A rich internal life

(The beginning of this posting is about the complexities of conscious experience — attentional foci and internal lives — but midway through it veers into sexual matters, eventually into a raw account of steamy mansex, entirely unsuitable for kids or the sexually modest.)

The Zits strip from 10/5, about Sara and Jeremy’s fugitive thoughts:

(#1) Sara’s conscious attention is on her homework, but anxieties about her academic life and about current events intrude; meanwhile, Jeremy is consciously focused on listening to Sara’s lament, but finds thoughts of food intervening

What’s involved is a division between two parts of the stream of consciousness: an attentional focus, the central concern in what you are doing at the moment; and any number of peripheral concerns, matters that crowd your consciousness without being chosen for attention, these peripheral concerns together constituting what I’ll call your internal life at the moment.

The material of your internal life includes at least:

perceptions of stuff in your environment — objects, people, events; sounds of all kinds, smells, tastes — outside your attentional focus

stuff that’s associated with what’s in your attentional focus or its perceptual periphery by being evoked by it: recollections, plans, emotional responses to it, evaluations of it, connections to related or similar stuff

stuff — both fleeting flashes and elaborated stories — that intrudes without a situational trigger, especially if it involves food, sex, affiliation, or power: personal anxieties, responsibilities, enduring preoccupations, favorite activities, past experiences, emotions, wishes, fantasies, etc.

Think of your life as a video happening on two (or more) tracks. One track, the main track, plays your experiences, what’s in your attentional focus (what’s in the camera’s focus) and its perceptual periphery (what’s in the background); while other tracks, the side tracks, play other material from your internal life. When you’re fully absorbed in what you’re doing , it’s just the one track, but other tracks might flick on at any time, and sometimes you even want to dwell on some material that’s popped up, to pursue it.

The pop-psych story is that men think of sex every 7 seconds. This might even be sort of true, for some men anyway, in that fleeting sexual images or ideas might flash briefly on a side track, along with  brief flashes of familiar names or scenes that might be evoked by our experiences, a few microseconds of dinner planning (will there be burritos? oh, please, let there  be burritos!), and much much more. Our internal lives are mostly incredibly crowded places — raptly focused full absorption is a peak experience, but rare — also, for the most part, vastly too crowded for us to be able to report reliably on its details (so that it’s just silly to ask how often someone thinks of sex, in some sense of “think of”). Unlike the processing of discourse for understanding, which is also fabulously complex and takes place on the microsecond scale, but is (thankfully) below the level of consciousness, our internal lives are within the sphere of conscious experience, but that doesn’t make them easily reportable.

It is true that as the gigantic multi-ring circus unfolds before us, we sometimes reflect on bits of the action, and these facets are then both reportable and memorable. Those would presumably be the moments of “thinking about” sex, or food, or scoring the winning goal, or whatever.

“A rich internal life”. A quotation from a colleague in linguistics. From a fairly intense faculty meeting — about graduate admissions, I think, so very important — in which this colleague appeared to have become momentarily disconnected from the discussion, so we called his name and he came back to full awareness with a wry smile, offering an apologetic explanation, no details: “I have a rich internal life”. We didn’t inquire further.

But it gave me a label for the concept.

A  note from my mental life. Much of my writing concerns sexual matters, sometimes tangentially, sometimes centrally, and my perceptual surround — the environment I work in — is rich in sexual images (as well as handsome plants, cartoons, family memorabilia, gigantic amounts of penguiniana, and of course reference works on language). Sexy men are almost always in my peripheral vision, and though I don’t dwell on them, like the plants, these images provide me with microseconds of pleasure. Occasionally they trigger a more substantial memory or fantasy, which then unspools on one of the side tracks of my mental video.

Yesterday, in beginning to write up this posting, I got a vivid flash of men engaged in a three-way sexual encounter, with my mental counterpart as the man in the middle. Probably triggered by a photo I’d come across recently:

(#1) From the West End Wilma site, in a 11/9/16 review by Alex Foott of F*cking Men (a play at The Vaults in Lambeth, London)

My mind dwelt for a few moments on an unfolding of the little sexual story, enough to set off the beginning twinge of a hard-on, and then the video switched to some tall, handsome, and fragrant purple sage plants. You never know where the camera’s going to turn. (Meanwhile, in the external world, I’d inserted the Zits cartoon into the file for this posting.)

The video story. (Warning: this section has some serious hard-core stuff in it.) A passage from my 8/26/10 AZBlogX posting “Nostalgia for the baths” (set in an orgy-room — a large dimly-lit room in which multiple sexual encounters take place in full view of observers and other participants; the public nature of the acts gives them some of their emotional power — at the Club Baths for Men in Washington DC, in the early 1980s). (The first versions of the piece date from August/September 1991, with some editing in July 2006.)

This piece develops the video metaphor elaborately. with the added touch that the external world in this story is an entirely sexual one, with internal intrusions from elsewhere (an inversion of the usual situation, in which the sex is an intervention). The passage begins with a sexual encounter already in progress:

I slide down onto my knees he slips the towel off his hips stashes it round his neck I lick up and down the shaft of his cock hold it up with one hand take one ball into my mouth then the other he pants I swallow his cock his stomach muscles tense up he pulls my head out of his crotch I am bereft. He pulls me up onto my feet leans over to kiss me his dark mustache brushes against mine his tongue plays in my mouth I am assuaged. He slides his hand under my towel over my ass positions a finger against my asshole good thing I lubed myself up beforehand I push against his finger he is in me I pant we both want him to fuck me.

Like most events in life this is happening on two tracks. One track plays my immediate experiences; in telling you about them I am transforming them into language, giving  them a different form, and more form, than they had when my Dark Fucker’s body and mine negotiated the course of our love-making.

I can’t call it sex and leave it at that. For a period of time we will be lovers; each will be delighted by the presence of the other, will treasure him, each will care more about the other man’s needs than about anything else in the world.

The second track, which is where I remarked on how good it was that I’d lubed myself up beforehand, plays my commentary on the passing scene.

Sometimes there are other tracks: one for the sex movies in my head, one for pleasurable anticipation (or at least plans) of events to come, one for playing reminiscences of events that have somehow been evoked by what’s happening on track 1,

— I am rounding the corner by James’s flat in Brighton, early morning. The sea appears in front of me, ruffled into silver by the wind, and the world drops away, my body rising up into an exhilaration of silver-blue everywhereness. Why are other people walking on the street as if nothing was happening? How can they even move, now that the air around us has become this thick sparkling substance? Catching sight of the ocean will sometimes bring this experience up on the screen for me.

— I am standing at the head of the table in a seminar room, at a loss for thoughts to put into words, failing yet another of my oral exams. Anything that feels like an interview is likely to bring this one back.

— I am in front of the blackboard in a classroom in Beijing, a piece of the world’s worst chalk (rock-hard on the outside, butter-soft on the inside, guaranteed to raise a cloud of dust) shattering in my hands as I sketch a diagram. I notice the cracked and missing panes in the windows, wonder what it would be like to teach here in real winter rather than in this sharp bright autumn, dismiss all this superficial shit when I look out at my students’ faces, lined with affectionate concern for my incompetence (at this very moment, the battery for the portable microphone around my neck is leaking its acid through my shirt pocket and burning my chest, the pain entirely suppressed by lecturer’s adrenalin), intent on understanding every single sentence I am giving them. This one comes back with the smell of chalk dust, and it fills me with the sad happiness of lost perfect moments.

one that concocts alternative, always disastrous, scenarios (looking  out across campus from the top floor of the Ohio State library, I see myself plunging out of the window). Most of the time there’s a track for taking linguistic notes: a speech error (“Zwicky is getting skwinny”), an interesting point of dialect (“My car really needs washed”, “Go on ahead; I’ll catch you up”, Californian lowering of lax front vowels), a syntactic construction to think about (“Just because you got married doesn’t mean you’re straight”).

I take off my towel, hold it loosely in one hand, expose my nakedness for my lover and for all who would watch. We walk to the nearest bench, me leading him by the hand, him guiding me by the other hand on my hip, who knows. We have catalyzed the men around us; the scene is starting to look more like Fellini Satyricon — which is, after all, the mental picture the name “orgy-room” calls up. We exchange half-smiles of pleasure at our good work.

Notes. From NOAD:

noun stream of consciousness: [a] Psychology a person’s thoughts and conscious reactions to events, perceived as a continuous flow. The term was introduced by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890). [b] a literary style in which a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted by objective description or conventional dialogue. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust are among its notable early exponents.

In my presentation above, the stream of consciousness is seen as jumbled but structured, sometimes in complex ways.

James’s later writing became concerned with altered states of consciousness, as in this passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902:

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation.

Religious ecstasy is one such altered state. So is sexual ecstasy; and in fact later sections of “Nostalgia for the baths” include a depiction of sexual ecstasy on the narrator’s part.

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