A Blank Slate

It’s got a cool sound in Latin:  tabula rasa, the writing tablet scraped clean.    They used to theorize that the newborn human was a tabula rasa. The sensory world begins making marks on that blank slate and it matures accordingly.   The Hindus, I was told by American devotees of an Indian guru named Baba Hari Dass, a man who had not spoken for decades, call some of these impressions on the tabula rasa samskaras.   These were like fingerprints in clay, as I was made to understand it.   Samskaras are dispositions, characteristics and themes left over from past lives, as I recall.

Somebody came up with the clever “wherever you go, there you are.” There are some clever bastards out there, really.   Writing in the darkness of night, intent on the words you are putting down, you will find no time to imagine the blank looks.   I speak only for myself, of course.  

I get angry.  At things like brutality, the random fuckings we are all subjected to, fuckings out of the blue, with absolutely no pleasure for ourself, no possibility of pleasure.   We are done this way, at random, for the pleasure of people who, like pedophile priests,  say “fuck mutuality, fuck decency, I see my fellow humans as base coin with which to gratify my passions.   My passions!”   These things are uttered by people who imagine themselves winners, and they do what they do to the rest of us losers feeling wholly justified.   Because they can, you understand.

My grandmother flew into rages, the grandmother I never met.   Her older brother was known to be a rough customer, a man with a formidable temper.   Her nephew was a tough guy with a bad temper too.   You did what they said or you paid the price.   What was the price?   How about I fucking whip you in the face, you like that price, asshole?

My father, a man whose poignant tenderness to animals was always in evidence, often flew into rages.   His mother, I learned very late in his life, whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Basic unfairness scalded him all throughout his life and he would cry out.  There was nothing I could do for him, when I was a tabula rasa.   Nothing but stare at him accusingly, with my big, black eyes.  He would look over from his pillow, with his glasses off and his 20/400 vision, and I would be staring at him through the bars of my crib.   A blank slate, staring without mercy at his own father.    

How insane is this arrangement?   It is hard to put it into words.   It is also good to try to put it into words, speaking only for myself, of course.    I heard that David Foster Wallace believed a good book made you feel less alone, less lonely.   There is a certain pain, familiar to most people, of feeling isolated, apart, removed from the community.   This pain is big business, a huge driver of our highly competitive economy.  

The anodyne business itself, huge, vast mountains of money.  People die behind that stuff every day, take enough of it and you will no longer need any pain killer.  The entertainment business, which lets us forget, while moved by an artfully told tale, that we are essentially, blank slates or slates scribbled with a hundred layers of glyphs, here in the darkness by ourselves, destined each of us to our own end.    A good book connects us with another mind, helps us forget all that.   The same can be said of music that stirs us, transports us, or visual art that evokes feelings that leave us in some kind of awe.

You will meet a few people in your life who are familiar, become more familiar. They put their fingerprints on you in the right way.   You learn things you need to know from such people.   They are rare, and precious.   Not everyone has the luck to meet them, and if they do meet them, not every two of us have the ability to hit it off.  Not every two notes make good music.   Where there is noise only, there is no soothing of the savage beast [1].

I’m thinking about this blank slate because of the empty page, the white screen.   Some people look at that expanse and say “shit…”    I always have a certain excitement when I see that empty canvas.   It can become literally anything you can imagine, speaking only for myself, of course.


[1] OK, fine, “savage breast”.

The phrase was coined by William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697: Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

Delcog III

Here on Delcog III we don’t mess around with pie in the sky, or touchy feeliness either.  Life here is as frightening as it wants to be, and nobody on the planet has any quaint illusions that it could be any different. 

“Oh, yeah, Delcog III, isn’t that a bit lame, sir?” a blunt reader might ask.

“A bit lame, earthling, sure, as lame as you like.  It could not be otherwise, no matter what color glasses you put on, no matter what olfactory filter you dial in.  The air here, for example, you cannot breathe it.  When your tank runs out you will die in four or five agonizing minutes,”  the Delcog looked off indifferently, then went back about its business.

And you wonder, who is the narrator here?  Who is Delcog?  Why am I suddenly part of this story?   Is it true about the atmosphere on “Delcog III”?  Am I living in a fool’s paradise of bottled air, will it run out and will I asphyxiate?

“You may scoff at Deleterious Cognition,” said the Delcog, “you may think it is the same as plain pessimism, or depression, mere expectation of the worst.  But it is more than a passive expectation of the worst, I assure you, my soon to be oxygen deprived friend,” the Delcog gave its version of a smile.  It was as bad as the confident prediction of an agonizing death.  

“Cognition,” continued the Delcog mercilessly, “is a thought process that involves perception, gathering information, digesting it and using it to make informed predictions while assessing various risk factors.  You label it Deleterious and we embrace that label, yes, cognition can be deleterious– to wishful illusion, for one thing.  Your dreams, my friend, they depend very much on your oxygen supply.  I note that you are wearing a four hour tank and that the gauge reads 5%.  Let us do the math together– 50% would be 2 hours of breathing time, or 120 minutes.  5% of four hours, therefore, is a tenth of 2 hours or 12 minutes.  I suppose we can round it down to eleven now.”

You know, I’m thinking I don’t have to take this kind of crap from some pedantic literary invention, yet I stand here, under the winking blackness.  I’m interested to hear what this sick bastard has to say.

“Of course you are,” said the Delcog agreeably, moving seamlessly into the past tense, “instead of making your way back to the ship to replenish your air supply you are listening to me rattle on with breath so bad that, I dare say, if you were not wearing the mask and breathing apparatus you would be unable to stand so close to me.  The ship, by the way, is at least seven minutes from us, so in three or four minutes the point will be as moot, as mute, as the song you imagine you are hearing.”  

The music I hadn’t been aware of swelled thrillingly, and along with it a sense of hope, soaring.  That is one amazing aspect of music I sometimes forget, it can fill you with feeling, sometimes impossible to express except through music.  

“Yes, that’s fantastic,” said the Delcog with a slight smirk, “talk about music, since it is more precious, apparently, than life itself.  It’s kind of funny: choosing music over life, since in the afterlife everybody is deaf.”

Now the Delcog had gone too far.  I was thinking about zapping him with my bop gun, raising some funk and a little sand too.  But what if he was right about the atmosphere being poison for me to breathe?  

“By way of example,” the Delcog said, “and forgetting about your insoluble breathing emergency a few minutes from now, you are writing this instead of working on a business plan, instead of figuring out how to recruit the crucial people that will allow your plan to move forward, instead of working on strategies to network and sell your idea.  Whatever you think about capitalism, baby, you’ve got to raise capital if you want your own business.  The widgets your business will make are no different than any other widgets, they’ve got to be branded, marketed, dressed in short skirts and marched out into the marketplace.  You think you are doing something special since you are ‘nonprofit’.   That’s very funny, if you think about it for a minute.  Oh, I forgot, you don’t really have a minute… that’s a little Delcog III joke… you actually have maybe nine minutes, or, actually, two– to decide to hightail it back to the ship and see if they can get the hatch open in time.” 

It was wearying talking to this guy, but I was already weary.  I got to thinking it was a long shot to make it back to the ship in time to save myself.  The music had stopped, I felt sick, sweaty and claustrophobic in my space suit.  I had to get out of it.  I pulled off the face mask, and, outside of the fartlike smell of the Delcog, who hadn’t been wrong about his breath, the air was very much like the air in a dank basement.  It didn’t smell very fresh, but it was fine to breathe.  I winked at the Delcog and went on my miserable way, shrugging into a long sideways leap in the low gravity of Delcog III.