The veil of perception

“What was the last thing you changed your mind about?” is an A+ question. First, it compels the person who is asked it to probe the eddies of their own thought, to chart its meanderings and to understand its flow from a topographical perspective. Second, it reveals a person’s rate of learning and/or self-awareness. Someone who responds with a blank look either experiences shifts in their thinking but does not recognise it or has a way of thought that has never been significantly altered.

It is for this reason that I try to ask myself the question periodically. I want to know if I’m learning, what I’m learning and how fast. And after the most recent posing of the question to myself, I realised that the last thing I changed my mind about was the importance of narratives and reality.

It wouldn’t be off the mark to say that I’m a recovering Stoic. I still buy in to most of the fundamental precepts—the dichotomy of control, regular contemplation of space and time and mortality, actions aimed at the good of the community, et cetera. But I no longer vibe with the idea that purity of perception is possible. For example, one of the Stoic exercises is meant to help its practitioner see reality as it is. From Book Six of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realising: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.
Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time—all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust—to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”

I had thought that this Stoic exercise was akin to stripping away the mask of narratives to reveal the face of reality. What it has taken me so long to realise is that it is less a stripping away than a refactoring. In the same way that the absence of rhetoric is itself a rhetorical strategy, the destruction of narratives is just another narrative frame through which to experience reality.

Think of perception as a veil. I was labouring under the assumption that the veil could be removed entirely. It cannot. All we can do is change the nature of the veil itself, never truly throw it off. Which means that the search for reality is less important than the quest to understand how narratives distort and enrich the lives we live.