Justly is shame very specially connected with this lust; justly, too, these members themselves, being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called "shameful." Their condition was different before sin. . . . because not yet did lust move those members without the will's consent; not yet did the flesh by its disobedience testify against the disobedience of man. For they were not created blind, as the unenlightened vulgar fancy; . . . Their eyes, therefore were open, but were not open to this, that is to say, were not observant so as to recognize what was conferred upon them by the garment of grace, for they had no consciousness of their members warring against their will. But when they were stripped of this grace, that their disobedience might be punished by fit retribution, there began in the movement of their bodily members a shameless novelty which made nakedness indecent.
— St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 14, Chapter 17.
This is the first in a series of posts about the concept of behavioral mode that David Hays and I adopted (and further developed) from one of the grand old men of neuroscience, Walter McCulloch. Rather than start from McCulloch, I want to motivate the concept by discussing one of the best-known and most discussed sonnets in the English language, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, “The expense of spirit.” The discussion if revised and adapted from two by now ancient papers of mine, “Lust in Action: An Abstraction” (1981) and “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self” (1993), and from a more recent post at The Valve on Emotion Recollected in Tranquility.
Here’s the sonnet, with modernized spelling:
1 The expense of spirit in a waste of shame 2 Is lust in action, and till action, lust 3 Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, 4 Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust; 5 Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight, 6 Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, 7 Past reason hated as a swallowed bait 8 On purpose laid to make the taker mad: 9 Mad in pursuit and in possession so, 10 Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme; 11 A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe, 12 Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream. 13 All this the world well knows; yet none knows well 14 To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Let’s set the final couplet aside for a moment and consider only the first twelve lines. These direct our attention back and forth over the following sequence of actions and mental states:
Desire: Protagonist becomes consumed with sexual desire and purses the object of that desire using whatever means are necessary: "perjur'd, murderous, bloody . . . not to trust" (ll. 3-4).
Consummation: Protagonist gets his way, having "a bliss in proof" (l. 11)
Shame: Desire satisfied, the protagonist is consumed with guilt: "despisèd straight" (l. 5), "no sooner had/ Past reason hated" (ll. 6-7).
Just to solidify the point, let’s look at some lines. Line 4 looks at Desire (“not to trust”), then line 5 evokes Consummation followed by Shame. Line 6 begins in Desire then moves to Consummation, followed by Shame at the beginning of line 7, whose second half begins a simile derived from hunting. Now line 10, which begins by pointing to Shame, then to Consummation, then to Desire, and concludes be characterizing the whole sordid business as “extreme.”
The poem’s final couplet asserts, in effect, that reason is powerless in this situation. Knowing that rancid meat can make you ill will prevent most people from eating rancid meat, but the knowledge that sexual desire will lead you to guilt and disgust is not powerful enough to prevent you from walking to the trap.
The question I want to ask is: Why, why is reason powerless? How could it be that foreknowledge is powerless? One might offer the observation that, when one is in the pursuit of sex, one simply doesn’t think about the guilt-driven aftermath. Accepting that as true, it explains nothing. Why does sexual pursuit make it difficult or even impossible to imagine consequent guilt and recrimination? That’s the question.
The answer, I suggest, is chemical. The brain is an electrochemical machine, with its activities being mediated by over 100 neurotransmitters. What if memories, concepts and ideas were ‘stored’ in chemically specific circuitry such that they are most accessible to consciousness when the neurochemical environment matches the conditions under which they were created? So, if memory X was created in region M when M was suffused with neurochemical A, then it might not be readily accessible at a time when region M is suffused with neurochemical C. On the other hand, memory W was created in M while it was suffused with C, and so would be readily available during that state, but not when M is suffused with A.
This is known in the neural trades as state-dependent learning. I first learned about state dependence when I read a review of the literature on altered states of consciousness in which Roland Fischer reported an experiment originally performed by D. Goodwin (“The Cartography of Inner Space” in Hallucinations, Siegel and West, eds. 1975, p. 199). Subjects were first made drunk and then asked to memorize nonsense syllables. When their recall was tested while sober they performed poorly. Their recall dramatically improved, however, if they once again became drunk. More recently, Daniel L. Schacter has written of mood-congruent memory retrieval: “Experiments have shown that sad moods make it easier to remember negative experiences, like failure and rejection, whereas happy moods make it easier to remember pleasant experiences, like success and acceptance” (Searching for Memory, 1996, p. 211). Recall of experience is best when the one’s brain is in the same state it was in when one had that experience. That is what is meant by state dependence.
Such state dependence is one aspect of McCulloch’s concept of behavioral mode, which I will explain in the next post, and that is how I propose to explain the peculiar behavior upon which Shakespeare bases this sonnet. Let us speculate that the moral strictures governing honest and honorable behavior are encoded in neural structures most strongly active in a certain behavioral mode, having a characteristic neurochemical profile. However, as sexual desire grows, the neurochemical state of the brain changes and mode shifts; moral strictures are no longer readily brought to consciousness; anything goes. Once desire is satisfied the brain then returns to a mode in which the neurochemical profile allows morale precepts to come to the fore. When morality sees what has just been done, morality is outraged. We can further speculate, as outrage grows, another neurochemical change occurs, inducing yet another modal shift, and the brain’s neurochemical profile is no longer conducive to reason and morality. In giving way to outrage, morality has undermined itself. In such a mind-and-brain, reason hasn't a chance.
In this context the apparently gloomy admission of the concluding couplet, which holds the preceding twelve lines in view and asserts that you can't escape, has, I believe, a paradoxical restorative effect. The final couplet restores a sense of sociality. The horror and shame of the first twelve lines resides, not only in the violence, but in the destruction of social mutuality; the lusty animal is "not to trust" (l. 4) and "Mad in pursuit and possession so" (l. 9). The final couplet begins with the admission that "All this the world well knows" (l. 13) and, in so affirming, restores the lusty and despised animal to society. We are all like this; we know it; we can't escape. Thus the shame, guilt, and anxiety which is evoked in the first twelve lines is assuaged and order is restored through the simple and basic, if only momentary, realization that we are all in this together. Every one of us. Maddening though it is, being subject to lust cycle doesn’t absent one from the human community; for we are all subject to it.
Lust, of course, is not the only activity that’s conducive of obsession and compulsion. Such activities are legion. Could it be that the modal system plays a similar role in all of them? Or even in all psychopathology of whatever degree and kind? I don’t know. But in the next two or three posts I’ll be exploring some of the implications of this idea. In the next post I’ll go through the idea as Hays and I laid it out in 1988. After that I plan to consider music, speech, and reading as modal behaviors, and perhaps film too. I may even think a bit about meditation. Who knows. Let’s just see where this thing leads.