Thursday, December 26, 2013

Minuet's End by Vitomil Zupan

It is dark inside the vineyard cottage with a brilliant blinding light in the windows. Down below we can hear the tedious drone of a choir

…the waters in heaven are chafing
as they wait to be poured into a jug . . .
somewhere a bright star is waiting…
to be hung up again in the sky…
again in the sky-y-y-y…

Each man drank and poured a glass from the wine jug to place before his neighbor, as is the custom. I watched Anton’s hand with a Camel cigarette, describing slow circles as an accompaniment to the conversation, all its movements addressed to the listeners. He was running out of words but I did not realize it. A wasp settled on the rim of the glass and sipped the wine; it would soon be fuddled with drink . . .and life would never be the same again.

The end of the war was in sight; there would be an end to that folly. One sort of enemy would perish. But we need enemies. When the revolution has destroyed the enemy outside, it starts to look within. If it can find no other, it becomes its own enemy. Revolution breeds revolution as the plant grows from seed, the ear from the plant to scatter the seed that is other and different from that which gave it being: here is the secret of the dialectic. Human society is is not like that of the bees, ants, or termites; they are established and do not develop. But man has invented speech and with it conserves experience. Experience enables him to change his environment, to assault nature; speech has liberated man from nature. Poets often do not realize this. Yet they fear hubris and superficiality. The Russians killed Tukhachevsky, the Germans killed Rommel. The Chetniks are fleeing northward, hoping to escape to Italy. And what about the Home Guard? They cannot get away. Now they are really up the Creek, what with betraying Allied airmen to the Germans, or even murdering them themselves.

How many days to go? You don’t ask questions in the army. Other are in a hurry now. Anton has his joke: “At least this time I’ll be on the winning side.” Old memories come back, memories of the retreat from Spain to France.

“Then Zarko said, ‘See you in the next war!’ There was something special about that fellow. He was intelligent, a deep thinker but a bit of a show-off too; some people thought he was altogether to high-and-mighty. He would start brooding, hatching up some idea purely his own, and you would feel he had his own peculiar view of everything. Then he would come out with the most unmitigated rot. Tall he was, slim, well-built, and moved like a cat. The women couldn’t leave him alone; they were like wasps around a jam pot. He would gaze into the distance .  .  . far into the distance .  .  . right through the question .  .  . then he would come back to earth again, always with a laugh, always blurting out some inappropriate remark. I couldn’t describe him .  .  .  he was like a willow bank you couldn’t break. A chord of music you couldn’t catch .  .  . but he shed his own inner glow on all those around him. Believe it or not, I can never bring myself to think of him as dead; in his own ay he lives on.”

Meanwhile death had already laid a new snare. Only a few more seconds and that most brilliant day would yield to night

The words flowed, the songs rang out, the bees hummed, the sunlight fell in a glowing golden oblong on the wooden floorboards, trying to sear through them. The whole world was gathering strength for a new life. The trees had shed their blossoms and were beginning to make fruit. Words would ring out. The songs would take off for Ljubljana. Let’s drink one more glass. Like a cord of music.

Then he was lying there on the bench where we laid him, clinically dead, dead beyond recall, killed, shot. People crowded around him. His glass lay overturned on the table in a transparent pool of wine. His cigarette still smoldered on the edge of the table.

I remember exactly what he was saying when he met his end

When Italy had capitulated, he could once again, after long months  walk the streets in broad daylight. He felt as if he had come back to the planet after a long absence. He glazed in wonder at the trees, the green branches, the hurrying crowds, the houses and their window boxes.

Obviously, their Italian and German brothers had inherited the records and dossiers of the Yugoslav police. For them, Anton with his lurid past would have been a prize catch. But he went to ground in his illegal printing shop. He turned out articles and war slogans and listened to the noises while hiding in that cellar where he could not tell night from day. Then something began to wither in him, something that had to die if he was to survive. He began to grow into something else, something monotonous, something vegetable; an animal was slowly transformed into a vegetable. Vegetables do not walk the streets.

The man did not realize what was happening to him. Only when he felt the warm breath of the city street on his forehead did he tremble and begin to wonder. Quite slowly he started to recover his old self, for now her no longer needed to live that underground vegetable life. All his dead emotional; tissue began to revive; it itched, it hurt, it gave no peace. How hard it had been to quiet emotion, and how much greater effort was needed now to restore it! Was it really possible to grab a fresh green leaf? To rub the rough bark? To address the passing stranger? Are those clouds in the real sky? Maybe they are a dream –or perhaps that anonymous existence was a dream, an illusion.

Moments come all the time when a man pinches himself and asks, am I really alive? He fades and revives at every step of his journey. Some things must happen so that he can understand others. Sunset will come, the sun goes down .  .  . and the moon is already up. Footsteps. Talk. People have families. They have cats and dogs. They drink coffee. They do not know I am still only have alive. The body avoids sudden change. It wants to live the life it is accustomed to. It resists this sort” of dual existence.

“Well, shortly after that, we were both leaving Ljubljana together for the army.”

He was in mid-sentence when his body stiffened as if he were about to take wing. He looked at me with a bright, curious, astonished gaze, then slumped down. I took hold of him, without understanding what was going on. It was not like him to play such strange tricks.

Later on, we discovered that one of a group of partisans sitting in the room below had banged his old Italian automatic on the floor, releasing a volley of bullets, a whole magazine, that had shot up past his head  into the ceiling. Penetrating the wooden ceiling, the stream of bullets had accidentally lodged in a certain body. The body was Anton’s. It’s these automatics, you can’t trust them, you know.

He still lived a few minutes. He did not let anyone undress him, and examine his wounds; he realized perfectly well there was nothing that could be done. He was quite calm and collected and even tried to smile when the end came. The man whose gun had caused the trouble came up in despair but he was not allowed to speak. No explanations were necessary now, words could alter nothing. We laid the wounded man on a bench. He looked at me and I hear his inner voice: “Well, this is my lot; you can see how it is. You remember what I told you about the bulls of Andalusia who live for one great day? What a good thing we met today, that you saw it all, that you’re here.”

He had one arm stretched out along his side and the other oppressed tight against his breast.

When at the end he tried to laugh, he managed to say only, “See . .  .” But I knew he wanted to repeat that wisecrack, “See you in the next war!” Someone closed his eyelids. I have no idea why.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

We shall shatter the sword! by Friedrick Nietzsche

 "No government nowadays admits that it maintains an army so as to satisfy it's occasional thirst for conquest. The army is supposed to be for defense, that morality which sanctions self protection is called upon to be it's advocate. This is how all states now confront one another. They presuppose an evil disposition in their neighbor and a benevolent disposition in themselves. This presupposition, however, is a piece of inhumanity as bad as, if not worse than, a war would be. The doctrine of the army as a means of self-defense must be renounced just as completely as the thirst for conquest. And perhaps there will come a great day on which a nation distinguished for wars and victories and for the highest development of military discipline and thinking, and accustomed to making the heaviest sacrifices on behalf of these things, will cry of its own free will: "We shall shatter the sword" - and demolish its entire military machine down to its last foundations. To disarm while being the best armed, out of an elevation of sensibility - that is the means to real peace. Better to perish than to hate and fear, and twofold better to perish than to make oneself hated and feared - this must one day become the supreme maxim of every individual state!"

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

The literary critics of the Bible learn from and acknowledge the findings of linguists and philologists and anthropologists and archeologists and historians of the ancient Near East, who identify all the parallels between the stories, covenants, vassal treaties, languages, laws, rituals, social practices, and even the gods of ancient Israel and all the peoples (The Canaanites, Egyptians, Hittites, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Mesopotamians, and Persians) among whom so many ancient Israelites were born, lived, and died.

But their own work is grounded in the conviction that no matter how many people had a hand in it, how long it was in the making, how many earlier forms it took, how much of it was borrowed from neighbors, how many different kinds of imperatives shaped it, how often and dramatically transcription, translation, and exegesis transformed words and meanings, the final product (which happens to be the only version of most of it that for many years now anyone has actually set eyes on) is, in addition to everything else, and perhaps above all else, a work of literature.

Where others see inconsistency and contradiction (and in that contradiction evidence of competing traditions and schools and circles and courts), the literary critics see multiple points of view, artful appropriation and juxtaposition, and every kind of ambiguity. Where others look behind the text in the hope of finding oral tradition, political and theological orientation, and historical facts, the literary critics look right at it and find carefully composed poetry and lyrical prose.

Where others see fractures and fragments, pieces and parts, smudges and crooked seams, J and E and D and H and P and G (hypothesized authors of the Bible), literary critics see the Teachings of Moses and the Holy Scriptures –remarkably coherent works of ancient literature, literature without which it is simply impossible to imagine or understand the literature, to say nothing of the graphic art, music, religion, and politics, of the past two thousand years. All that and, what’s more, they have great taste. To a man, they have nothing but the highest praise for my story:

“The most perfectly formed and polished of all the patriarchal stories”- Gerhard von Rad.
“The profoundest recorded experience in all the history of the patriarchs and the telling of it soars to incomparable literary heights.” E.A. Speiser
“One of the peaks of ancient narrative.” –Everett Fox
“A masterpiece of biblical literature.”- Robert Alter
“A masterpiece of economy, psychology, and artistic subtlety.”-Jack Miles (not only a former Jesuit seminarian but also a biographer of God)

One of the pioneers of the literary approach, a German philologist and critic named Erich Auerbach, set the tone. Living in exile in Istanbul in the early 1940s (after the Nazis forced him out of his posting Marburg), Auerbach went to work on a sweeping study of (nothing less than) the representation of reality in Western literature. In his opening chapter, he uses the story to demonstrate how ancient Hebrew writers harnessed the awesome literary power of the unseen and the unsaid.  .  .

In short, we are told or shown only what we need to know to follow the action. Everything else, Auerbach writes, is “left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and space are undefined .  .  .thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speech; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense .  .  . and directed towards a single goal, remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.’”

Auerbach’s analysis of Genesis 22 comes in a close comparison of the biblical style to ‘the genius of the Homeric style” as it is displayed in chapter 19 of the Odyssey, a chapter in which every element of plot, character, and theme is set in the foreground, every scene is fully illuminated, every connection made explicit, every thought is expressed, and every act takes place in the story’s present, right in front of our eyes, and is fully explained. And while I can imagine some less-enamored critic spinning all of Auerbach’s talk of background as a backhanded compliment (“what is memorable about your writing is what you didn’t write”), he doesn’t mean it that way. He warns us not to mistake the skeletal structure –the withholding of detail, description, and dialogue, especially detail and dialogue that reveals interiors –for evidence of a primitive stage in the evolution of storytelling. Rather, he sees it as evidence as evidence of a sophisticated  sense of memory, thought, emotion and action, all set squarely in the flow of time –so sophisticated that unlike Homer, whose stories can be analyzed but resist interpretation and allegory, biblical literature cries out for interpretation. In fact, Auerbach argues, it must be interpreted or transformed by allegory to be fully understood and explained.

Not every critic accepts all of Auerbach’s premises, Or considers Hebrew scripture so singular. Or shares his estimate and appreciation of its literary value. But many do, and the point is that before Auerbach, most critics would have found the idea that the literature of the ancient Israelites could be spoken of in the same breath as the Iliad and the Odyssey laughable. .  .

Abraham has had  critics forever. The story has been used as evidence that God abhors human sacrifice for nearly as long. And if martyrdom had not been hotly contested, apologists probably would not have gone to such great lengths to turn it into sacred historical precedent. Any honest appraisal of the merits and demerits of our religious traditions would have to take our interpretative traditions, all those questions and answers, all the things that people have done with what they inherited, into account.

In fact, I couldn’t imagine a better foil for the fiction at the heart of fundamentalism, in all its varieties, than the fluidity, multiplicity, and variety of revelation over time, the thinking and rethinking, the talk and the argument, the writing and rewriting, the vast array and mélange of meanings, the engagement with troubling texts, and the marriage (at times happy, at times troubled, at times both) of tradition and innovation. Nor could I imagine a better way to display the variety and fluidity than to shine some light on the long and protean life of the nineteen lines of ancient literature in Genesis 22, a story that many (including the vast majority of the people who have taken it into their own hands as if it were a lump of soft clay) believe to be the work of God.

It was then that it first occurred to me to write a brief history of the story, a book about some of the things that people have done with it, Muslims, Christians, and especially Jews, who have returned to it more often and revised it in more different ways.

 No sooner did that thought occur to me than I began to have doubts.  Where would I start? How would I ever get a handle on two thousand years of commentary and two hundred years of scholarship, to say nothing of all the ritual and liturgy and literature and drama and music and art? How would I figure out where to survey and where to take soundings, how to strike a balance between depth and breath, when I would need to know more than I knew about a commentators life and times to understand a particular commentary, when I would need to show or tell more to explain? Who would stick with me? How many at this late date would care? I felt a little like Kafka’s Abraham: He has faith. He wants to do what he has been called to do, in the right spirit, in the right way, but he simply can’t believe that it is he who has been called to do it.

I wasn’t the only one who had doubts. My mother, heretofore the most loyal and indulgent fan of my work, repeatedly asked my wife and siblings why I was writing about “that” story, and she made no effort to hide her distress from me. Isaac’s line alone (“the saddest in all literature,” she once said) was more than her heart could bear. It was visceral. Every time she overheard me talking about it, she would grab her hair, as if she were trying to pull it out, and say “Stop, stop, I hate that story. I can’t listen to another word.”

.   . . ………………………………………

Now I, J.S., will take the unusual liberty (in this Blog) of commenting directly on Mr. Goodman’s book. First I will admit that I had never before heard of the massacre of Rhineland Jews during the first and second Crusades, so I cannot thank the author enough for telling that story. Also the story about  how G.H. Davies’ commentary on Genesis 22 ( which concluded that the sacrifice was Abraham’s idea; God saved Abraham from his own obsession and misunderstanding of God)- commissioned by the Southern Baptist’s education board  was declared inadmissible- that it “clouded a clear divine directive.”- and all the unsold copies of his report destroyed.

I just don’t agree that Bob Dylan’s Abraham ( In Highway 61) expresses a mere ‘so-it-goes cynicism’ and performs in a setting that is ‘less Genesis than the end of days.' It’s more about  taking an honest look at founding myths. It’s  really more a disagreement on  emphasis than substance, one the author surely allows.

"Highway 61 Revisited"

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What ?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done ?"
God says. "Out on Highway 61".

This is about Isaac being sacrificed over and over again, that no angels stayed Abraham’s bloodying hand in the founding  and subsequent life of America – and who is counting the holocaust of infants and children  in the settlements of Virginia, New England, across the breadth of the frontier or even contemporary “mortality rates” (said to be the highest in the industrialized world)?

Then we have a stanza about- despite all the formal hoopla to the contrary- the incorrigible state of ‘Social Contract’, and ‘gun culture’.

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there's only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol' Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61.

 Then a stanza about  our endless streams of 'broken' commodities and the business model which underlies a large proportion of commerce in this country: “a sucker born every minute.”

Well Mack the finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get ride of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.

Nothing  end  times about this, It’s our history from the beginning. Ads for snake oil dominated the pages of America’s earliest newspapers, for example.

Isaac- the rock n’ roll icon- the one who escaped sacrifice as a child- the second mother, of course, being Sarah:

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmmm you're right
Let me tell second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.

As Johnny Rivers hit from 1965 had it:

I can talk these words that will sound so sweet
They will even make your little heart skip a beat
Heal the sick, raise the dead
Make the little girls talk outta their heads

I'm the one, oh I'm the one
I'm the one,
I'm the one
The one they call the seventh son

Finally, the broad horizon of the founding and perpetuation of America as a continental and then global military and military-style enterprise:

Now the rowin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

I can hardly think of a better foil for the fiction at the heart of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. At any rate, the song falls easily into the parameters of the change in perspective on the story when commentators began to identify Isaac as a victim, not ‘the dorky, willing Isaacs of the ancient and late-antique commentary.” ( see Chapter 26).

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought by George Steiner


  Schelling: Ueber das Wesen der Menschlichen Freiheit (1809)

    "Dies ist die allem endlichen Leben anklebende Traurigkeit, die aber nie zur Wirklichkeit kommt, sondern nur zur ewigen Freude der Ueberwindung dient. Daher der Schleier der Schwermut, der ber die ganze Natur ausgebreitet ist, die tiefe unzerstrliche Melancholic alles Lebens."

    "Nur in derPersnlichkeit ist Leben; und allePersnlichkeit ruht auf einem dunkeln Grunde, der allerdings auch Grund der Erkenntnis Sein mu."

    ("This is the sadness which adheres to all mortal life, a sadness, however, which never attains reality, but only serves the everlasting joy of overcoming. Whence the veil of depression, of heavy-heartedness which is spread out across the whole of nature, hence the profound, indestructible melancholy of all life."

    "Only in personality is there life; and all personality rests on a dark ground, which, however, must also be the ground of cognition.")

    Schelling, among others, attaches to human existence a fundamental, inescapable sadness. More particularly, this sadness provides the sombre ground on which consciousness and cognition are founded. This sombre ground must, indeed, be the basis of all perception, of every mental process. Thought is strictly inseparable from a "profound, indestructible melancholy." Current cosmology provides an analogy to Schelling's belief. It is that of "background noise," of the elusive but inescapable cosmic wave-lengths which are the vestiges of the "Big Bang," of the coming of being into being. In all thought, according to Schelling, this primal radiation and "dark matter" entail a sadness, a heaviness of heart (Schwermut) which is also creative. Human existence, the life of the intellect, signifies an experience of this melancholy and the vital capacity to overcome it. We are, as it were, created "saddened." In this notion there is, almost undoubtedly, the "background noise" of the Biblical, of the causal relations between the illicit acquisition of knowledge, of analytic discrimination and the banishment of the human species from innocent felicity. A veil of sadness (tristitia) is cast over the passage, however positive, from homo to homo sapiens. Thought carries within itself a legacy of guilt.

    The notes which follow are an attempt, wholly provisional, to understand these propositions, to grasp, tentatively, some of their implications. They are necessarily inadequate because of the spiral whereby any attempt to think about thinking is itself enmeshed in the process of thought, in its self-reference. The celebrated "I think, therefore I am" is finally an open-ended tautology. No one can stand outside it.

    We do not really know (in Wirklichkeif) what "thought" is, what "thinking" consists of. When we try to think about thinking, the object of our inquiry is internalized and disseminated in the process. It is always both immediate and out of reach. Not even in the logic or delirium of dreams can we reach a vantage point outside thought, an Archimedean pivot from which to circumscribe or weigh its substance. Nothing, not the deepest probes of epistemology or neurophysiology, has taken us beyond Parmenides' identification of thought with being. This axiom remains at once the wellspring and boundary of western philosophy.

    We have evidence that processes of thought, of conceptual imaging, persist even during sleep. Some modes of thinking are totally resistant to any interruption whatever, as is breathing. We can, for short spells, hold our breath. It is by no means clear that we can be thoughtless. There are those who have labored to achieve this condition. Certain mystics, certain adepts of meditation have aimed at vacancy, at an entirely receptive because void state of awareness. They have aspired to inhabit nothingness. But such nothingness is itself a concept, charged with philosophical paradox and, where it is achieved by directed meditation and spiritual exercises, as in Loyola, emotionally replete. St. John of the Cross characterizes the suspension of mundane thought as brimful of the presence of God. A true cessation of the pulse-beat of thought, exactly like the cessation of our physiological pulse-beat, is death. For a time, a dead person's hair and nails continue to grow. To the best of our understanding, there is no prolongation of thought however brief. Hence the suggestion, in part gnostic, that only God can detach Himself from His own thinking in a hiatus essential to the act of creation.

    To revert to Schelling and the assertion that a necessary sadness, a veil of melancholy attaches to the very process of thought, to cognitive perception. Can we try and clarify some of the reasons? Are we entitled to ask why human thought should not be joy?


    So far as we are aware, so far as we can "think thinking"-I will come back to that awkward phrase-thought is limitless. We can think of and about anything. What lies outside or beyond thought is strictly unthinkable. This possibility, itself a mental demarcation, lies outside human existence. We have no evidence for it either way. It persists as a hidden category of religious and mystical conjecture. But it can also figure in scientific, cosmological speculations, in the concession that a "theory of everything" lies outside and beyond human understanding. Thus we can think/say: "this problem, this topic surpasses our cerebral potentialities either at present or for ever." But within these ill-defined, always fluid and perhaps contingent confines, thought is without end, without any organic or formally prescriptive stopping point. It can suppose, imagine, assemble, play with (there is nothing more serious and, in certain regards enigmatic, than play) anything without knowing whether there is, whether there could be anything else. Thought can construe a multiplicity of universes with scientific laws and parameters wholly different from our own. Science-fiction generates such "alternatives." A well-known logical conundrum postulates that our own universe is only a nanosecond old and that the sum of our memories is incised in the cortex at the moment of birth. Thought can theorize that time has a beginning or none (there is a despotic sophism in the ruling that it makes no sense to ask about the moment before the Big Bang). It can produce models of space-time as bounded or infinite, as expanding or contracting. The class of counterfactuals-of which "if clauses, optatives and subjunctives are the grammatical encoding-is incommensurable. We can deny, transmute, "unsay" the most obvious, the most solidly established. The scholastic doctrine whereby the one and only limitation on divine omnipotence is God's inability to change the past is unconvincing. We can readily both think and say such change. Human memory performs the trick daily. Thought-experiments, of which poetry and scientific hypotheses are eminently representative, know no boundaries. That humble monosyllable "let" which precedes conjectures and demonstrations in pure mathematics, in formal logic, stands for the arbitrary license and unboundedness of thought, of though manipulating symbols as language manipulates words and syntax.

    Human thought reflects on our own existence. We suspect, though we do not know for certain, that animals cannot do this, even where primates share some ninety percent of our genome. We can model, we can devise mathematical expressions for, the "heat-death" of our universe by virtue of the thermodynamics of entropy. Or, on the contrary, we can advance arguments for eternal life, for resurrection- an appalling thought-or cyclical mechanisms of "eternal return" (as in Nietzsche). Not only innumerable ordinary men and women, but the begetters of religions, metaphysicians such as Plato, and certain psychologists, such as Jung, have rejected the axiom of finality, of psychic zero after corporeal demise. Thought can roam at liberty across the entire gamut of possibilities. It can, even prior to Pythagoras, wager on the transmigrations of the human soul. There is, there can be no verifiable evidence either way.

    The infinity of thought is a crucial marker, perhaps the crucial marker of human eminence, of the dignitas of men and women as Pascal memorably declared ("thinking reeds"). It distinguishes what is signally human in the human animal. It enables the grammars of our speech to articulate remembrance and futurity, though we pause only rarely to take in the logical fragility of the future tense. Thought entails man's mastery over nature and, within certain restrictions such as infirmity and mental affliction, over his own being. It underwrites the radical freedom of suicide, of bringing thought to a voluntary, freely-timed halt. So why the inescapable sadness?

    The infinity of thought is also an "incomplete infinity." It is subject to an internal contradiction for which there can be no resolution. We shall never know how far thought reaches in respect of the sum of reality. We do not know whether what seems open-ended is not, in fact, absurdly narrow and beside the point. Who can tell us whether much of our rationality, analysis and organized perception are not made up of puerile fictions? For how long, to how many millions, was the earth flat? We are indeed able to cogitate and phrase "ultimate questions"-"how did the cosmos come into being;is there any purpose to our lives; does God exist?" This impulse to questioning engenders human civilization, its sciences, its arts, its religions. But nothing identifies Marx more closely with enlightenment innocence than his affirmation that mankind only poses those questions to itself for which there will be an answer. It is the opposite which comes closer to the truth. It is "jesting Pilate." On absolutely decisive fronts we arrive at no satisfactory, let alone conclusive answers however inspired, however consequent the process of thought, either individual or collective, either philosophical or scientific. This internal contradiction (aporia), this destined ambiguity is inherent in all acts of thought, in all conceptualizations and intuitions. Listen closely to the rush of thought and you will hear, at its inviolate centre, doubt and frustration.

    This is a first motive for Scliwennut, for heaviness of heart.


    Thought is uncontrolled. Also during sleep and, presumably, unconsciousness the current flows. Only very rarely are we in control. The pulse of thought looks to be manifold and many- layered. It can originate at somatic and psycho-somatic depths far beyond the reach of introspection (thoughts can rise out of deep- buried pain or pleasure). It is, very possibly, a prelinguistic phenomenon, a thrust of psychic energies prior to any executive articulation. But trapped in the great prison-house of language we arrive at no plausible, let alone "translatable" notion of what unspoken, unspeakable thinking could be like (does the deaf-mute come any closer?). It is just conceivable that the unspoken meaningfulness of music, so obviously somatic in some of its key components, provides some analogy. The levels which depth- psychology, such as psychoanalysis or hypnosis, identify as sub- conscious, let alone unconscious, are, so far as they surface in words, images, dreams or symbolic representations, superficial. They fall far short of the crust in the geophysics of the human psyche. And even at the surface, there is only intermittent control.

    At each and every moment, acts of thought are subject to intrusion. A limitless congeries of external and internal elements will interrupt, deflect, alter, muddle any linear deployment of thought (Dante's moto spirituelle). The stream is incessantly muddied, dammed and diverted. A sudden sight or sound, however marginal, any tactile experience, a wisp of tiredness or boredom, the wedge of sudden desire, will appropriate a thought-response. Sensory phenomenality (Sinnlichkeii) in its incommensurable aggregate and confusion, can master and re-direct thinking at virtually every moment in our lives ("it slipped my mind"). Day- dreaming, pathological misprisions-to be "out of one's mind," a precisely meaningless proposition-are merely accented, identifiable forms of perpetual discontinuities, of inherent drift. Soliloquies of concealed or unwanted thought go their anarchic ways underneath articulate, cognitively apprehended speech. Though it may be that the creative artist or visionary can sometimes dip into these deep and turbulent eddies. By far the greater volume of recall and forgetting lies at the blurred edges of willed thinking. The winds of thought-an ancient simile-their sources beyond recapture, blow through us as through innumerable cracks. Kafka heard "great winds from under the earth."

    Is it, in fact, possible to "think straight"? Can thought be made laser-like? Only at the price of trained, disciplined concentration and abstention from diversion. A number of activities depend on this narrowing and "monotone." The mathematician at his analysis and proof seems able to shut off and out the world, sometimes for hours on end. As does the chess master at his board or the formal logician at his lemmas. At crucial stages at his work-table, the watch-maker behind his magnifying glass, the surgeon operating, suspend all inattention. We knit our brows, the virtuoso musician closes his eyes. Contemplatives, masters of meditation and their acolytes testify to spells, sometimes of astounding length, of absolute compaction, of an in-gathering of the psyche so exclusive of any dispersal that it allows a single, total intentionality. It may be that Bach's solo partitas translate such "singularities"; but so does the suspension of breath of the marksman waiting to kill.

    Such purities, such shafts of unwavering thought are accessible only to the relatively few, and their normal span is brief. They can occur at the summits of human excellence, as in what we know of Spinoza's methods, or at trivial levels, as in the circus-arts of the memory acrobats capable of learning by heart and regurgitating extended series of random numbers or names. There is evidence, though fitful, that the implicit powers of ultimate concentration can burn out at a fairly young age. First order pure mathematics and theoretical physics are the prerogative of the young. Which does suggest that the generative means involved are in some vital regard neuro-physiological, indeed "muscular." There is documentation, although too often anecdotal, to suggest that totalities of concentration comport not only temporary exhaustion but long-range mental collapse (notably in chess-masters and pure mathematicians or mathematical logicians). Prodigies in mnemonics rarely mature.

    This allows the hypothesis whereby the involuntary, polymorphic wash of common thought is a safe-guard. It acts as a conservation of mental reserves in what may be virtually a neurological sphere. It enables us to respond more or less adequately to the spontaneous, often shapeless demands and stimuli of the everyday. The bursts of concentration in undeflected thinking, the coercion of absolute focus, may carry the risk of subsequent mental exhaustion or impairment. There is monomania in certain intensities of thought (lasers can burn). It is, none the less, a monomania without which many peaks of human understanding and accomplishment would not be feasible. Archimedes did not desist from his analysis of conic sections, though that focus meant death. Far, far more often than not, however, ordinary thinking is a messy, amateurish enterprise.

    A second cause of "unzerstrliche Melancholie"(of "indestructible melancholy").


    Thinking makes us present to ourselves. Physical sensations, notably pain, are instrumental. But to think of ourselves is the main constituent of personal identity. I cannot think that I am not except in a fantasized, merely verbal game. The cessation of thought, even where madness is active, is simultaneously, tautologically that of the ego.

    No one, nothing can verifiably penetrate my thoughts. To have one's thoughts "read" by another human being is nothing more than a figure of speech. I can altogether conceal my thoughts. I can mask and falsify their outward expression as I can that of my mien or body language. Hired mourners howl with grief over the remains of clients unknown to them. Even torture cannot elicit beyond doubt my inmost thoughts. No other human being can think my thoughts for me. This is the determinant reason, the ontological crux why no other man or woman can "die for me" in any literal sense. No one else can assume my death. I can die with, but never "for," the other, however inalienable our bonds, our kinship. The blind, the deaf-mute, the immobilized victim of paralysis or motor-neuron disease can harbor, formalize and expound thoughts which reach to the edge of our universe. Thoughts are our sole assured possession. They make up our essence, our at-homeness or estrangement from the self. Their inwoven pressure is such that we may at times labor to hide them from our awareness, to silence them internally by means which psychology qualifies as amnesia or repression. It is doubtful that they remain irretrievable. I breathe therefore I think.

    There follows a consequence whose enormity-in the proper sense of that word-is taken strangely for granted. No closeness, be it biological (identical or Siamese twins may represent a limit-case), emotional, sexual, ideological, be it that of a life-time of shared domestic or professional co-existence, will enable us to decipher beyond uncertainty the thoughts of another. The quest for telepathic communications and simultaneities is an attempt, almost certainly futile, to overcome this often maddening or tragic inhibition. As is the resort to truth-drugs in various obscenities of interrogation. The beloved lies in our arms, the treasured child in our embrace, the best friend clasps our hand. Yet we have no indubitable proof as to the thoughts being generated, registered inwardly at the relevant moment. So frequently in erotic union the current of thought, of the intensely imagined, pulses elsewhere. We make inner love to another. Under the adoring smile of the child, of the intimate friend, there can be the truth of boredom, indifference or even repulsion. The ability to lie, to conceive of and enact fictions is organic to our humanity. The arts, social conduct, language itself would be impossible without it. As Jonathan Swift so astutely allegorizes it, perfect truthfulness, perfect transparency of thought belongs to the animal kingdom. Men and women endure by virtue of recurrent disguise. But the mask is worn underneath the skin.

    Yet observe the paradox. This inaccessible core of our singularity, this most inward, private, impenetrable of possessions is also a billionfold commonplace. Although expressed, voiced or unvoiced, in different lexical, grammatical and semantic forms, our thoughts are, to an overwhelming degree, a human universal, a common property. They have been thought, they are being thought, they will be thought millions and millions of times by others. They are endlessly banal and shop-worn. Used goods. The components of thinking in even the most private, personalized acts and moments in our existence-in sex, for examp\le-are clichs, interminably repeated. They enlist, most saliently in an age of mass-media or in one of restricted literacy, identical words and images. Our performative ecstasies, our taboo scenarios or approved rhetoric of sentimentality are shared, synchronically, with numberless other men and women. They are a mass-market merchandise labeled by the endlessly reiterative commonplaces of our language, our culture, our time and milieu. The phrase "sexual commerce" has a palpable connotation in our current structures of mass-consumption and public explicitness.

    All this is an inescapable consequence of language. We are born into a linguistic matrix which is historically inherited and communally shared. The words, the sentences we use to convey our thinking, either internally or externally, belong to a common currency. They render intimacy democratic. In embryo, as it were, the dictionary inventories the near-totality of both actual and potential thought. Which, in turn, is made up of combinatorial assemblages of and selections from pre-fabricated counters. It may be that the grammatical rules and precedents on offer (the pieces in the Lego kit) pre-determine, place constraints on, the vast majority of our acts of thought and articulations of consciousness. The potentialities of construction are manifold, but also repetitive and bounded.

    In consequence, true originality of thought, the thinking of a thought for the first time (and how would we know?) is exceedingly rare. As Alexander Pope famously observed, it is the verbal form not the content which gives an impression of novelty. Language and diverse symbolic codes may indeed articulate a thought, an idea, a conceptual image with unprecedented force, completeness or economy. The performative shock may be intense. But there is absolutely no way of knowing, let alone proving, that that very thought has never been emitted before, albeit in a less adequate, even defective or almost "mumbling" guise. It may have occurred to sub- or illiterate men and women, to the deaf-mute or the cerebrally impaired who very simply took no notice of it. It may be that in the pure and applied sciences, in technology, cumulative and collective development, the exchange of conjectures and refutations, generates a novum organum Yet even here much is re-discovered or arrived at simultaneously by different individuals and teams. The theory of natural selection, of calculus, of DNA provide well known instances. With his genius for awe, Einstein professed that he had had only two genuine ideas in his entire life.

    In the "humanities," taking that word in its widest circumference, in philosophy, the arts, literature, political and social theory, what we call "originality" is almost always a variant or innovation in form, in executive means, in the available media (bronze, oil paints, electric guitars). Such innovations and enabling discoveries are of immense significance and prodigality. They shape much of our civilization. But how many are "original" in any rigorous sense? How many are an authentic mutation? A new thought-act, an imagining without discernible precedent, is the ambition, acknowledged or not, of writers, painters, composers, thinkers. It can be realized outside dreams only where the relevant idiom is itself made new. Where there is some re-orientation of the available deluge of ordinary language and shared formal conventions. Poets have indeed striven to create new languages, as in Dada and certain experiments in futurism. The products have been more or less incomprehensible trivialities. Where verbal modes are new, who is to understand them? In what sense have metaphors been invented and by whom? The inventory of myths, of the "great stories" on which western literature feeds is that of a structure of themes and variations. Quantum leaps are (magnificently) rare. It may be that Sophocles "thought up" the Antigone-legend, though there were actual political-military precedents to suggest it. So far as we know, the Don Juan motif was a "find," datable in time and place, with almost immediate and ubiquitous echo. But these inceptions are infrequent.

    Such thinkers and begetters of argument as Plato, Aristotle, Paul of Tarsus, St. Augustine may have developed the linguistic and conceptual instruments with which to formulate and make widely accessible thoughts, images, metaphors of radical originality. This, however, is by no means certain. We may be stunned by the apposition in Sartre's "le sale espoir" and find no previous public utterance of this irony. But it is exceedingly doubtful that his was the first intellect or sensibility to experience this notion and communicate it to himself. When Giordano Bruno characterizes as new the concept of an unbounded, multiple cosmos, when Saint-Just proclaims "happiness to be a new idea in Europe," they are being eloquently rhetorical. Neither proposition was without precedent, some of it millennially ancient. Was romantic love truly invented in Provence during the twelfth century?

    Thinking is supremely ours; buried in the uttermost privacy of our being. It is also the most common, shopworn, repetitive of acts. The contradiction cannot be resolved. A third reason for an anklebende Traurigkeit (for a "sorrow which adheres to us").


    We have seen that there can be no final verification for the truth or error of subjective thought, for its sincerity or falsehood. What of public, systematic thinking, of that pursuit of objective truths which, since Parmenides, has been held to be the excellence of man in the west?

    The values, logically formal or existential, diffuse or rigorous, which attach to the word "truth" are enmeshed in historical, ideological, psychological co-ordinates often arbitrary ("truth on one side of the Pyrenees" as Pascal put it). Even the experimentally demonstrable and empirically applicable truths of the sciences are underwritten by theoretical, philosophical pre-suppositions, by fluctuating "paradigms" always susceptible of revision or discard. Where it addresses, where it invokes "truth," thought relativizes this criterion in the moment in which it adverts to it. There is no escape from this dialectical circularity. As a result, the history of truth, a concept which itself negates any absolute status-the absolute has no history-ranges from the most dogmatic, "revealed" fables to the most extreme skepticism and the modernist move, already implicit in classical skepticism, "anything goes." However consequent, however scrupulous in its self-examination, a thought- act can postulate its attainment of truth solely where the process is tautological, where the result is a formal equivalence, as in mathematics or symbolic logic. All other statements of truths, doctrinal, philosophic, historical or scientific are subject to error, falsifiability, revision and erasure. Like those "superstrings" in today's cosmology, "truths" vibrate in manifold dimensions inaccessible to any final proof (indeed, there is no clear view as to what such a "proof" could be). Existential thinking, the proceedings of thought in intellectual and daily life, cannot "break through" to any self-evident, incontrovertible, everlasting realm of truth. Yet it is just this realm which revealed creeds, which metaphysics as in Plato, Plotinus or Spinoza, promise and labor to attain. Thus there is in abstract thought, in epistemological methods a latent ground bass of nostalgia, an edenic myth of lost certitudes (we hear it, with poignant integrity, in a thinker such as Husserl). To think is to fall short, to arrive somewhere "beside the point." At very best, thought breeds what Wallace Stevens called "supreme fictions." Einstein would have it otherwise: "The creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality as the ancients dreamed" (where "dreamed" may be a more than Freudian lapse). To which one of the most authoritative of today's cosmologists replies: "even within the basic domain of the basic equations of physics our knowledge will always be incomplete."

    The more fierce the pressure of thought, the more resistant the language in which it is encased. Language, as it were, is inimical to the monochrome ideal of truth. It is saturated with ambiguity, with polyphonic simultaneities. It delights in fantastication, in constructs of hope and futurity for which there is no proof. Perhaps this is why the great apes have hesitated to develop it. Human beings could not endure without what Ibsen called "life-lies." Thought limited to logical propositions, best expressed non- verbally, or demonstrable factualities, would be madness. Human creativity, the life-giving capacity to negate the dictates of the organic, to say "No" even to death, depend integrally on thinking, on imagining counter-factually. We invent alternative modes of being, other worlds-Utopian or hellish. We re-invent the past and "dream forward." But indispensable, magnificently dynamic as these thought-experiments are, they remain fictions. They nourish religions and ideologies, the libido is brimful of them (Shakespeare's "lunatics, lovers and poets"). Language constantly seeks to enforce dominion over thought. In the stream of thought it generates whirlpools, which we call "mental disorders" and those log- jams known as obsessions. Yet the interference, the incessant "muddying of the waters" are also those of creativity. In this tidal surge, the act of pure concentration, the attempt to purge consciousness of its vital fictions, of the open-eyed hallucinations of desire, intent or fear, are, as we noted, exceedingly rare. They exact a discipline profoundly contrary to natural language, though available to mathematics and symbolic logic. When Einstein appeals to "pure thought," it is precisely these he has in mind. Certain eminent philosophers have, in turn, attempted to make their linguist\ic articulations as "mathematical" as possible, as immune as possible from the mutinous joy of natural speech. But how many Spinozas, how many Freges or Wittgensteins are there, and to what degree have even these ascetics of truth prevailed? At twilight, Socrates sang.

    This fundamental antinomy between the claims of language to be autonomous, to be liberated from the despotism of reference and reason-claims which are crucial to modernism and deconstruction-on the one hand, and the disinterested pursuit of truth on the other, is a fourth motive for sorrow (Unzerstrliche Melancholic).


    Thinking is almost incredibly wasteful. Conspicuous consumption at its worst. Neuro-physiological investigations have sought to localize and evaluate numerically "brain-waves" emitted by the cortex. They have tried to identify the quanta of energy, the rhythm of electromagnetic pulses associated with moments and clusters of concentrated thought. It does seem plausible that there are in what we call "thinking" components of neuro-chemical and electromagnetic energy, that the synapses in the human brain have their measurable output (the study of cerebral lesions provides evidence). But so far much remains conjectural and mappings are approximate. Intuitively, impressionistically, we do experience some analogy to muscular fatigue after sustained spells of sequential thought, of reflection under pressure. Problem-solvers in the exact and applied sciences, mathematicians, formal logicians, computer programmers, chess- players, simultaneous translators report phenomena of exhaustion, of "burn-out." War-time cryptologists at their de-coding were among the first to register mental strain of extreme, "physical" intensity. Again, however, our understanding of such stress and of the mechanisms involved is rudimentary.

    The point is this: thought processes, be they conscious or subconscious, the thought-stream within us articulate or unvoiced, during waking hours or sleep-those rapid eye movements much studied in recent decades-are, in overwhelming proportion, diffuse, aimless, dispersed, scattered and unaccounted for. They are, quite literally, "all over the place," which makes the idiom "scatter-brained" entirely valid. The economics are those of an almost monstrous waste and deficit. There may be no other human activity more extravagant. We do not think about our thinking except in brief spells of epistemological or psychological focus. Very nearly the incessant aggregate and totality of thinking flits by unnoticed, formless and without use. It saturates consciousness and presumably the sub- conscious, but drains off like a thin sheet of water on baked earth. Even the notion of "forgetting" is too substantive. That of which we may have been thinking an hour ago may have left no trace whatever owing to contingent circumstances or the interference-effects of some task in hand. At best, it may have been arrested in writing or encoded in some other modes of semiotic markers. Japanese globe- trotters are said to employ specialists who identify for them the locale of their own photographs. But by far the iceberg mass of human thought vanishes unperceived, unrecorded in the trash-bin of oblivion. "Alms for oblivion.""What was I thinking when I said this or did that?" Or consider the banal disappointment when one awakes convinced of having dreamt a major insight, an elusive solution, of having composed significant poetry or music only to find recollection helpless and the bed-side pad covered with meaningless scribbling. Which frustration and embarrassment does not prove that the effaced, lost thought or imagining was not of signal merit and importance. It is simply out of reach, erased as are millions and millions of other thoughts tiding through us in unfathomable waste.

    This suggests the science-fiction model of a society in which thinking is rationed. In which it is licensed only for certain hours or days and where such rations are distributed according to individual mental capacities and powers of concentration. A waste of thought would be regarded as vandalism or worse. Food, fuel can be rationed in war-time. The currency can be put under strict control. Why not regulate the infinitely valuable supply of thought, preserving it from waste and inflation? Science-fiction, to be sure. Yet are attempts in that direction not the core of totalitarian systems, of despotic ideologies be they religious or political? Efforts to ration thinking, to constrict it within permitted, circumscribed channels are at the very heart of tyranny. Anarchic, playful, wasteful thought is that which totalitarian regimes fear most. It is the Utopia of censorship to read not only the text, but the thoughts which underlie it or which it conceals. Hence the Orwellian trope of a "thought-police."

    Though they contain hyperboles of proud modesty, Einstein's claim to have had only "two ideas" in his entire life, and Heidegger's maxim that all major thinkers have only one thought which they expound and reiterate throughout their works, may point to a vital truth. The significant thinker in the humanities or the sciences would be one who perceives and exploits a decisive insight or concept, who fixes on one crucial discovery or connection. It is he or she who invests almost avariciously in a seminal thought-act or observation, exploiting its full potential. Darwin seems to represent an exemplary instance. Whereas the numberless plurality of human beings, even if brushed as it were in transit by first-class thoughts, by radical notice, pays no especial heed, does not "grab a hold" or press on to performative realization. How many recognitions go to waste in the indifferent deluge of unattended-to thinking, in the un- or overheard soliloquy of everyday and "everynight" cerebral emission? Why are we unable to encapsulate, put in ordered storage and potentiality-as does an electric battery-the possibly fruitful voltage generated by the sleepless arcs and synapses of our mental being? It is, precisely, this infinitely spendthrift, ruinous generation which we cannot, as yet, account for. But the deficit is beyond reckoning.

    A fifth reason for frustration, for that "dark ground" (dunkler Grund).


    Thought is immediate only to itself. It makes nothing happen directly, outside itself. Fragile, disputed experiments in telekinesis have sought to show that thinking can produce minute material phenomena, effects of vibration or minimal displacement. Quantum physics, itself so enigmatic, has it that the act of observation alters the objective configuration of that which is being observed (Einstein found this supposition little short of monstrous). Here almost everything remains conjecture. Thinking has incommensurable consequences, but the inference of a direct continuum is, as Hume taught, inferential. It cannot be shown to be directly causal. The vast majority of habitual acts and gestures are "thoughtless." They are performed instinctively or via acquired reflexes. Famously, the millipede would come to a suicidal halt if it thought about its next step. A chilling reflection if ever there was one. Automatism is decayed thought. But even where an action is most carefully and consciously "thought out," where it follows on some internalized blueprint or an outward and articulate proposition, the sequence can only be inferred. Only God, so the theologians, experiences no hiatus between thought and consequence. That which He thinks is. That there is a connection between thought and existential, pragmatic consequence is a rational postulate without which we could not conduct our lives. So far, however, we possess no working model of the chain of generative phenomena, of the presumably immensely complex translation of the conceptual need or desideratum into neuro-physiological and muscular accomplishment. The neurochemistry which relates intention to effect can only be traced at rudimentary levels. In so many cases, it is as if cause comes after effect. Thought-acts seem to follow on unpremeditated, spontaneous enactments which thought then interprets and "figures" to itself in the past tense. (I wonder whether the spellbinding experience of dj-vu does not relate to this reversal.) Far more often, there is obliteration: "I have no idea of why I did so and so. My mind is a total blank."

    Interpositions between thought and act are as manifold, as diverse as is life itself. The shadows which fall between thinking and doing can never be exhaustively inventoried let alone classified. There are, in the most exacting of engineering or architectural constructs, minute deviations from design, from precise calibration. No painter, however skilled, can fully realize the transfer on to his canvas of his internal vision or of that which he believes he sees before him. Even in the strictest of forms, music embodies only partially the complex of feelings, ideas, abstract relations inward to its composer. The distance between felt pressures on sensibility, between the imagined and its linguistic utterance, is a mournful clich, a commonplace of never-ending defeat since the inception not only of literature but of the most urgent and intimate of human exchanges. "I cannot put it into words," says the lover, say the griefstricken; but also the poet and the philosopher. The intimation of barriers, of interference effects or "white noise" is disturbingly physical. Sentiment, intuition, intellectual or psychological illumination, crowd at the inner edge of language but cannot "break through" to complete articulation (though the great writer somehow works closer to that edge and to the pulses of the pre-linguistic than do less privileged minds). Energies of recognition, metaphoric lightning flashes and momentary comprehension vibrate just out of reach. Eurydice recedes tantalizingly into darkness. Within the turbulent, polysemic magma of conscious and sub-conscious processes,incessant thought or its wholly mysterious antecedents, nocturnal as well as diurnal, are only fragmentarily recuperable. Coming to the lit surface via the simplifying constraints of language, of coercive logic, this generative force is always inhibited and deflected. Hence the doomed labors of the Surrealists in quest of "automatic" writing or virgin modes of speech. The aleatory is already conditioned by imperatives.

    Thinking does not, cannot make it so. Even the most prudentially gauged and focused motion of thought is "bodied forth" (Shakespeare's penetrating idiom) only imperfectly, only in part. The work of art, however sovereign, the political or military project, the material edification, the legal code or theological- metaphysical summa compromise with the ideal, with the necessary fiction of the absolute. A speck of chromatic impurity, all but imperceptible, remains in the black tulip, in the crystal symmetries of private or collective political, social design. The concept of perfection is an unfulfilled dream of thought, a conceptual abstraction, as is infinity. It is in the paradox of the existence within us of these two unattainable ideals that classical theology, in Anselm as in Descartes, locates its proof of the existence of God. Though in extremis, Wittgenstein spoke for every creative consciousness when he declared that the part of the Tractatus which mattered was that which remained unwritten.

    Ineluctably, therefore, the totality of our futurities, of our projections, anticipations, plans-be they routine or utopian- carries within it a potential of disappointment, of prophylactic self-deception. A virus of unfulfilment inhabits hope. The grammars of optatives, of subjunctives, of every nuance of future tenses- these grammars being the irresponsible glory and morning light of the human mind-can never be guarantors. They do not entail and underwrite untainted fact. The odds may be overwhelmingly in our favor, induction may seem almost contractual and fool-proof, but to expect, to await, to hope for is a gamble. Whose only certainty is death. The consequences of our expectations, of that impatience which we call "hope," fall short. Often they abort altogether (though there are dispensations in which they surpass our imaginings). Customarily, the anticipation, the projection, the fantasy and image exceed realization. If we hail experiences as "beyond our wildest dreams," these dreams have been cautionary and threadbare. A revealing emptiness, a sadness of satiety follows on fulfilled desires (Goethe and Proust are the unsparing explorers of this accidia). The celebrated gloom post coitum, the longedfor cigarette after orgasm, are precisely those which measure the void between anticipation and substance, between the fabled image and the empirical happening. Human eros is close kin to a sadness unto death. If our thought-processes were less urgent, less graphic, less hypnotic (as in the gusts of masturbation and day-dreaming), our constant disappointments, the gray lump of nausea at the heart of being, would be less disabling. Mental break-downs, pathological evasions into unreality, the inertia of the brain-sick may, in essence, be tactics against disappointment, against the acid of frustrated hope. Such are the failed correlations between thought and realization, between the conceived and the actualities of experience, that we can neither live without hope-Coleridge's "Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And hope without an object cannot live"-nor overcome the bereavement, the mockery which failed hopes comport. "Hope against hope" is a powerful, but ultimately damning phrasing of the blight which thought casts on consequence.

    A sixth Ursache or font for tristitia.


    There are, we saw, two processes which human beings cannot bring to a halt so long as they are alive: breathing and thinking. In fact, we are capable of holding our breath for longer periods than we are able to abstain from thought (if that is possible at all). On reflection, this incapacity to arrest thought, to take a break from thinking, is a terrifying constraint. It imposes a servitude of peculiar despotism and weight. At every single instant in our lives, waking or sleeping, we inhabit the world via thought. The philosophic-epistemological systems which seek to explain and analyze this habitation fall into two perennial categories. The first characterizes our consciousness and awareness of the world as being that of perception through a window. This model, founded somewhat naively on an analogy with ocular vision, underlies every paradigm of realism, of sensory empiricism. It authorizes a belief, however complex or attenuated, in an objective world, in an "out there" whose ideal and material elements are conveyed to us by conscious or sub-conscious input and the placement of this input by intuitive, intellectual and experimental means. The other epistemology is that of the mirror. It postulates a totality of experience whose only verifiable source is that of thinking itself. It is our minds, our neuro-physiology which project what we take to be the forms and substance of "reality." Per se this is the irrefutable Kantian axiom: "reality," whatever it may consist of, is inaccessible. It eludes any demonstrable, assured grasp. It may amount to a collective hallucination, a common dream. Extreme, playfully grave versions of this solipsism suggest that we are ourselves "such stuff as dreams are made on," perhaps dreamt by a Demiurge or indeed, as Descartes speculates, by a demon. All thought about the world, all observation and understanding would be reflection, mappings in a mirror.

    On one capital point these two opposed systems concur: the glass, be it window or mirror, is never immaculate. There are scratches on it, blind spots, curvatures. Neither vision through it nor reflection from it can ever be perfectly translucid. There are impurities and distortions. This is the crux: there is interposition between ourselves and the world we inhabit. Conceptualizations, observations (as in the "uncertainty principle") are acts of thought. There are no innocent immediacies of reception, however spontaneous, however unthinking they seem. Theories of cognition, whether Descartes's, Kant's or Husserl's struggle heroically to situate a point of unpremeditated immediacy, a point at which the self meets with the world without any presuppositions, without any interference by psychological, corporeal, cultural or dogmatic presumptions. Such "phenomenologists" strive to "see things as they are," to make out the truth of the world's presence and "thereness" either via the window or the mirror. But, as Gertrude Stein knew, there is no unwavering, re-insuring "there there." No Archimedian point or tabula rasa has ever been con vincingly located. The identity of the "thinking reed," the obscuring ubiquity of thought- processes acts as a screen. Experience, where it would be naked and Adamic, is filtered and essentially compromised. The expulsion from Eden is a "fall into thought." Thus there is no element in existence which is not "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."

    In consequence, even the most inventive, capacious, orderly of human intellects and imaginations operates within indirections and limitations which it cannot truly define, let alone measure. Everywhere the masterlight of the mind abuts on obscurity. Are there neuro-physiological, evolutionary limits to our conceptualizations and analyses of the world? Are there categorical bounds to human reason? Which are the inherent constraints-whether perceived or not- that pre-determine the reach and clarity of our boldest conjectures (conjectures which may, in fact, be entirely inadequate to or even out of touch with the actualities of the cosmos)? What proof have we, what proof could we have, that the progress of empirical investigation and theoretical construction is limitless, that the speculative intellect will continue on its seemingly open-ended journey through "seas of thought." The most powerful of electron microscopes now appear to be nearing the limit of possible observation as, in haunting symmetry, are the most probing of radio telescopes. It is not that the light from remote galaxies does not reach us; it will never reach us in allegory of our solitude. How much of our proud science is also science-fiction, a model whose only demonstrable veritas is that of mathematics, of mathematics playing its own entranced games?

    There has always been ground for suspicion in regard to the seemingly incontrovertible axioms of logic and the syntax in which they are so despotically incised. Do these axioms, do the sacrosanct rules which govern contradiction, do no more than externalize the local particularities of hominid cerebration, the architecture of our cortex? Just as vision may be held to enact the anatomy and physiology of the human eye. Each and every one of us has experienced frustrations of awareness, barriers to understanding. We "run up," often viscerally, against impalpable but unyielding walls of language. The poet, the thinker, the masters of metaphor make scratches on that wall. Yet the world both inside and outside us murmurs words which we cannot make out. "Unheard tunes" are proclaimed to be the sweetest. Cezanne testifies in modest anger at the inability of his eye to penetrate in depth the landscape before him. Pure mathematics knows of the insoluble though there is no assured grasp of the source of such insolubility. The most inspired thinking is impotent in respect of death, an impotence which has generated our metaphysical and religious scenarios. (I will come back to this.) Thought veils as much as, probably far more, than it reveals.

    A seventh reason for that Schleier der Schwermut ("veil of heaviness" of heart).


    This opacity makes it impossible to know beyond doubt what any other human being is thinking. As I note\d, we possess no indubitable insight into anyone else's thoughts. Again, we pay too little attention to this enormity. It should strike terror. No familiarity, no analytic cunning can ensure or verify "mind- reading." Neither hypnosis nor psychiatric techniques nor "truth- drugs" can extract in any verifiable way the thoughts of the other. His or her most vehement avowals, oral and written testimony under oath, naked confessions can deliver no fundamental, insured content. They may or may not express the most candid intent, the most purposed revelation. They may or may not disclose partial truths, fragments as it were of utmost sincerity and self-disclosure. They may or may not conceal felt meaning whether in toto or in part. Motions of disguise can range from the outright lie professed consciously to every shading of untruth and self-deception. The nuances of mendacity are inexhaustible. No laser of inquisitorial attention, no ear however acute, no cross-examination can elicit certitude. The mere question "what are you thinking, what have you in mind?" solicits answers which are themselves manylayered, which have, however unnoticed, passed through complex filters.

    Hence the unsettled relations between thought and love. Hence the likelihood that love between thinking beings is a somewhat miraculous grace. Every man and every woman, every adult and every child uses what linguists call an "idiolect," this is to say a personalized selection out of available language with private, singular, perhaps untranslatable counters, connotations and references which the recipient in dialogue cannot wholly or with certitude interpret. We try to translate to each other. We so frequently get it slightly or grossly wrong. But even this partial or flawed intelligibility of all communication lies only at the surface. The idiolects of thought, the privacies of the unspoken are of a much deeper and intractable order.

    Even in moments and acts of extreme intimacy-perhaps most acutely at such moments-the lover cannot embrace the thoughts of the beloved. "What are you thinking, what am I thinking as we make love?" This exclusion makes the vaunted fusion of orgasm and its rhetoric of unison arguably trivial. As Goethe liked to point out, numberless men and women have clasped in the arms of thought lovers, remembered, wished-for, fantasized other than those they are making love to. This cognitive interposition, this mental reservation, involuntary or deliberate, blurred or graphic, can chime like a derisive echo beneath the cries and whispers of ecstasy. We shall never know what deep-lying inattention, absence, repulsion or alternative imagery deconstruct the manifest text of the erotic. The closest, most honest of human beings remain strangers, more or less partial, more or less undeclared to each other. The act of love is also that of an actor. Ambiguity is native to the word.

    Thought is most legible, least covert during bursts of unchained, compacted energy. As in fear and in hatred. These dynamics, particularly on the instant, are difficult to fake, though virtuosos of duplicity and of self-control can attain greater or lesser concealment. The animals we deal with show us that our fears emit a distinctive scent. Perhaps there is a smell to hatred. Enlisting all levels of cerebral and instinctive thrust, hatred may be the most vivid, charged of mental gestures. It is stronger, more cohesive than love (as Blake intuited). It is so often nearer than is any other revelation of the self to truth. The other class of thought- experience in which the veil is torn apart is that of spontaneous laughter. At the instant in which we "get" the joke or chance on the comical sight, mentality is laid bare. Momentarily, there are no "second thoughts." But this aperture to the world and to others lasts only very briefly and has the dynamics of the involuntary. In this regard, smiles are almost the antithesis to laughter. Shakespeare was much concerned with the smiling of villains.

    Overall the scandal remains. No final light, no empathy in love, discloses the labyrinth of another human being's inwardness. (Are identical twins, with their private language, truly an exception?) At the last, thinking can make us strangers to one another. The most intense love, perhaps weaker than hatred, is a negotiation, never conclusive, between solitudes.

    An eighth reason for sorrow.


    Bodily functions and thinking are common to the species. Arrogantly, homo sapiens so defines himself. Strictly considered, each and every living man, woman and child is a thinker. This is as true of the cretin as it is of Newton, of the virtually speechless moron as it is of Plato. As I noted, seminal, inventive, life- enhancing thoughts may, at any time and in any place, have been thought by the sub-literate, the infirm, even the mentally handicapped. They have gone lost because they were not articulated or attended to even by the one who has done the thinking ("mute, inglorious Mutons" in a sense which extends far beyond literature). Like minute spores, thoughts are disseminated inward and outward a millionfold. Only a minute fraction survive and bear fruit. Hence the incommensurable waste which I have cited previously. But the confusion may reside elsewhere.

    Our taxonomy, notably in the current political-social ambience, tends towards the egalitarian. Does this not disguise and falsify an obvious, but scarcely or uncomfortably noticed hierarchy? Vaguely, rhetorically we attach to certain acts of spirit and what we assume to be their consequences-the scientific insight, the work of art, the philosophic system, the historical deed-the label "great." We refer to "great" thoughts or ideas, to products of intellectual, artistic or political genius. No less vaguely, we adduce "profound" as distinct from trivial or superficial thoughts. Spinoza descends into the mine-shaft; the man in the street customarily skates at the banal surface of himself or the world. Can these polarities, together with the innumerable gradations between them, be lumped together under one indistinct rubric? Can the mind's flotsam and inchoate babble be covered by the same sloppy definition as the solution to Fermat's last theorem or the Shakespearean begetting of enduring metaphor or mutations of sensibility? What factitiousness- picked up from the outset by caricaturists and vulgarians-inhabits Rodin's "Thinker"?

    All of us conduct our lives within an incessant tide and magma of thought acts, but only a very restricted portion of the species provides evidence of knowing how to think. Heidegger bleakly professed that mankind as a whole had not yet emerged from the pre- history of thought. The cerebrally literate-we lack an adequate term- are, in proportion to the mass of humanity, few. The capacity to harbor thoughts or their rudiments is universal and may well be attached to neuro-physiological and evolutionary constants. But the capacity to think thoughts worth thinking, let alone expressing and worth preserving is comparatively rare. Not very many of us know how to think to any demanding, let alone original purpose. Even fewer of us are able to marshall the full energies and potential of thought and of directing these energies towards what is called "concentration" or intentional insight. An identical label obscures the light-years of difference between the background noise and banalties of rumination common to all human existence (as it is perhaps also to that of primates) and the miraculous complexity and strengths of first-class thinking. Just beneath this eminent level there are the many modes of partial understanding, of approximation, of involuntary or acquired error (the physicist Wolfgang Pauli's devastating phrase about false theorems: "they aren't even wrong").

    A culture, a "common pursuit" of mental literacy, can be defined by the extent to which this secondary order of reception, of the subsequent incorporation of first-order thought into communal values and practices, is or is not widespread. Does seminal thought enter schooling and the general climate of recognition? Is it picked up by the inner ear, even if this process of audition is often stubbornly slow and fraught with vulgarization? Or are authentic thinking and its receptive valuation impeded, even destroyed (Socrates in the city of man, the theory of evolution among fundamentalists) by "unthinking" political, dogmatic and ideological denial? What murky but understandable mechanism of atavistic panic, of sub-conscious envy fuels the "revolt of the masses" and, today, the philistine brutality of the media which have made the very word "intellectual" derisive? Truth, taught the Baal Shem, is perpetually in exile. Perhaps it should be. Where it becomes too visible, where it cannot shelter behind specialization and hermetic encoding, intellectual passion and its manifestations provoke hatred and mockery (these impulses intertwine with the history of anti-semitism; Jews have often thought too loudly).

    Can top-gear thinking be learned? Can it be taught? Drill and exercise can strengthen memory. Mental focus, spells of inwardness and concentration can be deepened by techniques of meditation. In certain Oriental and mystical traditions, in Buddhism for example, this discipline can attain almost unbelievable degrees of abstraction and intensity. Analytic methods, stringent formal consequentiality can be imparted and refined in the training of mathematicians, of logicians, of computer programmers and chess- masters. To prevent children from learning by heart is to lame, perhaps permanently, the muscles of the mind. Thus there is much in cerebral skills, in developed receptivity and interpretation which can be heightened and enriched by teaching and practice.

    But so far as we know, there is no pedagogic key to the creative. Innovative, transformative thought, in the arts as in the sciences, in philosophy as in political t\heory, seems to originate in "collisions," in quantum leaps at the interface between the subconscious and the conscious, between the formal and the organic in a play and "electric" art of psychosomatic agencies largely inaccessible both to our will and our comprehension. The empowering media can be taught-musical notation, syntax and metrics, mathematical symbolism and conventions, the mixing of pigments. But the metamorphic use of these means towards novel configurations of meaning and mappings of human possibility, towards a vita nuova of belief and feeling, can neither be predicted nor institutionalized. There is no democracy to genius, only a terrible injustice and lifethreatening burden. There are the few, as Hlderlin said, who are compelled to catch lightning in their bare hands.

    This imbalance, along with its consequences, the maladjustment of great thought and creativity to ideals of social justice, is a ninth source of melancholy (Melancholie).


    French and German grammar help. They allow us to elide the preposition between the verb "to think" and its object. We are not constrained to think "about" this or that. We can "think it" immediately, without interposition. Das Leben denken ("to think life"); penser le destin ("to think destiny"). The force of this idiom is seductive. But it posits, inescapably, the epistemological uncertainty or duality which I referred to previously. Does the grammatical immediacy point to some mode of solipsism, to the supposition that the objects of thought are the dependent product of the act of thinking (as in Kant)? Or does the elision of any intermediate term authorize the belief that the object of thought has autonomy, that at certain levels of unimpeded focus human thought-acts do penetrate, do fully grasp that which they conceive or conceive of-the difference between these two marking precisely the alternative paths which philosophy has taken in the west? French and German grammatical fusions leave the issue of idealism as against realism open. Characteristically, English usage enforces a choice. It internalizes a fundamental, robust empiricism. The world is "thought about," not "thought" in some mirroring motion of transcendental autism. Everyday French and German do communicate this common-sense option. Je pense , ich denke an. But philosophic and poetic discourse, notably from Master Eckhardt to Heidegger, enlists the possibility of symbiosis. This, perhaps, is the differentiation between philosophic-linguistic mentalities, between conventions of perception on either side of the Channel or between the European continent and North America (Emerson being an eminent exception). Here also is the locus of certain elemental untranslatabilities.

    The "prime numbers" which thought addresses are constants, circumscribing our humanity. They are or ought to be supremely obvious. What is it "to be" and is it not, as Heidegger urges, the essential task of thought "to think (about) being"? To discriminate between multiple phenomenal existentiality and the facticity of things on the one hand and the concealed core of the essence of being (Seyn) itself. Why is there not nothing-Leibniz's resounding challenge-should be the concern of thought-acts as primordial, as original, i.e. arising out of our origins, as is human life itself. Can we, contra Parmenides, think, conceptualize nothingness? It may be that every attempt to "think death"-a lamentably awkward phrasing in English-to think consequently about death, is a variant on this enigma of nullity. Innumerable creeds, mythologies, fantasies of transcendence are elaborations of thought-experiments which bear on death. Zero, our being made a vacuum, is to most of us "unthinkable" in both the emotional and logical sense of the word. From this stems the manifold architecture of myth and metaphor (many metaphors are concentrates of myth). Itself in perpetual motion and activity, human thought seems to abhor emptiness. It generates archetypally more or less consoling fictions of survival. Like a frightened child whistling, shouting in the dark we labor to avoid the black hole of nothingness. We do so even when the resulting scenarios are insultingly puerile and mere kitsch (those Elysian pastures and celestial choirs, those seventy-two virgins awaiting the martyrs for Islam).

    Both spheres of thought, that of being and that of death, have been interpreted as sub-species of the never-ending efforts of the human intellect, of mortal consciousness, to think about, to "think" God. To attach to that monosyllable credible intelligibility. Plausibly, homo became sapiens, and cerebral processes evolved beyond reflex and bare instinct when the God-question arose. When linguistic means allowed the formulation of that question. It is conceivable that higher forms of animal life skirt the realization, the mystery of their own deaths. The matter of God looks to be specific and singular to the human species. We are the creature empowered to affirm or deny the existence of God. We had our spiritual beginnings "in the Word." The fervent believer and the categorical atheist share an understanding of the issue. The hovering agnostic does not deny the question. The simple claim "I have never heard of God" would be felt to be absurd. Existence and death, as these pertain to "God", are the perennial objects of human thought where that thought is not indifferent to the enigma of human identity, to our presence in some kind of world. We are-the famous ergo sum-in so far as we endeavor to "think being,""non-being" (death) and the relation of these polarities to the presence or absence, to the anthropomorphically phrased life or death of God. The partial recession of this concern from public and private affairs in the developed technocracies of the west, a recession antagonistic to the angry tides of fundamentalism, pervades our current political and ideological situation. A tolerant agnosticism demands ironic maturities, "negative capabilities" as Keats called them, difficult to muster; savage simplifications.  .  .