Friday, January 30, 2009

H.L. Mencken

I saw this quote this morning, via Google quotes:

"We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine."
- H. L. Mencken

I want to ask myself honestly what is wrong with admitting this fact that so often now my heart wants to admit. Clearly, to admit it would be to downgrade our status in our own eyes, as we have largely absorbed the belief that Knowledge is Power. To say that most of our knowledge, and therefore most of our power, is moonshine, probably wouldn't come as a shock to any of us, but once it sunk in, we'd likely all be in a bit of an existential wonderfunk for a few days/weeks/years, who knows.

But my contention is that this small belief, that "we are here and it is now," is a seed from which all the knowledge we need can be grown. Beliefs such as, "There is a here," and, "There was a then." Certainly the ground of all scientific experimentation lies in these beliefs.

Funny the way that different sorts of people attract our admiration as we get older. Mencken, a journalist, essayist, and acerbic critic of American life, would not have impressed me years ago. Now his quotations make me feel a sort of tender respect for him.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

One Another

So we’ve come to this—
where you and I will meet
across time

and I'll agree to the idea
of your presence

and you'll agree to mine.

What can I offer you?,
except to say
I’m here,

and not for service—
I’m here in the other sense:

160 pounds,
relatively hot

and pressing down
on a rotating chair.

If I kept only one belief
and I do

it's that you and I
could have held each other—

instead, in you
my written line

by your choice
comes, and leaves

If there is a what,
I’d want it to be this:

that you and I agree
the world I’m in exists

in which we could hold,
or could have,

one another.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reading Russell Again

As I claimed I would do this past summer, I'm attempting a reading (again) of Russell's "History of Western Philosophy," though approaching it this time without an agenda, or a plan.

The sort of philosophy he advocates is still the brand that I can't fully grasp, and not because it's various principles elude me -- I have difficulty conceptually approaching it. That's twice now I've used the figure of approach. Which is alright, as it underscores what makes me happy in all of this: regardless of whether I can conceive of his notions easily or not, I am willing to try without a predetermined animosity.

He's really quite funny. His occasional ironic lauding of the medieval Church is hilarious, even if it's unfair.

Liberated Objectivity

"After one has abandoned belief in god," says Wallace Stevens in his Opus Posthumous, "poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption."

As I read through some old essays, I'm reminded that, yes, I've always been gnawing the same old bones. My drawn-out journey through Academia has so far proven to afford me with only one thing: the capacity to better state the same old questions, and then only slightly better. The difference lies now mostly in my consciousness of the particular words I'm choosing, and their meanings; important, yes, but as one of the great rhetoricians put it (I forget whether it was Cicero or Quintillian) great oratory strives for the persuasiveness and natural eloquence of the layman consumed by virtuous passion. Not to say I was particularly virtuous, but I certainly was passionate, and it allowed for a kind of confident lyricism.

And now that I have this (slightly) improved perspective on history, in that I've seen from many perspectives, having had my naivete made painfully obvious to me, and having asked for the bread of knowledge, and having received instead the burden of understanding the limits of language, I hardly want to speak at all. I want to be silent, and at the same time to have it spoken; to have all of it gathered up, this cloud of meaning risen around the academic parade that has passed by me in my few years of study, and have it condensed down to the smallness of the feeling inside my gut. Take away the parade, leave the smoke. Let me ramble on melodramatically. Let me not speak.

If there is redemption in poetry, then there is redemption, and it is not in poetry. If there is redemption in God, then there is redemption, and it is not in "God" -- the picture you might hold of "Him," whom you picture. And you who would like redemption to have no face, or to have god's face be the face of your feeling, whatever it will allow -- all of you who aren't nihilists, who feel the meaning of their life -- or if not their life, then of a particular moment -- who feel part of a world, who believe their senses -- you must know for yourself already that redemption is there, that meaning is there, and you can't undo it with your words, and you can't make it, either, however you might try -- because upon speaking, you locate yourself in a kosmos -- you show a perspective. That there is perspective. You make known your belief in objects, regardless of how or if you believe it is, any of it, out there.

There is an occurence in rhetoric, in creative speech of any kind, that unlocks this sense of ourselves in the world -- a sense of liberated objectivity. A moment of transcendence out of the lonely confines of the subject, and into epiphany -- a visceral realization of the world beyond our viscera. And it feels the way running for a glimpse of sunset feels: jogging up the hill, through shady residential streets but seeing on the tips of the tallest trees that last golden light, and knowing what will be there when you reach the crest. And you do, and all the climbing, all the foreshadowing, every glimpse of light and wash of shade, is fulfilled, and summed-up in the sunset vista.

It's philosophy happening to us, this epiphany. It's a religious reaffirmation of our primary beliefs, which seem to me to be enough. All else is humble experimentation, and never more.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lyric Epiphany

Ever since hearing and agreeing with Dickinson's description of what the experience of poetry feels like, I've often wondered what it is about poetry, good poetry, that produces that feeling in the reader. I've wondered how best to talk about it. The feeling isn't merely that of being moved, though it's very similar. And it isn't just the feeling of assent, of judging a poem well-crafted, or of being impressed by it.

She says:
"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?"

It's a compelling description -- particularly, to me, the second half, the lifting off of the top of her head. I can feel it, a faint coolness on the brain, and immediately recall the feeling I've had in my own experience with "poetry" -- though mine is located more in the back of my head and shoulders. I put "poetry" in quotes because I experience the feeling, the opening and cooling, when reading stories (as she apparently did as well), and occasionally when hearing a good speech. Poetry in this sense then isn't restricted to verse, or to the lyric poem; it's a quality of composition in general.

So, my question is this: what do we call this head-lifting, and what causes it? (And I mean to ask the question on a primarily literary level, though I'm sure approaching it as a psychological phenomenon would be interesting.) Paul Friedrich, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Chicago, calls this response to poetry, what I take to be the same as Dickinson's, lyric epiphany.

In his paper by the same name ("Lyric Epiphany", Language in Society 30, 2001) Friedrich outlines a loose definition of lyric, and lyric epiphany, while conducting what he calls "intense analyses of four cases of linguistic epiphany in The Odyssey." That intensity most often manifests as a lack of control in his diction, and tone. Still, these sometimes hyperactive analyses of the different cases and kinds of epiphanic literature interest me, because of the fact that throughout all of them, he keeps coming back to the poetic turn, the moment of unification and compression, in the poetic text.

"Lyric epiphany," he states in the abstract, "is a subtype of generic epiphany: an intuition or revelation of truth values beyond language and empirical experience." Fortunately, I accept without too many reservations this rather loaded definition of epiphany, as he leaves his discussion of generic epiphany at that, and doesn't pause to define what "truth values" might mean. "...[T]he experience of epiphany," he says, "is terribly important." He seems naturally interested in the importance of lyric epiphany for the anthropologist and sociolinguist, but as a writer and reader, I feel justified in taking stealing what I can.

As I said, it's his concentration on the "turn" that interests me, for two reasons. 1.) I've been interested in the enthymeme, as a turn or cap or summing-up after a web of charged, value-laden oppositions, (as Jeffrey Walker puts it), and 2.) I’ve recently (in the last few years) come to see that it is usually at these junctures, these turns that I have my “poetry” experience, my lyric epiphany. I believe it was a book of loose ghazals by Robert Bly, wherein each poem takes an emotional turn in the last couplet, as the speaker shifts from a general address to a self address (at least in Bly’s case), and it feels as though the emotion of the poem is suddenly realized, brought into focus. I knew they weren’t particularly well-written, in that he allowed himself too many moments of lazy writing, of slipping into cliché, but even so, the turn managed to hook me nearly every time, and elevate me into “revelation of truth values beyond language.”

“From the formal linguistic angle,” Friedrich offers, “the shift into epiphany is like a shift from a durative, progressive, or habitual and customary sequence into a more momentary or instantaneous one.” In the opening pages, he refers to lyric epiphanies as “instants of … absolute aesthetic truth” and “ontologically profound breakout[s]” allowed by certain linguistic/literary techniques, and coming through “a heightening of emotion in the reader or hearer, be it empathy, sympathy, compassion or other kinds of involvement; vague features, in other words, of intensity and density that may resonate at any linguistic, emotional, or cultural level.”

A "heightening of emotion"; an "ontologically profound breakout" -- it sounds to me like Dickinson. I'm interested in what causes this, and specifically how and when the enthymeme causes it, as well as how this might intersect with ontology, the study of being, as Friedrich suggests. As I said, Friedrich doesn't directly address what absolute truth values are -- but the change in perspective that lyrical epiphany provides does seem to give one the feeling of momentary insight into some kind of universality. A unadulterated vision, perhaps, of the cosmos -- a moment of liberated objectivity, as I'll call it in my next post.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Enthymeme pt.2

So, I haven't actually made much progress toward an explanation of what an enthymeme is, and since that's my goal in all of this, I'll get to it.

I was mislead by my reading of Aristotle last spring. I took a course on rhetoric, and the prof made passing reference to what Aristotle calls "the body of persuasion," the enthymeme. It intrigued me, as it reminded me of some part of the process a poet goes through in constructing a poem's speech act, so I wrote a paper on it, trying to flesh it out. My assessment was that it's a truncated syllogism, the syllogism of the rhetorician, which he uses to give the sense of logical demonstration to his speech. As Aristotle says, we are most convinced when we feel like something has been demonstrated. When we've seen it with our own eyes. But the Rhetorician can't bother with the exact science of logicians and philosophers -- he's talking to common folk, and even if they could follow him, it'd be boring from the pulpit, and the incandescence of his speech would dim. Therefore, he makes these quasi-syllogisms, that rely on a knowledge of what the audience already knows: I give you a premise, perhaps, knowing you will supply the other, so that when I add the conclusion, you feel like you're in the know, and I've saved time. I don't have to chase down proofs for what you already accept as true.

And that to me sounded like poetry: the way a poet heaps up tropes together, each associated with a set of cultural values, into a syllogistic sort of form, so that by the time the poems ends, a conclusion has been reached - an ideological conclusion. The reader has been lead to find convincing a certain emotional/intellectual stance - to find themselves standing the way the poet wants them to stand, within the field of possible ideological positions on any given subject. (Most often, I think, the ideology presented to us is an earnest agnosticism, sometimes kind & wonderstruck, and sometimes cynical and biting, leaning towards nihilism.) Each cultural trope used has some approximately known meaning, so that we can weave them together like a math problem, with prosody lending the rhetoric a helping hand, so that the sum of it resonates between emotion and idea.

Then I found Jeffrey Walker's book on ancient rhetoric; he argues that most contemporaries Rhetoric-scholars have it all wrong, because of a historical misreading of Aristotle. This misreading is really at the heart of his whole treatise. It's apparently the misreading that I had.

But I think that my way of taking the enthymeme into poetry actually produced an enthymeme closer to what Walker says the Greek's version of it was. By accident. I spend a lot of time thinking about how the lack of rigor in my studies will be the death of my scholarship, and then I remember that all I've ever made well has had, in some part of its development, an accident; has been somewhere founded on an unjustified, intuitive leap. And when I'm done thinking about that, I zone out and stare at the ceiling for an hour. Or read headlines. Headlines will be the death of my scholarship, if anything.

I love the way my painted Swainson's thrush sits in the window, with a perfect arc of California sun crowning his chesnut head. He looks eager to fly. (I'm still not a good rhetorician when I'm trying to be -- I was hoping to use that little interlude there with the reference to flying in much the same way a preacher uses humor -- to release, to cleanse, to regather the troops.)

Walker argues for a different, broader understanding of the enthymeme, and argues that originally, the enthymeme, though not yet refered to as such, was the heart of Greek poetry. But this is part of his larger argument, in the second half of the book: that lyric poetry is the most basic form of poetry, "synecdoche for 'poetic' discourse in general," and that "in archaic lyric we find embodied a poetic practice that predates the conceptualization of "poetry" and "rhetoric"" and is similar to what the sophists would call "epideictic" rhetoric; in other words, "as a fundamentally rhetorical practice, archaic lyric embodies a paradigm in which "poetry" may function (and did function) as culturally and politically significant civic discourse, that is, as an epideictic argumentation that can effectively shape communal judgements about dike, or what is "right" in various circumstances, and so can effectively intervene in, intensify, or modify prevailing ideological commitments or value-heirarchies."

I'm interested in this because of what I feel is a general squeemishness in American poetry toward admitting that poems do in fact embody specific ideologies.

And, with that, some left-over vegan pizza beckons. (Walker says that our misreading of Aristotle has lead to a grammaticalized poetics, so that a decorative representation of a subjective consciousness has become the norm -- its complicated -- but I'm thinking of what he might say about blogs.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Enthymeme, and Everything Else

We do weave figures toward satisfying our intuition's ache. Like music, a figure-weave will make amends with silences in ways no reason can explain. Understanding is a process of throwing out a trope into the dark, and then occupying the room by the trope's dim light until the mind's sun, convention, rises, and makes us feel at home. Makes it feel like real.

Enthymeming (I'm sorry for getting ahead of myself, for keeping the private as private still awhile longer) is not just the rhetorician's syllogism, it is the philosopher's journey into knowing. How can we progress except by this process of throwing our tropes ahead of our conventions, and following out the line they're tied to us by, into a dark world, then waiting for the sun to rise. It rises with us. The presence of the Da-sein makes the sun of being rise -- for us, that is, and who can say otherwise. I think the world remains though I am gone -- rather, I believe it -- and therefore I'm a member of the Human kind.

It is pretentious to say that last bit, and I feel sorry. There are indeed so many who've articulated the opposite. Still, I don't believe it, and I rest for now, for always?, on this fallacy of incredulity.

Follow the animal out of the grave and into the light. How many things can an image come to mean, and still be meaningful, rather than confused? I've known that when an image works, it works on all levels. It's different than a metaphor -- it's not a figure of speech, needing context within a certain speech act -- instead, it's a figure upon knowing. Even if it's not entirely public yet, if somehow one could dig into the mind of the figurerer, he'd find the ways, at least sometimes, that the figure kept on working. Rather than representing something, it's fastened to it -- rather than an image of it, a cloth thrown over the form itself.

Ghost Gathering

That is, there comes a time to let them be, and a time to gather. A time for sewing, and a time for reaping. A man must go away while the garden grows, and what is out of sight, it seems, is often out of mind. He forgets, and call his favorite angel, Anamnesis, whom the Greeks called Mnemosyne, and asks, what was I about again? And she inspires in him the voices of her daughters, certain daughters paired with certain men, until they revive him to the story of his garden growing. To which he hastily returns, ashamed of his forgetting.

And there the ghosts have sprawled up from the soil, new again, ready to be gathered to the man. Each time he plants the same, a word in planting spoken over them, and forgets; and each time they come anew as something more fully realized toward the language he's constructing. Each time the plant's names become more sophisticated, by becoming less private. So that when the day comes that the man no longer undergoes the calling on of Mnemosyne, a stranger may upon his garden stumble, and find himself in the midst of nameable, assignable ghosts, each one bearing something very much like, if not identical to, fruit.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Arvo Part & The Back of My Head

Red-Winged Blackbird

My clock, the chirping one, is reminding me to remember this blog's namesake. How they used to gather in the firebushes outside my bedroom window, and sing, and sing.

Enthymeme, part 1

January 12th, and 85 degrees. How can I not take a nap? And then if I nap, and don't sleep, how can I stop from staring at the ceiling, thinking how strange it is that 10 years have passed since I started this collegiate process? Trying to imagine the rule we measure ourselves by. Trying to argue with myself, alternately, one way or the other.

No, the "argument with myself" is a dying metaphor. Argument is finished, and now is the finding of the wherewithall to open my eyes in the land I've gotten myself to.

Does that way of saying satisfy? I'm in the business of finding satisfying ways of saying. Existential rhetoric to a small audience -- myself -- trying to persuade me toward a course of action: recognizing that the first stage is over, and the second needs a pair of legs and time.

Life as journey is an old trope, and one that usually revives me from any mild stupor.

And what would one call this weaving of a web of value-laden oppositions, temporal and figurative, some sincere, some slightly ironic, all leaning towards a final memorable climax, a turn, a last jab of the rhetorician to seal in the mind and heart of his hearer the position, emotional and rational, he wants him to have on the whole situation?

One would call it -- at least according to Jeffrey Walker, professor of Rhetoric & Writing at the University of Texas at Austin -- the enthymeme.

As I mentioned before, Walker had his reasons for defining thumos the way he did: it allows him to make his argument about the nature of the enthymeme. The second half of his treatise on classical rhetoric, Rhetoric & Poetics In Antiquity, tries to agree with and expand on what Aristotle meant when he said that the enthymeme is "the body of persuasion."

And I'll continue on that, but the Yellow Warbler in my Audubon clock has just announced that it's time for my meeting. Click the one below, and find yourself a little happier.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Heraclitus & Logos

Before I delve further into the enthymeme, I thought it wise to tackle the driver of the chariot: Logistikon, figure of Logos, the reasoning portion of the human psyche. I assume he looks something like stoney Heraclitus below, marble-bearded, eyes void of any passion.

And it was Heraclitus, considered today the most important pre-Socratic philosopher, who first expounded on the subject of the Logos. No one is quite sure what exactly Heraclitus meant when he used the word -- we only have fragments of Heraclitus' work left, and the "definitions" he gives for logos aren't exactly conversation ending. Since his day, logos has been used to refer to a whole slew of related powers or principles: words, anything written or spoken; reason (either the faculty or the action); measure, proportion, ratio...

But Heraclitus seems to have thought about it in a much more fundamental way -- and not necessarily as a technical term. He is famous for believing that the "everything is in a state of flux." His most famous aphorism is an image of this flux: "On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow." The world figured as a flowing river -- though you might stand in one place in the river, it moves, and therefore, in some sense, the place changes, is always changing.

And yet, he says, somehow there seems to be a world that is common to us all. A "kosmos" he called it -- a somehow unified oneness we all exist within. How does this world-of-flux appear to become a kosmos? Well, as far as I can tell, for Heraclitus, that's where logos comes in. Logos is the principle, or the name he gave, to the commonness, the stability or orderedness, the able-to-be-described-ness, of the world. One Greek summed up Heraclitus' view this way: "Logos always exists, inasmuch as it constitutes the cosmos, and as it pervades all things"

For a believer in a world of flux, a believer in a world of motion, the ability to share a world in common is no small feat. Who or what performs this trick? We don't know, but what we do know is the rule of it -- we know the law it lays down, makes seen for us: the world around us. "Therefore," Heraclitus continues, "it is necessary to follow the common; but although the Logos is common the many live as though they had a private understanding."

What could it possibly mean for someone to have a private understanding of the shared surface on a world of flux? You get what you get -- I mean, different perspectives yes, but the common is the common. That's what we have, I imagine someone saying.

Potentially, he might have been attempting to describe the error of having any private belief at all. That is, of believing you have a private understanding, an understanding that is more or other than the understanding emanated to us by the logos, the kosmos.

Last night, and I'll end on this, I went to hear Arvo Part's 4th symphony, "Los Angeles." It was meditative, minimalistic, and, in certain moments, sublime. Part, like Heraclitus, is a mystical figure; one concerned with the most basic, the most elemental. In the notes handed to us at the door, there is a quote of his wherein he is attempting to describe the style of composition he pioneered in the late '70s, which he called Tintinnabulation. The word tintinnabulation comes from the latin world for bell, and is used in English to refer to the ringing of bells. Part's style has a simple bell-like quality to it, and is largely based on chordal triads, and a reduction of the music to these simple bell-like, resonating triads. As I read his reflections, it quickly became clear that tintinnabulation is more than a style for him -- it's a philosophy. It's a way of seeing the world. He speaks about it as though it were an abstract place of reflection. "Tintinnabulation," he says, "is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers -- in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises -- and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this."

I guess it reminds me of Heraclitus, and of the shame of saying I know anything more, or other, than the common. Human Dogma -- the world is there, and I'm stepping through it's movement, like an animal crossing a stream. The seed of all knowledge, and the extent of it.

Click on Heraclitus' stoney gape below to hear Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel," as heard in a Van Sant movie from 2002.

Friday, January 09, 2009


I mentioned Fukuyama's coinage last post: isothymia, which is a joining of iso (equal) and thumos.

What does thumos mean?

In his Phaedrus, Plato figures the human psyche in three parts: a charioteer, and his two winged horses. The Driver is logistikon, derived from logos, the Reason -- and the two horses, one black and one white, are epithumetikon, representing bodily desire, and thumos, or "spiritedness." Reason keeps the two in check, and steers them through the sky toward "divine sights." While the black horse -- desire, concupiscence -- is unruly, and needs the Driver's whip, the white horse, beautiful and long-necked, will heed the driver's word. Both horses represent passionate parts of the psyche, but Thumos -- the location of pride, shame, indignation, and social recognition -- is the brighter side of passion, the more agreeable, manly, not quite as difficult to control part.

Jeffrey Walker, in his treatise on classical rhetoric called Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, decides that thumos, or thymos, for the pre-aristotelian Greeks meant: "'heart' or 'mind' or 'spirit' as the seat of emotion, thought, wish, desire, intentionality, or will. In one's thymos," says Walker, "one considers things, draws inferences, becomes impassioned, forms desires, has intentions, and makes plans." He refers to uses of the word in both a Homeric hymn, and a poem of Pindar's, and says in these instances and others, "thymos as 'heart' is understood as both a principle or place of interpretation and a source of emotional response, urge, and intentionality."

Of Aristotle's conception of the thymos, Walker asserts:
"Aristotle typically associates both thymos and epithymia, "desire," with the "nonrational" (alogon), emotive part of the psyche, which he nevertheless considers to "partake of logos" in the sense that it has a "hearkening and obeying" capacity for interpretive understanding and response. [...] That is, depending on what perceptions are present to the psyche, and depending on the predominant cognitive frames within which those perceptions are interpreted, the "nonrational" part of the pschye, or the thymos, recognizes the significance or salience of those interpreted precepts and mobilizes emotions, desires, intentionalities, and behavioral scenarios (as well as bodily arousal for physical action) in response."

"Moreover, the specific emotions, desires, intentionalities, and bodily states mobilized by the thymos largely determine the predominant cognitive frames and behavioral scenarios within which the psyche's subsequent perceptions will be interpreted and responded to."

If Walker is interpreting these ancient sources correctly, the thumos begins to sound like a pretty darn important part of the psyche. If your body is a chariot, and Reason is the driver, then you've got two winged horses buried in your gut, one black, one white. The black one is pulling you earthward, and needs a good whipping -- but the white one? Well, the white one waits for you to say when.

Walker has a particular reason for talking about thymos -- a word he is very much concerned with, and a word that I have become very much concerned with, is derived from it. The word? Enthymeme. I'll talk more about that later -- for now I'm off to the premier of Arvo Part's 4th Symphony, titled "Los Angeles."

Thursday, January 08, 2009


In line, I am witness to life, a bit of life
negotiated: this post-adolescent boy
awkwardly conscious of his boss's looming
platinum hair. Boy-man tries to concentrate,
but boss-man speaks, asks him to work overtime,
asks him to do this favor, just once. Our hero
fumbles over my bagel, hesitates until
the promise comes: you can take a loaf of bread home.
Who am I to say what is or isn't worthy?
There is no rule, but look, in certain moments
my own heart rises from it's mortal bed,
and feels the brief delight of someone else
smiling like a goddamn goof, because tonight
in spite of death, he'll have a loaf of bread.

Noise Reduction

Snug against a olive-green column, I'm at Panera testing the new noise-reduction ear-buds I just purchased. Cheapest brand (Philips) and yet with the music playing -- I really can't hear anything around me. This public space is transformed into a sanctuary ... well, almost -- between songs, I can hear a muffled chatter. Muffled just enough I think, to be able to ignore it. The "noise reduction" technology seems to consist of the "ear-plug" style ear-buds, coupled with a little bit of gentle white-noise. Mr.Philips recorded himself blowing into microphone, and called it worth another 15 bucks. I wonder how much better the Bose ear-buds are?

Moby, The Rain Falls And The Sky Shudders.

Works well enough. Anyway, the sanctuary starts within, right?

Right. Mulling over so many dark, little thoughts. Can't figure how to act in a world that, if I'm honest, leaves me in a state of constant bafflement. And if I ride waves of convention, I feel listless, I feel disingenuous --

I've been reading over, thinking over, a theory of the steps toward a religious life: first, the aesthetic life, then the ethical, and finally, and for only a select few, the religious life. It's a progression of the self, from being ruled by passion, to rule by ethics and social agreements, and finally by faith in God --

I think one thing we can agree on is the absurdity of the word "God." The closest I can come to saying what I mean is: "That which transcends that which we exist within," and then it becomes a problem of inadequate pronouns.

**Product Update: there is a slight electronic flicker-click in my right ear-bud. Is it picking up a cell-phone? Annoying.**

I feel voices in me disagreeing with the word "transcends." Why must their be something that transcends the world we exist within? I'm not saying there must be -- you can trust me to never say (at least when I'm in a sober mood) what must be -- but I am saying that we believe it to be so. Think past the language we use to describe our thoughts about the world (something, I know, not everyone is convinced we can do). We learn early to look at the world outside of us as a mostly predictable environment that we exist in, are a part of. We believe in this unification that upon reflection seems possibly to be a trick of the trick of consciousness. Of language. But we believe in it. We believe that as we move across space, the predictions we made a moments ago will hold here as well, as long as the conditions are similar. A continuity of space & time. No, not on a micro or macro level -- only on the level I'm currently knowing, the one in which we live and move and have our being.

This unity of the world, this continuity, this world-ness, "transcends" the particulars that compose it.

I've long held that living "ethically" means two things: first, living with the ability to sympathize, living "isothymically" (living with a desire to be equal to everyone else)(a term coined by Fukuyama in The End of History and The Last Man); and, second, acting with the future in mind. Both require a good imagination. I guess that's a way of saying a proud person, or an evil person, is suffering from a deficient imagination.

We believe, whether because of conditioning, or because of observation, that when we die, the world continues -- not in the way we imagined it, the way our minds represented it to us, but in the way that it "is"...

Unity, though, is also an act of the imagination? The ability to see something as a distinct, unified object. (A little Sigur Ros coming on now, layered over a cottony blanket of white noise, layered over muffled chatter and some distant saxophoning.) So, if all imagining humans died right now, would all the world dissolve into nothingness? We don't buy it. There'd be the world, though oddly devoid of all connotation. And, yes, we believe the earth would still be a ball, upon which an animal could act by an instinct that would cause it to function correctly, oh, imagination, oh say, unification. Who's doing it? Something still transcends. I can keep taking out potential characters, and the oneness will still be there -- even if I reduce the universe to a slovenly spin of rocks in the void, they still collide, still operate according to some system -- and that, my friends, is unification. Is an act of the imagination. We believe it. And so we can't escape belief in this thing we often call "God."

Or a sense of the meaning of the world. Or a sense of the heartbreaking loveliness of sympathizing.

Our own impending deaths. What dream, or lack of dream, may come.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Wanting to name my post "Existential Wonder" I typed it into google to see what sort of hits I'd come up with. The second link, which I clicked after dismissing the first, was the title of a blog post. My heart sank a little, as it always does when I realize I'm just one of the millions of bloggers out there prattling on about anything that would make me sound the way I feel -- like a philosopher! Then I realized that the post was about a reincarnated dog. It had nothing to do with existential wonder, except for serving as a heart-warming example of it. Think "Marley & Me" for vaguely eastern folks.

So, I retreated, and clicked the third link. Boon!

From Mark Kingwell's Practical Judgements:

"In losing our ability to be amazed in a strange environment, or indeed to see a familiar environment as sometimes very strange, we may have obscured the origin of philosophizing. But an obscuration of origin does not mean we have lost philosophy. Modern philosophy – now made traditional, ruled by convention, canonical – continues without full regard for the experience that gave it rise. Wonder, even if in reality the origin of philosophy, may not be considered an experience deserving philosophical attention. On the other hand, simple wonder cannot be viewed as sufficient of itself to be the philosophizing it sets in motion. The tradition, with its conventions and rules, must be evaluated alongside the experience of wonder. Such a tradition may be rejected as ossified, conservative, or misleading, as Husserl attempts to do, but it cannot simply be ignored."

...then a few lines later, concerning analytic philosopher Ronald Hepburn...

"True wonderment in its philosophical connotation, says Hepburn, must be distinguished from astonishment at ‘mere novelty’ – a distinction to be found not only in Kant but also in Heidegger (curiousity vs. marvel). The thrust of Hepburn’s distinction is thus that ‘legitimate’ wonder must always be wedded to a concern for truth, ultimate causes, reasons; the wonderer wonders only to the extent that he gets his ‘real’ inquiry going. ‘Existential wonder’ at the sheer facticity of the world may not be of legitimate interest, Hepburn suggests, since it opens up no set of reasons to be investigated. It is a kind of wonder, but not one that leads to anything further. […]"

...and a quote from Hepburn...

"We can give no reason for the world's being rather than not being. We can meaningfully ask why it exists, but we have no resource for answering the question. Wonder is generated from this sense of absolute contingency; its object the sheer existence of the world. I shall call it "existential wonder." All reasons fall away: wondering is not prelude to fuller knowledge, though the general interrogative attitude may persist."

Kingwell goes on to point out that many philosophers disagree; in fact, most call this existential wonder the very source of philosophy. Take Plato for instance, who puts into the mouth of Socrates these words:

"[The] sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin, and he was the good genealogist who made Iris the daughter of Thaumas."

Thaumas was a sea god of Greek mythology, whose name meant wonder. Iris was the goddess of rainbows, and a messenger of the gods.

Anyway, to get to my point -- although I think rambling may have been my point -- I recently decided that I've moved out of a state of religious wonder, into a state of existential wonder. Or, that my wonder has lost some of its epic ghosts, and has been whittled down to a dumb amazement that the world is here, around me.

And, conveniently, I think I may agree with Hepburn. Being wonderstruck, in the existential sense, kind of leaves one with a zen-like feeling -- no desires. A vague "interrogative attitude" persists, but with "no resource for answering the question" other than reference to existence itself, all we can do is sense its meaning, and keep quiet.

Wittgenstein said: "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists." (TLP, 6.44)

He also said, "What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence." Which makes me think of rainbows, conveniently -- the feeling of being left speechless.