Strange, overlapping loops...
In late 1979, I moved from Waco, Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area, living first in Menlo Park and then in Atherton with my 'significant other.' Such was the politically correct expression for one's main squeeze back then, a linguistic formula that eschewed sexism and homophobia in one tongue-twisting abstraction -- though I jokingly called her my 'insignificant other' (which might be partly why that relationship didn't work out so well).
Sorry, Linda of the lovely auburn hair.
Anyway, she was pursuing her doctorate in history at Stanford, while I was working for Wells Fargo Bank in Palo Alto, where I performed each day the essential task of putting a "stop payment" on every second-thinking bank client's check. I used a manual typewriter and had to press each key extra hard to force the imprint to carry through the top sheet and two sets of carbon and paper. Facing me across the large desk sat another person doing exactly the same thing. Together, we typed out stop payments in the rhythmic stereotype of low-level clerks.
By evening, I played at being a bohemian intellectual -- visiting cafés where I got to hear a then-unknown Tuck and Patti perform jazz for free as I drank inexpensive glasses of champagne, or where I could read the newly-known Douglas Hofstadter's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach over rather more expensive cappuccinos, all the while dreaming of graduate school and a future so bright that I'd have to wear shades.
My future didn't turn out quite like that.
Nor does anybody's, I guess ... neither the immensely talented Tuck and Patti nor the intellectually gifted Douglas Hofstadter.
The former appear to have spent years on the road, touring. I once saw an ad for a performance of theirs back when I was living in Germany, perhaps around 1994. They seem to have missed the big time.
Some few years later, perhaps in 1996 or 1997, a highly successful Hofstadter -- published, tenured, recognized -- lost his beloved wife Carol. I was reminded of this on Saturday as I read these words by David Brooks:
Douglas Hofstadter was a happily married man. After dinner parties, his wife Carol and he would wash the dishes together and relive the highlights of the conversation they'd just enjoyed. But then, when Carol was 42 and their children were 5 and 2, Carol died of a brain tumor.There's something both insightful and deflating about this. The part that especially lets me down, I think, is his choice of the term "brain." I would have preferred at least "mind." Why he chose that very material word when he's willing to use the loaded term "soul" remains somewhat opaque to me. I suppose it's partly because he thinks that the mind is the brain, but if so, then why not use the word "mind"?
A few months later, Hofstadter was looking at a picture of Carol.
He describes what he felt in his recent book, "I Am A Strange Loop":
"I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, 'That's me. That's me!'"
"And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain." (Brooks, "Bonded by Loops and Flares," International Herald Tribune, Saturday-Sunday, July 21-22, 2007, p. 7)
But let that be.
Brooks likes Hofstadter's theory of the self and thinks it applicable to some of our social problems in America:
A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others. Douglas’s and Carol's selves overlapped, and that did not stop with her passing.I'd need to know more about this conception of the self as a collection of overlapping perspectives, which means that I'd need to read Hofstadter's recent book, I Am A Strange Loop, but his theory is at least potentially applicable toward explaining some of the problems facing inner-city African-Americans that Barack Obama has written about.
I bring all this up in an Op-Ed column because most political and social disputes grow out of differing theories about the self, and I find Hofstadter's social, dynamic, overlapping theory of self very congenial.
It emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others, but it's not one of those stifling, collectivist theories that puts the community above the individual.
It exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve through their own genius and willpower.
It exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being. There is no self that exists before society.
It explains why it's so hard to tackle concentrated poverty. Human beings are permeable. The habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and social trust. (Brooks, p. 7)
But I'm not sure -- even if the theory is true -- how to apply it to solving our inner-city problems.
But I do see how Hofstadter's insight into the fusion of souls explains my failure with my long-ago Linda. Not sharing "identical hopes and dreams," Linda and I never grew into a fusion of shared souls. Rather the opposite. People talk about growing apart. Perhaps they lose that shared point of view, that shared way of seeing the world.
But here I am again, talking to myself about books that I haven't read because I'm not successful enough to afford them. That bright future has eluded me, it seems, but that's okay, for I've never looked especially good in shades...