Thursday, August 28, 2008

Philosophy, Silence, and Poetry

Western philosophy in the twentieth century, especially that of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, is marked by silence. The great three perennial problems of the West, namely, human freedom, God and immortality, were largely considered unverifiable propositions. Only space and time were a priori intuitions — the rest was a language-game.

There has been, in the history of Western thought over the past century, an acceptance of the limitations of pure reason, a turn toward metaphor and interpretation, a casting about in the realms of poetry and literature.

For example, Nietzsche gave birth to the mythical Zarathustra, Heidegger wrote about the "valid poetry" of Rilke, and Sartre wrote plays and novels.

In his writings, Wittgenstein prodigiously employed metaphor, analogy and simile, his pianist fingers rising effortlessly to the black keys.

(Even Kurt Gödel, of all the twentieth century’s great minds, the most silent, the most reluctant to publish, appreciated fairy tales.)

Historically speaking, this turn to the language of beauty is a paradigmatic shift in Western thought. While in prison, Socrates had dreams that bid him “practice and cultivate the arts.” So, before his death, he composed a few poems, a hymn to Apollo and a few versifications of Aesop’s fables. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, Socrates believed the art of philosophy was the highest kind of art. His student, Plato, of course, famously banned all poets from the Republic.

The Great Big Book

Imagine a Great Big Book in which all of natural history is written. ‘Natural history’ here is the problematic phrase. What do the words ‘natural history’ mean? In short, everything. The sum total of space and time, of consciousness and reality, of thought and action, of humankind and nature, of silence and words.

If this present configuration of space is A(0), and the previous configuration of space is A(-1), and the next configuration of space is A(1), and so on, to both positive and negative infinity, then the written sum ∫ of A(-∞) to A(∞) — the written sum of all previous, manifest and possible configurations of space — would be the Great Big Book.

If you prefer, (if you must), consider the Great Big Book a metaphor for All Configurations of Space in Time, or for the Universe of Perfect Causation, or for God’s Will.

Can you imagine such a book? What would it look like? How great and how big would it be? Where would you find it? When would it have been written? (And, dare I ask, by whom?)

The purpose of this thought-experiment is to approximate, in our minds, such a totality. If such a totality were to exist — and it seems to me one need only accept space, as infinitely extended, and time, as infinitely successive, to accept such a proposition, but such an argument is beyond the purpose of this investigation, and very likely, beyond the intuitive or logical capacity of the human mind — if such a totality were to exists, what kind of consequences would that entail for us? If the Great Big Book existed, what would that mean to me, an ordinary human being?

Let us extend the thought-experiment one step further. Given the Great Big Book, then your life, in its totality, would necessarily be written therein. Your life, every mental event, every physical movement, every word, every gesture, would be written therein. Imagine then that you obtained a copy of this Great Big Book of Your Life. Imagine your private copy is a normal sized book, one that you could hold in your hands. (Do you see it now, in your hands?) You have your book and your pen. You look down upon your desk and your chair. You are in a small, well-lit, pleasantly warm room.

Your task, then — the ethical imperative — would be to copy, or, more precisely, to trace over, with your own hand — with your own curious hand in creation — each and every word of your existence as written in the book. This task, and this task alone, is your sublime, moral responsibility. You sit down to work.

And with each stroke of your pen, working in perfect silence, you feel closer to the truth. With each stroke of your pen, as you effortlessly fall into the flow, you feel the rush of beauty. With each stroke of your pen, with each moment of your life in the Great Big Book fully affirmed and embraced by your own pen, you feel closer to a perfect love of fate, you feel closer to God...

Can you imagine such a little room? Such an at once tedious and exalting task? Such a Great Big Book?