Saturday, June 23, 2012

All the Tiny Factors

In the morning of January 24th, 1999, Jeremy was listening to Sex and Candy by Marcy's Playground when Gary walked up and struck him right across the jaw. Jeremy fell on a patch of grass, which was still wet from the night's dew. In the time that it took Jeremy to realize what was even happening, Gary had climbed on top of him and thrown another fist in Jeremy's face. Jeremy, growing dizzy and lightheaded, reached out harmlessly to try to choke Gary; when this failed, Jeremy grabbed Gary's testicles and squeezed tightly. Gary began throwing blind, frantic punches, while Jeremy's mind reverted to the basic philosophy of “if I squeeze tightly enough, everything will work out.” Gary stood up and pulled away from Jeremy's grasp, allowing nausea to set in. Gary no longer wanted to fight and left. Jeremy went home and spent the day in bed.

What part of this situation was the essential experience? What was the substance, as distinct from the style? Surely this was a negative experience and the part that made it negative was Jeremy being attacked by Gary. But, then, Jeremy also had the experience of defending himself, which is life-affirming and empowering. However, Jeremy defended himself by fighting dirty which is wormy and ignoble. What about Gary? Gary is clearly confident in some regard if he was willing to just walk up and initiate a fight – but will he ever be that way again? He's scarred now, he has been forced to learn humility.

So, the important part of the experience was the fight. The date, the time, the music, the wet grass, that's all style. But then, the experience would be different without them. It was morning in January, which means that it was a cold day, not only that, but Jeremy was listening to Sex and Candy which uses slow, droning vocals. Jeremy was not in any kind of shape to fight, his physiological and emotional state were both calm and slow. He had a longer road to travel to get into a fighting mindset – it would not have been strange for him to have quickly surrendered and just allowed the beating to occur. If it had been spring, if it had been closer to evening, and if he had been listening to passionate, fast-paced, drum-heavy music he might have welcomed the sudden attack. For the rest of his life he might have regarded the whole affair as an exciting moment wherein he felt alive!

Imagine all the details I left out. What kind of parents did Jeremy and Gary have? What kind of grades did they get in school? How old were they? These are obviously important for determining what it was like to be Jeremy or Gary in this situation. But what about questions like what did the air taste like, what was the last thing they saw on TV, what taste was in Jeremy's mouth, how much pressure was in Gary's colon from digestive gases, how far away did Jeremy's friends live, does Jeremy have a good relationship with his family, what was Gary's last sexual fantasy and how long ago was it? These all sounds like irrelevant factors, but they are not.

If Jeremy had loving, supportive parents with whom he had a good relationship, he would not feel ostracized or loathed by the sudden attack. Rather than feeling like an outsider, he would suppose that the man attacking him was some kind of outsider. This would produce a sensation of solidarity in him. On the contrary, if he had a bad relationship with his family, he might have supposed himself more alone in the world and wondered what he had done to offend this man rather than immediately feeling as though he must be in the right and the man clearly in the wrong.

Was Jeremy the sort of man who excelled in society, or the kind of man who found it difficult to play society's games. Was this a bizarre example of a social miscreant attacking a flourishing man, or an example of a screw-up getting forced into a situation where, once again, he was at a disadvantage? In the first case he may have that feeling one gets where you say, “why me?” in the second he may not have felt any surprise at finding himself in this situation.

But then the less obvious factors play a role too: fresh tasting air would cause the violence to seem more sudden and out-of-place, stale tasting air would cause greater feelings of being overwhelmed and being surrounded by indifference and malice. It would be subtle, certainly changing the taste of the air would not cause the whole experience to turn around, but the taste of the air does cause the experience to turn differently.

If Gary was holding back a huge fart, then the fight was probably something he regretted quickly. His own body was rebelling against him. The situation had turned on him. Whereas if his colon was happily gas-free, he could at least feel that it was his body at its best against Jeremy at his best.

If Jeremy's friends lived nearby, he would feel less alone and helpless. Sure, he has been caught off-guard now, but there are options. If he survived, he could quickly find sanctuary and maybe even get revenge. If his friends lived far away, he was standing on foreign ground, he was alone and feel more helpless and submissive.

What was Gary's last fantasy? Was he dominant or submissive in it? Was it hetero- or homosexual? Does attacking Jeremy play into some desire to be able to overwhelm another person? Or is he rebelling against a secret desire to be overwhelmed?

None of these are capable of reversing the situation. They are not critical factors. The experience would be different if any of them were changed, though. They determine the character of the experience for both men, just not to the same degree as the more dramatic factors like “who won?” “how violent was the fight?” and “how did the men know each other?”

We experience as a whole, we do not have to be conscious of all the factors making impressions upon us. When we retell stories or try to analyze them and make sense of them, we feel as though only the “critical factors” deserve attention. But critical factors only produce the broad, wide strokes of our experiences, all the subtler nuances that give our experiences a distinct character come from the tiny factors. Indeed, what makes us ourselves, at least in part, is that even though two people might have the same broad experience, there's a thousand tiny variations that influence what it feels like to us.

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