Singular and forever alien: Wisdom from Literature

Beautiful and good to eat

Deep down, maybe we all know we are, every one of us, a unique snowflake. But a lot of people, they don't want it to be true. They want all the snowflakes to melt together into one big puddle. They want to be able to share their subjective view of the world with everyone else. They want to be able to look at a sunset and know that what it's like for me to see the sunset is the same as what it's like for you to see the sunset.

Hey, we all want things we can't have. And in this case, science says no! Here's a piece of wisdom from David Brin's sci-fi novel Kiln People:

“We may use similar terms to describe a sunset. Our subjective worlds often correspond, correlate, and map onto each other. That makes cooperation and relationships possible, even complex civilization. Yet a person's actual sensations and feelings remain forever unique. Because a brain isn't a computer and neurons aren't transistors. It's why telepathy can't happen. We are, each of us, singular and forever alien..."

The amazing thing about people is that this fact doesn't deter us. We keep trying to share our sensations and feelings with each other. As Virginia Woolf writes in her book Orlando:

For it is a curious fact that though human beings have such imperfect means of communication, that they can only say “good to eat” when they mean “beautiful” and the other way about, they will yet endure ridicule and misunderstanding rather than keep any experience to themselves.

To be known

Maybe we're just stubborn. Maybe we're clinging to a shred of hope that science is wrong and someday, instead of just overlapping with pieces of each other, we'll be able to know what it's like to experience the sunset the way someone else does. Here's a passage from a favorite book of mine, Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss:

“When you're young, you think it's going to be solved by love. But it never is. Being close—as close as you can get—to another person only makes clear the impassable distance between you. . . .

"But see, the incredible thing about people is that we forgot,” Ray continued. “Time passes and somehow the hope creeps back and sooner or later someone else comes along and we think this is the one. And the whole thing starts all over again. We got through our lives like that, and either we just accept the lesser relationship—it may not be total understanding, but it's pretty good—or we keep trying for that perfect union, trying and failing, leaving behind us a trail of broken hearts, our own included. In the end, we die as alone as we were born, having struggled to understand others, to make ourselves understood, but having failed in what we once imagined was possible.”

“People really want that, what did you say, merging souls? Total union?” [Samson]

“Yes. Or at least they think they do. Mostly what they want, I think, is to feel known.

What do you think? Is the ultimate human goal to feel known and understood? And if that's the case, is the illusion of feeling known enough to compensate for never truly being able to share one's experiences with anyone else?

Sunday, November 15, 2009 - tags: books life selves


  • said: Reply

    Aren’t relationships (romantic relationships, friendships, whatever) basically an ongoing struggle to know and understand each other as well as you can? Of course I can’t ever know if Brett, for instance, hears a certain song the same way I do, but I can talk to him about what he hears in the song, what he likes about it, what he dislikes about it, and gain a certain degree of understanding about what he’s hearing. And in explaining his experience to me, doesn’t he also gain a better understanding of himself? So everybody wins!

    I just don’t feel that need to know exactly how someone else experiences the world, or for them to know exactly how I experience it. I do think it would be absolutely awesome if I could experience the world as someone else does for one day (swapping bodies?) But I realize that’s unrealistic. It’s not something I strive for, just one of those things I think sounds really awesome but horribly unrealistic; like winning the lottery, or having someone else do my homework for me.

    I guess I think it’s more about the journey, or the process, than the ultimate goal. (I hope that makes sense.)

    • said: Reply

      Yes: Relationships are a essentially an ongoing struggle to know and understand each other as well as you can. Nicely put. And yes: You can come to imperfect understandings, and if you’re satisfied with that because you know it’s the best you’ll ever do, then you’ll be one of the happy people. The fact that we only have imperfect means of communication (language, music, art) is a reflection of the fact that we can never perfectly know each other. And hey, maybe that’s enough. Because you’re right: Wanting more than that is unrealistic, because it’ll never happen. But when were the majority of people ever rational?

      Frequently, it may not even be a consciously realized want: a twinge of disappointment when you’re as close as you can get and yet it’s not close enough, a sense that despite everything you can share with everyone, ultimately, you’re still alone.

      I’m with you in the “it’s about the journey” boat, by the way.

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