Tuesday, March 22, 2005

An essay

This is an essay about balance. I use the word essay in Montesquieu's sense: an attempt, a trial; embarking on a small journey without knowing the destination; a trial whose conclusion can't be know at the start.

It seems more days than not, dressed in my bike clothes, I encounter someone as I'm arriving or departing; someone who makes a friendly inquiry about my commute or simply asks how far I go and whether I ride when it's cold or wet.

Last week a woman passing me in the hallway simply said, "You must lead a balanced life." I've been thinking about that.

I thought first of balancing the polar extremes of the mentally- (and sometimes emotionally-) taxing workday and the physically-demanding and sometimes psychically-enlarging commutes.

The woman is Asian, so I also thought about Confucian and Buddhist concepts of balance and the "middle way," though not very deeply since I didn't see any particular connection, no more than are present in other belief systems.

Of course, there's the trivial sense in which balance keeps us upright while we walk and while I ride, but that's a ludicrous and belittling train of thought. It's certainly not what she meant and, anyway, the gyroscopic effect of the turning wheels insures that bicycling rarely involves balancing -- only when I'm waiting for a light to change or traffic to move and only then when I try to avoid putting a foot down on the pavement.

More seriously, I thought about homeostasis, the internal balance that keeps us healthy. It's not something you can will yourself to achieve, but you can lead your life so as to promote the likelihood of that condition, no? It's a good thought. Healthy food, good exercise, seeking occasions for belly laughs, meditation, gentle stretching, maybe (someday) Yoga. Not bad.

How about aesthetic balance, the proportions of elements within a frame, for example; blocks of light and dark shapes; positioning of horizontal and vertical elements. That stuff? Pleasing thought, but not, for me, easily achieved.

Statistical concepts of mean and median -- nice metaphorical approaches to the subject maybe, but not very intellectually satisfying for me.

Balance does pretty well relate to an intellectualism that has caught my imagination: Freud's concept of the antithetical meaning of primal words (well not originally his concept, but publicized by him). As I've said before, he didn't make much of it and the idea that primal words have opposite meanings isn't pursuasive. There isn't any evidence that these words, autoantonyms, are specially primal (aboriginal) and a lot of them don't have truly antithetical meaning. A classic example is the word "leave" which can mean both to depart and to cause to remain behind; or "cleave," meaning both to cut apart and to stick together; or "trim," meaning to cut things off or to add extra bits on. There's a list of these at http://users.erols.com/kmdavis/lanhum2.html. It's really not so impressive a concept as one might hope. (However, if you read French, this source investigates whether the concept holds in Middle Eqyptian; interesting, he says, because Abel's original concept focused on ancient Egyptian usage -- abstract in English.)

All the same, this idea of primal autoantonyms has had some traction in my thinking, since it has led me to try to imagine the language used by early man (or woman) in communicating about ranges of qualities like hot and cold. One could imagine that prehistoric men first developed a concept ("hot-cold") and used linguistic modifiers to communicate more hot-coldness or less hot-coldness. My thought is that separate words for the extreme conditions, hot and cold, emerged later. In other words, first, the thought might have been about more of the "hot-cold" quality or less of the "hot-cold" quality, only later actually giving the low-temp range one word (cold) and the high-range another word (hot). If this actually happened, then "hot-cold" would be a primal word having a kind of anthetical meaning. I haven't been able to find a source that discusses this possiblity, though I haven't tried very hard.

Not really much to do with balance, except that the expression for the concept (hot-cold, near-far, sharp-blunt, whatever) implies a kind of equilibrium - maybe.

Wikipedia, as so often seems to be the case, has a nice take on the concept. Its discussion of balance leads one to an article on homeostasis. This mentions homeostasis as a factor in aging: "Organismal aging is generally characterized by the declining ability to respond to stress, increasing homeostatic imbalance and increased risk of disease. Because of this, death is the ultimate consequence of aging." And, yes, though I don't actually perceive it, I can well imagine that striving for balance is also striving to stay alive so long as possible. Though of course, being alive is not the true goal here, it's being actively, productively alive; belonging with dignity to the human community of the living.

In the day-to-day world of eating, sleeping, earning a living and the like, I sometimes think of the balancing involved in deciding whether to buy something. In this context, I attempt a balance between my intellectual belief in "doing without" (as in conserving resources and saving the planet) and my primal acquisitive urge of "doing with" (as in getting things for me and mine). This is too big a topic for a short thought-trial like this. I'll limit myself to a single conflict of motives -- Item: I like the idea of being relatively free of material acquisitiveness; trying not to define my sense of well being in the consumer goods I've surrounded myself with. I don't do very well at this, but better than many. Item: I like the idea of being free of rules that bind me to unvarying behavior. It's easy to call up images of my intensely Calvinist forbears and their stubborn rectitude. Moving on....

Like Emerson, I wish to balance my sense of individuality with my sense of community. There's even a bicycling connection in that since bike races are won by individuals but ordinarily the individuals who win must work together with their opponents during much of the race.

Perhaps there are other senses of the word balance that apply to my case. Equilibrium is suggestive. There are mechanical, chemical, economic, and even ethical equilibria. My favorite is the psychological one mentioned in the wikipedia entry on the topic:
* Equilibrium: Psychologically some balance between desires and satisfaction is important; somewhat paradoxically complete satisfaction may not be ideal, it can be argued that perhaps it is better if things are left to be desired.
* In various practical matters an equilibrium is useful, e.g.:
o in a conversation, between talking and listening;
o in a personal relationship, between giving and taking;
o between buying and reading books (apart from lent books).

Pondering equilibrium leads to thoughts of other "equi-" words, particularly equipoise. I'm running low on imagination, and letting this thought stream run on too long, at this point, so I'll just allude to some possible ways that equipoise might apply to the statement "You must lead a balanced life" by giving a couple of quotes: The OED says that a man named Norris wrote, in 1699, of the equipoise displayed by Descartes: "So great reason..to lay the foundation of his Philosophy in an equipoise of mind." To balance this, OED quotes Samuel Johnson, writing in the Idler in 1759, told of a man who "lives in a continual equipoise of doubt."

Having introduced that thought, I'm tempted to end this essay with a labored pun: equipoise suggesting "equine equipage," a horse and cart. This is a Barrie Maguire connection: to the left you see his painting, "The Tackled Pony." Unfotunately, ending thus would demonstrate, wouldn't it, that I don't lead a balanced life but am plagued by a trivial obsession with words? So, to avoid that misleading implication, maybe I'd better seek another way out.

Instead, here and now, I think I'll bring this to a close with a return to the beginning. As I do this, maybe you'll see the start and finish themselves balancing. It's worth a try.

So, to wrap up, I announced this as an essay and explained my meaning. Essay has a common root with the word "assay," and also a common meaning as a process of trying, or trial generally, though assay's best-known meaning is the "trial of metals to determine the quantity of metal in an ore or alloy or of the fineness of coin or bullion." The OED has much on this word as noun and verb. Among its quotes is one from Measure for Measure: "Angelo had neuer the purpose to corrupt her; onely he hath made an assay of her vertue." So, since my topic is balance, and this is an essay -- an assay in the sense of OED's quotation from Sterne: "'Tis an assay upon human nature" (1778), I choose to conclude with this picture of an assayer's scale, confirming what this essay as a whole tends to show, that I do have an obsession with words but maybe one that is not entirely trivial.

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