An ongoing project. I’m gathering words which, in years past, impressed me– so much, so that this intention, wherever it came from, allows the words to arise.
I’m archiving chronologically, beginning in my teens. I plan to fill piecemeal: a few words surface, a mood, then I have to find that place in the book (and sometimes the book). It becomes clear now: freeing the psycho-soma from residue.
On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested, – “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, “Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.” Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, – else it is none.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1841)
The conductor blocks my path.
“Wait until the car stops.”
But I push him aside and jump out of the tramway. I couldn’t stand it any more. I could no longer stand things being so close. I push open a gate, go in, airy creatures are bounding and leaping and perching on the peaks. Now I recognize myself, I know where I am: I’m in the park. I drop onto a bench between great black tree-trunks, between the black, knotty hands reaching towards the sky. A tree scrapes at the earth under my feet with a black nail. I would so like to let myself go, forget myself, sleep. But I can’t, I’m suffocating: existence penetrates me everywhere, through the eyes, the nose, the mouth. . .
And suddenly, suddenly, the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen.
I can’t say I feel relieved or satisfied; just the opposite, I am crushed. Only my goal is reached: I know what I wanted to know; I have understood all that has happened to me since January. The Nausea has not left me and I don’t believe it will leave me so soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I. So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was an “existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word “to be.” Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, 1 foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder-naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938) (Translated by Lloyd Alexander)
Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point,–a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
– John Berryman, The Dream Songs (1964)
“We have time,” Teddy said. “–Vloom!” He suddenly thrust his whole head out of the porthole, kept it there a few seconds, then brought it in just long enough to report, “Someone just dumped a whole garbage can of orange peels out the window.”
“Out the window. Out the window,” Mr. McArdle said sarcastically, flicking his ashes. “Out the porthole, buddy, out the porthole.” He glanced over at his wife. “Call Boston. Quick, get the Leidekker examining group on the phone.”
“Oh, you’re such a brilliant wit,” Mrs. McArdle said. “Why do you try?”
Teddy took in most of his head. “They float very nicely,” he said without turning around. “That’s interesting.”
“Teddy. For the last time. I’m going to count three, and then I’m-“
“I don’t mean it’s interesting that they float,” Teddy said. “It’s interesting that I know about them being there. If I hadn’t seen them, then I wouldn’t know they were there, and if I didn’t know they were there, I wouldn’t be able to say that they even exist. That’s a very nice, perfect example of the way–“
“Teddy,” Mrs. McArdle interrupted, without visibly stirring under her top.
Teddy turned and looked at his mother. “What?” he said.
“Where’s Booper now? I don’t want her meandering all around the deck chairs again, bothering people. If that awful man–“
“She’s all right. I gave her the camera.”
Mr. McArdle lurched up on one arm. “You gave her the cameral” he said. “What the hell’s the idea? My goddam Leica! I’m not going to have a six-year-old child gallivanting all over–“
“I showed her how to hold it so she won’t drop it,” Teddy said. “And I took the film out, naturally.”
“I want that camera, Teddy. You hear me? I want you to get down off that bag this minute, and I want that camera back in this room in five minutes–or there’s going to be one little genius among the missing. Is that clear?”
Teddy turned his feet around on the Gladstone, and stepped down. He bent over and tied the lace of his left sneaker while his father, still raised up on one elbow, watched him like a monitor.
“Tell Booper I want her,” Mrs. McArdle said. “And give Mother a kiss.”
Finished tying his sneaker lace, Teddy perfunctorily gave his mother a kiss on the cheek. She in turn brought her left arm out from under the sheet, as if bent on encircling Teddy’s waist with it, but by the time she had got it out from under, Teddy had moved on. He had come around the other side and entered the space between the two beds. He stooped, and stood up with his father’s pillow under his left arm and the glass ashtray that belonged on the night table in his right hand. Switching the ashtray over to his left hand, he went up to the night table and, with the edge of his right hand, swept his father’s cigarette stubs and ashes into the ashtray. Then, before putting the ashtray back where it belonged, he used the under side of his forearm to wipe off the filmy wake of ashes from the glass top of the table. He wiped off his forearm on his seersucker shorts. Then he placed the ashtray on the glass top, with a world of care, as if he believed an ashtray should be dead-centered on the surface of a night table or not placed at all. At that point, his father, who had been watching him, abruptly gave up watching him. “Don’t you want your pillow?” Teddy asked him.
“I want that camera, young man.”
“You can’t be very comfortable in that position. It isn’t possible,” Teddy said. “I’ll leave it right here.” He placed the pillow on the foot of the bed, clear of his father’s feet. He started out of the cabin.
– J.D. Salinger, Teddy (1953)
*Note: When I encountered this as a child, I had no idea that Teddy was an incarnate llama, a real rinpoche…
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
– Bertrand Russell, prologue to his three-volume Autobiography (1956)
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth, —
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
– Percy Bisshe Shelley, To the Moon, (fragment published by Mary Shelley, 1824)
WHAT SEEMS TO BE THE TROUBLE, GENTLEMEN?
the service was bad
and the bellboy kept bringing in towels
at the wrong moment.
drunk, I finally clubbed him along
the side of the head.
he was a little man and he fell
like an October leaf,
and when the fuzz came up
I had the sofa in front of the door
and the chain on,
the 2nd movement of Brahm’s First Symphony
and had my hand halfway up the ass
of a broad old enough to be my grandmother
and they broke the god damned door,
pushed the sofa aside;
I slapped the screaming chippy
and turned and asked,
what seems to be the trouble, gentlemen?
and some kid who had never shaved
brought his stick down against my head
and in the morning I was in the prison ward
chained to my bed
and it was hot,
the sweat coming down through the white
and they asked all sorts of silly questions
and I knew I’d be late for work,
which worried me immensely.
– Charles Bukowski (1969)
Usually the red squirrel (Sciurus Hudsonius) waked me in the dawn, coursing over the roof and up and down the sides of the house, as if sent out of the woods for this purpose. In the course of the winter, I threw out half a bushel of ears of sweet corn, which had not got ripe, onto the snow-crust by my door, and was amused by watching the motions of the various animals which were baited by it. In the twilight and the night the rabbits came regularly and made a hearty meal. All day long the red squirrels came and went, and afforded me much entertainment by their manœuvres. One would approach at first warily through the shrub oaks, running over the snow-crust by fits and starts like a leaf blown by the wind, now a few paces this way, with wonderful speed and waste of energy […]
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
When stepped on, a worm doubles up. That is clever. In that way he lessens the probability of being stepped on again. In the language of morality: humility.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1888)
I never attack persons; I merely avail myself of the person as a strong magnifying glass that allows one to make visible a general but creeping and elusive calamity.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (1888)
Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right but without inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life brings with it in any case, not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing one like that comes to grief, this happens so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it nor sympathize. And he cannot go back any longer. Nor can he go back to the pity of men.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
If I see in my soul the citron-breasted fair one
Still gold-tinted, her face like our night stars,
Drawing unto her; her body beaten about with flame,
Wounded by the flaring spear of love,
My first of all by reason of her fresh years,
Then is my heart buried alive in snow.
They chatter her weakness through the two bazaars
Who was so strong to love me. And small men
That buy and sell for silver being slaves
Crinkle the fat about their eyes; and yet
No Prince of the Cities of the Sea has taken her,
Leading to his grim bed. Little lonely one,
You clung to me as a garment clings; my girl.
I mind the coming and talking of wise men from towers
Where they had thought away their youth. And I, listening,
Found not the salt of the whispers of my girl,
Murmur of confused colours, as we lay near sleep;
Little wise words and little witty words,
Wanton as water, honied with eagerness.
– E. Powys Mathers, Black Marigolds (1919) (A translation of the Caurapañcāśikā by Bhilana, 11th Century Kashmiri poet)
The trail left the river again, and as Joseph neared his tent the clouds rolled backward from the west to the east like a curtain of grey wool and the late sun sparkled on the washed land, glittered on the grass blades and shot sparks into the drops that lay in the hearts of wildflowers. Before his tent Joseph dismounted and unsaddled the horse and rubbed its wet back and shoulders with a cloth before he turned the tired beast loose to graze. He stood in the damp grass in front of his tent. The setting sun played on his brown temples and the evening wind ruffled his beard. The hunger in his eyes became rapaciousness as he looked down the long green valley. His possessiveness became a passion. “It’s mine,” he chanted. “Down deep it’s mine, right to the center of the world.” He stamped his feet into the soft earth. Then the exultance grew to be a sharp pain of desire that ran through his body in a hot river. He flung himself face downward on the grass and pressed his cheek against the wet stems. His fingers gripped the wet grass and tore it out, and gripped again. His thighs beat heavily on the earth.
The fury left him and he was cold and bewildered and frightened at himself. He sat up and wiped the mud from his lips and beard. “What was it?” he asked himself. “What came over me then? Can I have a need that great?” He tried to remember exactly what had happened. For a moment the land had been his wife. “I’ll need a wife,” he said. “It will be too lonely here without a wife.’ He was tired. His body ached as though he had lifted a great rock, and the moment of passion had frightened him.
– John Steinbeck, To a God Unknown (1933)
Then what is the answer?- Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history… for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
–Robinson Jeffers (1936)
A piece of flesh gives off
smoke in the field–
gurry dumped from hospital trashcans.
This corpse will not stop burning!
–Galway Kinnell, from The Book of Nightmares (1971)
I live a strangely double life. From childhood I have been in contact with European culture, I have bathed in its spirit; not only have a I become thoroughly familiar with it, but there is much in it that I love. I love what I think of as its cleanliness and comfort; I love science, the arts, poetry, Pushkin; I feel at home in the cultural family, I love talking about cultural matters with my friends, with all and sundry, the themes we discuss and the methods of developing them interest me genuinely. In this regard I am with you: we have a common cult of service in the cultural marketplace, we have habits in common and a common language. This is my daytime life
However, in the depths of my consciousness I lead another life. For many years I have head a secret inner voice telling me, urgently, incessantly: “This is not it! This is not it!” In me another will backs off uneasily from culture, from everything being said and done around me, finding all of it boring and futile, like a turmoil of phantoms battling in a void. This will knows another world, perceives another life such as are not now upon the earth, but which will be and perforce must be, for genuine reality cannot otherwise be embodied at last; and this inner voice I recognize as the voice of my genuine self. I am like a foreigner adapted to a country that is not his own, liked by the natives and liking them in return, concerned for their welfare and exerting myself willingly in its behalf, suffering when they suffer, rejoicing when they rejoice. But I know that I am a foreigner, and in secret I miss the fields of my homeland, its different seasons, the different odor of its flowers in the springtime and the different speech of the women there.
Where is my homeland? I shall never lay eyes upon it, I shall die in a foreign place. […]
– Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon, Letter to Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, (1920) (Translated by Lisa Sergio, published in “Correspondence Across a Room”)
A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like featherings of soft white down. Her slateblue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was a bird’s soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some darkplumaged dove. But her fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither: and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.
–Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.
He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.
Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on and on!
He halted suddenly and heard his heart in silence. How far had he walked? What hour was it?
– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
A word sticks in the wind’s throat;
A wind-launch drifts in the wells of rye;
Sometimes, in broad silence,
The hanging apples distill their darkness.
You, in a green dress, calling, and with brown hair,
Who come by the field-path now, whose name I say
Softly, forgive me my love if also I call you
Wind’s word, apple-heart, haven of grasses.
– Richard Wilbur (1956)
The Blue Booby
The blue booby lives
on the bare rocks
and fears nothing.
It is a simple life:
they live on fish,
and there are few predators.
Also, the males do not
make fools of themselves
chasing after the young
they gather the blue
objects of the world
and construct for them
a nest–an occasional
a string of beads,
a piece of cloth from
a sailor’s suit. This
replaces the need for
in fact, in the past
fifty million years
the male has grown
nor can he sing well.
The female, though,
asks little of him–
the blue satisfies her
a magical effect
on her. When she returns
from her day of gossip and shopping,
she sees he has found her
a new shred of blue foil:
for this she rewards him
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them
like the eyes of a mild savior.
–James Tate (1969)
But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
– Hermann Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
– William Wordsworth, The World is Too Much with Us (1802)
Two pointings may be pointings to a numerically identical rabbit, to numerically distinct rabbit parts, and to numerically distinct rabbit stages; the inscrutability lies not in resemblance, but in the anatomy of sentences. We could equate a native expression with any of the disparate English terms ‘ rabbit ’ , ‘ rabbit stage ’ , ‘ undetached rabbit part ’ , etc., and still, by compensatorily juggling the translation of numerical identity and associated particles, preserve conformity to stimulus meanings of occasion sentences.
– William Van Orman Quine, Word and Object (1960)
Not everyone is capable of taking a bath of multitude: enjoying crowds is an art. And only he who can go on a binge of vitality, at the expense of the human species, is he into whom in his cradle a fairy breathed a craving for disguises and masks, hatred of home, and a passion for traveling.
Multitude, solitude: equal and interchangeable terms for the active and fertile poet. He who does not knowhow to populate his solitude, does not know either how to be alone in a busy crowd.
The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able, at will, to be himself and an other. Like those wandering souls seeking a body, he enters, when he wants into everyone’s character. For him alone, everything is empty. And if certain places seem to exclude him, it is because he considers them not worth the bother of being visited.
The solitary and thoughtful stroller draws a unique intoxication from this universal communion. He who easily espouses crowds knows feverish delights, of which the selfish will be eternally deprived, locked up like a chest, and the lazy, confined like a mollusk. He adopts as his every profession, every joy and every misery circumstances place before him.
What people call love is awfully small, awfully restricted, and awfully weak, compared with that ineffable orgy, that holy prostitution of the soul which gives itself totally, poetry and charity, to the unexpected which appears, to the unknown which passes by.
– Charles Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris, Petits Poèmes en prose (1863) (Translated by Edward K. Kaplan)
6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.
Ethics is transcendental.
(Ethics and aesthetics are one.)
6.422 The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt…” is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.
(And this is clear also that the the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)
6.423 Of the will as the subject of the ethical we cannot speak.
And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.
6.43 If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language.
In brief, the world must thereby become quite another. It must so to speak wax or wane as a whole.
The world of the happy man is quite another than that of the unhappy.
6.431 As in death, too, the world does not change, but ceases.
6.431.1 Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.
If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.
Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit.
6.4312 The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. IS a riddle solved by the fact that I survive forever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.
(It is not problems of natural science which have to be solved.)
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (Translated by C.K. Ogden)
Govern a country as you would cook a small fish.
– Tao Te Ching (400 BCE?)
We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. Ziegenhalss, at any rate, contends that many such pieces are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly these manufactured articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again. The producers of these trivia were in some cases attached to the staffs of the newspapers; in other cases they were free-lance scriveners. Frequently they enjoyed the high-sounding title of “writer,” but a great many of them seem to have belonged to the scholar class. Quite a few were celebrated university professors.
Among the favorite subjects of such essays were anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women. They bore such titles as “Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashions of 1870,” or “The Composer Rossini’s Favorite Dishes,” or “The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of Great Courtesans,” and so on. Another popular type of article was the historical background piece on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do, such as “The Dream of Creating Gold Through the Centuries,” or “Physico-chemical Experiments in Influencing the Weather,” and hundreds of similar subjects. When we look at the titles that Ziegenhalss cites, we feel surprise that there should have been people who devoured such chitchat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and of decent education should have helped to “service” this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies. Significantly, “service” was the expression used; it was also the word denoting the relationship of man to the machine at that time.
– Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, dedicated to the Journeyers to the East (1943) (Translated by Richard and Clare Winston)
This book has been written against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith. It was written out of the conviction that it should be possible to discover the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved into a conglomeration where everything seems to have lost specific value, and has become unrecognizable for human comprehension, unusable for human purpose. To yield to the mere process of disintegration has become an irresistible temptation, not only because it has assumed the spurious grandeur of “historical necessity,” but also because everything outside it has begun to appear lifeless, bloodless, meaningless, and unreal.
The conviction that everything that happens on earth must be comprehensible to man can lead to interpreting history by commonplaces: Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us–neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting, of reality–whatever it may be.
We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead lead which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.
–Hannah Arendt, Preface to the Origins of Totalitarianism (1950)
For someone with a gift for sensing the mystery of otherness, true love must necessarily be, in Lawrence’s vocabulary, nocturnal. So must true knowledge. Nocturnal and tactual– a touching in the night. Man inhabits, for his own convenience, a home-made universe within the greater alien world of external matter and his own irrationality. Out of the illimitable blackness of that world the light of his customary thinking scoops, as it were, a little illuminated cave–a tunnel of brightness, in which, from the birth of his consciousness to his death, he lives, moves and has his being. For most of us this bright tunnel is the whole world. We ignore the outer darkness, or if we cannot ignore it, if it presses too insistently upon us, we disapprove, being afraid. Not so Lawrence. He had eyes that could see beyond the walls of light, far into the darkness, sensitive fingers that kept him continually aware of the environing mystery. He could not be content with the home-made, human tunnel, could not conceive that anyone else should be content with it. Moreover– and in this he was unlike those others, to whom the world’s mystery is continuously present, the great philosophers and men of science– he did not want to increase the illuminated area; he approved of the outer darkness, he felt at home in it. Most men live in a little puddle of light thrown by the gig-lamps of habit and their immediate interest, but there is also the pure and powerful illumination of the disinterested scientific intellect. To Lawrence, both lights were suspect, both seems to falsify what was, for him, the immediately apprehended reality– the darkness of mystery. ‘My great religion,” he was already saying in 1912, “is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what the blood feels, and believes, and says is always true.” […] His dislike of science was passionate and expressed itself in the most fantastically unreasonable terms.
– Aldous Huxley, Introduction to The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (1932)
What it was in him he did not know, but the thought of love, marriage, and children, and a life lived together, in the horrible privacy of domestic and connubial satisfaction, was repulsive. He wanted something clearer, more open, cooler, as it were. The hot narrow intimacy between man and wife was abhorrent. The way they shut their doors, these married people, and shut themselves in to their own exclusive alliance with each other, even in love, disgusted him. It was a whole community of mistrustful couples insulated in private houses or private rooms, always in couples, and no further life, no further immediate, no disinterested relationship admitted:a kaleidoscope of couples, disjoined, separatist, meaningless entities of married couples. True, he hated promiscuity even worse than marriage, and a liaison was only another kind of coupling, reactionary from the legal marriage. Reaction was a greater bore than action.
On the whole, he hated sex, it was such a limitation. It was sex that turned a man into a broken half of a couple, the woman into the other broken half. And he wanted to be single in himself, the woman single in herself. He wanted sex to revert to the level of the other appetites, to be regarded as a functional process, not as a fulfilment. He believed in sex marriage. But beyond this, he wanted a further conjunction, where man had being and woman had being, two pure beings, each constituting the freedom of the other, balancing each other like two poles of one force, like two angels, or two demons.
He wanted so much to be free, not under the compulsion of any need for unification, or tortured by unsatisfied desire. Desire and aspiration should find their object without all this torture, as now, in a world of plenty of water, simple thirst is inconsiderable, satisfied almost unconsciously. And he wanted to be with Ursula as free as with himself, single and clear and cool, yet balanced, polarised with her. The merging, the clutching, the mingling of love was become madly abhorrent to him.
–D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920)
First I gradually lost the ability, when discussing relatively elevated or general topics, to utter words normally used by everyone with unhesitating fluency. I felt an inexplicable uneasiness in even pronouncing the words “spirit,” “soul,” or “body.” I found myself profoundly unable to produce an opinion on affairs of court, events in Parliament, what have you. And not out of any kind of scruples– you know my candor, which borders on thoughtlessness. Rather, the abstract words which the tongue must enlist as a matter of course in order to bring out an opinion disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms.[…]
And sometimes I compare myself in my thoughts with Crassus, the orator. The story is that he grew so inordinately fond of a tame eel, a dull, mute, red-eyed fish in his ornamental pond, that it became the talk of the town; and when Domitius disparaged him in the Senate for shedding tears over the death of this fish, wishing to portray him as something of a fool, Crassus replied: “When my fish died, I did what you did not when your first wife died, or your second.”
– Hugo von Hofmannsthal, A Letter (1902) (Translated by Joel Rotenberg)
What is going to happen? What will the future bring? I do not know, I have no presentiment. When a spider flings itself from a fixed point down into its consequences, it continually sees before it an empty space in which it can find no foothold, however much it stretches. So it is with me; before me is continually an empty space, and I am propelled by the consequence that lies behind me. This life is turned around and dreadful, not to be endured.
– Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Diapsalmata (1843) (Translated by Hong and Hong)
One must limit oneself– that is the primary condition for all enjoyment. It does not seem that I shall soon find out anything about the girl who so fills my soul and my mind that the lack is amplified. Now I am going to stay quite calm, for this state, this obscure and indefinite but nevertheless powerful emotion, also has its sweetness. I have always liked to lie in a boat on a clear moonlit night out on one of our beautiful lakes. I haul in the sails, take in the oars, unship the rudder, lie down full length, and gaze up at the vault of heaven. When the waves rock the boat on their breast, when the clouds swiftly drift before the wind, making the moon disappear for a moment and then reappear, I find rest in this restlessness. The motion of the waves lulls me; their slapping against the boat is a monotonous lullaby; the clouds’ hasty flight and the variation in lights and shadows intoxicates me so that I dream wide awake. I lie the same way now, haul in the sails, unship the rudder. Longing and impatient expectancy toss me in their arms; longing and expectancy become quieter and quieter, more and more blissful; they coddle me like a child. Over the arches the heaven of hope; her image drifts past me like the moon’s, indistinct, now blinding me with its light, now with its shadow. How enjoyable to ripple along on moving water this way– how enjoyable to be in motion within oneself.
– Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Diary of the Seducer (1843) (Translated by Hong and Hong)
The Poems of our Climate
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations–one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
the evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight.
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
– Wallace Stevens (1938)
The dining room and the library of my memories were now, with the wall between them torn down, a single great bare room containing one or two pieces of furniture. I shall not try to describe them, since I am not altogether sure–in spite of the cruel white light–of having seen them. Let me explain myself. To see a thing one has to comprehend it. An armchair presupposes the human body, its joints and limbs; a pair of scissors the act of cutting. What can be said of a lamp or a car? The savage cannot comprehend the Missionary’s bible; the passenger does not see the same rigging as the sailor. If we really saw the world, maybe we would understand it.
None of the meaningless shapes that night granted me corresponded to the human figure or, for that matter, to any conceivable use. I felt revulsion and terror. In one of the corners, I found a ladder which led to the upper floor. The spaces between the iron rungs, which were no more than ten, were wide and irregular. That ladder, implying hands and feet, was comprehensible, and in some way this relieved me. I put out the light and waited for some time in the dark. I did not hear the least sound, but the presence there of incomprehensible things disquieted me. In the end I made up my mind.
Once upstairs, my fearful hand switched on the light a second time. The nightmare that had foreshadowed the lower floor came alive and flowered on the next. Here there were either many objects or a few linked together. I now recall a sort of long operating table, very high and in the shape of a U, with round hollows at each end. I thought that maybe it was the bed of the house’s inhabitant, whose monstrous anatomy revealed itself in this way, implicitly, like an animal’s or god’s by its shadow. From some page or other of Lucan there came to my lips the word “amphisbaena,” which hinted at, but certainly did not exhaust, what my eyes were later to see. I also remember a V of mirrors that became lost in the upper darkness.
What would the inhabitant be like? What could it be looking for on this planet, no less hideous to it than to us? From what secret regions of astronomy or time, from what ancient and now incalculable dusk can it have reached the South American suburb and this particular night?
I felt an intruder in the chaos. Outside the rain had stopped. I looked at my watch and saw with astonishment that it was almost two o’clock. I left the light on and carefully began climbing down. To get down the way I had come up was not impossible–to get down before the inhabitant returned. I guessed it had not locked the doors because it did not know how.
My feet were touching the next to last rung of the ladder when I felt that something, slow and oppressive and twofold, was coming up the ramp. Curiosity overcame my fear, and I did not shut my eyes.
–Jorge Luis Borges, There Are More Things (1975) (In The Book of Sand, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni)
‘[…] Is it not possible to manufacture paper and ink and set down what traces remain of these memories, so that they will outlive you; or, failing paper and ink, to burn the story upon wood, or engrave it upon rock? We may lack many things on this island, but certainly time is not one of them.”
‘I spoke fervently, I believe, but Cruso was unmoved. “Nothing is forgotten,” said he; and then: “Nothing I have forgotten is worth the remembering.”
‘”You are mistaken!” I cried. “I do not wish to dispute, but you have forgotten much, and with every day that passes you forget more! There is no shame in forgetting: it is our nature to forget as it is our nature to grow old and pass away. But seen from too remote a vantage, life begins to lose its particularity. All shipwrecks become the same shipwreck, all castaways the same castaway, sunburnt, lonely, clad in the skins of the beasts he has slain. The truth that makes your story yours alone,. that sets you apart from the old mariner by the fireside spinning yarns of sea-monsters and mermaids, resides in a thousand touches which today may seem of no importance, such as: When you made your needle (the needle you store in your belt), by what means did you pierce the eye? When you sewed your hat, what did you use for thread? Touches like these will one day persuade your countrymen that it is all true, every word, there was indeed once an island in the middle of the ocean where the wind blew and the gulls cried from the cliffs and a man named Cruso paced about in his apeskin clothes, scanning the horizon for a sail.”
‘Cruso’s great head of tawny hair and his beard that was never cut glowed in the dying light. He opened and closed his hands, sinewy, rough-skinned hands, toil-hardened. ‘”There is the bile of seabirds,” I urged. “There are cuttlefish bones. There are gulls’ quills.”
‘Cruso raised his head and cast me a look full of defiance. “I will leave behind my terraces and walls,” he said. “They will be enough. They will be more than enough.” And he fell silent again. As for myself, I wondered who would cross the ocean to see terraces and walls, of which we surely had an abundance at home; but I held my peace.
– J.M. Coetzee, Foe (1986)
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)
I will say very little about what happened then: what happened had already happened long ago, or for a long time had been so imminent that not to have revealed it, when I felt it every night of my life, is a sign of my secret understanding with this premonition. I did not have to take another step to know that there was someone in that room. That if I went forward, all of a sudden someone would be there in front of me, pressing up against me, absolutely near me, of a proximity that people are not aware of: I knew that too. Everything about that room, plunged in the most profound darkness, was familiar to me; I had penetrated it, I carried it in me, I gave it life, a life which is not life, but which is stronger than life and which no force in the world could ever overcome. That room does not breathe, there is neither shadow nor memory in it, neither dream nor depth; I listen to it and no one speaks; I look at it and no one lives in it. And yet, the most intense life is there, a life which I touched and which touches me, absolutely similar to others, wich clasps my body with its body, marks my moth with its mouth, whose eyes open, whose eyes are the most alive, the most profound eyes in the world, and whose eyes see me. May the person who does not understand that come and die. Because that life transforms the life which shrinks away from it into a falsehood.
–Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence ( 1948) (Translated by Lydia Davis)
But why can we not be satisfied with the essence of truth that has, by now, been familiar to us for centuries? Truth means, today, as it has done for a long time, agreement of knowledge with the facts. In order, however, for knowledge, and for the sentence that forms and expresses it, to correspond to the facts it is necessary, first of all, that the fact which is to be binding on the sentence show itself to be such. And how is it to show itself if it is unable to stand out of concealment, unable to stand in the unconcealed? A statement is true by conforming to the unconcealed, i.e., to that which is true. The truth of statements is always, and is nothing but, such correctness. The critical concepts of truth which, since Descartes start out from truth as certainty, are mere variations on the definition of truth as correctness. This familiar essence of truth, truth as the correctness of representation, stands and falls with truth as the unconcealment of beings.
When, here and elsewhere, we conceive of truth as unconcealment, we are not merely taking refuge in a more literal formulation of the Greek word. We are reflecting upon that which, unexperienced and unthought, underlies our familiar and therefore worn out essence of truth in the sense of correctness. From time to time we bring ourselves to concede that, of course, in order to verify and grasp the correctness (truth) of an assertion we must return to something that is already manifest. This presupposition, we concede, is unavoidable. But as long as we talk and think in this way, we understand truth merely as correctness. This requires, of course, a still further presupposition, one that we just make, heaven knows how or why.
But it is not we who presuppose the unconcealment of beings. Rather, the unconcealment of beings puts us into such an essence that all our representing remains set into, and in accordance with, unconcealment. It is not only the case that that in conformity with which a cognition orders itself must already be somehow unconcealed. Rather, the whole region in which this “conformity with something” occurs must already have happened as a whole within the undisclosed; and this holds equally of that for which a particular correspondence of a statement to the facts becomes manifest. With all our correct representations we would be nothing- we could never make the presupposition of there being something manifest to which we conform ourselves – if the unconcealment of beings had not already set us forth into that illuminated realm in which every being stands for us and from which it withdraws.
Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art (1935) (Translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes)
*Note: This passage from a well-known essay is repeated here because it is the simplest and hence most forceful exposition of why the common understanding of truth within philosophy and science cannot be taken for granted.
“But how describe the world seen without a self? There are no words. Blue, red– even they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through. How describe or say anything in articulate words again?– save that it fades, save that it undergoes a gradual transformation, becomes, even in the course of one short walk, habitual– this scene also. Blindness returns as one looks with all its train of phantom phrases. One breathes in and out substantial breath; down in the valley the train draws across the fields lop-eared with smoke.
“But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea and the sounds of the woods, had seen the house, the garden, and the waves breaking. The old nurse who turns the pages of the picture-book and had said, ‘Look. This is the truth.’[…]
“Lord, how unutterably disgusting life is! What dirty tricks it plays us, one moment free; the next, this. Here we are among the breadcrumbs and the stained napkins again. That knife is already congealing with grease. Disorder, sordidity and corruption surround us. We have been taking into our mouths the bodies of dead birds. It is with these greasy crumbs, slobbered over napkins, and little corpses that we have to build. Always it begins again; always there is the enemy; eyes meeting ours; fingers twitching ours; the effort waiting. Call the waiter. Pay the bill. We must pull ourselves up out of our chairs. We must find our coats. We must go. Must, must, must– detestable word. Once more, I who had thought myself immune, who had said, ‘Now I am rid of all that,’ find that the wave has tumbled me over, head over heels, scattering my possessions, leaving me to collect, to assemble, to heap together, summon my forces, rise and confront the enemy.
– Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931)
With opinions such as these my young friend, too, was fully imbued; and thus it is worthy of observation that the uninterrupted enjoyment which distinguished his life was, in great measure, the result of preconcert. It is, indeed, evident that with less of the instinctive philosophy which, now and then, stands so well in the stead of experience, Mr Ellison would have found himself precipitated, by the very extraordinary success of his life, into the common vortex of unhappiness which yawns for those of preeminent endowments. But it is by no means my object to pen an essay on happiness. The ideas of my friend may be summed up in a few words. He admitted but four elementary principles, or, more strictly, conditions, of bliss. That which he considered chief was (strange to say!) the simple and purely physical one of free exercise in the open air. ‘The health,’ he said, ‘attainable by other means is scarcely worth the name.’ He instanced the ecstasies of the fox-hunter, and pointed to the tillers of the earth, the only people who, as a class, can be fairly considered happier than others. His second condition was the love of woman. His third, and most difficult of realization, was the contempt of ambition. His fourth was an object of unceasing pursuit; and he held that, other things being equal, the extent of attainable happiness was in proportion to the spirituality of this object.
– Edgar Allen Poe, The Domain of Arnheim (1847)
To the few who love me and whom I love – to those who feel rather than to those who think – to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities – I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone:–let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.
What I here propound is true:- therefore it cannot die:- or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will “rise again to the Life Everlasting.”
Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.
E. A. P.
– Edgar Allen Poe, Eureka (1848)
*Note: For a discussion of the “scientific” content of Eureka, and proof that Poe provided the first modern application of the Anthropic Principle and the correct solution to Olber’s Paradox, see: “Edgar Allen Poe’s Physical Cosmogony,” Cappi (1993). This footnote can be considered part of the practice of seeing people as they really are: in this case, liberating Poe’s original force (now a gathering of symbols) from the dampening popular image of the morbid, alcoholic author.
As scientists in the modern era, we generally proceed under the assumption that phenomena, if they are natural, are ipso facto explicable–obliged, as it were, to make sense to us. Friedrich von Schiller’s protest that “natural necessity has entered into no compact with man” is relegated to an outmoded era of German Romanticism, seen as a last stand against the triumphal progress of scientific enlightenment. The prevailing assumption over the last two hundred years has been that only divine intervention would be capable of releasing the world from its obligation to make sense to us and, hence, that behind all such protests must lie at least the tacit presupposition of a non-natural cause.
But by what mandate is the world obliged to make sense to us? Is such an assumption even plausible. I would say no, and on a priori grounds. One need invoke neither divine intervention now unknown forces in order to doubt our ability to make rational sense of all that we encounter in the natural world. The human mind does not encompass the world; rather, it is itself a part of that world, and no amount of self-reflection provides an escape from that limitation…
–Evelyn Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life (2002)
The world, existence, may be conceived as tragedy, but, unfortunately, that view is no longer our speciality. Tragedy is grave, hieratic, while today we are assailed at every moment by monstrous humor, grotesque crime, macabre virtue. The dismal antics in which we all, willingly or not, have taken part (for these antics were History with a capital H) seemed to enjoin us to sprinkle our heads with ashes and weep like Job– but our Job shook with laughter for his own fate and, at the same time, for the fate of others. Every television switched on, every newspaper taken in hand evokes pity and terror, but a derisive pity, a derisive terror. I am no exception: while sympathizing with the victims of terror, I cannot control the sarcastic spasms wrenching my face when, for example, I learn that the police of a certain totalitarian state have made a series of arrests disguised as doctors and hospital attendants, having also painted their police cars with red crosses to look like ambulances. Those arrested were beaten unconscious, then carried off on stretchers by the “attendants.” As has already been observed, reality’s nightmarish incongruence has outsripped the boldest fantasies of the satirists. The entire style of my century is an attempt to keep pace with this depressing and ridiculous abomination, and can be felt in drawings, paintings, theater, poetry, the style of the absurd, and in our fierce and bitter jeering at ourselves and the human condition.
–Csesław Miłosz, Proud to be a Mammal, Essay in which the Author Confesses That He Is on the Side of Man, for Lack of Anything Better (2010)
WHAT IS LIFE?
Resembles life what once was deem’d of light,
Too ample in itself for human sight?
An absolute self–an element ungrounded–
All that we see, all colors of all shade
By encroach of darkness made?–
Is very life by consciousness unbounded?
And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath,
A war-embrace of wrestling life and death?
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Reflecting on the now does not imply relinquishing the future or forgetting the past: the present is the meeting place for the three directions of time. Neither can it be confused with facile hedonism. The tree of pleasure does not grow in the past or in the future but at this very moment. Yet death is also a fruit of the present. It cannot be rejected, for it is part of life. Living well implies dying well. We have to learn how to look death in the face. The present is alternatively luminous and sombre, like a sphere that unites the two halves of action and contemplation. Thus, just as we have had philosophies of the past and of the future, of eternity and of the void, tomorrow we shall have a philosophy of the present. The poetic experience could be one of its foundations. What do we know about the present? Nothing or almost nothing. Yet the poets do know one thing: the present is the source of presences.
– Octavio Paz, Nobel Lecture (1990)
To the other divorced party, science, the parting of the ways seemed at the beginning to be an unmitigated boon. Freed from mystical ballast, science could sail ahead at breathtaking speed to its conquest of new lands beyond every dream. Within two centuries it transformed the mental outlook of homo sapiens and transformed the face of his planet. But the price paid was proportionate: it carried the species to the brink of physical self destruction, and into an equally unprecedented spiritual impasse.
Sailing without ballast, reality gradually dissolved between the physicist’s hands; matter itself evaporated from the materialist’s universe.This uncanny vanishing act began, as we saw, with Galileo and Descartes. In that famous passage in The Assayer, Galileo banished the qualities which are the very essence of the sensual world–colour and sound, heat, odour, and taste from the realm of physics to that of subjective illusion. Descartes carried the process one step further by paring down the reality of the external world to particles whose only quality was extension in space and motion in space and time. At first this revolutionary approach to nature looked so promising that Descartes believed he would be able to complete the whole edifice of the new physics by himself. His less sanguine contemporaries thought that it might take as much as two generations to wrest its last secret from nature. “The particular phenomena of the arts and sciences are in reality but a handful,” said Francis Bacon. “The invention of all causes and sciences would be the labour of but a few years. “
But in the two centuries that followed, the vanishing act continued. Each of the “ultimate” and “irreducible” primary qualities of the world of physics proved in its turn to be an illusion. The hard atoms of matter went up in fireworks; the concepts of substance, force, of effects determined by causes, and ultimately the very framework of space and time turned out to be as illusory as the “tastes, odours and colours” which Galileo had treated so contemptuously.
–Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (1959)
Twenty-two years, twenty-two long, eventful, anguished years have passed since I began to teach you that what matters is not individual therapy but the prevention of psychic disorders. And again you’re behaving as you’ve behaved for thousands of years. For twenty-two long fearful years I taught you that people succumb to madness of one kind or another or live in misery of one kind or another because they have become rigid in body and soul and because they are capable neither of enjoying love nor of giving it, because their bodies cannot, like those of all other animals, convulse in the act of love.
Twenty-two years after I first told you so, you tell your friends that the essential is not the cure but the prevention of psychic disorders. But you go on behaving as you’ve behaved for thousands of years. You state the great aim, without mentioning how it’s to be attained. You don’t mention the love life of the masses. You want “to prevent psychic disorders”–that much it’s permissible to say–without going into the disaster of people’s sexual lives–that is forbidden. As a physician, you’re still up to your neck in the swamp.
What would you think of an engineer who expounded the art of flying without revealing the secrets of the engine and propeller? That’s what you do, you engineer of the human soul. Just that. You’re a coward. You want the raisins out of my cake but you don’t want the thorns of my roses. Haven’t you too, little psychiatrist, been cracking silly jokes about me? Haven’t you ridiculed me as “the prophet of bigger and better orgasms”? Have you never heard the whimpering of a young wife whose body has been desecrated by an impotent husband? Or the anguished cry of an adolescent bursting with unfulfilled love? Does your security still mean more to you than your patient? How long will you go on valuing your respectability above your medical mission? How long will you refuse to see that your pussyfooting procrastination is costing millions of lives?
You value security before truth.
– Wilhelm Reich, Listen, Little Man! (1945)
We came together under cover of dark with our armies and from opposite sides we forced the gates of the citadel. There was no resisting our bloody work; we asked for no quarter and we gave none. We came together swimming in blood, a gory, glaucous reunion in the night with all the stars extinguished save the fixed black star hanging like a scalp above the hole in the ceiling. If she were properly coked she would vomit it forth like an oracle, everything that had happened to her during the day, yesterday, the day before, the year before last, everything, down to the day she was born. And not a word of it was true, not a single detail. Not a moment did she stop, for if she had, the vacuum she created in her flight would have brought about an explosion fit to sunder the world. She was the world’s lying machine in microcosm, geared to the same unending, devastating fear which enables men to throw all their energies into creation of the death apparatus. To look at her one would think her fearless, one would think her the personification of courage and she was, so long as she was not obliged to turn in her traces. Behind her lay the calm fact of reality, a colossus which dogged her every step. Every day this colossal reality took on new proportions, every day it became more terrifying, more paralyzing. Every day she had to grow swifter wings, sharper jaws, more piercing, hypnotic eyes. It was a race to the outermost limits of the world, a race lost from the start, and no one to stop it. At the edge of the vacuum stood Truth, ready in one lightning-like sweep to recover the stolen ground. It was so simple and obvious that it drove her frantic. Marshal a thousand personalities, commandeer the biggest guns, deceive the greatest minds, make the longest detour–still the end would be defeat. In the final meeting everything was destined to fall apart –the cunning, the skill, the power, everything. She would be a grain of sand on the shore of the biggest ocean, and, worse than anything, she would resemble each and every other grain of sand on that ocean’s shore. She would be condemned to recognize her unique self everywhere until the end of time. What a fate she had chosen for herself! That her uniqueness should be engulfed in the universal! That her power should be reduced to the utmost node of passivity! It was maddening, hallucinating. It could not be! It must not be! Onward! Like the black legions. Onward! Through every degree of the ever-widening circle. Onward and away from the self, until the last substantial particle of the soul be stretched to infinity. In her panic stricken flight she seemed to bear the whole world in her womb. We were being driven out of the confines of the universe toward a nebula which no instrument could visualize. We were being rushed to a pause so still, so prolonged, that death by comparison seems a mad witches’ revel.
– Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)
*Note: Miller, propelled through one of his famed typewriter-runs, brings to light the insanity of being cut off from the self. Henry, old pal! From an interview: “So I fell back on just being myself, and that’s the best thing you can be, don’t you know?”
Mother, you had me but I never had you
I wanted you, you didn’t want me
So I, I just gotta tell you
Father, you left me but I never left you
I needed you, you didn’t need me
So I, I just gotta tell you
Children, don’t do what I have done
I couldn’t walk and I tried to run
So I, I just gotta tell you
Mamma, don’t go
Daddy, come home
–John Lennon, Mother (1970)
The experience of his years as a soldier shaped the rest of Sottsass’s life. He was a witness to the genocide in Bosnia, where he saw the rivers stained with blood of Muslim women and children slaughtered by the Chetnik militia, that, at the time, were the paid auxiliaries of Italy. He saw trains that had been dynamited by partisans. He experience fear, of course, but also hunger and remorse at his lack of choices. He had lovers that he had to leave behind, and was forced to watch powerlessly as his comrades, who had escaped the partisan troops of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, were cut of without food on the wrong side of the torrential Drina river.
In Italy he saw half of his platoon wiped out by American bombers. He survived two partisan ambushes with nothing worse than a flesh wound, and emerged unhurt from a strafing raid by an RAF Spitfire that flew so low he claims to have been able to see the pilots face.
– Deyan Sudjic, Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things (2015)
In a very primitive manner, the hundred plates dedicated to Shiva suggested an idea of the cosmos and of its rhythms and seasons as the only real space, precisely because it is neither measurable nor predictable, nor can it be controlled or known.
What really interests me is regaining an almost childish sense of wonder. I recently read some ancient Vedic texts where there appears to be a “pre-religious” sense of the world, and in which the divine plays an important role. We are inside this divine space. Day and night we are amazed by what happens, because we have no explanations – we simply open our eyes and wander through phenomena like children. I believe that if we could put an approach like this into practice, with true patience, instead of always trying to understand, possess and control, we might even manage to have a different kind of industry.
Beauty doesn’t exist. Beauty is a convention that represents a mysterious equilibrium – a fragile, very fragile equilibrium – both expressed and unexpressed, between an anxiety for the UNKNOWN that mercilessly chases after us, and the hope of being able to control and even calm it, sometimes offering sacrifices. If the sacrifice follows the rituals required, the UNKNOWN will stop biting for a moment, and indeed may even smile and stir up a blinding light. That sudden, almost instantaneous light, is beauty.
– Ettore Sottsass, from There is a Planet, Exhibition Catalogue, Triennale di Milano (2017)