Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Temperamental Journey

When I was in the U.S. Army, I once volunteered to go to the Grafenwöhr firing range to carry out some tasks the nature of which I have forgotten. I knew where I was going, too. Our unit—the 8th Division Artillery—had spent a month at Grafenwöhr some time before as part of a major, theater-wide military exercise. Even getting there had taken several long, rainy days; the trip back had been similarly dreary. Grafenwöhr was (and probably remains) one of the most isolated and lonely places in Europe. It is huge and desolate. By contrast with another major firing range in Germany, Baumholder, which was also home to 10,000 troops, Grafenwöhr had a mere handful of people permanently stationed there. The nearest settlement was a tiny, dirt poor village; it didn’t even have a restaurant. Yet I leaped at the chance to go to Grafenwöhr. I’d loved being out there in the great emptiness the first time I’d gone way east to visit the place. It was the emptiness that drew me; I like such places; it’s a temperamental trait of mine.

But what is temperament? Humanity’s traditional classifications are “all right,” as I might put it, meaning “so far as they go.” But whether we base it on medieval humors or somatotypes, as in the Yale classification (mentioned briefly elsewhere), such types don’t satisfy me at the gut level; the reason for that feeling, perhaps, is that I’ve never properly fitted any of these classifications. To fit ourselves into a “type” we must exercise a certain degree of force—thus to make forced choices; it’s not as simple as looking up our astrological sign. Let me illustrate this. If I had to choose between being alone or being in company—and I’d have to choose one of the two—I would choose being alone. Does that mean that I want perpetual solitude? Not in the least. But in a forced choice… Similarly. If I had to choose between working by myself or with a team, I’d choose working by myself. Hard choice: Night out dancing or out at a classical concert? Classical concert. Night out or night at home? I’d stay at home. Company picnic or group hike in the hills? The hike. Forced career choice: Politics or military? Military. Read a book or write a book? Write, of course. Lead a group or be the member of it. Lead. Give a speech or listen to one. I’d rather be giving it. Would I have answered these questions the same way at nineteen? Absolutely. Age five? Yes, if I had understood them. Does all this make sense? It does for me. I feel no contradiction here between an introverted tendency and one inclined to take the lead. The hidden tendency here is that, in virtually every situation, I prefer to reduce external stimuli in favor of stimulus that comes from within. In line with this, I’m not very interested in what people do but interested in what they are. If I have to experience external stimulus—as in being in a group—I’d prefer to lead it: the role provides a greater level of control.

Cultures have preference—now this way and now that. In my own time “extrovert” had and has a positive connotation, “introvert” a negative. William James’ interesting spin on this comes to mind. In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, he labeled extroverted types (before Carl Jung gave them that label) “the healthy minded.” And he labeled the inner-directed people “sick-minded.” I well remember reading that in my freshman year in college—in effect I was reading the book while waiting for the welcoming talk in an auditorium full of future freshmen—remember thinking, aggressively, as I first read that phrase: “Who’re you calling sick-minded, buster.” Nothing sick about it, I thought. The healthy-minded and their doings bored me to tears, put me to sleep. In my experience all the things that strongly drew most people, particularly diversions, entertainments, struck me as things people would have to pay me to enjoy.

Ages ago already—come to think of it, it’s been a while since I was a freshman—I came to see the temperaments in the context, broadly speaking, of stimulus. Temperament manifests as our general response to it. Those who feel deprived of stimulus go out to seek it; those who experience too much of it shield themselves in various ways; one way of avoiding it is to go within. This view is silent on the nature or quality of the stimulus. To take a more detailed approach, I would propose that many kinds of energies impact upon us; they range from coarse to very subtle. If our genetic shielding is of a certain kind, coarse energies will irritate us while the subtle will please. Where the shielding is quite strong, only coarse energies will act as stimulus. These differences will produce the whole range of temperamental manifestations: embrace, avoidance, irritation (the choleric temperament), melancholy (too much stimulus, not strength or skill to fight it off), etc. The most interesting situations are those in which the genetically fortunate perceive the subtle forms of energy—and are drawn to them by preference. To hear those melodies, they try to filter our the coarser kind. Such activity does not arise from any kind of virtue; it’s just an inclination to hear something perceived to have more value. This reminds me of a quote from Abdul Qasim Gurgani Idries Shah cites in one of his books. Gugrani said: “My humility which you mention is not there for you to be impressed by it. It is there for its own reason.”

I speak of shielding because temperament is clearly something that comes to us by way of our bodies. This is indicated both by traditional (medieval) categories—the humors—thus body fluids and by the body-type categorizations studied at Yale. The latter were based on somatic systems (musculature, the viscera, the nervous system). The interaction between this sort of “shielding” and the energies that reach us may very well be what actually constitutes our leanings (outward or in), our day-to-day nervous states, our irritability, the kinds of exercise we seek, whether we seek many friends or few, and whether the desolations of places like Grafenwöhr attract or repel us.