I keep becoming more aware of contradictions and of the inability of reason to cope with them or reconcile them.
On my way to the ICBI Derivatives 2007 conference in Paris last week, I got involved in a conversation with my taxi driver who was a bit of a new-age guy. Somehow he started telling me about the existence of negative and positive energy in his clients, and how some of the people he picked up sucked all the energy out of him, while others by their conversation put positive energy into him.
I could understand that. But then I began to realize that he meant energy literally, in the physics sense as well as the psychological sense. Still not ridiculous.
But then he began to tell me about an ultrasound or laser device he’d bought through some new-age store that worked on your energy when you put it on your skin. Lasers could do that, he said. And then he told me that the way to deal with people who radiated negative energy was to put 10cc of water between you and them, because water molecules in their complexity had the capacity to absorb negative energy. When they left, you then threw the water down the sink. There’s something attractive about this metaphorically, but he was quite serious and literal about it.
I have a hard time dealing with these kinds of contradictions, when someone tells you something that is both half-true and half-nonsense (or is it? — for all I know the water trick works). I like things and people to be clear cut; people should be either obviously smart or clearly bullshit artists. So how do you cope with someone who’s a bit of both, and believes what he says?
Which reminds me of the movie “Little Children” that I saw a few months ago. The sex offender in the movie violates clear boundaries: you have to judge him as responsible for his actions (he’s a sex offender) and yet you can see that he’s in the grip of forces beyond his control and can’t help himself. The man and the woman in the movie, they face similar dilemmas about responsibility. They’re all little children. How do you integrate all that?
Which reminds me of Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Humbert Humbert is a vile creature (his own words, if I recall correctly) and yet you also understand that he’s in the grip of forces beyond his control. (I don’t want to say he can’t help himself, because I think he could have.) In “Lolita” though, there is some small redemption: he starts out craving Lolita because of her nymphet qualities, all physical, and ends up loving her five or more years later when she’s no longer a charming young girl at all but pregnant (by a simple almost stupid very unglamorous man). Now, Humbert notes, she is “hopelessly worn at seventeen,” “with her ruined looks and …” etc. But now he loves her more than anything he had ever seen or imagined on earth. Lionel Trilling on the back of the paperback I own says it’s really a book about love. And somehow these two impossible things — his moral responsibility for his perversity and his near inability to avoid it –- become a little transformed.
There’s a much more easy-to-live-with transformation in the recent movie “The Lives of Others”, about the Stasi, in which the initially repulsive secret-police eavesdropper becomes step-by-step humanized so that by the end of the movie he’s transformed from a beast into a totally sympathetic character.
There isn’t always such an easy resolution. Maybe you just have to deal with other people’s hybrid nature (and your own) by transcending reason and accepting everything about them, if you can, but that’s dangerous too. IIt would be nice if 10cc of H2O helped.