inhabit: suddenly I was in a world I’d never previously visited: I heard every air molecule bang against the windshield, heard every pebble under my shoe, heard the key enter the lock like a violation …
I come up to my front door, or exist my girlfriend’s house … parrots shriek over my left shoulder, then over my right. The VA re-tunes my ‘aids, then there are no parrots, for a few days: then they’re back again.
Well, I was just sitting at my dining table, catching up toward my morning’s quorum of free cells games and big band music was blaring from my hallway. Once upon a time I could have told you, exactly, that’s the Benny Goodman orchestra, such and such a tune, Carnegie Hall, 1938 … Harry James on trumpet … Or that’s Glenn Miller, or Artie Shaw … Or that’s the riff two thirds of the way through Buddy Morrow’s trombone version of Night Train … But I can’t be too sure of any of that any more, my record player hasn’t been set up and working in decades, long story.
Some of what I was hearing was wholly original! or, I couldn’t ID it.
Yeah, in “middle age,” from eight to forty-eight, we think we can tell what world we live in, make fun of guys standing on a pole for six years, sitting on a rock, blind, staring at the sun, laugh at the crazy lady who sees the Virgin in the garden, in the supermarket … But you know, I like my current craziness almost as much as I ever liked being the smart guy who knew everything.