While I wasn’t familiar with the phrase “Cartesian Split” when I was in elementary school, l certainly believed that my mind was a thing apart from my body. I thought gym class was a complete waste of time—I’m here to learn, dammit, not traipse about a linoleum floor like a dog let out in a yard. As far as I was concerned, my body was simply a means of conveyance to move my mind from one location to another, like a brain in a jar on a Segway.
With the advantage of twenty years of experience, I can see how this mindset may have been a result of the vast discrepancy I felt between my mental and physical capabilities. I loved school, and I excelled in it. I loved to read, and I spent a lot of my time creating elaborate stories in my head. I prided myself on my ability to think and understand and articulate my ideas.
In stark contrast, my body was a slow, dull thing. I’ve always been chubby for my age, and that comes with an omnipresent awareness of how my body compares to everyone else’s in the vicinity. Even when I put effort into running the mile, my time is how long an average person takes to walk the distance. I wouldn’t say that I’m clumsy, but I do lack all but the most basic sense of coordination. I cannot dance, even by white people standards, even with DJ Casper walking me through the Cha Cha Slide.
It made sense to me, on a molecular level, that my mind and body were two different things. One was good at its job and one wasn’t. As simple as that. If I could have uploaded my consciousness into a computer, I would have, with no second thoughts.
Two things happened to me that started me reexamining my dualistic perspective, and they both started in college. One, I was a psychology major, and as such learned quite a bit about the human brain. I was more into social psychology than neuroscience or cognitive psychology, but I value the base knowledge I have in our understanding of how the brain works, and perhaps more importantly, in how little understanding we have.
Two, I had my first major depressive episode. At the time, I thought that my depression was due solely to my circumstances—if I could get myself in the right environment, then I would stop being depressed. I was on anti-depressants, but I didn’t really feel that different on them. It was hard for me to tell if they were working. That is, until it had been so long since I had a depressive episode that my therapist, psychiatrist, and I decided to transition off the meds. Surprise! In 10 weeks I was experiencing the most intense and debilitating depressive episode of my life.
There are lots of factors that go into depression, and there is a different combination for everyone. For me, though, I get hit with it so quickly and so potently that it is most likely 95% a brain thing. My ability to get up in the morning and go to work and generally enjoy life is almost entirely dependent on the tyranny of what Kurt Vonnegut would refer to as a dog’s breakfast, the grey squishy mess behind my eyes.
OK, so that takes us, seven paragraphs into a blog post about Thief of Time, to Lady LeJean. I love Lady LeJean and her development, her struggle to cope with a physicality that has been thrust upon her. The Auditors are, essentially, a consciousness, a mind, without physical form, a body. Without physical form, the Auditors are undifferentiated—there is no individual identity or personality, and if one begins to develop, it is quickly destroyed.
In Thief of Time, the Auditors realize that while they can easily manipulate the elements of the universe to create a perfect replica of a human body, it just lays there until the Auditors power it with their own consciousness. However, once that consciousness is separated from the rest by inhabiting a physical form, an individual develops.
Once Lady LeJean gains her own consciousness, she finds herself thinking and acting more and more in human ways. The drive of hunger, the enjoyment of art, the appreciation of a cat’s companionship—they are all the result of a physical form. It turns out that consciousness is like water: it takes the shape of its container.
After existing so long outside of a physical form, Lady LeJean can barely cope with the experience. She comes to the conclusion that she is insane—how else can she explain her rebellion against the Auditors and the order they represent? How else can she explain that despite the terror and fragility of living in a human body, she doesn’t want to leave?
I’m not a fan of body horror (not least because I’m squeamish, especially about eyes), but I am 1,000% about body weirdness—the recognition of how completely ridiculous a human body is, of the absolute absurdity of eyelids and fingernails and freckles and opposable thumbs, an absurdity that we all seem to take in stride.
One of the main themes, and one of my favorite themes, in Thief of Time is that our physicality, our separation from other minds, our stupid, stupid bodies make us human. We exist within our limited perception of time and space, and that perception shapes how we think of ourselves and our universe.
We need our skin in order to feel, and we need our brains in order to think, and we need our lungs and vocal cords and mouths and tongues and teeth in order to speak to each other, to share in the experience of being human and alive and in a body, to shorten the gap between my mind and yours.
Is the satisfaction I feel from finishing this blog post simply due to the release of dopamine I get when I accomplish something? I can’t say, not for certain. But now the ideas that were once only inside my mind were translated into language which my hands typed out using a common alphabet of symbols that your eyes are focusing to your optic nerve where light is transformed into electrical impulses that travel to your occipital lobe that are then interpreted by the various other parts of your brain, and now those ideas are in your mind, too.
Just like humans in general, human bodies are as amazing as they are stupid.