Friday, January 6, 2017

On Verbitude

Pick a sentence. Any sentence. Actually, I’ll go ahead and do it myself:

“The weathered veteran beside Cenn turned and inspected him.”

This sentence (from the first pages of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings, which I’m just starting to re-read), is pretty normal. Specifically, it has nouns (”veteran,” “Cenn,” and “him,”), and it has verbs (”turned” and “inspected”). But which of those parts of speech is more important — nouns or verbs? You’ll probably think: “Nouns, obviously. The sentence is about the older veteran and Cenn, duh.” But I’ll go ahead and counter that claim. I’m going to assert that it is verbs — and not nouns — that label the sentence’s heart.

What do I mean by this? Do sentences even have a heart? Well, when you read anything — heck, whenever you look at anything — some parts of what you read take the foreground and some things take the background. For instance, in that sentence, “Cenn” is probably the most important word to you. For nouns typically take the foreground and verbs take the background. That’s just common sense. But here common sense is wrong — there are other ways to look at language. When you take nouns as central, the verbs are only extensions of the nouns; “inspecting” describes the veteran and Cenn. But if you switch the priority between the two, verbs become the stars and nouns the supporting roles. This drastically changes the way you look at language. Suddenly, the sentence up there isn’t about people anymore. It’s about a “turning” and an “inspection.” Who turns, what the turning is toward, who is inspecting, and who is being inspected are irrelevant or at best secondary. 

But what does this mean, practically, about the fictional situation that this sentence is trying to describe? Well, notice that when I read it in terms of nouns (or “nounwise,”) the sentence is about separate actors. However, when I read it “verbwise,” separateness is no longer a factor. There are actors, but they are not defined by their distinction from each other. Where before what was linked by the verbs was the main focus, now the link itself is what we’re paying attention to. The link’s the thing. No longer are the “weathered veteran” and “Cenn” separate; in that moment, they are one by virtue of the “turning” and the “inspecting.”

Notice something else: the “turning” and the “inspecting” don’t last very long, perhaps just a moment “The weathered veteran” and “Cenn” can last a much longer duration (but not much longer for Cenn, as readers will remember…). However, my point is that the verbs give the sentence a very different “temporality” or “time-sense” than the nouns give it. The sentence’s “nounitude” (the sentence’s character as seen through its nouns) is about actors that existed in the past and will exist in the future. However, the sentence’s “verbitude” (the sentence as seen through its verbs) is about something that exists in a specific moment or duration in time. It can’t exist outside of what’s happening in the moment since it is that happening. You can talk about nouns timelessly; you can’t talk about verbs timelessly. Verbs are inherently temporal, whereas nouns can be spoken of abstracted from time.

But actually, nouns are much more subject to the constraints of time than verbs are. Nouns can be abstracted from time, sure, but that’s always just a mental exercise. There is no such thing as a timeless noun, since whatever exists at some moment. However, the case is different for verbs. Since verbs define the time of the nouns, you can say that verbs aren’t “in” time at all. They may last for a certain duration, but it’s more proper to say that verbs define duration in the first place. If we didn’t have the “ticking” of a clock, the “revolving” and “orbiting” of the earth (all verbs), we wouldn’t know what time even was. In truth, verbs aren’t in time; they are time.

This is true of every “thing” in your life. You, your closest friend, and your computer all have a “nounitude” and a “verbitude.” The nounitude of your computer is that computer as a thing — an object, a fixed point in space that persists for a while through time. The verbitude of that computer is that “persisting” itself. It is the “happening” of it, the way that computer’s nounitude participates in actions with itself and other nouns. As such, verbitude is more fluid. It is movement and change in itself, and it takes part in the nouns of whatever participates in the action it is. When I type, that typing is a verbitude. When I speak, we share in the verbitude of speaking. As nouns, we are separate. As verbs, we are one. Nouns exist in the medium of verbs just like fish live in a river.

But here’s a question: what does life look like as seen from verbitude? Well, it’s actually very different. If nouns see “things,” verbs see processes. Nounsight (what I’ll call it) only notices the actors in a situation, but verbsight notices the processes those nouns take part in. But this has an interesting consequence. With nounsight, you can easily switch from one process from to another, since you have a sense of your own nounitude. But if you use verbsight, it’s not so easy. Someone who can “verbsee” would only ever identify with the process he is in at a given moment. And since verbs are transitory, that person would have a hard time switching tracks. They would hate change since every change from one verbitude to another would feel like dying. There would be no permanence to bracket change in a normal way.

This, as you may have guessed, is at the root of autism. As I pointed out a few posts ago, autism is what happens when the fire of higher worlds gets lost in this world without ever adapting to it. These higher worlds work much more easily in a verbwise way; the “fire” is verbitude. But this world works nounwise. Here, “things” rule the day; processes exist to serve them. But in these higher worlds, nouns exist to serve verbs. Here, time exists because nouns delimit and interrupt the experience of verbitude. But in these spiritual worlds, there isn't nearly as much “interruption.” In the words of Rudolf Steiner:

In this kind of experience it is just the same as when you say about any point of the whole circumference of a circle “Here it begins” and, having made the whole round, “Here it ends.” You have no feeling of having lived through a period of time, but rather the feeling of making a round, of describing a circle, and in this experience you completely lose the feeling of time that you normally have in sensory existence. You only feel that you are in the world that has the fundamental characteristic of being round, of being circular. A being who has never walked the Earth, who has never lived in the world of the senses but has always lived in the world of which we are speaking, would never be struck by the idea that the world once had a beginning and could be coming to an end. He would always think of it as a self-enclosed, round world. Such a being would have no inducement to say that he strove for eternity for the simple reason that everything around him is eternal, that nowhere is there anything beyond which he could look from the temporal into the eternal. 

This feeling of timelessness, this feeling of the circle, appears at a certain stage of clairvoyance, or in the conscious experience of sleep. With it is intermingled a certain yearning, a yearning that arises because in this experience in the higher world you are never really at rest. Everywhere you feel yourself in this revolving movement, always moving, never staying still. The longing you have is: “If only a halt could be made, if only somewhere one could enter time!” This is just the opposite, one might say, of what is experienced in sensory existence, in which we always feel ourselves in time while yearning after eternity. In the world of which I have been speaking, we feel ourselves in eternity with this one desire: “If only at some point the world would stand still and enter time existence!” This is what you realize to be the very fundamental feeling: the everlasting movement of the universe, and the longing for time; this experience of eternal becoming, this becoming that is its own surety, and the longing, “Ah, if only one could but somewhere, somehow, come to an end!” 

With autism, we are holding on to this experience of timelessness (which is really just time as it exists in itself). We never said “If only a halt could be made,” and we go kicking and screaming into the world of nouns and time. We never gave up our verbsight; we retain all of our verbitude. But because we have bodies with a lot of nounitude, we tend to overpower them with our verbitude. This is what a savant is — a verbitude (like drawing or math) that completely enslaves its nouns. All “things” serve that process. Likewise, this is what happens when the autistic person “info-dumps” — the “special interest” is a verbitude that completely overpowers the nouns in the situation. The autistic person is nounblind.

But an autistic person can gain nounsight. It feels like death to us, but we can do it. The process is one of letting each noun have its own verbitude instead of forcing your own verbitude onto it. Let the chair be a chair-ing; let your friend be a “friending;” neither should be a “me-ing.” This is scary for the autistic person because it feels like abandoning a very expansive sense of self. But this is based on a misconception of what the “self” is. When neurotypicals say “I,” they mean the nounitude of their body. However, when autistic people say “I,” they mean the verbitude of their body and whatever it interacts with. The key for an autistic person to cure nounblindness is to spend time and effort “separating” verbitudes from each other. You do this by “naming” them: “There’s the door-ing, there’s the computer-ing, there’s the burger-ing,” but all the while, you keep in mind that you — as a body - have your own distinct verbitude. This isn’t giving up the expansive sense of self that autistic people tend to have; it’s grounding it in an “avatar” that represents that expansive sense of self to the world: your body. It is this separation of verbs from verbs that builds nounsight. Nounsight is the separation of verbs from verbs. Nouns are what separates verbs from each other.

Finally, if you’re neurotypical, you can learn to have better verbsight if that’s what you want. You do that by saying that “not just.” That chair is “not just” a chair. That person is “not just” a person. I am “not just” Christian Swenson, etc. There is a level of “excess” that happens when you do this. You see that all things give of themselves to other things into a shared “middle.” This shared middle is the verbworld, the shared verbitude of things. By practicing this, you begin to see the world less as a collection of things than as a flowing river of interconnected processes. For the verbitude of things opens up and gives; the nounitude of things closes up and withdraws. Verbitude is mercy; nounitude is justice. Verbitude is goodness; nounitude is truth. Pay attention to verbitude to feel at one; pay attention to nounitude to feel like a unique individual. The one links; the other separates. They are both necessary.

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