Over the last several years I’ve found myself noting more and more frequently, in this and that connection, that our lives, however powerfully they’re anchored in the material dimension—and they certainly are—take place in mental spaces. The feeling is difficult to express. Someone hearing might say, “But of course. We’re conscious creatures. We live in a stream of consciousness. It’s a mixture of sense impressions, phantasms, and of memories.” The statement is true enough, but it doesn’t measure up to my odd intuition.
Pondering that intution now, I am beginning to see it better. Various relational structures adhere to every kind of activity. Back in my working days, I would work on a novel in the early hours and then travel to my office. And in that space a different set of relationships came into focus. The novel was one structure, the business another. And, being engaged with one, then with the other, I was living each in sequence because of identification. The concerns that used to exercise me in my days at North Star, in Minneapolis, for instance, have absolutely no influence on me now. I can reread one of my novels and re-enter its world again. Once more it becomes real. In the first case the various “issues” that exercised me just happened to concern real people and events; in the other case they happened to be imaginary, but, since the novel in question was realistic, it felt just as real as the flow of events at work. But even if the novel had been quite wildly surrealistic, it would still have operated as a frame for experience provided that it had had the necessary consistency and coherence.
Each world we inhabit temporarily has its facts, logic, dynamism, feeling tones, actions, and consequences. The substance may be predominantly physical—which was indeed the case when I spent several weeks redecorating the whole house, once, long ago in Kansas. The substance may be commercially toned, as it tends to be in a business. Human relations and memory may predominate during an extended family reunion. The substance may also be on a highly abstract plane—albeit never entirely divorced from physical reference—in a career, say, focused professionally on philosophy or higher math.
The striking similarity between imagined realities (the novel) and the actual (business) comes into focus when I reflect that in most business relationships the physical contact with people is often quite minimal or takes place only from time to time or at some remove (telephone, e-mail). Most of the time most of the people we deal with are mental presences, not bodies visible to my eyes. This is true above all in our era of effective mass communications. For many people the endless meetings—and these are face to face—are a distraction. Most tellingly, in most businesses, those engaged in them almost never see the actual customer unless in a generic sense—when they themselves go shopping. Back when you hawked your goods at your stall in the market—another story that.
The feeling that I find difficult to express today is, I think, a strengthened realization of the huge role the immaterial plays in our experience of living. I don’t want to call it abstract because, in most of our activities, the mental flow has feeling tone and is accompanied by imaginal traces: it is mental but alive. In fact, I must confess, I don’t and never did much like that word: abstraction. It suggests some kind of paltry residual of the physical, the last considered real, all else a derivate. In my own mental culture, I conceive of essences as intentions, thus as having more energy and a closer proximity to the Real than the actual physical manifestation.
A special case of this “life in the immaterial” is our relationship to the Media. Driven by the need to be efficient—in drawing and holding audiences for profit—they tend to create oddly deformed arrangements of reality in which short phrases are used to reference often very complex and dynamically changing relationships. To the extent that the Media optimize their content to maximize their viewership, to that extent they fail to carry out their self-proclaimed mission. And as this ratio shifts to favor the bottom line, to that extent, certainly, the medium is the message.