Friday, January 24, 2003

Thinking the Impossible

“When the dead weep, they are beginning to recover,” said the Crow.

“I am sorry to contradict my famous friend and colleague,” said the Owl, “but as far as I’m concerned, I think that when the dead weep, it means they do not want to die.” (Collodi, The Adventures of Pinnochio)

In this life of ours, yours and mine alike, ebb and flow, that’s what, and that is all, we really have. The river that I watch now is not the same it was last year, last month, yesterday, or even my last blink. The Stoics believed that fire, one of the fundamental elements of the cosmos, consumed each moment, annihilating it, only then to re-create it: annihilation and creation, beginning and ending, were thus, they concluded, inextricably linked. Since then, philosophies have come and gone and a recurring element therein, in my opinion, finds a certain level of agreement with the Stoics. In sum, the question that so many cannot help but ask, no matter how repeatedly, and the one that I find far more interesting than most anything one might find in what passes for much of analytic philosophy today, let alone theology, is: What is life without death; decay without birth?

Our wish, which typically takes the form of an assumption of truth, is that we might reach the heavens -- and many have tried, literally and metaphorically -- so as to extend our purview over this littered land of oscillation, of beginnings and endings, that is, moments that come and go, but mostly just seem to go because they’re gone before you’ve had time to stop and say hello; in effect, by way of knowledge, which is power, ask any storyteller, to balance the existential tandem on which we carom, perhaps a bit recklessly at times, between living and dying. However, neither depth nor height escapes the circularity that invariably renders such an “objective” vantage point of meaning elusive, indeed, ephemeral at best, like the River Clyde flowing, and thus also changing, beginning and ending, below me; or, if you prefer, like the breath or the echo of a long-lost god’s laughter.

“Man thinks. God laughs,” such was the thought not his own to which Milan Kundera could not help but return as he sought the words to accompany his thoughts about the modern European novel. The thought, as though an isolate, transient people, like its Jewish origin, was followed by a question: Why? “Because man thinks and the truth escapes him.” “Because,” Kundera continues, “the more men think, the more one man’s thought diverges from another’s. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is.” The joke, in other words, is on humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, in its expectations of structure, of beginnings and endings that stabilize and congeal meaning and significance, that seek to fill an absence; the joke is on humanity, as it continues to think, thus missing the “sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” that Kant ascribes to laughter.

This anterior “nothing,” as it turns out, strains our sense of beginnings and endings, of our beginning and ending, and is thus also the condition of life itself and the seemingly endless array of possibilities that any one life entertain. We must begin; indeed, as evidenced by your reading this right now, we have always already begun.

Maurice Blanchot, ever elliptically, almost in passing, digressively, whispers the point I am trying to make:

Now, in this night, I come forward bearing everything, toward that which infinitely exceeds the all. I progress beyond the totality that I nevertheless tightly embrace. I go on the margins of the universe, boldly walking elsewhere than where I can be, and a little outside my steps. This slight extravagance, this deviation toward that which cannot be, is not only my own movement leading me to a personal madness, but the movement of the reason that I bear within me. With me the laws gravitate outside the laws, the possible outside the possible. . . . I am the origin of that which has no origin. I create that which cannot be created.

I don’t think that one needs to be religiously inclined to believe in something that is completely – can there be any other? – other. Perhaps, for those who are bold enough to think it, and this typically excludes the most ardently pious, as the ramifications do not bode well for religion or thinking religiously, perhaps this other might be called God. If so, and if we might actually find such frightening boldness, the joke that keeps this God laughing, and that keeps humanity writing, Kundera compels us to add, is the “starting from nothing, and with nothing in mind” that sustains, ironically enough, all thought, and thus all life, as “the nothing we hardly know.”

This nothing, which Blanchot refers to as “(pure) exteriority,” not only calls us, as he suggests, to write an impossible text, but also to live impossible lives; or, to be a bit clearer, but only a bit, to live – that oscillation of beginnings and endings – on the razor’s edge of the impossible. This, of course leads to one final question, one which sets us each on a path, one that somehow manages to be both different and identical from all the others: What next??

Addendum: The really odd thing about this post is what I was determined to write something about the Iraqi war build-up. Neither here nor there now, I suppose. I might try again after dinner.