Conquistadors of the Useless

  OK, everybody has read somewhere that there are more connections in one’s brain than there are stars in the universe.  Still, given all the possibilities, what sort of constellation would yield a ‘Conquistador of the Useless’? (French alpinist Lionel Terray’s self description) 

  Much to the chagrin of my wife, the Buddha, and other reasonable folk disdainful of metaphysical inquiry, it’s a question that has disturbed my rest for nearly all of my fifty plus years.  Perhaps it is related to the fact that I share the same birthday and thus sign as George Leigh (“because it’s there”) Mallory.  (Gemini)  

  I’m not there yet, but my research has begun to bear fruit and I at least have an idea what role mountains have and what part they might continue to play in the evolution of consciousness.Good news too, there’s sex involved. Julian Jaynes connected several of these issues in his ponderously titled, but enthralling The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

  The sex part.  Jaynes held (and offered compelling evidence) that it was the relatively sudden development of brainpower that propelled sexuality from its more perfunctory role in mating into the pervasive dynamo we know today.  Think about it – what would your sex life be without the ability to reminisce, ruminate, and look forward? 

  But how did the human analogue of pollination come to be writ so large?  Air-conditioning some believe, in a manner of speaking. When our anthropoid bipedal ancestors left the trees for the savannah, they left behind shade, protection from the sun’s searing rays.  Since a primary order of business for a warm blooded creature is temperature regulation, most importantly that of the brain, incremental improvements in an ability to radiate heat would be a distinct advantage.  Particularly in the sub-Saharan environment.  Thus an incipient outer bit of tissue might have proven advantageous first as a radiator, later a tool designer, and much later an ‘art film’ producer as natural selection grew the cortical covering.     

  However, Jaynes theorized that, even after development of the cerebral cortex, functioning of the humanoid brain was not quite modern.  A key aspect of his hypothesis was that the still preconscious brain was characterized by intermittent hallucinations.  Both visual and auditory, these were experienced as proclamations of gods and were catalyzed by a range of stimuli.       

  Mountains among other things.  Even today, it’s not too tough to recall the incredible feelings of awe inspired by a view of the Tetons, a look down into the Grand Canyon, or from atop the Bastille, or Rainier.  They form a connection to immanence not casually left behind.   In fact, as our forebears migrated, they developed means that at the very least allowed for the manifestation of those feelings wherever they set up camp or built cities. 

  Prehistoric burial mounds, Hittite ziggurats, and The Cathedral of Notre Dame are all examples.  Regarding this last, Abbot Suger, the French cleric behind Gothic architecture described the experience he had in mind to engender as “metaphysics of light”. The manipulation of space and light continues to characterize the practice of great architecture.  Recently, for example, a huge generating plant along the Thames in London was converted into the Tate Modern museum of art by a pair of Swiss architects.  Entry into its cavernous great hall evokes a similar constellation of feelings while dissipating neurotic thought and making the visitor receptive and ready to see.   

  Whew! This tortured path has long led me to assume these evocations and the activities of their origin like climbing and skiing, to be vestigial or at least atavistic.  And further, that their pursuit is dangerously quaint and more akin to bugs being drawn to light than to celestial connections.  Recently however, consideration of the convergence between certain lines of neuroscience and spirituality has led my wandering mind in another direction.  I’ve come to the conclusion that these feelings of awe, of immanence, of new direction might rather be precursorial.  

  Perhaps those of us willing, eager to leave certain comfort behind for unnecessary experiences of adventure may have something in common with those on the periphery of, say, Mayan society long ago.  Mesoamerican artisans and craftspeople maybe.  What were they thinking as they led the way to the jungle leaving home, the priests, and nobility behind?      “Gee, if only they had cut out more hearts and run more thorns through their tongues and genitals we would all be in clover now.”  

  Or not.  They must have been anxious in the extreme because of diminished resonance with what had for generations represented the foundation of their experience.  In any case, brooding and doubting had to be better than being the next in line.  The call of the wild proved irresistible.  Furthermore, Jaynes presented evidence showing that similar metamorphical events were occurring in roughly contemporaneous cultures around the world. 

  Is there a lesson in all of this some thousands of years later?  Well, is there?  I guess it depends upon the dominant society and its continued success or a lack thereof…  Does anyone still think we are at ‘the end of history’?   Whither now the zeitgeist?    Ah whatever.  But hey, the next time you’re enjoying the view, hold that thought.  Remember, in wilderness is the preservation of the earth.  And who knows what else.

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