The Inner Lives of Other People
In the preceding two years before her last, a close relative of mine swayed between periods of lucidity when she reminisced about days past and other times when she retreated into an unknowable inner sanctum from where her Alzheimer’s spanned outwards. As her disease worsened, the boundaries of her mind’s states — wakefulness, sleep, dream and emptiness — coalesced. Her words rose and scrambled until, like a river that had run its course in summer, she drifted into a forbidding quiet. Amidst those frenzied last days, her one constant source of refrain was about her persistent need to visit the temple town of Guruvayur and pray to the deity of Krishna in his avatar as a boy. What was remarkable was even as the memories of her family and eight children dissolved, the idea of this godhead became the masthead that the outside world could see even as the maelstrom of her being swirled and ultimately sank.
Years later, I discovered that many Alzheimer’s patients demonstrate similar recurring obsessive behaviour. A singular strand from memory or experience to which they return. For example, afflicted mothers insist on picking up their (now well grown up) children from school, and so on. In my relative’s mind, it was clear that her commitment to the practice of devotion and the act of devotedness to Krishna were among the great private truths of her being. This religiosity, even when she was well, was not a form of public theatre but rather a set of axiomatic truths on which her mental universe rested upon. The accompanying ritual and pilgrimage that she practised her whole life had found mutually reinforcing strength from a worldview that was permeated with ‘enchantment’. Omniscient deities, incantations, evil eyes, spells, the caprice of powerful Vedic gods, malefic gaze of little gods of forests and family estates, as well as the folly of fate were the constants of that world. Throughout her life, she believed she was vulnerable to the cruelties and compassion contained within these phenomena. The upside of this architecture of beliefs was that it granted her mental worlds with a texture, specificity and a situatedness which allowed her to locate herself in the world without great effort. The great quandary of our times — the need to “find oneself” — never afflicted her.
In his study of secularism and modernity, the great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes such belief structures, such as hers, as ‘porous’. More precisely, he calls them ‘porous subjectivities’. By this he means that those who hold such beliefs don’t need to form a distinction between experiencing a phenomenon and the perception of that experience. For example, one didn’t need to believe in gods or curses but, instead, one simply lived in a world where gods and curses were a constituent of reality. One’s subjective experience of the world was thus permeable by these phenomena. For much of history, human subjectivities have been “porous”. However with the rise of scientific reasoning, constructs that we traditionally relied upon — curses, ghosts, spells, jinns, angels, blessings, demons, gods — to explain our worlds have had to relinquish their explanatory claims. The result has been that the phenomena we took for granted as ‘facts’ of how our world was put together moved from the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’. Individuals may believe in hell, but hell itself is not a prerequisite to explain how the world was put together. The natural world, as we have slowly discovered since Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein, is indifferent to human fate and beliefs held by individuals. Traditional ‘facts’ have had to withdraw within, creating what Taylor calls “buffered” selves.
What we privately believe in may stand in opposition, if not be irrelevant, to what we need to publicly acknowledge to move through the world. So, when an Indian Chief Minister announces that the Mahabharata had the Internet, we laugh (perhaps, all too eagerly) for his having failed to respect the boundaries between private belief and the public frames of reference inside of which we all coexist uneasily. His folly is not a clumsy metaphor but rather the failure to recognise that thanks to the historic production of disenchanted knowledge — secularity, if you will — for the past century or so, only a limited set of experiences can be declared as public facts.
Due to this process of secularity that has been under way for more than a century, the very grounds our traditional beliefs were typically birthed from — a world of porous beliefs — no longer exist. The result is not just an extraordinary mismatch of private beliefs and public truths at the level of the individual, which has resulted in religious fundamentalism and identity politics, but also subtler shifts in how we understand and describe ourselves. It should come as no surprise that more and more young people no longer have the assurances of the kind that my relative had throughout her life about how the world is built and her place in it. But conversely, when we ask what we have gained in return by abandoning that old world of enchantment, the answers for the individual are mixed. Freedom, yes. Meaninglessness, most likely. Perhaps then, it is not a surprise that the young have chosen to be utilitarian. Instead of asking what should we believe in, they seek to ask, how should one live?
A version of this piece was published in The Hindu on May 6th, 2018