Lately I’ve been feeling rather at loose ends. Adrift. Unfocussed. Craving something, but unsure what it is.
And there you have four different metaphors with which to describe an internal condition that does not in fact partake of any of them. Nothing in me is untied. I am not in a boat on a body of water. A reduction in the acuity of my optic sensing system is not implicated. Hunger is a physiological state, not a mental one.
This is how consciousness and the intellect work — by means of metaphors. Lately I’ve been re-reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. He inspects this type of mental process in some detail.
The Greeks of the Iliad were not, according to Jaynes, conscious. Not in the way we are. They experienced urges to action as coming from outside them — from the gods.
One common term for what I’m experiencing is “depression.” A mild depression, to be sure, but a real one. It might be fruitful (another metaphor) to acknowledge that the term “depression” is itself a metaphor. A depression is a low place in the ground. It may be boggy. The view is restricted. Climbing out may be laborious. It’s a pretty good metaphor, isn’t it?
Following Jaynes’ view of the ancient Greeks, another word to describe how I’m feeling would be “dispirited.” No invisible spirit is whispering in my ear to stir my limbs to action.
If Jaynes is correct, this may be a nearer description of what actually happens in the brain. The impulses that lead to action begin in the unconscious. After they become conscious, we can say “this is what I felt.” But in truth, “I,” the conscious mind, is not where the impulse originates.
You’ll note that “stir,” “nearer,” and “impulse” are all metaphors … to say nothing of “whispering in my ear.” Writers use such concretizing metaphors as a matter of course. (“Concretizing” and “course” are metaphors. So is “matter.” When something is “of course,” the literal meaning, from the Latin cursus, is that it’s on the racetrack.)
Being dispirited is a problem for which the solution (a metaphor) would surely be spiritual. For an atheist, this realization is awkward (another metaphor). But worth meditating on, I think.
Not, I hasten to add, that I’m planning to start believing in the Big Spook. But I do think religion arises in response to and satisfies a genuine human need — or perhaps several of them. A person with a firm religious faith would, I take it, seldom become dispirited.