The old saying goes "A fish doesn't know he's breathing water." One part of that is that self-awareness, the root of conscious awareness, requires threshold wetware: the memory span of a goldfish is about five seconds.
But the real point is what Wittgenstein is getting at: Things are so familiar to us that we do not notice them.
I constantly discover that most people I know don't think about many of the things that I do. I wonder if it's part of being an artist that makes you notice more things than most people do. Or at least other things. It's common wisdom that artists see things in ways most people ignore. One definition of art is that art makes you, the viewer, perceive things in new ways you never experienced before. Open doors and windows into ways of seeing that you never thought of before.
The flip side of this is that, as Jean Cocteau famously said, We tend to judge the new by what is familiar. There is always a period of education in new art. There is some art that remains so new and out-of-the-box that it can take a long time for its impact to become absorbed and normalized. Some new art never achieves any kind of popular recognition because it remains uneducated about.
Sometimes the dreaded superhero Captain Obvious arrives on the scene, stating the obvious as always. It's surprising how often I think I'm stating the obvious and folks around me hadn't noticed what I was talking about. My superhero secret identity remains secure because no one can believe it. They don't even notice it.
These days, since the surgery last summer, I often feel fog-brained and fuzzy around the edges. A measure of how clear my mind is, is how many things I can multitask. I've usually been able to do about four things at once. Since the surgery, and still getting over the cognitive impairment caused by anaesthesia, I can still manage to multitask two things most days. But sometimes it takes all my energy to just stay focused on one task alone. Lots of folks tell me that one thing at a time is all they can handle—which is hyperbole to an extent, and most people can multitask two things reasonably well. Driving and talking on the cellphone at the same time is not, or should not be, one of those occasions. Most folks drive worse when splitting their attention in that way. Still, for me, only being able to do things at once is a sign not of ability but of relative impairment. I am diminished still by the lingering cognitive impairment caused by anaesthesia, and still not fully back to myself. Surgery takes a lot out of you, not all of it physical. It can be extremely frustrating.
But cognitive clarity is something most people take for granted. They just assume it will always be there. When it's gone, it can be a tragedy, as memory is one of the roots of personality and identity. You only notice it when it's gone. Since the surgery, and the way that death-and-rebirth has rearranged my life, I am clear that I will never take anything for granted ever again. It's all new, still, like doing everything again for the first time. My mind cannot go back to complacency. I am unable, at least for now, since the surgery, to take anything for granted even in the simplest way. I assume nothing. It could change any moment. You realize how ephemeral and precarious is the balance that we take for granted as the way of life. It goes down to the basics: Will the truck start today? Just because it did yesterday is no guarantee. Post-surgery life is a constant awareness that there are no guarantees. No guarantees about anything. It could still all fall apart tomorrow. I made it through this surgery, but I am not done yet with either healing nor with reconstructive surgery.
I have a long road still to go. I still need solace and support from friends. I realize now as never before how what holds your sanity together is the web of friendship. Nothing keeps you grounded in your own identity better than the mirror given to you by the people who know you best. Even when those mirrors are funhouse distorted, they remain panels that cast light back at you.
At the end of this road is the certainty of my own death. My own sense of mortality is present to me as never before. I've now been through a few almost-death experiences in the past couple of years—not the first of my life, as I've had the opportunity to die at least four times previously, although I'm still here—and am more aware than ever that there is an end-point, an omega-point. I don't know when it will be, and I'm in no hurry to meet it. I have a lot that I still want to do. I have finally figured out that my truest purpose in life is to make art, to be an artist: and I feel like I am just starting out, starting all over again. If I live another 20 or 30 years, that's long enough to be an entire career.
This self-awareness is new. Rather, it's not new on the intellectual level, or a philosophical level, but it's very new on the somatic level, the if you will gut level. Ouch. Gut level is a little too visceral an analogy for me, now, having had some of my guts literally taken out. This knowing goes deep down into my tissue in ways that I've not previously known about. I always knew about mortality, I've seen a lot more death than most people do in the normal course of life, but that was other people who were dying, not my own flesh. When it's your own flesh, it becomes very personal. Hard sometimes not to take it personally.
Yet I've always noticed things more than the people around me. I learned some years ago, around the time I was training extensively in the martial arts of Ki Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan, that I perceived and observed and could catalogue somewhere between two and four times more than my friends. It's not that my ears are sharper, or my eyes—my eyes are legendarily near-sighted—rather it's the processing of data. I don't filter out things so much. I wonder again if that's common to many artists, this extra sensitivity that is really a lack of filters, a lack of taking things for granted.
Wittgenstein was an artist of philosophy: his philosophy is so well-written and readable, it serves as a model for thinking out loud. He certainly noticed and thought about things many others have simply ignored because they were too common to be bothered over.
I am constantly reminded on each visit to a thrift store that even the most incredibly tacky objects on display were nonetheless designed and made by someone. Done in poor taste, perhaps, but designed. Everything you take for granted, even the fork and spoon you eat your meals with, were designed by someone, and manufactured by someone. Great contemporary designers of everyday objects that no-one thinks about until they see them redesigned in fresh ways—tea kettles, napkin rings, automobiles—are great designers in part because they make us notice things. I'm thinking of type designers and graphic artists who created revolutions in their fields by creating entirely new looks: David Carson, for example. Or architects who also designed everyday household items in a fresh and unified style: Michael Graves, for example. I also think of artist who designed their environs, their houses, the objects on display, that created not only a personal space, but an eternal, spiritual space: Georgia O'Keeffe, for example. The object with which you are reading this text was designed. Everything you never notice but use everyday was designed by someone.
These are the things we ignore. It's stunning, really, how much we are able to ignore.
Since I died and was reborn I'm not able to do that anymore. It's interesting. Some days overwhelm me with new experiences, new objects, new things. Even things that were familiar to me before the death-and-rebirth are new again, as if I'd never seen them before. I am constantly tripping over the familiar as if it were new and unknown. The experiences I've been through have made it impossible for me to ignore this. I wonder if this awareness will ever fade. Perhaps it will fade a bit without ever really going away. Perhaps it will fade back just a little, become less foreground, will still being in my mind. Perhaps it will fade away in several years, and I'm still too close to those life-changing events that caused this change in perspective. Perhaps this perceptual shift is to become permanent. Time will tell, as will emotional distance.
Regardless, I can't imagine now how I could ever go back to things as they were before. I am changed, my art is therefore changed, and I my perception may as well permanently changed. It wouldn't be a surprise if in the long run this was all permanent. It's all still rather new, as I said, but I find myself getting used to it. I keep running into life as if I was about to trip over it, but that's all to the good: more signs I'm still alive. For now, that's enough.
Meanwhile, I'd encourage anyone to notice everything. Don't take anything for granted anymore. Don't assume that things will go on as they always have. Nothing is guaranteed. Sooner or later it all falls apart. What you can do is be prepared for that disintegration and reintegration, by not clinging to what you think will never change. Of course it will change: change is a given. How we respond to change is what matters.