07 June 2010

Always in Never

At the start of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du, he issues forth a startling remark. “Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is ‘in them’ and not between them and the world. The world does not participate in experience. It allows itself to be experienced, but it is not concerned, for it contributes nothing, and nothing happens to it.”

I don’t know about this. I sat on my front steps yesterday afternoon peeling the bark off a twig, stripping away the skin to reveal the smooth, fine wood beneath it. I’m not sure why this activity held me captive as long as it did. I wanted to take the peeled thing and wave it in Buber’s face and say, “Look here: something happened to this, and my experience of it was wrapped up in its transformation.” It’s more likely that Buber was speaking of the world in a larger sense than the twigs in my front yard. Take the night sky. I’m as fascinated by this view as I am the crashing waves on a beach and for similar reasons. It all goes on – births and deaths of stars and the tidal surge of the sea – quite apart from any energy I can exert.

I remarked to a friend last night about Richard Rohr’s insight that nature is the only thing a young man must respect. This is true for a couple obvious reasons. Nature, by and large, remains indifferent to our goings on. Apart from the occasional oil spill and our giddy distress over climate change, nature laughs us to scorn if it does anything at all. It tolerates our presence just as it tolerated the ages before us and the ages that will come after our extinction. I asked students last year to comment on this insight from Adam’s Return. Many of them responded that if you don’t respect nature, it will kill you. Again, nature laughs. No – one’s treatment of nature does not alter the inevitability that it will kill. Some of them thought that recycling might forestall nature’s wrath against them. This seems to me as foolhardy as setting out to sea on an inner tube and expecting the waves to respect the idiot’s good intentions and small actions. We are all on death row.

Walker Percy’s tenth question in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, states, “The Bored Self: Why the Self is the only Object in the Cosmos which Gets Bored.” He goes on, “Question: Why is it no other species but man gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep.” He indicates elsewhere that the word “boredom” didn’t exist until about two hundred years ago. It’s the typical complaint of a summer-vacationed child or a particularly unimaginative adult. “I’m bored.” Semi-conscious indifference to what’s going on; the TV is on and I’m looking at it and processing not a thing of it. It’s filler, a tinny lullaby to put me asleep, eyes wide open.

But what’s the alternative to boredom? Because, I suggest, if you continue down the path of peeling twigs and threatening dead philosophers; or work to convince adolescent males that we’re all in the process of being overcome by a beautiful yet violently unforgiving nature around us, then you’re likely to end up like so many of the self-loathing thinkers and practitioners of ideas that have come before us. Not a few have gone crazy; fewer still have escaped compartmentalization; practically none at all exercise humility.

I wonder what Buber would think about Muriel Barbery’s closing assessment of things in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”

We are trapped in finitude, longing for the infinite, happening upon beauty in the framework of the cosmic suspense.

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