Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Windows of the faraway soul

Taking a busman's holiday from politics, reacting to a rapturous description of FDR Labor Secretary Frances Perkins' eyes, Kevin Drum turns his lonely eyes to us:
I'm pretty much oblivious to people's eyes. I could sit across from you for an hour in deep conversation and come away not even knowing the color of your eyes, let alone whether they scintillate or cloud over from time to time. So I am, sort of literally, a blind man when it comes to stuff like this. So I turn to you, my faithful readers. Are descriptions like this for real? It's part of the whole "eyes are the window to the soul" schtick, which has always seemed more poetic than verifiably factual to me, but what do I know?
I won't say that this query triggered a new thought, but it brought to the surface one of those vague perceptions that can resurface repetitively on cue for years and decades. It comes sometimes as I pass my own eyes over the many solitary self-contained bipeds one passes every minute walking down a block in Manhattan.  It's the opposite of sensing 'windows on the soul' -- rather a sense of how remote each consciousness is -- each of us a broadly similar organic machine, carrying millions-of-years-old DNA, aware of only the tiniest fraction of its own mental activity, having no idea how it got here, shaped by a mind-bogglingly complex matrix of biological and social destiny, and peering out of those elliptical windows with a consciousness as disconnected from mine as a cheetah's. 

For a moment it seems remarkable that humans communicate with each other at all, that we do share thoughts and feelings and break through that remoteness, and do it as naturally as kittens in the same litter.  And it seems equally strange that we know no other kinds of intelligent life but that of those who share our DNA and anatomy -- that there are no angels or machines to encounter in the realm of language or thought. 

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