Our knowledge will take its revenge on us, just as ignorance exacted its revenge during the Middle Ages.
Our knowledge will take its revenge on us, just as ignorance exacted its revenge during the Middle Ages.
To when he lived almost unconsciously, threading thickets with forms of thought without learning. Just feelings, forms of ignorant knowledge. When all he wanted was a destination. It’s too bright in this razed enclosure. He wants back in but without the longing for a destination.
Rudely born and raised among mute empty things that passed him by with or without him as later words would pass him by sink into him and pass by let him see them till it seemed he was like them then passed by let him see them yet not see them as if he were another mute word yet something other too something quite different a space full of words surrounded by the still patient things of which he was one yet not one and it was in this time having been so rudely born and improperly raised lowered and levelled taken in and thrust out by things and words that he began to walk into a kind of death in life or life in death with wide eyes and a little hoard of hard-won wordless watchwords the hoard he had in spite or because of it all hoarded it is now that he walks at last wide-eyed into the night which is day the dark which is light which is waiting become living perhaps problem become its own solution.
If there’s one thing life grants us for which we should thank the gods, besides thanking them for life itself, it’s the gift of not knowing: of not knowing ourselves and of not knowing each other.
– Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. R. Zenith)
To someone susceptible to such thoughts, it may appear as the well-conceived plan of divine providence that my mind should have been obliged to shrink from such swollen arrogance into the extreme of despondency and impotence that is now its lasting condition. But such religious conceits have no power over me; they belong to those spiders’ webs through which my thoughts go speeding off into emptiness, whereas so many of their fellows are caught in them, and come to rest. For me, the mysteries of belief have taken the form of a lofty allegory, which hangs over the fields of my life like a shining rainbow, at a constant distance, always ready to withdraw, in case I should suddenly be inclined to run to it and wrap myself in the hem of its coat.
But, my dear friend, even mundane things shrink from me in the same way. How should I try to describe for you these strange mental tortures, the branches of fruit-trees withdrawing from my outstretched hands, the murmuring water receding from my thirsting lips?
In short, my condition is this: I have quite lost the faculty to think or speak on any subject in a coherent fashion.
To begin with, it gradually became impossible for me to converse on any higher or general subject, and to use those words which all men use constantly and unhesitatingly. I felt inexplicably loath even to say ‘Mind’ or ‘Soul’ or ‘Body’. I found myself incapable of passing an opinion on the affairs at Court, events in Parliament, or whatever else. And this is not through caution or regard — you know I am candid to the point of recklessness: but those abstractions which the tongue has to pronounce in making any judgement fell apart like rotten mushrooms in my mouth.
I was compelled to view everything that came up in conversation as from an awful proximity: the way I had once seen a piece of skin on my little finger under a magnifying glass to look like a field with furrows and hollows, so it was now with men and their actions. I was no longer able to grasp them through the simplifying regard of habit. Everything fell into pieces in front of me, the pieces into more pieces, and nothing could be contained in a single concept anymore. Individual words swam around me; they melted into eyes, which stared at me, and which I had to stare back at: they are like whirlpools, it gives me vertigo to look down at them, they turn without cease, and transport you into nothingness.
Since then, my existence has been one that, I fear, you will hardly be able to comprehend, so devoid of mind and thought is it; an existence that, admittedly, is hardly different from that of my neighbours, my relatives, and the majority of the landowning nobility of the kingdom, and one that is not without its moments of joy and liveliness. It will not be easy for me to give you an idea of these good moments; the words that might do it have deserted me. For it is something that has never been named and that it is probably impossible to name, which manifests itself to me at such moments, taking some object from my everyday surroundings, and filling it like a vessel with an overflowing torrent of higher life. I cannot expect you to understand me without examples, and I must beg you to excuse the silliness of these examples. A watering-can, a harrow left abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a poor churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse, any one of these can become a vessel for my revelations. Each of them, and a thousand others like them, things which otherwise the eye passes over with natural indifference, can suddenly take on for me in a moment, which I am quite incapable of producing of my own will, an exalted and moving appearance, to express which all words seem to me inadequate.
These mute and sometimes inanimate creatures raise themselves towards me with such a fullness and presence of love, that my charmed eye is unable to find a dull spot anywhere in the vicinity. Everything, everything in my memory, everything my most confused thoughts have touched on, seems to be something. Even my own weight, and my otherwise dull brain appears to me to be something; I feel an enchanting, quite limitless counterpoint within me and around me, and among the substances playing against one another, there is none into which I could not flow. At such a time, I feel as though my body consisted entirely of ciphers, which reveal everything to me. Or as though we could enter into a new, intuitive relationship with the whole universe, if we began to think with our hearts. But when this extraordinary spell fades from me, I am unable to say anything about it; I could as little describe in sensible words what this harmony weaving me and the whole world together consisted of and how I perceived it, as I could describe in detail the inner movements of my intestines or the congestion of my blood.
Apart from these extraordinary occurrences, of which, by the way, I can hardly say whether they should be called physical or spiritual, I lead a life of almost unbelievable emptiness, and find it difficult to conceal from my wife the deadness that is inside me, and from my household my indifference to the business of ownership. The good, strict upbringing I owe my late father, and my old habit of leaving no hour of the day without occupation, alone, it seems to me, give my life the appearance of stability, and the demeanour suited to my estate and person.
– Hofmannsthal, ‘The Lord Chandos Letter’ (trans. M. Hofmann)
Death is what Rilke calls ‘the pure relation’ — a purified relation which leaps beyond consciousness. Through death it is possible to achieve a new intimacy with things, replacing the imperious desire to master the world, the purposive activity which allows us to be content only with results. To save things is to turn towards the invisible, to allow death to affirm itself. What is this death? An enlarged consciousness — the broadening which reinstates a lost unity, a larger understanding. It reassures our faith in the oneness of things. Would this be the experience which would lead us into the profound intimacy we seek?
Death is our chance. Yet Rilke will say the animal that lives in the Open is ‘free of death’. We are not free; our perspective is limited and this is the point: ‘Death, we see only death; the free animal always has its decline behind it, and before it God, and when it moves, it moves in Eternity, as springs flow’. But then what chance does death offer us?
One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. One night or day. For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came from the one high window. Under it still the stool on which till he could or would no more he used to mount to see the sky. Why he did not crane out to see what lay beneath was perhaps because the window was not made to open or because he could or would not open it. Perhaps he knew only too well what lay beneath and did not wish to see it again. So he would simply stand there high above the earth and see through the clouded pane the cloudless sky. Its faint unchanging light unlike any light he could remember from the days and nights when day followed hard on night and night on day. This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till it in its turn went out and left him in the dark. Till it in its turn went out.
– Beckett, from ‘Stirrings Still’
Transcendence is passing over to being’s other, otherwise than being. Not to be otherwise, but otherwise than being. And not to not-be; passing over is not here equivalent to dying. Being and not-being illuminate one another, and unfold a speculative dialectic which is a determination of being. Or else the negativity which attempts to repel being is immediately submerged by being. The void that hollows out is immediately filled with the mute and anonymous rustling of the there is, as the place left vacant by one who died is filled with the murmur of the attendants.
– Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (trans. A. Lingis)
I dreamed I was on a trip I’d never taken, spellbound by a desert landscape I’d only read about, when the sand wiped away my tracks and made me look around in panic. But what does panic mean in a dream, I tried to reason. So let me be wind and sand, I asked, let me be sand in wind.
In the past I thought of myself as living into the future, as a creature of continuity moving through the present, through a succession of presents. The future was a condition of possibility that was separate from me in time, that I could imagine and bring about. It gave me space to master myself.
And now, in the present? This moment is drawing me into itself and dispersing my dreams of future selves. I’ve come from so far yet so near only to be shown the present moment as an abyss in time that can’t be bridged. A hesitation between expectation and memory. An anxiety.
To ‘live in the present’, then? A way to dress up our powerlessness, as if being in the moment were the condition of praiseworthy selfhood and not a kind of living death: a permanent impermanence that swallows us up as we try to separate ourselves from it.
But there’s a pure joy in this, somewhere. I sit myself at my desk, dispersed, waiting for it to lend itself to me.