A River and a Volleyball: Two Demigods from Stage and Screen

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

Paul Robeson singing

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat
(youtube)

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The 1927 sheet music for

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 
(Wikipedia)

“Ol’ Man River,” a moving lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference, might sound like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is a musical number from Show Boat, written in 1927 and set in the 1920s, about a river boat that docks and offers theatrical productions at towns along the water. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless rendition from the 1936 film. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.

If it is not an actual Negro spiritual, how might we describe this song? Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—only to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross to a new life. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as many spirituals and hymns are; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it.

But the song is spiritual in other ways. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing and constant companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” Joe nonetheless imagines it as a witness in order to feel less alone. All in all, the river is personified more than it is deified and the spirituality of “Ole Man River” seems mainly non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”
(rogerebert.com)

A personification similar to the river is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes up on an uninhabited island along with cargo that includes a Wilson volleyball. Hanks draws its face with his bleeding hand. Over the ensuing years, he chats with Wilson, yells at it, and finally grieves when it floats away from the raft that Hanks escapes on.

Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike the mute river, though, and appropriately for a man alone on a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond. Both works portray the emergence of a spiritual persona in an object, the result of an individual’s suffering and the need for a wise—but not a notably supernatural or even sympathetic—companion.

Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volleyball, a grander spiritual vision. The Mississippi is the witness for the exploitation and racism that fill not only Joe’s life but the lives of those around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe some consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.

The Voice In Our Head: Periscope Or Smoke-and-Mirrors?

Stream of consciousness is a common term for it. Mind wandering and daydreaming are others. These days, more narrowly, “self-talk” refers to our constructive or negative mental judgments of ourselves. “Default mode network,” from neurology, labels the closely interacting regions of the brain that kick in when it is not focused elsewhere.

There is a tension that runs through discussions about stream of consciousness. In science, the reality of any aspect of nature that is under study is acknowledged and respected. Psychologist and neurologists, despite controversies about it, extend such respect to stream of consciousness. On the other hand, the Buddhist or Eastern view of the mind is that the stream of consciousness, while real, is a detrimental spinoff of our psyche. It reinforces the entanglements of our ego with worldly concerns. The wise person will seek to quiet it or ignore it or seek complete release from it.

The tension here is not a disagreement or a debate exactly. It is more a dissonance that stems from the different aims of science and religion. Scientists, committed to objectivity, make judgments cautiously and narrowly. Religious teachings, on the other hand, offer a path towards peace of spirit, a path that invariably calls for the submission of the ego.

It’s no wonder that we read about the marvels of the human brain one day and the unhappiness of the wandering mind the next.

stream of consciousness (musicpeakperformance.com)

(musicpeakperformance.com)

I’m in the middle here. Our biological past is a foundational belief for me and I think that our stream of consciousness serves adaptive functions that can be understood largely in terms of evolution. But I also want to reduce my stress level and strengthen my sense of focus through meditation. The views of science and religion about stream of consciousness are not incompatible, but you don’t hear much about their common ground or a unified approach.

How could we find such a common ground? Probably in looking tolerantly at the ways in which stream of consciousness both serves us and hinders us. Probably by recognizing that it is difficult for most people to enjoy its advantages without also putting up with at least some of its disadvantages.

We can roughly gauge the advantages of stream of consciousness from noting the kinds of items in our own stream. Mine buzzes with flashbacks, flash-forwards, bits of script for conversations and letters to editors, and a mix of sunny and cloudy moods about myself—all of which I can see as beneficial much of the time in one way or another. But like most people’s, my stream sometimes fails badly to tell me what others are really thinking, worries needlessly about what probably won’t go wrong, and obsesses about what is unimportant. Stream of consciousness might be compared to a periscope through which we can fortunately see above the surface and around corners to what lies ahead, but which also captures fragmented and misleading pictures.

Sam Harris in Waking Up puts the spiritual case against stream of consciousness. We are “continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.” As both the speaker and listener in our heads, we create the illusion of the individual self. Harris adds, “We brood about the past and worry about the future. We continually seek to prop up and defend an egoic self that doesn’t exist.” Viewed this way, stream of consciousness is the voice of illusions, of smoke-and-mirrors. Still, no matter how we define self, humans like all other organisms need a steady flow of information, no matter how imperfect, to monitor the environment and process our complex social life. Harris, awake as he is, still writes, lectures, and engages with many people.

So I think a common ground between the spiritual and scientific approaches to stream of consciousness might essentially be the recognition that we live in three time frames, not one, and in many locations. These are of two different kinds, the sensory perceptions of the here and now, and the remembered and imagined past and future in other places. We need to process all of these not only unconsciously but through our stream of consciousness. As in so much else, balance between the here and now and other times and places seems a good goal.

I recall a simile—from the popular gestalt therapist, Fritz Perls?—that living solely in the moment can be like listening only to the note in the music that is sounding at the present instant.  Unless we’ve also heard the notes that lead up to that moment, there is no music. And, I would add, if we can hear only the past notes but cannot hear the note of the moment itself, the music can never be new.

Living Closer

One of the pleasures of meditating regularly has been the sensation of coming closer to my thoughts and to the feelings in my body. With my eyes closed and my thought stream lulled but also more noticeable, thoughts and physical feelings seem more vivid than usual, a little larger, more in front of me. I remember my wife saying when I started meditating that she liked what I was doing because I came out of meditation in a pretty good mood. And indeed, I did feel cheerier than I sometimes do in the morning. I’ve since taken the cheery part a little for granted, but the sensation of nearness remains fresh. And something else has happened.

I began wondering why the meditation experience is pleasant. What is there in this closeness, this being in better touch with myself, that feels good? Is it what people call “the feeling of being alive”? If so, there is some other element to it, a communal feeling of some kind. I think the meditative clarity feels good the way that feeling included with others can feel good. Feeling not alone. Feeling included among the living. It is a quietly joyful feeling, even a tender one. Words don’t work easily here, but I hope you get the idea.

The experiences have shifted my view of what is pleasant and even loving about my close relationships with others. With my wife, daughter, close friends, sometimes animals, even a writer behind a very satisfying book, I think the gladness that I feel, without being fully conscious of it, is a gladness at being included in a life with them. Much as meditation can bring a feeling of being more at home with myself, so my other close connections bring a feeling of inclusiveness not just with a person but with all living things. Perhaps, as a lover’s passion springs in part from the feeling that the lover and the loved one are united as one, so familial love and a sense of “glad to be alive” gain some of their strength from the warmth of a wider belonging.

Many humanists and naturalists, interested in the intersection of community and spirituality, try to understand better what love means and how to create more of it. We look at its roots in our sociality, in how we, other animals, and even plants cooperate. One of these many roots may be how we process closeness itself as a smiling reminder that we are members in good standing among living things. Perhaps one of the underground streams bubbling up in moments of kindness is the feeling that our sense of ourselves is turned up a notch by the reminder that we are alive together with others. This may hold true, ironically, even when the closeness, as in meditation, is with ourselves.