All human beings have a difficult time having an immediate relationship to the world. I will explain some barriers people encounter when seeking direct experience, how it is possible to live authentically sometimes, and why it is not desirable at all times.
What does it mean to have an immediate relationship to the world and to live authentically? It means to fully engage and experience the world directly without intermediaries or distortions. Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. This is challenging for most people to accomplish because many barriers exist between the world and us. These barriers impede our independent perception of experiences.
In Walker Percy’s essay, “The Loss of The Creature”, the first obstacle he mentions is the preformed symbolic complex. He says that because Grand Canyon sightseers photograph the canyon, they merely record symbols and waive their right to see and know it. Percy believes the sightseeing photographers surrender the present to the past and the future. He asserts that the Spanish explorer, Garcia López de Cárdenas, was the first person to discover the Grand Canyon, and the last person to experience the delight of beholding its beauty.
Percy makes four false assumptions in using this example to illustrate his point. Firstly, he presumes that Cárdenas was the first person to discover the Grand Canyon. American Indians have dwelled in the Grand Canyon area for over 4,000 years. In 1540, Indian guides led Cárdenas and his men to the South Rim. History credits Cárdenas as the first European to visit the canyon, but Hernando de Alarcón may have been there a few months earlier.
Secondly, he guesses that Cárdenas arrived without preconceived ideas. Cárdenas was on a mission to locate the legendary Seven Cities of Gold for Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition. The tales he heard about this fabled civilization preformed his conceptions.
Thirdly, Percy imagines that Cárdenas reaction was wonder and pleasure. In Steven Pyne’s book, How the Grand Canyon Became Grand, he states that Cárdenas was disappointed and wrote nothing about the canyon in his Relacion. Cárdenas hoped to conquer a gold-laden city with natives to convert and was unimpressed by the empty, treacherous landscape. Arizona State University’s History Department members Paul Hirt and Sarah Bohl Gerke say: “The way we describe the Grand Canyon is a reflection of our own language, times, surroundings, interests, biases, hopes, dreams, and realities”. Even if a tourist approaches the Grand Canyon as a packaged experience, it is possible to see through the symbolic complex and confront the place directly, but from a subjective viewpoint.
The fourth assumption Percy makes is that photographers do not see the canyon or live in the present moment. People frequently describe and record their impressions of the canyon by writing, art, and photography. In fact, creative people often have greater intuition, aptitude, and talent to see something the average person may overlook.
A second obstacle standing between people and authentic experience is what Percy calls “priority of title of the expert”. He claims that laymen surrender their sovereignty and become consumers of the expert’s certified package experiences. For example, readers may judge life according to what authors who know write about it. A devout Southern Catholic novelist and non-fiction author, Percy himself was a titled expert and experience packager. Additionally, he was star-struck upon meeting William Faulkner, and referenced him twice in his essay. Percy stands on both sides of the proverbial fence in reality, but approaches the subject of living immediately from the expert’s side in theory. It seems arrogant and condescending for him to allege that the loss of sovereignty over direct experience is the layman’s fault.
In 2007, The Hualapai Indians opened The Skywalk as the first part of a Grand Canyon West tourist center. Future plans include adding a tramway, a replica Indian village, and a luxury resort. This indigenous tribe is both expert and packager of the Grand Canyon symbolic complex. The commercialization of this area dismays many visitors. Tourists feel the Hualapai tribe have mediated their experience and they feel a loss of sovereignty.
Percy laments that people “cannot escape their consciousness of their consciousness”. However; some Zen Buddhists and Japanese martial artists achieve “beginner’s mind”, which includes a lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. According to Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”. Percy did not consider all possible options in his valiant attempts to escape the symbolic complex. He may have failed to find a formula for authentic living, but others have succeeded.
Education is a third obstacle Percy presents. He maintains that poetry and biology students are consumers receiving an educational package. He argues that the students’ fundamental placement in the world should be where it is possible to extract and salvage sonnets and dogfishes from their symbolic package. Percy proposes that occasionally, “poetry students should find dogfishes on their desks and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting boards”. He also declares that a Falkland Islander stumbling upon and exploring a dogfish on a beach is “exercising sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creation”. This sounds like a religious proclamation to me.
This summer, a portrait painter friend of mine vacationed in Canada. One day, he went trout fishing alone in a remote locale to enjoy scenic solitude. He spotted an unusual rock on the riverbank and went to investigate. The rock was medium size, oblong, matte black, and smooth. He wondered if it was a meteorite or a regular rock. He knew that meteorites are heavy due to metal cores. The rock was heavy, but he still did not know if it contained metal. There was no way for him to uncover this fact without damaging the rock.
My friend was in a similar place and situation as the Falkland Islander, but he was unable to learn completely about the rock on his own. He required educational assistance, a geologist’s expert opinion, and a jeweler’s stone-cutting skills to gain sufficient knowledge about the rock. Percy believes the Falkland Islander has a learning advantage over the biology student, but it seems that sometimes the biology student has an advantage over the lone explorer.
It is impossible and undesirable to live immediately around-the-clock. In addition to being present, sometimes we need to reflect upon our history or past events and at other times we need to dream or plan for the future. Human beings evolved as social creatures with the mental faculties of reason and imagination. The desires to experience temporary solitude, being wholly engaged with the world, and living in the present, are natural human aspirations. The desires to live in permanent social isolation, by feelings and sensory perception only, and in a constant present state, are contrary to human nature.
©2012 by JoAnn Brown