Posted by: standing_baba | June 12, 2010

Book: The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head

FOREWORD: This book has not left my side since I purchased it second-hand in Bolivia; every time I open it I discover a new quote that consumes my day with reflective thoughts. Today I finally finished it, which means my mind is once again free to create original blog material instead of filling this site with the work of others.

Author Raymond Tallis, with eclectic spiritual, metaphysical and anatomical knowledge, sucked me in a borderless realm where flesh and thought neither are nor are not, where life is hopelessly miraculous or miraculously hopeless, depending on who he quotes. The fact that it reads in only a slightly academic, semi-snobbish tone is an amazing feat given the number of footnotes needed to colorfully paint the place where our “souls, and sense of self, reside.” I share the below highlighted excerpts either for their strange factualness or the way they force the reader to consider just how mystifying it is to be alive.

Note: this post is longer than the International Standardized Rules of Blogging recommend—enough quotes for hundreds of Senior Paper first paragraphs—but I couldn’t leave out some of the more philosophical quotes that I feel have great value if you take the time read and re-read them. Time-related entries have been labeled.

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Could any man bear to look at himself at every moment of his life, and rethink, as a witness, all He has thought?…Who would not hate himself, now wish to blot out what he was, not so much for want of success or the effect of certain acts he has committed, but simply because of the particular person whom these have little by little defined, and who shocks his full sense of possibility? Our history makes of us Mr. So-and-So — and this is an offence.
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If you are Asian or Native American, your genes will ensure that you will have dry (grey and flaky) cerumen [ear wax]; while Caucasian cerumen is more likely to be wet and a more attractive honey-brown or a dark-brown. It has proved possible to track human migratory patterns, such as those of the Inuit, by looking at cerumen type…In the United States, about 150,000 patients a week have wax removed by experts.
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…Adults may sweat up to 2 litres per hour, a rate which, if sustained, could lead to severe macroscopic and cellular pruning and potentially to death.
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Nothing simple, then, about the relationship between the world we live in, our mind…and the salivary glands. Which is why, so long as we are awake and well, we feel responsible for containing our saliva. We could almost define the arc of life as beginning and ending with drooling; or our pre-senile maturity as those years when we successfully police the liquid contents of our mouth.
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The asymmetry of the one who spits and the one who is spat upon is profound: it plumbs the depth of the power relations between humans…To be human is to spit or to be spat upon.
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The head produces about a quart of mucus in twenty-four hours and this can double when the membranes are inflamed, as in response to invasion by rhinoviruses and coronaviruses, the organisms responsible for the common cold.
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There are all sorts of explanations as to why man is, uniquely, the animal that weeps. The most plausible is that humans are singularly immature…crying (and laughing) are the most prominent childish traits that we preserve throughout our lives.
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Crying empowers the powerless…Saline may not be an argument, sobbing not a justification, but they make arguments seem feeble, dry, calculating things…The one who cries moves the discussion beyond words, calls time out, and leaves the other helplessly waiting, or raising the voice to rise above the sobbing, or raising a fist.
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At the theatre we cry at the tragedy lived out on the stage, and our emotional response creates a warm glow of satisfaction. Then when we leave, we dry our eyes and carry on as normal; perhaps we behave even worse than before. The stage, thought Rousseau, turns us from agents to witnesses, and the desire to fight inequality and injustice drains out, too, with our tears.
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The world enclosing you is but the minutest portion of the world without you. And yet this world-without-you, this 15,000 million-year-old universe, 100,000 trillion light years wide, populated by 6,000 million heads like yours, exists together, as a place for you to be or feel lost in, only in your head.
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‘Man’, Hazlit said (citing Aristole) ‘is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be’…it is precisely because we are creatures who entertain highly specific, explicit expectations, that we are always experiencing the unexpected.
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(TIME) The beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain or our remotest [hominid] ancestors must surely have coincided with the dawning of the sense of time…[and] the first creatures on earth to become aware of time were also the first creatures to smile…
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…a bout of recorded laughter played backwards sounds similar to one played in the direction in which it was produced. The only asymmetry is in amplitude: laughter tends to decrescendo as we move from the earlier to the later notes, as the air supply runs out.
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Only when we have a fully developed sense that things are the case, can we compare them with how they might have been. This comparison takes place only in human heads. That is why my head and heads like it are the sole objects in the universe that find other objects in the universe funny and laugh at them….laughter ultimately is a marker of our being eccentric creatures…sticking out in the world in which we are incompletely dissolved, incompletely at home.
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We laugh thirty times more frequently when we are with others than when we are alone; for the madman this is reversed. He does not laugh with the world but at it; and the world rewards this by laughing at him.
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50 percent of people will yawn with five minutes of seeing someone else yawn…[we yawn] about 250,000 times during our journey from the cradle to the grave.
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…[in] Thailand, where the Supreme Judge of the world is always turning over the book containing the life and deeds of every human being and, when he comes to your page, you will sneeze.
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Speaking, we exhale a mixture of air and history, breath and memory, beyond our consciousness. We speak with tongues not our own. And yet we make the language we have on loan our own possession.
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Medical Doctor & Author Raymond Tallis

Through the interactions of speech, the collective intelligence of a generation of heads can add up and each generation can be the beneficiary of the consciousness — the experience, the suffering, the discoveries, the wisdom — of previous generations. When, just a few thousand years ago, the collective heads of humanity discovered writing, then the space of possibility expanded yet further beyond the human body, and the transmission of accumulated consciousness, sediment of the billions of streams of consciousness, from one generation to the next, became a gathering avalanche.
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A starving man is one large unsatisfied stomach.
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Suffering, then, highlights our ambivalent relationship with the body that we-not-quite-are: at any moment, it could force an unchosen agenda of concern upon us, make us something we are not.
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There is another condition, the so-called ‘Capgras syndrome’, in which there is a loss of emotional response to familiar faces. This leads sufferers to believe that someone close to them is an impostor, or a double.
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…the winking woman is knowing, rather than merely an object of knowledge, or of desire-fuelled quasi-knowledge; she is a subject rather than a mere object. The winking woman winks at the history of winking and fights back against the helplessness of women caught in the male gaze.
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…there are seven basic emotions expressed on the face in the same way in every culture: sadness, anger, surprise, fear, enjoyment, disgust and contempt. These are innate, not learned; which explains why congenitally blind people show the same facial expressions attached to each of these seven emotions as sighted people.
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The infrequency of smiles brings about depression.. No wonder November seeps into the soul and the leaves of the world are crushed to coal black misery. Smile and the world smiles with you; weep and you weep alone.
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It has been suggested that it [blushing] is a ‘non-verbal means of saving face’…and studies have shown that people react less harshly to mistakes when the perpetrators blush.
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Writing is a relative newcomer compared even with that parvenu human speech. A mere 9,000 years old, it has featured in only 0.00005 percent of the history of the material universe.
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The passage from dark night to bright sunlit noon amounts to a 100-million-fold change in ambient illumination…Without adaptation, normal sunlight would be blinding, and objects in the dusk invisible.
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The output from the retina is carried towards the brain by the optic nerve which itself punches a significant hole in the retina, where there is no light sensitivity: the literal, archetypal ‘blind spot’. We are blind to our blind spot: the visual field does not seem to us to have two holes in it, corresponding to each of the optic nerves…[this is] an immensely powerful metaphor, a physical reminder of the fact that at the heart of our viewpoint is something we do not see…That something is ourself.
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(TIME) We are consequently profoundly self-divided creatures, experiencing a gap between what we immediately experience and what we know and take account of in our lives. While this confers upon us the privilege of leading our lives rather than merely living them, we are deeply unhappy, eaten away from within by possibilities, by ideas no experience can correspond to, by a regretted past, and a feared future, separated by an elusive, unsatisfactory present.
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…God’s viewpoint is view without a point—the view from that everywhere which is nowhere, that is the final truth of things. It is as impossible as an impersonal view of our person.
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(TIME) Making sense of the sounds, the sights and so on that I am currently experiencing requires that they should be pervaded by memories. Only in this way will there be a smooth passage from a comprehensible past to a comprehensible future via the present. And yet these memories of the past, and the anticipations of the future they shape, have to be kept distinct from the present…This moment…has to bring everything together, so that I know where (in the widest sense) and who (in the deepest sense) I am.
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…looked at through the materialistic eyes of conventional neuroscience, the brain is just an object in the world, like a brick or a pebble, and it has no intrinsic ownership and therefore offers no basis for the fundamental sense that I am this thing, even less that I am here and now.
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We do not know, ultimately, how in the head, vibrations in the air become sounds…For, in the absence of human consciousness, vibrations in the air are just that; audible wavelengths have no more intrinsic qualities than the ones that we cannot hear, such as ultrasound vibrations, which lie beyond the range of our ears. We do not know how physical energy becomes experienced sensation.
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Smell depends on the olfactory membrane at the back of the nasal cavity…and contains about 10 million receptors. (Dogs, for whom smell is much more than recreational, have a billion or more receptors)…There are about 1,000 different types of receptor cells…making us able to recognize over 10,000 distinct odours….
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…’to force a naïve Darwinian interpretation on everything we do in our everyday lives would be an error’. We are, after all, ‘totally surrounded by artifacts of our own civilization. The environment in which we now live has especially little to do with that in which we were naturally selected.’
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…there are just under 400 synonyms for the event [of vomiting].
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Currently, there are 1.1 billion smokers worldwide, 80,000 to 100,000 new smokers a day and 4 million smoking-related deaths annually. By 2025, it is estimated that in China alone there will be 2 million deaths per year from tobacco.
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(TIME) There is an enduring fascination in observing the transformation of the cigarette as its glowing tip eats backwards, translating the passage of time into movement in space, with the smoke symbolizing the presence of the past and the unburnt remainder the presence of the future. And, most beguiling of all, the way smoked smoke insinuates itself between sentences and gestures, and inscribes on the air a kind of space (and time) unknown to physics…All of this exhibits the peculiar nature of human beings: how they are points of origin in the universe, and so do things rather than merely suffer them; in how they insert tables into time and format those tenses that physics say do not exist…
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Lovers, approaching to kiss, / instinctively shut their eyes / before their faces / can be reduced to / anatomical data.
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….conforming to a fashion is precisely the opposite of affirming one’s uniqueness; a fashion by definition requires a large enough number of people to conform to it. Fashions are epidemics of slavish imitation.
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Middle-class children for the most part are poorly adapted to dealing with the casual violence of the street….[rules] are respected only by people who do not take fighting seriously; those for whom it is essential to physical and social survival use whatever weapons lie to hand and to hell with the rules.
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(TIME) Your head came into being, and has continued to live, in the teeth of its own improbability. It is an exquisitely differentiated, ordered structure and hence alien to a universe that is tending towards…undifferentiated uniformity. This—the decrease of order—is the direction in which time’s arrow flies and its flight may be slowed, but not arrested, by the meticulous self-repair of those tissues of which we are made…We are accidents waiting, sometimes fearfully, to unhappen.
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That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once.
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…Your body will be de-selved. Such thoughts about your head’s thoughtless future are intended to awaken you out of usual wakefulness—which is what philosophy is or should be. The philosophical view endeavors to liberate us from our daily (usually described as ‘petty’ though they rarely feel like that) concerns….but, of course, it does not work. The thought that we do not matter, that all things shall pass, that we cut a small figure in the order of the universe, itself matters only transiently, itself passes, and cuts a small figure in the daily round of petty concerns that refuse to feel petty. Our thoughts about our minuteness are but minute parts of that which we would deem minute.
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(TIME) The notion of eternity, wobbling between time endlessly piled-up and time frozen, is obscure. Nor is the prospect of a purely spiritual, discarnate after-life very enticing, given most of life’s pleasures are mediated by the flesh…A headless, disembodied ‘I’, what is more, would have no location in space; and, since space and time are inseparable, this ‘I’ would also be unlocated in time: ‘nowhen’ as well as nowhere…Death might be preferable to such a salvation.
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…we can’t all be famous. The dead compete with one another for the divided and distracted attention of the living. One person’s posthumous glory requires the obscurity of thousands of fellow humans. If fame were appointed equally, no one would be famous. Signals such as ‘Shakespeare’ would be lost in the noise.
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Our experiences have the habit of changing into facts. The consequences of this are endless. They could be summarized in this way: animals live their lives; humans lead them. We deal increasingly with facts, factual beliefs and factual opinions rather than responding to sensory stimuli—and this is true of our dealings with our own heads as it is of our dealings with the world our heads move through.
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(TIME) Knowledge is power; it extricates us from the immediate here and now…This is the dismaying truth: knowledge of your head fails to be ‘the low-down’ on your head because it does not correspond to what it is like to be your head. The truth is, there is no ’what it is like to be my head’. There is no ‘what it is like to be’ any object of knowledge. The truth is prefigured when we look in the mirror and cannot fully connect ourself with that smirking, chatting face. And the master-fact in the realm of knowledge is that this relationship with the head that has much business of its own to transact is only temporary. The deepest bit of knowledge is that we shall die.
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The poet spoke of ‘an Italy of the mind’, as if that were different from the real thing. But, of course, there are only Italys of the mind; or the sum total of such Italys built up in the great community of human minds…Nabokov took exception to the notion of writers representing the world. ‘Whose world?’, he asked. Quite right, too…[the head] is located in a shimmering succession of countless different worlds.
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(TIME) No wonder ‘here’ is so complex; and no wonder our heads resolutely refuse to be confined to the irregular lump of space they fill or to the sensory field in which they locate themselves. And at any given time, we are not at that given time. Our moment-to-moment space occupancy is massively outsized by the hidden space of our preoccupations.
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I, or my head, or my brain, or something, is a kind of digital computer in which my past experiences, my memories, my knowledge…are stored. This would be fine if there were not the small detail that we are aware of the world in our head and it permeates our awareness of the world before us, so that we can make sense of the latter. Computers, however, are not aware in this way. This is no minor difference. It makes computers nearer to pebbles that we are to them.
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Our heads have lifted themselves above the organic material of which they themselves are made. Humans have made themselves at home in organic bodies that could not have conceived of the things that fill the lives those bodies now permit. Humankind has increasingly made the world its own thing. Far from bowing our heads in shame, we should hold our heads up high.


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