In today’s FT weekend there is an interesting column by Janan Ganesh (who I previously featured on this blog) on how, given our times are in so many ways disconnected from the way we evolved – physiologically, culturally and socially – it is a wonder that our psyches are not more discommoded than they are:
For most of the time that our species has been around, a man in his thirties had a fair chance of being dead already; a woman, too, often through childbirth. Evading violence, hunger and the elements was a human’s daily lot. Even in modern history, people were bonded to the state through conscription or to the land through serfdom.
Within memory, there was one role for women (mother), one for men (provider), one permissible sexual taste (straight), and even that was consecrated within marriage. All the while, evolution was wiring us accordingly. Our mental processes — our expectations, instincts, biases, heuristics — have formed over tens of thousands of years to handle a short, joyless life. We are coded to survive, not to choose, indulge and frolic.
Then, in the last century, the pace quickened towards my friend’s “it”, a life of widening choice for large numbers of people, until two undistinguished men loping woozily down the Holborn Viaduct in 2015 could wonder at their own miraculous fortune.
To live in this phase of history, in this part of the world, is a happy accident. But why does it not drive us mad? Our mental processes — our expectations, instincts, biases, heuristics — have formed over tens of thousands of years to handle a short, joyless life. We are coded to survive, not to choose, indulge and frolic
If we are designed for the struggle that was all our species knew for most of its existence, why are our minds not frazzled by opportunities that have only been around for the historical equivalent of a few seconds to midnight? The gap between modern lifestyles and our vestigial programming seems too large and too recent to bridge comfortably. Yet we do — at least most of us, at least on the surface.
One could dispute many aspects of this. The casual use of “coded”, “designed”, and “programming.” And while our ancestors may have had shorter lives, were they really “joyless”? At the kernel of the article is a certain complacency – that a life where Ganesh’s friend has 100 dates organised for him each year by a smartphone app is obviously better than one with only one lifetime sexual partner, for instance.
Ganesh, who is falling into the category of columnists I do not particularly agree with but find enlightening and interesting to engage , with summarises his thesis thus:
Given the suddenness of our freedoms, there should be more psychic disruption, more Patrick Batemans, more versions of Bruno from Atomised, who is deranged by sexual nihilism and the fraying of such old tethers as family and God. Instead, there are mostly sensible people making the adjustment to lifestyle choices that would have stupefied their forebears. Some exercise restraint, some fill their cup, but not many fall to pieces.
Reading Ganesh’s column I was reminded of the passages in some of J G Ballard’s short stories about the moon landings, and their purported impact on the human psyche. Ballard’s “Cape Canaveral” fictions (and the critical reaction to them) are usefully summarised here on the superb Ballardian page maintained by Simon Sellars. My favourite of these stories is “A Question of Re-Entry”, which has a closing line with a similar impact to “And someone else too” in The Lost Leonardo (it would also be a major spoiler so I won’t quote it here) This passage – from a book written in 1963 – neatly summarises the Ballardian speculation underlying the Cape Canaveral fictions:
He would have liked to remind Pereira that the successful landing on the moon, after some half-dozen fatal attempts – at least three of the luckless pilots were still orbiting the moon in their dead ships – was the culmination of an age-old ambition with profound psychological implications for mankind, and that the failure to find the astronaut after his return might induce unassuageable feelings of guilt and inadequacy (if the sea was a symbol of the unconscious, was space perhaps an image of unfettered time, and the inability to penetrate it a tragic exile to one of the limbos of eternity, a symbolic death in life?)
Similar passages recur throughout Ballard’s fiction, and they can seem overblown from today’s knowing perspective, with their Jungian echoes and rather portentous wording. And yet, and yet … Andrew Smith’s fine book “Moon Dust” , a sort of collective biography of the moonwalkers, explored Ballard’s speculation when investigate the lives of this dwindling group of men who walked on another celestial object to our own. Ganesh’s article, while it makes a valid point, exemplifies a certain complacency about our increasingly technologically-mediated experience of life – passing allusions to “the political salience of mental health” and a slightly odd reference to “low-level diva behaviour” aside.