“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”
“Realism is a bad word. I see no line between the imaginary and the real.” —Federico Fellini
Trying to make sense of this life, as I often do, the idea of ‘paradox’ began to seem the pattern for what I experience all around me. Here are assembled accounts (my own and others’) that I believe illustrate that life is paradoxical (seemingly absurd or self contradictory).
The general utility of what follows in this essay is questionable, and Colin McGinn pinpoints this. He writes:
… are capacities for theoretical intelligence the kinds of capacities that the genes want to promulgate? Theoretical intelligence is apt to go with an unworldly disposition, not a propensity to maximize one’s progeny. Why spend years on child rearing if your main interest is cosmology and the nature of consciousness? Maybe our frontal lobes will shrink over the next million years, and interest in natural philosophy will fade away.
All that follows below may be just a case of mental self-abuse.
Case 1. Being and ‘Entropying’
‘Reality,’ the sum total of everything, may also be called ‘existence,’ ‘actuality,’ or ‘being.’ ‘Being’ refers to both the nonmaterial, such as thought, and also to all the identifiable entities all around us in the material realm. Regarding the latter, the entities appear to be inertly static to the eye. The book I left on my desk yesterday is still there today. Ah, but we know better. The material beings are at base in constant motion at the atomic level, and in a condition of entropy, and an ongoing ‘BE-coming’ and ‘BE-going.’ Reality is both being and ‘entropying’ (I may have coined this word. I don’t know. You are welcome to Google it.)
Here, then, is a first example of paradox: existence as progressive disorganization and reorganization of the seeming identities and entities.
Case 2. Being Born as Pointless
There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this—to die soon.”
“All is sorrowful and in perfect rapture.” —Joseph Campbell
Case 3. Dying as Happiness
Solon hearing from Socrates that the brothers Kleobis and Biton are the happiest of men, dying from exhaustion having dutifully pulled a cart bearing their mother so that she may arrive at her temple in time to serve her goddess faithfully. In gratitude to her sons she prays to the goddess that her sons may die the happiest of men, as they have been so full of piety in her service. And indeed the boys die from their devotional exhaustion and pure labors for their mother, as they lie worn out under a tree in the temple garden.
Case 4. “No one is ever born or ever dies.”
Once, sage Vajashrava gave up everything that he possessed in a sacrifice including his son Nachiketas. Nachiketas wanted to know as to whom his father was going to give him. So out of curiosity he began to ask his father repeatedly regarding this matter.
The father got furious and said, “To the lord of death [Yama] I will give you.”
The son said: “I go as the first, the head of those who still have to die, I go in the midst of many of those who are now dying. I wonder what Yama has in store for me?”
Nachiketas entered the abode of Yama. There was no one to receive him. When Yama returned to his house after an absence of three nights, he became aware that Nachiketas had received no hospitality, so Yama gave three boons to him.….[Below, find the third boon.]
Nachiketas said: “When a man is dead please tell me what happens to his soul? This is my third boon.”
Yama said, “This subject is too subtle to discuss, even the gods are unable to understand its shades, trying to get to the crux of the matter is not that easy.
“Choose another boon, O Nachiketas, do not press me, and let me off that boon.”
Nachiketas said: “On this point even the gods have doubted, and you Lord Yama have declared it to be very difficult to comprehend. Since another teacher like you can never be found I would like only you to instruct me regarding this.”
Yama said, “If you can think of any boon equal to that, choose wealth, and long life. Be a king on the chosen realm of the wide Earth; choose progeny who shall live for a hundred years, possessions like cattle, elephant, gold and horses. I will fulfill all of your desires, but do not ask me about death.”
“These things are ephemeral,” said Nachiketas, “they wear out the essential energy of the body and mind. Also life is short. I choose my boon and stand by it. The pleasure produced by beauty and love is nothing compared to the knowledge of immortality, so tell me about the great hereafter.”
Extremely pleased and astounded by Nachiketas’s perseverance, Yama said,
“Now that you have dismissed pleasure and chosen knowledge I shall tell you!
‘No one is ever born or ever dies.’”
Case 5. Progress and Pollution: Civilization?
We extricated ourselves from the Agent Orange burnt jungles of Vietnam, and clomped and galumphed our way out of that quagmire—only to stumble into the dry, arid, sand storm blasted stretches and sweeps of Iraq, which we bombed with uranium depleted weaponry. We did this thanks to the death instincts of Chaney, GW Bush, Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell, Feith and the whole cabal of New-Cons.
I am reading Carl Skrade’s God and the Grotesque in which Skrade tells of the death drive, originated by Dr. Sabina Spielrein. Could there be any more clear example of this drive than the invasion of Iraq, or for that matter Vietnam, and oh yes, the First and Second World Wars.
Skrade gives another more global example. He links Norman Brown’s Life Against Death and the thought of Jacques Ellul and others with this example: the life drives of the Enlightenment genius (science and its offspring, technique) do progress man toward advancement and progress. But the instinct to cut corners and allow the externalities of pollution to sour the environment (the raw materials of which progress is made) simultaneously craters and crashes the progress. Is not pushing care of the environment to the lower levels of priority a comatose death wish? So Progress is a flaming catch-22.
At the risk of “beating a dead horse” (or maybe a better image is “beating a live horse to death”), I dread to share, perhaps the final coup de grace, that civilization is a heat engine. This is the dark irony of University of Utah scientist Tim Garrett, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences. Civilization, the cradle of our beloved progress, per force, heats the atmosphere. Garret “argues that rising carbon dioxide emissions—the major cause of global warming—cannot be stabilized unless the world’s economy collapses or society builds the equivalent of one new nuclear power plant each day.” Garrett explains: “The problem is that, in order to stabilize emissions, not even reduce them, we have to switch to non-carbonized energy sources at a rate about 2.1 percent per year. That comes out to almost one new nuclear power plant per day.”
There’s more to Garrett’s surreal recommendation than I know how to explore, but I do not think Garrett is just playing with black comedy with his “one new nuclear power plant per day.”
For sure, civilization as a self-destructive heat engine is as weird an idea as Freud’s idea that civilization, the beneficent giver of high culture, luxury and well being (forget about the horrors of war for a moment), also creates, per force, neuroses by stifling individual uncivil and selfish instincts. On the one hand we move out of the trees and caves to such as New York City. On the other hand we have to traipse off to the pharmacy for our antidepressants.
Civilization is so paradoxical, n’est-ce pas?
Case 6. Civilization? The Faustian bargain? Or as Leibniz said “The best of all possible worlds…”
It seems to me we humans would have saved ourselves a lot of environmental apocalyptic trouble had the following transpired. As the creatures we were, once upon a time, ever so long, long ago, as we became aware and self-conscious of our alimentary canal workings and movements–this might have been enough evidence for a species-wide decision to stop evolving toward greater and greater levels of awareness, intelligence, introspection, technology, science, philosophy, etc. etc. etc. Have not all these resulted in our upending the balance of nature? Well, yes. But what has happened is that we soothed ourselves by settling for indoor plumbing and the flush toilet.
The halting of “progress” (?) might also have been triggered by an Homo sapiens sapiens shocking realization: “My God (or some transcendent being or higher power of those times), did I just hunt, kill and devour a sentient being?” But no, the shock did not stop us. Humans did not choose the vegetarian diet. We adjusted to hunting by honoring and sanctifying the prey, and pleading with the animal to forgive us. This has led to every supermarket butcher shop being loaded with refrigerated animal flesh.
Why not remain just somewhat sapient and become a cooperative and vegetarian branch of our animal kin? No. We joined the ranks of the predators, our culture, art, science, and thought notwithstanding.
That we decided to evolve has something of the dubious hundredth monkey business. Have we evolved toward civilization because of a collective, numinous or cosmic subconscious consensus?
The bone thrown into the air, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubricks, has morphed into a space station. But we are, nevertheless, animal in the bottom half, and in our topmost part we are what goes by the name intelligence, which has proven to be no match to our basic instinctual, physical and chthonian drives, to say nothing of our unconsciousness. The astronaut in his/her space suit still has to defecate and urinate while tumbling, weightless in space. NASA has provided the technology for this legerdemain.
Magnificent though our science and technology might seem, we are still rooted deeply in nature, have set ourselves apart to the point of badly damaging Her and also our Oh so intelligent selves. There is trash on the surface of the moon, trash orbiting the earth, garbage and plastic patches in our oceans the size Texas. We have traumatized the Gulf of Mexico by the BP, Inc. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The apocalypse has appeared in Fukushima. Hasn’t Japan had enough nuclear stuff?
What is to be done? Probably nothing can be done. We have here a paradox–civilization as the marvelous, but also the deleterious, hypertrophic social progress and its costly externalities. The positive and negative trajectories are awe inspiring, but also shocking. Remember Shock and Awe and all the mess it made and is still making in the Near East?
I admit I may seem rather misanthropic, and somewhat pessimistic about the history and future of humanity as a whole. On the other hand, regarding individual people—to counter the weirdness of all this and to reassure myself and any reader interested enough to care—I am most hopeful and confident that everyone, including myself, can grow and even become enlightened, no matter that we are breathing the air of social craziness. My personal ‘Life Vision/Mission’ trumps the sickening paradoxes of civilization. Here is my vision and mission: “I awaken and empower myself and others by fiercely caring.” Do I achieve this all the time? No. These words nevertheless leaven my consciousness subliminally.
So, no complete answers. Maybe just that mental self-abuse I mentioned above. Oh well…and so it goes…
However, the ancient legend in Case 7 with which we close shows that far back in human development there were already inklings of the paradoxes and pessimism of civilization that I have tried to uncover. Read the closing legend and best wishes.
FIRST, A FEW ONE LINERS
The prime dynamic of all civilization is the pursuit of happiness and the flight from pain. —paraphrase of Dr. Alan Charles Kors
“Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” ― Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization
Case 7. Civilization Yes, but Violence, Greed and Destruction as well…
“The ancient Sumerians, the creators of the first civilization, told a wonderful myth about its origins. It was, they said, a devil’s bargain. It offered the noblest ideals of humanity but it also brought violence, greed and destruction. All this is civilization, the Sumerian God of Wisdom tells Inanna of Uruk, who will take it back to her city, and thence give it to the world. And if you wish its benefits, he goes on, you must take all its qualities without argument:
” …The Art of being mighty, the art of dissimulation, the art of being straightforward, the plundering of cities, the setting up of lamentations, the rejoicing of the heart.
” …The craft of the carpenter, the craft of the copper-worker, the craft of the scribe, the craft of the smith, the craft of the reed-worker.
” …The art of being kind, the kindling of fire.
” …The weary arm, the hungry mouth, the assembled family, procreation.
” …Fear, consternation, dismay, the kindling of strife, the soothing of the heart…
“All these things I will give you, holy Inanna, but once you have taken them, there can be no dispute, and you cannot give them back.” SOURCE: Michael Wood, Legacy: A Search for the Origins of Civilization (1992)
Originally published August 20, 2014 at: http://www.santafe.com/blogs/read/the-paradoxical#sthash.69kCIUSh.dpuf