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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, October 16, 2005

memes, genes, and joy

Yesterday I happened to look in on The Lost Fort, a blog by Gabriele Campbell, a German writer of historical fiction in English, who has been kind enough to link to this blog in her list of blogs worth visiting. I was surprised to see my name in a list with four others that Gabriele was assigning a task: to participate in a "meme" called The Search for Joy, in which a blogger is asked to search his own blog for the word joy, link to the associated post, and write a bit to expand on the experience of joy mentioned.

Gabriele, I'll accommodate you. But a couple of thoughts have arisen for me in the process.

First, I had not heard of the word meme in the context of blogging. I gather that these memes are simple instructions or tasks that bloggers send to selected other bloggers to execute and pass on, rather like a chain letter. A chain letter, when it contains a financial component ("send $1 to each of the people on this list, then add your own name to the bottom..."), is known as a Ponzi scheme, a swindle in which early entrants are paid by later ones, the last entrants being only payers and never payees. In developing countries, whole banking systems have been set up as Ponzi schemes. Mathematically, every Ponzi scheme must collapse sooner or later. A "successful" one is one in which its initiators get rich--and out of the country--before that happens.

In chain letters I've more often seen "luck" as the thing being multiplied, rather than cash. I have no idea how that's supposed to work. In practice, the further such a scheme goes the more resources it ties up, both with snail mail, where thousands and then millions of "good luck" letters are being sent, and with e-mail, where a "successful" chain letter can clog the whole Internet.

The other thought had to do with the word meme itself. I recognized it from where I first learned it, reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins sometime in the 1980s. Dawkins was and is famous as a fierce proponent of rigorous Darwinism (a recent Discover magazine feature called him "Darwin's Rottweiler"). His central thesis in The Selfish Gene was that the true actor of natural selection is not the individual organism but the individual gene--a cohesive biological unit carrying a single package of hereditary traits. Organisms--like you and me--exist for the purpose of transmitting genes. All of our other activities--eating, finding shelter, fighting predators, shaking off disease--serve purely to get us to the point where we can transmit our genes. According to this view, in a fundamental sense, our bodies and minds are simply delivery systems for genes; we are a complex mass of molecules purpose-built to propagate a set of simpler molecules. The concept of meme he threw out at the end of the book as a kind of image to suggest how knowledge and ideas propagate. These too would have "survival value" and generate behaviors and structures to ensure their propagation. The theory of evolution itself would presumably be such a meme.

At least, that's my memory of it. But even when I read The Selfish Gene I found Dawkins too authoritarian, too fanatical. He seems to be more about browbeating opponents into silence and submission than about winning hearts and minds. The concept of the meme I took to be more of a poetic idea than a scientific one. I didn't get the feeling he was seriously proposing it as a scientific concept on a footing with that of the gene.

Nonetheless, meme seems to have taken off in pop culture. It means, I suppose, something like "an idea with survival value", but it appears to have morphed, in the blogosphere anyway, into something akin to a virus--a thought or idea you can't get rid of, even if you want to. Something infectious and annoyingly persistent. A thing that spreads, Ponzi-style, from blog to blog until the next one comes along.

So here we are: a blog-meme.

I searched my whole blog for the word joy. It crops up almost exclusively in variants of the word enjoy, which, I found out, I use a lot. It's closely related to joy, of course. Sense 2 in my Webster's says, simply, "to take pleasure or satisfaction in", which is the sense in which I use it. So I scanned back, looking at each instance for a use that most reflected what is being sought in the meme: a genuine expression of joy in one's life. I decided to use this instance in the post titled writer: know thy world. It crops up thus:

I had lunch at the local Japanese restaurant Honjin with Greg, a fellow fiction-writer and former coworker at ICBC (former because I no longer work there; he still does). It's been a couple of years since I've seen him. I really enjoyed it; we talked about the projects we each currently have on the go.

There: "I really enjoyed it". In the Buddhist training I received, much of the spiritual practice was devoted to being aware of the present moment, whatever that moment is. Ordinarily our minds leap forward and back, going everywhere but the present moment. When we're having fun, however, or experiencing true joy, we're naturally in the present moment. We're paying attention to what's going on right now, and happily so. This was the quality of the lunch with my friend Greg. I am a writer, but a solitary one: I don't usually fraternize with other writers. But as a result I often have no real opportunity to talk about writing with someone who understands. Greg is an exception: he is a writer, and more than willing to talk (or listen to me talk!) about writing. There is no time when you're absorbed in the present, so before we knew it, it was time to pay the tab and part ways. So that sense of enjoyment of a good meal, companionship, and a brief window of time in which we could commune about shared experience and interest, were certainly an experience of joy as meant by this meme.

I hope that satisfies Gabriele. I understand her mother died recently, so she is looking perhaps for reminders of the good things in life. This was one of mine.

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  • Thank you, Paul, that's a very interesting post. I had heard about Dawkin's theses but never read anything by him. I agree with you that it's a very aggressive point of view and that there's more to being a human than transporting genes to a future generation I personally won't even have.

    It's an good concept of joy as being aware of the present moment. I have experienced a few what I call "perfect moments", usually shorter than a dinner with a friend, more like glimpses, but I think it is on the same level, basically. You have to be aware of it to realise a moment of joy.

    I didn't know that you had never come across the word meme as used in blogs. It's a fun thing, and I get tagged regularly. I admit that in spreading the tag I pick a mix of the usual suspects and people on my blogroll that don't usually get tagged. Because I think - and correctly so as you have proven - that I can get interesting and thoughtful replies that way.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at October 17, 2005 10:15 AM  

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