May 27, 2022
For some time, I have had it in mind to write about the role of habit in our lives. Habit is largely unconscious: when operating habitually, we are largely unconscious of what we are doing, are on autopilot, so to speak. We like to think that we live consciously and deliberately, but in fact we are basically unconscious or half-conscious for much of our day. It makes me wonder whether this is the root of pop culture’s fascination with zombies: it turns out that we are the zombies, shambling through our lives.
Manual skills are habitual. Once upon a time, we learned laboriously, step by step, to tie our shoes, but now we no longer think about it, we just do it. In fact, if we think about it, we are likely to get into the condition of the centipede who couldn’t walk once he started to keep track of all those legs. Years ago, I taught my former wife Stacey how to drive manual shift. I had to sit in the car beforehand and think about what it is I do when I shift, and figure out how to explain it in a series of analytical steps. The same is true of handwriting, of typing, of playing a musical instrument. But habit extends its empire far beyond these specialized and relatively complex activities, first into actions so simple and commonplace that we do not really think of them as skills, even though we once had to learn them and commit them to unconscious or muscle memory. We all had to learn to walk once—but we also “know” how to walk in order to stay upright on slippery ice. We “know” how to button a shirt—unless we are a man trying to button a woman’s blouse onto a hanger because the confounded buttons are on different sides, in which case our habitual skills fail us. There is a scale ranging from micro-actions such as the exact amount of pressure and angle of twist to turn a doorknob, expanding in the other direction to whole chains of action that we call routines, and whole days, especially in some jobs, that are a routine composed of smaller routines.
Also, thought is habitual, as anyone knows who has read essays by students who are “writing in their sleep,” as we sometimes put it—simply going through mechanical steps with no real thinking taking place at all. To be fair to students, one can have much the same impression reading academic articles that say the kind of thing that one is expected to say in order to get published, with the currently fashionable vocabulary. Such writing can seem almost randomly generated, as a few satirists have proved by submitting pseudo-articles that move terms mindlessly around like refrigerator magnets but which sound right—and getting them accepted. In the good old days, meter and rhyme and conventions like the sonnet made it possible to generate poetry exactly as computer software now might generate it, by rearranging component parts according to a recipe. In fact, software could be defined as encoded habit. The free verse revolution was supposed to make such mindless conventionality impossible, but in fact if you look in any poetry journal you will find that much of it sounds just as mindless and empty—new components, non-metrical yet just as mechanical, have replaced the old.
There are two famous treatments of the theme of habit, especially in its relationship to creativity and imagination. One is William James’s Principles of Psychology (full version 1890), whose renowned fourth chapter, on habit, treats it as the way in which the human mind constructs an ordered world out of what, in a much-quoted phrase, James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of consciousness in its natural state from birth. It was James more than anyone else who gave us the notion of “stream of consciousness” captured by the innovative fictional techniques of writers like Joyce and Faulkner. The mind’s original state—so James speculated—is an unordered flux of thought, feeling, and both internal bodily and external worldly sensation. James does not use the word, but habit is in fact an act of the imagination creating a world by constructing order out of chaos. It is in fact a kind of modern Creation myth, with the creative, form-giving power emerging from within rather than descending from on high. As such, it betrays its Romantic origins: in the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge spoke of a “primary imagination” that acts to order consciousness in much the same way, with the “secondary imagination” of the artist or reader reflecting the primary, except that for Coleridge, the would-be conservative, the primary imagination still echoes the transcendent creativity of the "eternal I AM."
In James’s description, the process of habit formation has a moral as well as an epistemological dimension, precisely because he extends the term “habit” to cover much more than it ordinarily does. The construction of a set of habits is really the formation of an identity: he comes close to saying that our habits are what we are. That being so, it is important to form the right habits early in life. This may sound rather old-fashioned, but it is another way of talking about social conditioning. Human beings do not just form habits and routines on their own: society does its best to construct them according to what used to be called the moral law and is now called ideology. In the vocabulary of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the original blooming, buzzing subjective state is the Imaginary. Infants and “idiots,” the term given to Benjy in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, live in it totally, along with the animals. For the rest of us, it is a kind of default state that we fall back into in moments of inattention, boredom, tiredness, or trauma. But ordinary adults have been initiated into a Symbolic order, especially through the acquisition of language. For Lacan, the would-be radical, this is a kind of fall into alienation: the Symbolic order is meaningful but cut off from our internal impulses; it is also cut off from the Real beyond the self, about which nothing can be said but that it exists, like Kant’s unknowable reality of the “thing in itself.” Postmodernist and poststructuralist thinkers lay great stress on the tendency of society to reduce human beings to mindless habit, to make them into machines for the sake of “efficiency,” which means capitalistic profit. As Northrop Frye stresses in The Modern Century, the arts have responded with a fierce backlash in the other direction, stressing the role of the imagination in liberating a routinized consciousness through techniques of “defamiliarization.” This too shows its Romantic roots: it is Shelley’s definition of the function of poetry in his Defense of Poetry, and one of the things I mean, in The Productions of Time and elsewhere, by decreation. The result is the demand that modern art be difficult, which means resisting the temptation in popular, commercial art—and its audience—of a passive response, one that comfortably reinforces familiar, habitual experience rather than challenging it.
It is true that habit is by definition reductive, and what it can reduce us to is the mechanical, the automatically repetitive. Comedy of all periods is full of what in Shakespeare’s time were called “humor” characters, meaning the fluids of the human body that were supposed to control temperament. But humor characters are gripped less by biochemicals than by reflex habits that they cannot break: one character is miserly, one is hot-tempered, one lazy. They have bad habits, or, rather, bad habits have them. But comedy teaches us tolerance, for we are all somewhat that way. The best introduction to William James, brilliant and yet highly readable, like all his work, is Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James (1983). Unfolding James’s theory of habit, Barzun at one moment becomes charmingly personal:
Yet, as I suggested, there is a role for the habit of breaking habits. I have tried to cultivate it, with varying degrees of success and in spite of the feeling of foolishness that comes with it: “how absurd to make a point of this!” To change trivial ways is hardest, of course—to dislocate old arrangements, give up the usual foods, or do without breakfast shows in its effects how hag-ridden we are. (76)
I do not need to do experiments: I know full well that I am a creature of habit in a dozen ways. To sit after breakfast with my coffee, reading my daily comics, is a necessity if I am not to feel cranky and unfocused the rest of the day. And, yes, the breakfast is the same every morning.
But Barzun acknowledges that habits are, at the same time, necessary:
Clearly, the desirable thing to do is break through habits when they become shackles, and there lies the difficulty. For habit by its very narrowing is liberating too. We would all go mad if every part of our daily routine—buttoning and unbuttoning—had to be thought about and decided on. (76)
If you spend time on the floor every night with two guinea pigs, you will learn how habit-possessed animals are. Out of a plateful of produce and fruit, the pigs will eat each type of food in a certain order—and a different order for each pig.
While James treats habit formation as a cultural construct, the Victorian satirist Samuel Butler treats it within that context of nature. Animals “know” some things that they never learned: we call such innate habits by the question-begging term “instinct,” as when a bird “knows” how to build a nest or when and where to migrate. Group activity requiring collective “knowledge” is even more impressive, as bees “know” how to build a hive. They also communicate locations to one another using a kind of dance without the benefit of terpsichorean instruction. They just got rhythm—but if we call it instinctual or innate, what do we really mean? Butler’s answer is that, while a bird never learned to build a nest, her distant ancestors once did, and passed that “knowledge” on to their descendants.
Butler was a creative evolutionist, partly out of conviction, partly out of the satirist’s reflexive subversiveness in the face of conventional wisdom, the conventional wisdom in this case being the new theory of Darwinian natural selection. The bone of contention is how new traits are first acquired and then passed on. Butler ascribes the invention of nest building to consciousness and will, an invention that becomes a habit which is then passed on. Conventional Darwinism denies the role of consciousness and will, calling to its aid a knowledge of genetics that did not exist in Butler’s time. The “inheritance of acquired characteristics” has been declared heretical. As usual in polemical arguments, the terms are confused: obviously new traits are acquired and inherited: the conflict is over how. In the Darwinian view, somehow a mutation or series of mutations in their genetic code caused birds to begin building nests, a trait that was passed on as patterns in a material substrate, bypassing consciousness and will altogether.
Butler’s brilliance was to have foreseen the arrival of an aggressive Darwinian culture warrior like Richard Dawkins, who in his landmark book The Selfish Gene (1976) denied autonomy to consciousness and will. The theme of that book is that we are pretty much puppets manipulated by our “selfish genes”: there is no such thing as “free will.” We are no different from machines: the idea of life as mechanism is clear in the title of another book by Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. To be precise, we are cybernetic automata, controlled by the organic software of our genetic code. Butler saw where the argument was going close to a century and a half ago in the satire on machine intelligence in Erewhon. He satirized Darwinism’s reduction of life to materialism and blind chance in a book called Luck or Cunning, in which he comes down firmly on the side of cunning.
Why take him seriously, given what we now think we know about biology? Because he points to paradoxes that biology would just as soon keep out of sight or dismiss as inconsequential. Butler’s famous aphorism that a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg is an apt summation of the thesis of The Selfish Gene if you substitute “gene” for “egg.” As Northrop Frye points out in his essay “Some Reflections on Life and Habit,” Butler gets satiric mileage out of ascribing conscious agency to natural phenomena that we normally think of as automatic: the plant “knows” to turn in the direction of the sun; the Omicron variant “knew” how to develop mutations to evade vaccine immunity. Creative evolution, reversing mechanistic materialism, revives the older vision of animism, discussed in a previous newsletter, in which the entire universe is alive. Long before the Gaia hypothesis, Renaissance magic was based on the notion of an Anima Mundi, or soul of the world. The choice between materialism and animism is a false dilemma, and the real use of reading Butler is not to side with animism or creative evolution over materialism but to develop detachment from scientific orthodoxy enough to see that its present paradigm leaves many paradoxes unresolved. There are more things in heaven and earth than materialism’s philosophy dreams of. I doubt whether it will achieve its goal of creating artificial consciousness without dreaming at least a few of them.
What Frye got out of Butler is very close to what Barzun got out of James: a theory of education based on what Frye calls “creative repetition.” They even choose the same example, learning to play the piano. Frye begins with more Butlerian satire about “knowing”:
Butler says that a baby a day old sucks, which involves a profound practical knowledge of the laws of pneumatics and hydrostatics; it digests; it oxygenizes its blood millions of years before oxygen was discovered; it sees and it hears—all most difficult and complicated operations, involving a similar knowledge of optics and acoustics. Before that, it was an embryo constructing eyes and limbs and performing other fantastically complex feats of engineering. (145-46)
At first this seems as if Butler is giving ammunition to the materialist side: surely it makes more sense to view these activities as materialistic processes rather than products of some kind of knowing. But Butler is headed towards a central insight. Digestion is one thing: a pianist playing a complex piece of music is another. Here, there is knowledge, but unconscious knowledge, knowledge that has become habit and therefore operates without conscious attention. Frye’s and Barzun’s descriptions are practically identical. In Words with Power, Frye says that “A stock example is a musician playing thousands of notes rapidly and accurately: he is not consciously attending to each note, though there must have been a time when he went through that phase” (258/304). Barzun’s description reads almost as a continuation: “This is but to say that conscious, awkward effort precedes unconscious ease. The piano piece has to be learned bit by bit, with stumblings, then rehearsed until performance calls for none of the attention that went into learning it. Indeed, one part of the mind (or as we inaccurately say, the fingers) can play it while another part carries on a conversation or thinks silently of past or future” (76).
I smile at that last sentence. In country blues acoustic guitar, there is a technique of keeping the rhythm with the right-hand thumb by picking alternating bass strings while the other fingers of the right hand play a melody. It’s sometimes said that the thumb is operating like the left hand of a ragtime pianist, laying down a rhythmic foundation. You have to practice until that alternating bass string technique becomes automatic—which I demonstrated to a class when I taught folk music by playing it while I was lecturing about it. To play like that involves a kind of knowledge, but it is knowledge become habitual and is therefore unconscious knowledge. That is where the whole argument leads: to an unconscious that thinks and knows, even as the ordinary ego remains unaware of that thinking and that knowledge. That unconscious activity is still me. In fact, in some ways it may be more deeply me than the ego self. In the fingerpicking community there is a saying that exists in a number of versions, but one is that your left hand is your intellect, while your right hand is your personality. (This assumes a right-handed guitarist). While playing, I often know very little of what my right hand is doing, and it is quite true that the secret of a guitarist’s expressiveness and individuality seems to lie more in the right hand than the left. It is the hand of rhythm rather than melody, and musical rhythm grows out of the rhythms of the body. But what in the end is the difference between the pianist or guitarist knowing how to play the notes and a baby knowing how to digest its food? Both are unconscious knowledge, the digestion simply lying on a deeper, less accessible level of unconsciousness. Where do we draw the line between automatic material processes and some kind of unconscious knowing? Butler puckishly suggests that there is no line. This begins to leave the realm of mere satire: yoga begins with a discipline of learning to control and re-educate the habit of breathing, and some versions of yoga extend such control to normally autonomic processes such as altering body temperature.
Out of these insights arises a theory of education as practice-repetition. Like every theory, it is a conceptualized form of a myth. Frye says that “The practice that develops a creative skill is also a descent journey, an assimilation of the conscious to the unconscious that is metaphorically underneath it” (Words with Power, 258/304). The descent takes the form of disciplined practice, as any real musician will tell you. We may insert here the piece of floating folklore that it takes ten thousand repetitions to commit something to “muscle memory.” Students outside of a music conservatory often resist the ideas of practice and memorization: these are rote and mechanical, they complain, the opposite of the creative and exciting spontaneity that is supposed to accompany true education. There is certainly such a thing as uncreative repetition and rote learning. But real practice-repetition entails dedication and unavoidable discipline. “Nothing gives greater pleasure than spontaneous activity,” Frye says, “but the spontaneous comes at the end of a long discipline of practice….Education, then, is a movement toward the spontaneous, not a movement away from it. We speak of a liberal education, which means essentially that something in us is getting liberated or set free. When we practice the piano, we are setting ourselves free to play the piano” (“Reflections,” 350/150).
The mythical shape of spontaneity is an ascent journey from unconscious to conscious, an outburst of insight, energy, or skill. “There can be no ascent of consciousness, however, without this preliminary sending of roots down into the unconscious by practice” (258/305). Words with Power, from which the previous sentence derives, is built on the scheme of the vertical axis mundi, one of the primary patterns of the imagination. And at this point I recognize that my own unconscious “knew” better than I know, directing me to this theme to complement my treatment of the horizontal axis of time in the previous two newsletters. We may add, as Frye does, that everything we have been saying about practice-repetition of manual skills applies also to the intellect: “But thinking, again, is like piano-playing: how well we do it depends primarily on how much of it we have progressively and systematically done already, and at all times the content of thinking is knowledge” (“Reflections,” 352/153).
At one point, Frye glances in passing upon the insight that the spontaneous “never comes early except when it is something we have inherited as part of our previous evolutionary development—something our ancestors have practiced before us” (“Reflections, 350/150). In nature, what our ancestors have practiced before us has become part of our inherited genetic code. There is a cultural equivalent of such an inherited code, discussed by T.S. Eliot as “tradition” in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Frye’s equivalent is the idea of an “order of words” metaphorically comparable to the order of nature studied by science. It would not do to underestimate the hostility to such a point of view in some quarters today. From the “theory wars” of the 70’s and 80’s to some of the woke theorists now, there has been a recurrent itch to wipe out the entire Western tradition, replacing it with a blank slate of moral purity free of the metastasized evils of patriarchy, homophobia, and white supremacy. I think that such a Manichean attitude is misguided, but I take it seriously because it points to a crucial aspect of the theory of education as a journey of descent and ascent: namely, that the descent towards the unconscious consists of more than the discipline of learning new skills and insights. Such a recreation has to be preceded by a decreation that breaks through previous habits, both manual and moral, and breaks with previous insights now seen to be outmoded or inadequate—including the “wisdom of the ancients” at points where we can now see that such “wisdom” was actually only a rationalized form of class privilege or racism.
But tradition has a genuine form. My mentor Frye had his mentors, leading me back to a vision manifested at various points in the literary and mythological tradition. The conclusion of Frye’s last full-length book, Words with Power, takes up the theme of practice-repetition once again and identifies it as purgatorial, connecting it inevitably with Dante’s Divine Comedy. After the decreative descent of the Inferno, in which Dante the character learns by darkly vivid examples the nature of sin as destructive habit, a behavior pattern into which the damned are locked even beyond death, he ascends the mountain of Purgatory, explicitly, it is said, in search of freedom. He achieves that freedom in large part through the influence of the arts: at every stage of his ascent he encounters various literary, visual, and musical works of art that teach repeatedly how purgatory is not just punishment but, as its name says, purging. The traditional fires of purgatory are refining fires: we are thrown into them as into a crucible, to refine away the dross of the natural self, leaving the spiritual self, imagery analogous to the alchemical process of creating the Philosopher’s Stone. Dante’s personal version is the wall of flame through which he must pass to enter into Paradise. On the other side of the fire, Virgil, in professorial mode, tells him that he passed and is graduated, crowning him Pope and Emperor over himself, liberated and free to follow his spontaneous impulses. The message is not dependent upon a Christian commitment: no lesser a figure than St. Augustine said that we do not have to wait for the afterworld, because life itself is purgatorial.
Much as they conflicted ideologically, Milton and Dante are at one mythologically, at least in this context. The purpose of education, Milton says in his short pamphlet “On Education,” is to “repair the ruin of our first parents,” in other words to undo the Fall—in other words, to ascend from this “fallen” world to the higher level of being, back both to our true home and to our true identity, beyond these corrupted, egocentric natural selves. A teacher myself, I add that there is no end to the process. Each time you reach a summit, it turns into the foothills of a new mountain. It is easy to get this across to my students: all I have to do is remind them how it felt to go from being accomplished and confident high school seniors to confused and insecure freshmen the minute they stepped on campus. Dante himself goes in the space of a couple of cantos from Pope and Emperor of himself to a demoralized lover scolded by an angry girlfriend, “like a child scolded by its mother.” This “begin again” turns the straight vertical ascent into an upward spiral, circling around the same center of vision, but each time at a more elevated point.
Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology is a secular version of the same mythical pattern. His hierarchy of needs has to be ascended step by step, finally reaching the goal of self-actualization at the apex. But at the end of his life, Maslow saw that self-actualization was not a final goal. The ladder of basic needs having been climbed, the self-actualized person begins a quest to realize a whole new set of transpersonal or “Being-values,” such as truth, beauty, and justice.
A simultaneously Romantic and satiric version of the ascent occurs in Goethe’s Faust. Faust begins as a professor who in mid-life realizes he has learned nothing about anything that really matters, and who, to his credit, plunges into the world of experience, but repeatedly fails, often in ways that other people have to pay the price for, sometimes with their lives, from Gretchen in the first part to Philemon and Baucis in the second. He dies at the age of 100, not only physically but morally blind about everything. But the system passes him along anyway on the familiar academic grounds that he kept trying, although it is duly noted that he will have a lot of remedial work to do in the higher realms of striving beyond death.
We began on a practical, self-help level with the lesson that it is necessary to form good habits and keep to productive routines, for that will take you far in life. We are perhaps beginning to realize just how far, for in its fully undisplaced mythical form the ascent ladder of creative practice-repetition leads beyond the limits of ordinary reality altogether. In one of his rhetorically resonant passages, Frye says, “The goal of the creative ascent is the transcending of time and space as we know them, and the attaining of a present and a presence in another dimension altogether. The present is the expanded moment of awareness that is as long as recorded human history; the presence is the love that moves the sun and other stars” (Words with Power, 257/303). The terms here are those of Dante’s Christian commitment, which suggests that the top of the journey of ascent is some sort of afterlife. But the passage immediately goes on to deny the suggestion that the goal is “only an extension of our present experience into the unknown” (259/306). Instead, Words with Power ends, like its prequel The Great Code, with a meditation on the Book of Job.
Or rather, as he does not quite say, on Blake’s series of illuminations of the Book of Job, which deliteralize the literal text. This is more or less necessary because, read literally, the Book of Job is frankly appalling. Don’t take my word for it: a whole succession of eminent writers have been provoked into writing revisionist versions of Job, from Goethe’s genial satire in the Prologue of Faust to Jung’s outraged rewriting of the whole Bible in his Answer to Job. If we read the text literally, Yahweh, Job’s God, makes Shelley’s tyrannical Jupiter look reasonable. He torments his best follower in order to win a stupid bet he never should have made with Satan, then bullies Job unmercifully when Job suggests that his treatment has been unfair. Yes, he restores Job’s children—after putting Job through the agony of killing them all off. With a God like this, who needs Satan? And in fact, Satan disappears from the conclusion of the poem, along with all mention of the wager. On a literal level, the Book of Job says, “God has his reasons. We don’t know what they are, but they must be good ones because he’s God.”
Blake’s illuminations show, rather than tell, a different story. In the conventional interpretation, God is the ultimate bad professor, showing up at the end of the book to lecture Job in a hectoring tone, flaunting his infinite superiority and mocking his student’s ignorance. In Blake’s non-literal reading, God does what a good teacher does: he lifts Job up to a higher level of vision, one from which he can look down and see that groveling Job and bullying Yahweh are both illusions born of the split that Blake called the “cloven fiction” between subjective consciousness and the objective world. On the higher, spiritual level of vision, God and man are not alienated and antagonistic but identified, which Blake expresses by giving Yahweh and Job the same facial features. The conventional reading, that of the natural self, is our world seen in “realistic” terms. On a spiritual level, which is a higher level of interpretation, it is revealed in its true form as a vision of hell, nor are we out of it. But it is a hell that needs to be harrowed, not rationalized. There are many possible morals to this story. One of them is that we should develop the habit of reading actively and expansively rather than reductively.
It may seem odd that a discussion of habit should end in a consideration of the nature of death. The terror of death is the ego’s terror of its own extinction, which to the ego is the annihilation of the entire self, indeed of the entire universe, which is assumed to be snuffed out with the extinction of the ego that perceives it. But our lowly yet comforting habits disclose that we spend a great deal of our lives thinking and feeling and acting out of unconscious areas of the psyche that the ego is either unaware of or dismisses as other and irrelevant. Any attempt to suggest a larger circumference of the psyche is likely enough to gain you a reputation as some kind of occultist New Age weirdo: if you doubt that, take a look at some of the critiques of Jung. Nonetheless, that larger circumferential identity, which Jung called the Self, does not seem to be bound by the limits of time and space. Everything that is truly educational, including not only academic education but also the arts and the school of hard knocks that we call romantic love, unites in a journey of ascent towards a level on which we may have some intuition of what that means. It is a journey that is endless, because the goal itself is endless. Perhaps it is greater wisdom to say that the journey is always beginning, or always beginning again.
Note: References to Frye’s works are to the page number in the Collected Works edition, followed by the page number in their original publication.
Barzun, Jacques. A Stroll with William James. University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Frye, Northrop. “Some Reflections on Life and Habit.” In Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, edited by Imre Salusinszky. Volume 17 of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press, 2005. 341-53. Originally published in Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974-1988, edited by Robert D. Denham. University of Virginia Press, 1990. 141-54.
Frye, Northrop. Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature.” In volume 26 of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, edited by Michael Dolzani, 2008. Originally published by Harcourt-Brace Jovanovich, 1990.