BEYOND THE ROBOT
My Journey from Robotic to Poetic Consciousness
One morning, a couple of years back, I was sitting at my desk at my day job, staring into the latest of eight billion spreadsheets, and daydreaming about my very sexy wife at home, still in bed, sipping coffee and easing ever so gently into her day. In my imagination, she was thinking about me in an equally sexy way. The reason she was at home, alone, and I was at my office, alone, with twenty-five miles of rolling prairie between us, was because, in spite of the amazing night of wedded intimacy we had just shared, and in spite of her sleepy-eyed, cuddle-warm invitation to call in sick and spoon together back into our dreams, I had dutifully rolled out of bed, prepared myself for work, kissed her goodbye, and driven away.
I did this because going to work is what I do. Reporting to a job and trading my limited hours of life on earth, and often my best creative energy, for a paycheck is something I’ve been doing every day since I was 14 years old. Nine, if you count delivering newspaper before and after school.
I went to work that morning because it was time to go to work. I couldn’t help myself.
But my imagination refused to surrender to the hypnosis of workaday tedium. For what I’m pretty sure was the first time in my life (certainly my adult life), I couldn’t escape the feeling that, just maybe, I was being stupid for doing what I was “supposed to do” instead of what I wanted to do.
What I really, really, really wanted to do…
I quietly closed Excel, positioned my monitor so no one could see that I was “stealing company time,” opened a blank Word Doc, and composed this poem:
Stuck at Work, Thinking About You Instead of My Job
I do not wish to live
As if I were not alive,
To strive mechanically, like a robot,
Performing duties without feeling,
Ensuring every loose end
Meets exactly in the center,
And remembering you, sleeping
In first light, as though
The sight of your legs,
Curled and bare above the sheets,
Ought not to remind me
Of unrepentable pleasures –
Of gardens, and falling,
And the sweet taste of apples,
And of every good reason
For feeling goddamned giddy
About bodies, about knowing,
About salt and sweating brows,
About 5:00 approaching,
And you, at home, throwing wide
Curtains and windows,
And winding green ivy
Into rings around candles,
While a tall bottle chills
Like a tart, sparkling promise
We’ll spend all night keeping
Each other up late
Satisfying again –
And tomorrow, this office,
This chair, this routine,
Won’t have a prayer
Against the heaven we’re making,
This blessing embodied
In the memory of kisses,
This paradise, found
In the press of our aliveness.
(originally published in Literally Literary)
There was nothing unusual about my job that day. It wasn’t better or worse than any other day. There was nothing really different about my marriage that morning, either. That, too, was neither better nor worse, or even sexier than usual. My job is routinely dull, and my marriage is routinely great. Moving back and forth between these poles is a routine mechanical operation I have been performing — this marriage and this day job, without variation — for almost twenty years now.
But something was different that morning.
I was different.
I couldn’t have told you then what the difference was or what it would amount to, but writing that poem lit a match in a dark room inside me. It was more of a cell, really — Spartan, cold, a little bit damp. Curled up in one shadowy corner, not shackled, but still cowering and not even thinking about escape, was my humanity.
I hadn’t seen him in a while. Not since my college days, when a series of events shocked me awake and put him for a few years in the driver’s seat of my life (read the whole story here). Those days were intellectually exciting and emotionally energizing in a way some childhood tape-loop in my head assured me would be unsustainable after graduation, marriage, and entrenchment in the workforce.
The Price of Success
Don’t get me wrong. I adore my wife and my marriage is amazing. My job has nothing to do with my college major (Literature/Creative Writing), and is often mind-numbingly dull. But the work is easy, it pays pretty well, and nothing I do harms children or animals. I drive home every evening with a clean conscience. Achieving those marriage and career milestones felt like major successes as they were happening, and by the world’s standards, they are objectively positive accomplishments.
But worldly success came at a price — and not a price my wife, for the record, would ever have asked me to pay, if I had known what my head was up to in the moment and been able to articulate it. I know this because we have talked about it. She’s an artist who never surrendered to adulthood as completely as I did. And thank God for that. The constant creative anchor of her presence in my life probably explains why I only jailed my humanity, rather than killing him outright.
My day job, like all (or at least most) day jobs, I think assumes the price and judges it fair.
There is a deep, unconscious bargain enshrined in the fine print our social contract with the world outside our own heads.
When we’re children, with few worldly responsibilities, we get to live in our heads without compromise. We get to “be ourselves.” That’s what gives childhood memories their special glow. As we were discovering both the world and ourselves for the very first time (in this lifetime, anyway; but let’s table the question of reincarnation for another day), we got to viscerally experience ourselves experiencing the world. That’s damned exciting, and that childhood sense of being feral and alive and first-touching everything is the feeling we long for when, as adults, we pine for lost youth.
It isn’t feeling young that we crave. It’s feeling alive.
Alive in our bodies. Alive in our emotions. Alive in our minds.
The kind of alive we experienced spontaneously when we were kids. The kind of alive “growing up” smothered beneath a pillow with the word success stitched on one side, and conformity on the other.
The price written into our bargain with society is that
we achieve worldly success by conforming to society’s definition of a successful person.
The machinery of society requires cogs. We require food, shelter, companionship, entertainment. To acquire those things, we must become cogs. That’s the bargain. The better cogs we become, the more food, shelter, companionship and entertainment society judges us worthy to receive, and we “succeed.” Malformed cogs — artists, poets, visionaries, and saints; not to mention the people of color, disability and difference all societies select to exclude — are granted, at best, only partial success, with many denied societal access altogether.
I didn’t complete this picture in my mind on the morning of the poem, but I caught a glimpse of it. I glimpsed my authentic humanity locked away and suffering for lack of use. I caught sight of the reality that “I,” the successful grownup, was a cog, a robot, a machine conforming to external (and internalized) expectations in exchange for success. “I” was the jailer standing guard over my own aliveness.
I was living as if I were not alive.
Beyond the Robot
I caught a glimpse of my predicament that morning, but by no means did I understand what I was seeing. There was a long, winding fuse snaking along the floor and under the door of that dark prison cell, and since I had a burning match in my hand, I lit it. It sizzled away and out of sight.
A couple of years passed. I mostly forgot about all of this.
Machine... Cog... Robot...
The fuse had burned forward in time toward an explosive (for me) book that had not been written when the match was lit.
I don’t remember how I first became aware of Gary Lachman’s 2016 biography Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson. But the moment it entered my radar, a tingling, intuitive vibe told me I had to read it. Right away. No waiting. I downloaded the ebook at full price, something I almost never do.
Colin Henry Wilson (26 June 1931–5 December 2013) was an English writer, philosopher and novelist. He also wrote widely on true crime, mysticism and the paranormal. Wilson called his philosophy “new existentialism” or “phenomenological existentialism,” and maintained his life work was “that of a philosopher, and (his) purpose to create a new and optimistic existentialism.”
He had over 130 books published during his lifetime. I own exactly one of them, Poetry and Mysticism, which has been on my bookshelf since at least the ’90s. I have no memory of ever having read it, but very likely I did, as suggested by this interesting synchronicity found in Chapter Seven of Lachman’s Beyond the Robot:
But a meeting with Lawrence Ferlinghetti led to one of his most insightful books, Poetry and Mysticism. Among other things it introduced a concept that would remain a staple of Wilsonian thought: the robot.
… “When I learned to type, I had to do it painfully and with much wear and tear. But at a certain stage a miracle occurred, and this complicated operation was ‘learned’ by a useful robot that I conceal in my subconscious.” This robot, Wilson tells us, is very helpful. He drives his car, speaks passable French, and “occasionally gives lectures at American universities.” The robot is very versatile; Wilson even jokes that he sometimes makes love to his wife. The robot is a labor saving device. He takes our repetitive tasks so we can focus our attention on other things.
… The robot is absolutely necessary. But there is a problem. “If I discover a new symphony that moves me deeply,” Wilson writes, “or a poem or a painting, the robot insists on getting in on the act.” After a few times, the robot takes over and he is listening to the symphony or reading the poem, not me. We say it has become “familiar.” …We say we have “got used to it.” But what does this mean, other than that we have allowed the robot to classify it with repetitive tasks and, as T. E. Lawrence lamented, “become typical through thought”? Making things typical is the robot’s job; the problem is he does this to things we don’t want to be typical.
… Wilson tells us he is often oblivious to the scenery because his robot has taken over the task of cutting out irrelevant details so he can get through a day’s work. Yet when his day is over and he wants to relax, he often finds that he can’t. His automatic pilot — the robot — is in gear and won’t let go. Wilson is not alone in this.; it is a central human problem — the central human problem… we are like people who allow their servants to do everything for them, and subsequently feel they have lost touch with life, but don’t know exactly why.
… The problem with the robot is the same as with the evolutionary devices we have developed to enable us to filter out “irrelevant” input and focus our consciousness on the task at hand. It works too efficiently. Children experience life with a freshness we envy and try to recapture as we get older, because their robots are underdeveloped. It is no advantage to the child to retain an undeveloped robot. .. without it, we would not be able to perform the simplest tasks, from tying our shoelaces to riding a bike… If we have become too dependent on it, this is not the robot’s fault. It is the result of our acceptance of the passive fallacy, believing that life is something that happens to us, rather than something we do.
If robotic consciousness typifies things, so that they are reduced to uninteresting sameness, non-robotic — or poetic — consciousness does the opposite.
The synchronistic timeline leading to the birth of this blog goes something like this:
Twenty years ago I read a book (Colin Wilson’s Poetry and Mysticism) that I don’t remember reading.
Two years ago, imagery from that book surfaced in a poem I wrote, reminding me that my central problem, which I apparently share with just about everybody (“the central human problem,” as Gary Lachman describes it) is that I have been living mechanically for years, and have lost touch with my essential humanity and my ability to feel truly alive.
In 2016, “Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson” explained my dilemma, and the bargain I’d made with society that brought it into being — then also directed me toward the opposite/antidote to robotic consciousness — poetic consciousness.
I don’t know precisely what road this blog will take from here, except to declare that this “about” post marks the first step of my journey to investigate and actualize poetic consciousness. I honestly don’t know yet what that lofty-sounding goal means, in any practical sense. I hope we can discover that together.
I know for sure I will be reading some of Colin Wilson’s books, and the work of other writers the journey leads me to, and exploring those texts and ideas in these pages.
I will also be pursuing a poetic education, and writing about it here.
I hinted earlier in this essay that there were several years in my college days when I felt authentically alive and in touch with my essential humanity. There were many factors contributing to the vitality of that time, but being in college and actively studying writing, poetry, literature, religion and philosophy — with wide extracurricular reading in history, science, metaphysics and science fiction — certainly played a major role. It was the most intellectually stimulating time of my life.
Those years were chaotic, fun, stressful, and intensely interesting all at once. A lot like childhood.
So I’ll be returning to the “scene of the crime.” I may have left clues there. In search of essential human vitality, I’ll begin by touching base with the last time I remember my life being thoroughly infused with that quality.
I’m too old and broke to go back to actual college, but I’ll drink deep in the coming months and years of resources like The Great Courses, online classes, documentaries, videos and lectures, books, ebooks, and audiobooks in as many areas of the Humanities as I can muster, and share my explorations/insights in this blog. I’ll likely prattle on at length about stuff I simply find interesting, as well. That’s half the fun of maintaining a blog (and, hopefully, of reading one). But I will do my level best to always at least broadly loop back to this essential question of poetic consciousness, of reclaiming creative, vital, authentic humanity.
Be warned, I won’t be following (or avoiding, for that matter) any established curriculum here. Conformity is the enemy. Like the crazy poet, bursting with life, that I aspire to one day become, if I follow any map at all on this journey, it will be one drawn more by intuition, synchronicity, and blind, dumb luck than anything resembling reason or common sense.
Twenty years of reasonable and commonsensical conformity to society’s definition of a successful person put money in my pocket and provided my family with the comforts of middle class American security. And I’m grateful for that.
But the price has been surrender of my life to the robot.
And as Gary Lachman reminds us,
“If we have become too dependent on it, this is not the robot’s fault. It is the result of our acceptance of the passive fallacy, believing that life is something that happens to us, rather than something we do.”
No more happening, then. Time to do. Time to journey Beyond the Robot.
You’re invited to join me in my quest by following this publication and/or me personally on Medium. The plan of the moment is to publish my essays here, and my poetry in Medium’s many terrific literary publications. So if you want both my blog posts AND the poetry to appear on your feed, follow me personally. If you’d rather just get the essays, you need only follow Beyond the Robot.
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