Proof through the night
By S.D. Chrostowska.
The following is an excerpt from Matches, a book of aphorisms and fragments forthcoming from punctum books. In returning to these short forms of reflection, Matches goes back to the drawing board of modern critique, performing in its course unlikely feats of critical dispersion. Its more than 600 pieces fall into six sections; this selection is from the second part, dealing with broadly philosophical themes and questions.
The distance from a statement ringing true to being true is very small, and bisected by a tripwire.
Outline of a Shadow
The popularity of silhouettes and shadow theatre should be sought in the suggestion of substance which memory and imagination relish to fill. This no doubt is a considerable part of the attraction of abstract concepts; to attribute it only to their communicative utility would be as mistaken as explaining the appeal of shadow puppets by their low cost of production. The enchantment of conceptual abstraction can be profound and elaborate—like that of the human shadow play in Dreyer’s silent Vampyr. As long, that is, as you never try to touch or sink your teeth into such concepts in hopes of getting fed.
Seeing the Light
All agree: the way to knowledge is dark, unclear, and no amount of “light at the end of the tunnel” will change that. That light, so often mistaken for knowledge, is why clarity is so sought after.
Seek and Hide
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
Ask, seek, knock. The first stands for the school, the second for solitary study, the third for gnosis. If the search is by us alone, and its objects are not to be gotten in either the school or the hermetic corpus, then we must ask: where does the authority of what the seeker seeks and finds come from? It comes from the seeker, in the same way the arachnoid web whose centre the spider will soon command comes from its own body. The longer the thing we are after eludes us, the more substantial and robust its authority, once found, will become.
Merveille du jour
Modern philosophers proclaimed the untimeliness of their task. Knowing things only in the dying light, observing unfashionably, philosophy settled on a grisaille palette to paint its grey in grey, and adopted a soaring perspective above the day’s influences. It turned its necessary late-coming and monochromia into epistemic insight and night vision (for approaching night). With its youth—which, as Hegel had it, did not rejuvenate but aged or overcame the timeworn—it avenged itself on the “old reality” that it failed to comprehend live.
And still it moves beneath the ragged cloak of twilight, which it throws over its bright prey. Isn’t it time, philosophy, for a hint of colour?—for contrast if the times seem drab, and otherwise for camouflage. A subtle cast of purple or green would become your grey, as it does the owlet moth that flies by night but by day mesmerizes with the beauty of its shading.
Whose Time Has Not Yet Come
There are times when one’s own untimeliness is acutely felt. One has come too early, or been born too late, and nonetheless one’s own place in time remains unclear. How far ahead of or how close behind the times is one? Will the times catch up (in one’s lifetime) or will one catch up to the times? Few, if any, have what it takes to lead a one-man vanguard to conquer the future; one is likelier to fall back. And is there time left to catch up to one’s “contemporaries”? Unfashionableness beckons to those who like company, even if there is nothing in the familiar faces of bygones and classics to prove one their contemporaries; the past is an old-age home where one mixes with those of different ages. But for those who believe that being behind now may put them ahead later, a third, spiritual relation to time is in order. Their time falls not along time’s continuum, but rises above it in the shape of an arc: from the past to future, a rainbow over the meadows of the present. They are neither retiring nor active, neither “history” nor “to come,” sharing neither the decrepitude of the first nor the burden of the second. They reside above, and fade as soon as they condescend to empathy with the has-beens, or to taking up arms with self-styled men of tomorrow.
A Where are those whose time has not yet come?
B And where are you? What’s your excuse?
They are pawning timeliness to afford punctuality.
The Time Is Now
A Nowness is the new timeliness.
B And the old timeliness?
The symbolic power of timekeeping tickers is such that when one stops in silence and is heard, it is as though time itself has stopped, perhaps never to resume. That mental tension building the senses of past, present, and future soon disappears, and one by one time’s tenses fall away. Any motion still visible, the lone fly on the rim of a glass, the vibration from a passing train, only discloses that stupid persistence and tardiness of the world of appearances before apocalypse or eternity.
You claim to have good reason for placing certain thinking heads under house arrest. Their circulation might corrupt, especially when they tap into that very modern disillusionment.
Couldn’t a pedagogical question serve just as well to inoculate your pupils against them—as well or better than banning them? But that is not the question I have in mind to propose to you. The question I meant, and which could easily be put in different words, is this: Would I like to live where X thinker is coming from? An honest “no” in reply will put off even those likeliest to be “corrupted.”
Before you dismiss a philosophy because its philosopher showed himself a scoundrel, or fell in with moral beasts, consider this. Were not certain cultural microclimes such that they spoiled the coolest thinking heads, who previously had no moral blemish? Consistency asks that you also discard the cultural history that bore them, the bathwater in which they had bathed. Or would you have us throw out the baby and study only this dirty water? Consider this as well: that the further back a philosophy lies the more excusable its faults become—just think of the chasm of time that separates us from Aquinas, Aristotle (and we are only on the As). But why should not a smaller gap in time matter as much? Should we not think of them as similarly far removed?
You say it is because these later times were closer to where we are now, and mentalities more congenial, but the philosophy/philosopher in question was not. Its faults are therefore inexcusable. Quite apart from that, most students are great at telescoping history, and terrible on its relative depth.
Then they should be “safe,” your students. They are unlikely to excuse in past thinkers what strikes them as wrong today. While perception of relative depth relativizes, often dangerously. Be that as it may, you can only be responsible for those young minds who have not yet been “corrupted.”
(I know which cool head we principally have in mind. The first initial he shared with Luther— and in that crucial respect they differed not all that much. His second was the letter following Galileo’s.)
Of “Saints” and “Miracles” of Reason
No matter how pure a philosophy, it is no proof that the philosopher was himself a saint. Shouldn’t the benefit of the doubt should go both ways, and be a cost in one of them?
If we judge the philosopher by the purity of their thought, we benefit not only the thought but the philosopher as well. Whether or not they are upright, their thought makes them look better. We also benefit ourselves, since intellectually we have grown.
If we suspect the philosopher based on the purity of their thought (suspicious purity!), based on scanty or ambiguous evidence, what might be a benefit to us will to them clearly be a loss. But what is of benefit to us might also be an intellectual loss.
Perhaps Nietzsche had it all figured out when he kept renting his chambres garnies, “dingy” rooms “filled with dreary, old, worn-out furniture, with a table at which he worked, with a bed upon which he suffered”—as Stefan Zweig imagined them in his hagiography. And it was: to think and write as well as he could before nature called, before the real hunger struck and he was forced to go down to satisfy it. The trick is to be close enough to others that their company can always be had if needed and one’s needs nearly always fulfilled; close enough, too, to sense that others are distractions, their benefit to one’s work negligible; and yet, just far enough away not to be disturbed by their curiosity and routine, which they use one to alleviate.
A delicate balance, then, between dependency and autonomy, strangeness and sociality. A room of one’s own, in which the soul can fly uncaged; yet a room of theirs—and this is crucial—in which the soul is perched, ready to take flight at any moment.
Let’s quote approvingly: “A person who discounts backpacking as a means of travel is liable also to discount the potential interest of places that can be reached only by that means” (Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy §47). And let’s also put in a word for the vagrant beachcomber, who hangs around the coastline picking up what most travellers overlook when looking only for “nature’s truth,” the “oceanic,” or training their minds on horizons and sunsets. Rather than views and sights (even those found by backpackers), the beachcomber is after things and objects. He favours out-of-the-way places where he is likelier to find them: remote, wild beaches on which the debris and refuse of civilization wash up with the tide, and secret beaches, like that one in the Gulf of Mexico—created by a test bomb and accessed only by a water tunnel. Admittedly, the beachcomber is himself no great traveller; in his rucksack he carries just what he can sell. Call him a tramp, but admit that what he finds of interest, of value, and then offers for sale, has itself made a long journey—of which he is now a great facilitator.
These two, the backpacker and the beachcomber, have a special relationship with found ideas. If the first partakes in their generation, the second extends their life by putting them back into circulation.
Think without scattering your thoughts. Nothing grows from them no matter how thick on the ground unless someone comes along willing to cultivate them.
Rational thought is interpretation according to a scheme we cannot throw off.
The more elaborate a logical and philosophical system, the more demanding and “counterintuitive” its chains of inference, the more those bound by it touch the iron bars of that prison reserved only for the most rational of animals. With every attempt to stretch human cognition, we jangle our chains like prisoners circling a prison yard. When we impose on this wretched spectacle a logic, a meaningful pattern, our slightest movement receives the stamp of order, and the procession becomes a thing of beauty, escape from which would mean its unjustifiable destruction.
Certain wisdom can only be hit upon unawares, by a violent elucidation. Proverbs—those indirect, figurative, earthy, pithy sayings that refuse to come to a nice point—have earned their handle “dark sayings.” Like birds flushed out with torches and cudgels by nocturnal hunters, their dormant meanings must be caught in situ or not at all. Startled from their nests, they give themselves up in the twinkling of an eye and expire from shock or blows, which gives the lie to their truth—just as their truth in turn gives them the lie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
S.D. Chrostowska is the author of Permission (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 31st, 2015.