Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ataraxia

Stuff you learn when you watch movies...

Ataraxia. A state of mind characterized by freedom from worry and preoccupation. A little like what Buddhists might call 'detachment', though it's more 'European, if you will, with a taste of hedonism thrown in.

In Lucky Number Slevin they make it sound like it's a syndrome of sorts. "I have ataraxia," says Slevin. Something you catch, like a disease? No matter. What's important is that I learned a new word here. Belonging into the 'classical' European tradition at that. If movies educate you at the same time as they entertain, how can you go wrong? Same goes for novels. Which is why I do not believe in dumbing down my vocabulary, for example; and why, despite an occasional comment from somebody or other, "but people don't use that kind of language" I ignore them—unless they're talking about what might be termed 'contemporary stories', set in the context and asking for the use of the vernacular of the present.

One day, in the future, near, medium and distant—for most of which I intend to be around, so that should be interesting—these novels will qualify as 'historical', since they will have been set 'in the past'. As such they constitute a record of the time, albeit filtered through the mind of a single individual. Much like any piece of past 'literature', high-brow or not. And if we write novels qualifying as 'historical'—that is, set in a period which we know existed—it behooves us to check up on what people said then and there; as much as we can actually check up on it. Historians, to me, appear to be amazingly ignorant of what actually went on in the days of yore from whence there is no such thing as, for example, an audio recording. The presumption of those who claim otherwise never ceases to amaze me. Truth is, nobody has the faintest clue of how, for example, Shakespeare actually talked, or what kinds of tone his plays were delivered in. How did the actors speak? In everyday voices? Did they project themselves at the audience or at their fellow actors? How did someone in those days actually direct a play?

Nobody knows. All conjecture is, at its heart, fiction; at best 'informed', and at worst utterly ignorant and very fictitious indeed.

Science fiction has the advantage of being exempt from these constraints, and historical science fiction, which is really a mild form of 'fantasy', is in the same fortunate position. And I, for one, like being able to use any damn vernacular that happens to tickle my fancy and which I may find suitable.

Back to ataraxia. Is there an antonym? What is it a hyponym of? What is hyponymous to its hypernymity? Just trying to encourage some searching here, folks. New words are good. New words at the very least hint at new vistas of cognition and verbal grasping of the world.

Ataraxia, of course, is less of a syndrome than a state of mind. Taken to excess, this one leads to indifference about the goings on in the world. But in the right dose it helps one to retain perspective. "Fear," say the Bene Gesserit, "is the mind killer." I say the mind-killer is pointless worry—a state of mind where you lose a sense of what matters and what doesn't.

I once read about a condition—forgot what it was called—in which people are unable to filter and classify in terms of their relevance, especially immediate, of impressions, sensations, perceptions of either external or internal 'events'. That must be a real bummer; worse I'd say than anything that's currently fashionable.

And yet, is a version of it not endemic right now? We live in a civilization/society/ambience where people are apparently totally unable to prioritize that's important to them. People live in a life-priority flatland. As a result they're swamped with 'important things'. Issues about life and death and responsibility mingle freely and without discrimination with those of work-trivia and meaning-of-life bullshit. And a mind swamped with 'important things', all of which appear also to compete for immediate attention—though a shitload of them can damn well wait their turn—is a prime candidate for, to make up a term, but not an unreasonable one of 'anataraxia'; that being the negation of ataraxia, and if it isn't I have just defined it as being so, using the prefix 'an-' (prefixing a word beginning with a vowel) to conform to a common way of negating that which follows the prefix.

So, are you living in an anataraxic cosmos of your own? If so, consider that all that creates is stress and really stupid decisions about your life.

Consider that.

And this is my last blog for the next 2+ weeks or so. My wife and I are going on a vacation to the Northern Territory, starting in Darwin and ending up in Alice Springs. No computers are coming, though a printout of an old screenplay of mine that I want to take a closer look at again, will. Plus books—to read. I'll probably visit the odd internet cafe, but will try—and I don't think it'll be difficult—to keep such visits down to a minimum. I have, however, found out that even in the very hearts of places like the Kakadu National Park, cellphone reception is perfectly adequate. So, not out of touch. Can't have that now, can we?

So, folks, until sometime after August 15, have a good time and try to work on your anataraxic issues.

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