The first 14 essays tried to “come to terms” with the limitations of language. By extension this included all of thought and imagination – the whole category of construct-making.
How can we discover the “limitations” of something that covers the whole of experience? An all-enveloping fluid from which we can’t leap free, like lucky fish?
The Three Oddest Words
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.
— Wislawa Szymborska
A fish who has never left the water, and who for some reason can’t leap, and who has the gift of gab, might hear tell of an airy realm beyond its kingdom, but the “air” that others mention would only amount to an odd word. The fish might dismiss the word as nonsensical or it might believe it now knows of something “beyond”, which in fact it can’t know.
The fish who cannot leap would not be able to picture anything but ocean unless the failure to imagine “what lies beyond” strikes it suddenly with unusual clarity. If the oddity of the word strikes the fish hard enough it might stop short in wordless uncertainty. Of course, the fish still wouldn’t be able to picture what lies beyond, but the fish would have moved into a different state of mind.
The fish would find itself in a suspended state. It has made a leap, after all, but not one that transcends the ocean itself. It would transcend the vocabulary of odd words that distracted its attention from the physical reality of the ocean itself. It would stop living in its intellect, in images that are misleading. It would discover the actual meaning of water by discovering for the first time the ocean’s shockingly inescapable extent.
When it stops believing it can swim beyond the ocean to reach odd and misleading words like “air” and “sky” an altogether different dimension opens up, a dimension of self-awareness.
An Unrecognized Aphasia
Meanwhile, people seem to be drowning in a vocabulary of odd words. We seem largely unaware of the fabricated nature of everything we “know.” We are fooled into taking things literally – taking our Selves literally. A root delusion has not yet been encountered. We only have the odd word or two to suggest this aphasia.
I’m referring to odd constructs such as silence, intelligence, reality, unreality, nothingness, emptiness, Truth, God, nation, ethnic group, race, atheism, meditation, thought, selfhood (“me” and “I”), future, past, death, nowhere, and on and on. The more virtual our society becomes, the more delusional our relationship to these words.
Now and then some of these “words” may erupt as seemingly undeniable actualities. Maybe someone has a spiritual experience of God, say, that seems (in the moment) undeniable (although in retrospect, as a memory, one can’t know). Even assuming the encounter was authentic in some sense, we’d still need a more profound insight to stop short the tendency to distill the meaning of that moment into a static construct, conclusion, image or word. Into one or another facsimile of what it meant as a lived moment.
And so long as these facsimiles seem relatively accurate, we usually stop bothering to notice that the word or image (no matter how accurate) communicates a different kind of meaning from the one actually encountered. Accuracy does not correspond to authenticity. The word “facsimile” doesn’t even keep us from being fooled by facsimiles. We never leap from this ocean of constructs intentionally. Because intention presumes a construct towards which we purposefully leap. Purpose keeps us construct-bound. Purpose will not help us stop short in uncertainty. It only amounts to swimming headlong towards a very persistent delusion. The delusion of trying to reach beyond the limits of thought.
And I’m not suggesting we have to “know” reality as an antidote to this delusion. As if such static knowledge were possible. I’m suggesting we have to confront NOT knowing reality. Just as the fish had to know the futility of trying to imagine what lies beyond the sea. It’s not a leap past the circumstantial need to deal in constructs. It’s a leap past the compulsion to deal only in constructs.
And it’s not enough to comprehend this rationally. This leap can’t happen until we recognize our peculiar aphasia more directly than we’ve ever recognized it till now.
Attachment to Structures
We have a contradictory relationship to imagination. For although we tend to believe that our perceptions simply report things as they actually are (and not merely as a construct), we also generally “can’t imagine” an intelligence that is not mediated by language or idea or some other construct like math or poetry. These forms of thought are widely regarded as intelligence itself.
In other words, an “unsuspended” (literal) vocabulary of “odd words” is accompanied by a corresponding belief that intelligence only arises with language or other forms of expression.
This encourages or necessitates a ceaseless imagination and re-imagination of oneself — an agitation of self-expression, and self-consciousness. We keep thinking of ourselves because no possibility of intelligence or meaning seems possible in the absence of self-conscious thought.
This amounts to living in a dream from which we can’t awaken, because the possibility of “wakefulness” remains only an image, an odd thought, which we rarely question. And yet this unquestioned “wakefulness” is a sham that drives us on again to seek a more satisfying, real, wakefulness. Therefore we escape the sham wakefulness by dreaming yet again that we’re awake. Leaping to escape the repetition of leaping. The circularity of this trap is ensured by not questioning the odd words that entrance perception.
What is Actuality?
Meanwhile, my interest in writing has diminished as it became clearer that something more direct and meaningful happens outside the mediated context of language or idea or theory. In fact, outside the context of thought entirely.
Obviously I haven’t rejected writing entirely. But the order of importance between Being and Constructing has begun to reverse. I don’t write to discover the actuality of Being. I come back to the page merely to adjust the structure of thought that still holds Me in thrall. Language has to put its own house in order — confronting this still-rampant over-reach into illusion.
It’s hard to use the word “actuality” without succumbing to its verbal illusion of meaning. How do we even direct attention to the possibility of an unstructured, fluid intelligence? Everything I ask is inescapably filtered through the organizing system of language. So I can’t answer that question positively.
Instead, I’ve tried to write things that inspire the brain to stop short long enough to find out whether or not “actuality” has any meaning beyond the word. The most language can do, it seems, is confront hidden contradictions hard enough to be suspended in uncertainty, which I call negational language. Or perhaps describe where we might find examples of lived actuality (like bees dancing directions to “real flowers in this floating world”) – which I call neutral (or artistic) language.
In either case, language doesn’t provide the answer. It provides the question: Is there an unmediated intelligence — that is, a direct intelligence of the things around us that does not require language whatsoever? An intelligence that is not judgement, conclusion, idea, thought, any of it?
I tried to approach this question in the essay “Matter and Meaning.”
I want to try again.
Consider this: I don’t need to know what “bathos” means to feel it, to understand it directly. And I have somehow managed to survive all this time not knowing what the word “anagnorisis” means, but you and I have known its meaning by living it. Likewise, we don’t need to understand the word “question” in order to know what questioning feels like. My dog and cat question things all the time. You can see it in their posture, and in the lifting and lilting tone of the meow or whine. I think a question has only 2 ingredients: 1) Uncertainty; and 2) Interested alertness. The difference between a dog’s question and my own questions varies only in the direction and subtlety of our “gaze”, and in the nature of what fascinates us.
Or consider this: scientists might be prone to study the act of walking – the body chemistry and mechanics of the activity. Studies of that sort add an undeniable intelligence to human life. The studies might help us heal people who have lost the ability to walk, and so forth.
But it’s not necessary to have such knowledge to know what it means to simply walk.
Words only direct attention to what is already known intrinsically. A real intelligence is always animal, is always felt in the bones as we move about the earth.
The Necessity and Overreach of Constructs
There’s no denying the necessity of constructs — of rationality, habit and language. We need them to preserve and share essential practices for survival. But habit in the preservation of identity is a mistake. The moment knowledge begins to accumulate an identity, then a viciously protective circle forms around this knowledge, the nucleus of a “me”. Then the freedom of emptiness, of dying to all the forms that we have accumulated, seems like a threat. We lose sight, then, of the world as a sand-painting. We forget to leave our heart in the emptiness underlying all forms.
Then consciousness gets dominated by rational, objective, and essentially historical knowledge. Then more immediate ways of intelligently and alertly moving on the earth get crowded out, or derided as pre-conscious intelligence, as something childish or undeveloped. And so we walk around no longer heeding the body unless the movement is circumscribed by an intention within a particular time and place, because the intellect is essentially jealous. It wants to direct everything. Hence, people everywhere seem lost in knowledge of one sort or another. They cling to it. Or perhaps knowledge runs us, as Bohm might say. Is that why we no longer trust or test the rich potential that an adult mind would bring to this spontanteous and uncontrollable animal intelligence?
And yet the glorification of rational thinking is really only the glorification of a very narrow bandwidth of what is still an animal intelligence. We haven’t evolved beyond the animal, and in some ways this glorification of rationality has not improved but dimmed our wits.
Intelligence as Uncertainty; Uncertainty as Being
Intelligence seems intimately tied to uncertainty. The habits of movement are never fully trusted by intelligence. Intelligence might be freedom from the compulsions of habit (which is not the same as an absence of habit). Intelligence might be a never-ceasing alertness to the limitations of practical, static structures.
The strange thing is we can never say we absolutely KNOW that existence is real, that there is such a “thing” as actuality. Actuality is not found in any conclusive knowledge. Not found in retrospective conjecture.
That is, actuality is found in being un-self-conscious, free to notice but not compelled to automatically heed the helpful examples of the past (knowledge, habit, tradition). It operates freely along with and through the body’s own knowledgeable habits (of walking, breathing, etc.).
Intelligence might be said to arise the moment knowledge and habit become transparent, when their coherence and incoherence are felt in the immediacy of the act itself. Not as a reflection on the act after the fact. But proprioceptively. Therefore this intelligence is not found in an ethereal or non-physical realm. It adds light to physical existence, not by way of transcendence of the body, but by way of a deeper immersion in the subtleties of physical movement, which includes movement’s origination as intention.
In other words, there is a knowing that is felt directly in one’s relationship to the world. In one’s being. It’s not an observational, external relationship, but a participatory, proprioceptive relationship to the world.
This relationship is undeniable, and yet simultaneously uncertain. For the deeper our relationship to the world, the more the world changes shape and meaning. Without conclusion.
(The Meaning of Confidence continues this line of inquiry).