Sunday, 18 January 2015

Even Bad Books….

…contain good things.

On a winter evening amidst a driving snowstorm a man on horseback arrived at an inn, happy to have reached a shelter after hours of riding over the wind-swept plain on which the blanket of snow had covered all paths and landmarks. The landlord who came to the door viewed the stranger with surprise and asked him whence he came. The man pointed in the direction straight away from the inn, whereupon the landlord, in a tone of awe and wonder, said, ‘Do you know that you have ridden across the Lake of Constance?’ At which the rider dropped stone dead at his feet.

This is the legend that Kurt Koffka, the German Gestalt psychologist, uses to demonstrate the difference between two different modes of reality - that which exists in nature, and that which exists inside a person’s head.

The Lake of Constance. Certainly, because it is a true proposition that he rode across it. And yet, this is not the whole truth, for the fact that there was a frozen lake and not ordinary solid ground did not affect his behaviour in the slightest. It is interesting for the geographer that this behaviour took place in this particular locality, but not for the psychologist as the student of behaviour; because the behaviour would have been just the same had the man ridden across a barren plain. But the psychologist knows something more: Since the man died from sheer fright after having learned what he had ‘really’ done, the psychologist must conclude that had the stranger known before, his riding behaviour would have been very different from what it actually was. Therefore the psychologist will have to say: There is a second sense to the word environment according to which our horseman did not ride across the lake at all, but across an ordinary snow-swept plain.  His behaviour was a riding-over-a-plain, but not a riding-over-a-lake. (Koffka, quoted in The Roots of Modern Social Psychology, by Robert M. Farr)

Although this analysis is extremely pedestrian - to wake up my drooping soul I stopped mid-paragraph to listen to You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here on Earth - it makes the important point that there are two different layers of reality: the physical and the mental; the latter largely determining a person’s behaviour. 

But can we hardly be satisfied with such an explanation, which seems rather obvious to me.  Why read Koffka (there is no need to read Farr) when we can read Kant, Descartes and Plato; or watch films by Fassbinder and Bresson (preferably both together). Why indeed.  But even bad books can contain good things.  Like this story, whose conclusion intrigues us. Why did the horseman die?

We need a metaphor to answer our question: a novice surfaces too quickly from his first deep-sea dive.

But now we must wait for this diver to do his work. We must let him swim around the interstices of our thought…

The Mental and the Physical are two qualitatively different realities. Each has its own substance with its own internal coherence, and both can live comfortably when left alone within their own domains. Lake Constance will exist whether the horseman dies or rides off believing he rode across solid ground.

The problems begin when these two worlds are in conflict. Something has to give - either the ideas or the facts - if both are to maintain their validity.

In such conflicts Time is the great diplomat. It mediates the dispute by it slowing down; until the thoughts of the mind and the things of the world are able to reach a workable compromise.  Time. It changes things slowly, quietly and, largely, invisibly; making the changes so minuscule that they cannot be perceived. We are transformed without our even realising it.

But… If the transition is too fast this evolution is frustrated. The physical reality is denied or the fictions are demolished; leading to insanity, and in rare cases, rarer than this legend will allow, to sudden death.1  Not that I am attacking the legend.  My god, no!  Like all art it exaggerates for legitimate effect. 

Change is dangerous. Especially in a culture where natural processes are idealised and flux is believed the ultimate reality.  Today we think that change is a social good. Progress. It is the deism of the modern age.

We forget that stasis and the fictions it generates can also be good for us.  Our minds are as prone to fix things for all eternity as they are to change them from moment to moment.  For as much as we like variety we also need cognitive stability.  We go on holiday; but happily return to the security of home.

Although to suggest there is conflict between statics and dynamics (to use the terminology of 19th century sociologists) is to invent a false dichotomy.  Life is a series of events that are sometimes exceedingly slow, and at other times amazingly fast. The trick for all societies is to regulate the speed of events, so that they retain an internal coherence and thus a meaning for the individual.

We return to our metaphor. While swimming around it has made many friends, who have absorbed much of what it has to say… The diver can safely leave the decompression chamber.

This is the best way of reading a story. Compared to the concrete fluidity of the original Koffka’s analysis is stiff and mechanically abstract; his sentences, being too literal and too obvious, are lacking in resonance. A little bit of magic, amongst a hundred dull and foolish pages, is thus quickly snuffed out.  We want more than this!  We want some insight. Some deep meaning.  To have our wish we must imagine a different ending. 

It is only after the horseman has had a warm meal, a few pints of beer and the landlady’s daughter to fondle, that he is told of his amazing feat; Margarethe telling his tale, finishes it with a kiss. Heinz is safe now. He goes to bed, and dreams amazing dreams about his marvellous escapade.

It is often better to believe in an illusion than to know the truth. It can be the safest option. Change things when they only need to be changed, and don’t change them too quickly.  Always we must be careful. Better to keep a mind, no matter how fantastic its conceptions, in some internal equilibrium than enlighten it too quickly.  The internal integrity of belief more important than the abstract reality. The shy giggles of Margarethe, who holds her story in reserve, far better than the blunt gestures of her father who immediately points out the facts of the case.

Those who believe otherwise think that only one of these worlds exist. For the fanatic only ideas are real; everything else is corruption, illusion or lies. Better the future utopia - a fantasy if ever there was one - than the impure banalities of the present day.  Think of the modern revolutionaries who would bring heaven down to earth.  What madness! The old Christians were saner. They at least knew that metaphysics was independent of daily life.  Or to put it more simply: the heavenly paradise could only ever exist inside a believer’s head.

More prosaic types, like this landlord, would kill a man by destroying his dreams. Indeed, they will do this even when the dreams have come true. This horseman dies when shown that he has achieved the impossible. 


 1. See my The Good Bourgeois for an example of such a mental meltdown.

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