The Coral Ship

[In my dialect water and order do, in fact, rhyme.]

Come, ship, lie down with us;
Come, ship, lie down and rust.
The sand is soft, the coral is kind,
The sun is dim, we softly bind.
Do not be lonely, we remember
While we grow, and grow forever.
Your shape, our hollows; your stuff, our spires
Where silent fish gather in choirs.
Silence is music, stillness is motion
Growing cathedrals by grains of devotion.
Too long apart from water,
Too long outside of order:
Come ship, sink fast;
The sea has let you in at last.


It is a commonplace that somehow capital-s Society prevents the otherwise natural burgeoning of versatility; it wants us to specialize, it wants labor to be divided. I do not dispute that versatility is a natural development; but I think it is small-s society, common company and friendship, that prevents it.

The problem of versatility is the certainty that the people who admire or even share one ability will be contemptuous of the others. "What have you been up to?" An elaborate series of asymmetrical values must be weighed to obtain the answer. It is safe to say building to a writer, unsafe to say writing to a builder; safe to say music to a mathematician, unsafe to say math to a musician. The worst is when day job is assumed, when it must be explained: "No, I care about that too." Being written off is actually something that can be felt. It is not said but it can still be heard: "Sorry, I thought you were one of us." Better to be a little apart and aloof from the beginning than to walk into that wall. Certainly if versatility were not nearly a religion to me I would have found some more presentable way to live.

Then there is the problem of sides. Your friend the writer has a technician in to fix the computer. Your friend thinks the technician is subhuman; the technician thinks your friend is braindead. Anything you say will either abet arrogance or insult ignorance; and so precisely because you understand both points of view, you cannot say anything. The gap is larger, the problem worse, when, say, a plumber is called in. Your friend thinks it a proof of their own education to be unable to talk to plumbers; the plumber thinks your friend is hardly fit to live. How do you stand—are you for the Morlocks or the Eloi?

But the worst problem is that of communication. Having a broader base of analogy, you understand faster, but often cannot explain why you understand. Your friend has some half-formed idea; you recognize the shape of it from some far-off source; you say, "That's just like..." But whatever you say, your friend hears gibberish. It does not matter that you understand; you have committed an error, you have lowered yourself with a blunder, as if you were the traveler-bore who kills conversations with "When I was in..."

Still I think versatility is natural. I often find people more versatile than they think themselves, because they have avoided recognizing in themselves abilities which it would be awkward to have others recognize in them. Society is at fault, but not our society; only the fact of society.

Coercive perception

Toward a science of memetics consider a phenomenon I will call coercive perception. "That's not a vase, that's an old woman's profile." "That's not a sword, that's a phallic symbol." "She's cheating on you." "That cloud's shaped like a rabbit!" "That's not an idea, that's the false consciousness of the bourgeois." Or, of course, "That's not a belief, that's a meme."

A perception is coercive when simply understanding it reorients you. Understanding is sufficient; belief is irrelevant. The coercion is instantaneous, irreversible, and permanent; it is seen and cannot be unseen. You cannot be argued out of it, because you never believed it; but you may act as though you believe it, because you cannot forget it. This sounds terrible in the abstract; but in practice it is something we value and seek out. Reading horror stories will coerce your perception of small quiet backwoods towns, of quiet staring backwoods people, of blackletter books and remote silent wastes, to an atmospheric unity. Being coerced this way is pleasant, despite its unpleasant content. But then imagine a young girl or boy, and a sort of friend who says cruelly—"Did anyone ever tell you look like ———? Look at this picture—can't you see it?" And of course they see it, they have been coerced to see it, and they will always see it, no matter how absurd and wrong they know it is.

This kind of perception is unique to human beings. It is not the substance of human difference, but might make a good test for it—better than the silly Turing test, which even Eliza has passed. So it is supposed to be intelligent—can its perceptions be coerced? Does its intelligence close over its perceptions? Correct perception is no test of intelligence. A mirror perceives correctly; what only perceives correctly is no more than a mirror. What cannot misperceive cannot think; what cannot be coerced in its perceptions cannot communicate.


Social interaction is not a skill. Even the least socially capable human beings handle themselves well with animals. In truth anyone who can manage a dog can manage any social necessity. We imagine that there must be something more to social interaction—some difference that raises human sociality as far above animal sociality as human beings themselves are above animals. But there is no such difference. Body language and tone of voice speak louder than any words said. We know there is something more to be had from the company of human beings than can be had from the company of animals; but when we try to reach for it, we grasp nothing. Still we are not wrong; there is such a difference; but it lies beyond social interaction, not in it. The mechanism of sociality is not how we connect, but how we avoid and regulate connection. In all human beings there is something so tender, so piteous, so kind, so sympathetic and so generous that it would sooner have us, like the heraldic pelican, wound ourselves to issue blood and give it, than see another go thirsty—something more than vulnerable, self-vulning. To survive we must armor and bar this something; so we place it in the same protected center of our instincts where the animal keeps its throat and belly. It will not be exposed to you until you have proved trustworthy, well-intentioned, and undemanding. That you are human does not give you the right to expect others to undress for you, even if you undress for them; to expect this deeper unveiling, even if you go about so deeply unveiled, is deeper folly.