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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.


Why is it surprising for someone to be versatile? When the question is (rarely) asked, the usual answer is to blame capital-s Society. Society wants us to specialize; Society wants labor to be divided. Without Society, we would all be versatile. I do not dispute that the state of nature would be one of versatility. But I think it is really small-s society – common friendship, mere company – that keeps versatility rare.

The downside of versatility is that people who admire, or even share, one of your abilities may 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 they assume day job, and you have to explain: “No, I care about that too.” Being written off is actually something you can feel. It was not said but you still heard it: “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 taking sides. Your friend the writer calls in a technician to fix their 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 proves their own education that they cannot 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 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 discover that people are more versatile than they think they are, because they have not allowed themselves to recognize, 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 at all.

Coercive perception

Toward a science of memetics consider the 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, in the end, 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 the 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. They will see it till they die.

This kind of perception is unique to human beings. It is not the substance of human difference, but it might make a good test for human difference – better than the silly Turing test, which even Eliza has passed. So this thing 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.


Living among animals, you notice there are people – many people – who can handle themselves well with animals, but not with other people. This is strange, because body language and tone of voice are the only channels of commmunication with animals, but body language and tone of voice are where these unfortunates fail with other people – they are oblivious to other people’s cues, and when they speak they seem cursed with bodies they do not know what to do with.

I classify this as one kind of overthinking. They believe that there is something special about social interaction, some difference that raises human sociality above animal sociality, some special prospect of human connection in what human beings, and only human beings, share. But when they reach for it, they lean too far, and they grasp only dead air.

They are not wrong about the difference; they are just looking in the wrong place. Our difference lies, not in social interaction, but beyond 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 proven 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.