“Every Individual Fact a Theory”: A Winter Thinking Diary
by Genese Grill
And so, on this quiet, snow-covered morning, I stop a moment before the crackling stove to take the pulse of my life, just before the turn of what we Western humans call “the new year”…and the pulse of the world, which seems, in its self-proliferating madness & internal contradictions, to be spilling & spinning out beyond any real or imagined bounds into a wild chaos—into noise that resists translation.
Does one consider the beginnings more when at end-times? A fascination with those first pilgrims who travelled across prairies and sheltered in lean-tos while building houses, then towns, then railroads, then states, then armies, then bombs. With even more distant ancestors, who invented tools, who travelled in tribes, who hunted, gathered, then planted; who told stories, like me, to try to understand their lives.
To question whether all of one’s own life, or the history of civilisations, could have been any different; to study the nature of cell division and reproduction & survival & evolution, for a possible mirror of human behaviour.
Frederick Turner writes: “…the appearance of life itself might be interpreted as a response to apparently unreconcilable contradictions inherent in matter… each new solution to the contradictions of existence raises new contradictions… [but these become] spurs to the emergence of new & more exquisite forms; & beauty is our word for that emergence.”
And later, referring to the fashionable modern cynicism that condemns the “human species & its progress,” he declares that such condemnation ‘would turn back the clock & abolish humankind … would be a cutting off of the very process of existential tension by which the universe came to be.”
If the current clamouring for impossible reconciliation & harmony—absolute justice—is anti-natural, it is also not possible in civilisation, though humanism has done much to make the savage discord kinder & easier. Perhaps we are even too comfortable. Too safe. For we would not simply declare that what is natural, or what we have learned through evolutionary habit or instinct is uncategorically good. We may find ancient impulses no longer serve us. And yet, they deserve our respect, especially if repeated in multiple forms & processes of human and non-human life. The very fabric of our lives is made up of certain tensions & … as Heraclitus’ famous back-stretching bow or lyre reminds us …we ought not to slacken the tension that holds the world together recklessly. Mortality, too, is part of the grammar of our lives. Its syntax, life’s syntax requires the end stop & we do well to be aware of this when we are in mid-sentence.
Three cardinals in the nearby pine tree, two bright males & one lighter female, bring me back to this room, the fire, my maple roasted oolong. And so many unanswered questions which seem to clamour for clarification before I rise from this chair & act, make decisions, pass judgment, affirm or deny—though the neuroscientists tell me that my subconscious brain will take care of most of this for me. So why do I fret?
The great question: how do we put the world together, individually & culturally, & describe it? And how many reasonably approximate ways of doing so are there? Assuming we make patterns when they may not necessarily exist does not necessarily mean that we superimpose connections that are not there, but rather that we favor certain correspondences by neglecting others, as we do when we make concepts & metaphors. & in those optical illusions of duck-rabbits & that box which one can see two ways, though never both at once. Again then: are there a limited number of correctly approximate ways to see the world (narratives, too, opposing ideologies even)? The ones that recur & recur, that are somehow irrefutable? We could call mortality such a one, but might then counter it with eternal recurrence, Urpflanze, the constant proliferation of atoms, matter, genetic material which seems to refute mortality?
Sky & snow tinted pale blue as the day dawns. Goethe writes: “…everything factual is already theory: to understand this would be the greatest achievement. The blueness of the sky reveals the basic law of chromatics. Don’t go looking for anything beyond phenomena: they are themselves what they teach, the doctrine…when we watch something coming into being, we imagine it has always been there.” But the developments of science have taught us not always to believe our eyes. Observation tells us that the sun & planets revolve around a static earth. Or simple observation does. And all the optical illusions, our delusions. Yet Goethe is right, too, even if, as they say, his color theory was off. “Everything factual is already theory,” This refers to the multiplicity & irreducible variety—each individual object is in itself a whole theory, a whole universe, for she who has the time to learn & love. But out of expediency, & also for the sake of beauty & order (harmony, cosmos), we group individual things into categories & structures. But beyond the two dichotomies of pattern & particular, there is a more complex Goethean lesson: in the multiplicity we see the patterns; only in the differences do we see the correspondences.
I wondered, could I describe the room, with all its many objects, textures, colours—the many boundaries between, around, delineating each disparate thing, & the way they echo each other. The glass bottles in the window sill: a golden, tall genie vessel, with bubbly texture & a diamond-shaped stopper next to a red, angular bottle—hour-glass is the closest expression that comes to me, but more pointed at its edges; a luminous green one, which holds a strange unnamed dried natural artefact (how little I know my everyday world), & which is in shadow in its bottom third, in a concave hollow. Beside these three, on the right, just before the edge of the stove, a shallow pile of iron rings, bracelet-like, in three decreasing or increasing sizes. The stove, a dark solid mass with wide pipe rising up against the steamed-up windows; a black kettle with a wooden handle, the “Wagner,” sits atop, almost invisible because of their close shade & the dim light, but still softly delineated by the faintest highlights around its curving handle & the faceted surfaces of its belly. To the left of the three bottles to the left of the stove hangs a dark Indian relief whose background is shaped like an arched pointed doorway. I know it to be broken & merely placed back together, but one cannot see the fissure at all. Above this, a golden silhouetted Grecian figural relief, hand-holding size, of a man walking, his cape flying behind him. To his left I see a chain of large links which, if followed upward, lead to the Japanese lantern lamp, with its six-pointed upturned crown & bottom, & its six faceted surfaces of 8 windows each. Bronze. Moving back to the right, an amulet of bright color hangs from a wire in the window, with 8 ovals of coloured glass: green, red, yellow, set in seemingly random arrangement within an oval, decorated, metal border.
How impossible to explain—and this only one small portion of the room, not accounting for the depth & breadth, the space between this window ledge & its surrounding frame & my eyes, which see simultaneously the larger length of the room & even my own arms & writing hand & legs & feet & floorboards should I look down as I write. The star of the room at the moment is the amaryllis, perhaps 4 feet high, now blooming into two enormously showy sensational blooms, protruding like fantastic ears to left & right. Orangey-red, with white striped interiors–& two more blooms emerging in the centre.
What does it mean that one cannot describe even the one room one sits inside—well, Proust could do it, or nearly). The problem of perspective is or seems unresolvable. But important. That I know the room, from having been in it & having observed or examined individual parts of it often enough, & know well the feeling of being inside it, or entering it & casting my eye over it as a whole. That I can look around it like a panoramic viewer, corner to corner, & yet cannot tell someone who is not here what I see. That perception is in the round. & second by second. That we cannot hold everything in our conscious eye or mind at once, though the subconscious knows, & the memory knows that even as I look at the stove there is a shelf to my right, with books and a dictionary opened on top. Can one remember something in detail while also consciously looking at something else? I think not. But somehow we find our way through the world.
Somehow this is all connected to the relationship between the singular & the whole, the particular & the universal. Each individual fact a theory; but also only another analogy or approximation of a larger macrocosm of which it is a part, inside of, or in relationship with, other individual entities that share similarities (more or less) with other facts.
The relationship between the individual observed object, fact, aspect, & the whole in which it exists. Also the relationship between the parts of each object in itself. We want to observe the details that differentiate, but also the recurring echoes, both within each distinct object & with the world surrounding. And the idea that a “whole” comprehension—if at all accessible—is only arrived at via an almost mystical “emergence” of the irreducible relationship between the parts, aspects. That consciousness is not a place in the brain, but a process of interaction & constant play of correspondences. The Cusanus (Nicholas of Cusa) already long ago noted that all knowledge was knowledge by comparison, but “larger,” “smaller,” “closer,” “Further” are only single dimensions out of a vertiginous number of sometimes practically occult relations (occult in the sense that our conscious minds do not yet grasp or account for what our subconscious mind-parts are arranging & parsing). The wonder of all this somehow emerging as something miraculously fresh: contact of mind & world. I want to communicate this miracle & celebrate it. The eye, the mind, memory, imagination, colours, shapes, patterns; the recapitulation of swirling, eddying in stars & water & DNA molecules.
Why Proust & Yeats are so sublime. The lack of space between object & symbol. Emerson’s “Every sensuous fact,” Goethe’s “everything factual is already theory”. The way the world is a book—the way we get at its meaning through images, through subconscious correspondences. Not only, then, that the world is a book (which we readers are part of), but that the book is a poem—not an essay or a novel or a didactive treatise—but a poem, that moves us before or even without us ever knowing why or how.
The amaryllis is so astonishing that it stops us in our everyday. It laughs at our blasé indifference to the wonders of the world. It makes my best friend, who is not really the type, want to dance with it. It is like a creature out of an E.T.A. Hoffmann story. It is so much more than just a flower. It is a refutation of all nihilisms, of all despair, a claxon of joy & life force, a hurrah. Now why should that be? Out of an obscure strange bulb a wildly tall green stalk grows up (an inch a day, the dancing friend’s former beloved told him once) inside this dark, wintery room no less—as surroundings & relationships effect our perceptions & understanding of each element—as the red cardinals are astonishing against the white snow—& then one day it produces a pod of sorts, which slowly bursts into first one trumpet of glorious ruffles, marked in stripes of creamy white & bright orange-red all around its opening rims, with feathery stamens, tipped by yellow pollen, & then a second symmetrical blossom on the other side, as glorious as the first; then, as if this were not enough, two more smaller blossoms in between start to form & open—as if holographically repeating the pattern ad infinitum. And there are so many kinds & colours of amaryllises too! Each something living, like another person really in the room, calling us to attention.
The infinite bifurcations of an open system, each pattern or supposition suggesting new ones, hydra heads of relations & corresponding question, that Borges map that stretches to cover the whole world, but that also must constantly change to approximate new changes in land masses, bodies of water, roads built & roads grown over by weeds. Each change effects the whole & one must start from the beginning. But there is no longer any beginning or fresh page, rather only that well-known palimpsest. The ambition to explain the all & enclose it into a system is ultimately frustrated by individual death & limitations (even during life) of one scholar’s or artist’s capacities. But we create a holographic slice, an analogic image that may be supposed to proliferate endlessly based on our own initial laws—except that those laws may be radically called into question by new iterations & discoveries. Importantly: the previous examples or arrangements or explanations are not wrong; they are just incomplete & sometimes distorted by a limited scope of knowledge or perspectival blindness. An individual element may be precisely, accurately seen & described, but its meaning may be drastically altered by some new event or new birth.
Haven’t had many thoughts the past few days beyond vague apocalyptic gloom. Proximity of death, decay, the brokenness of material things, bodies, social structures, the connections between meanings & words. Headaches & nausea. When the body is ill, so the mind. My motto not so much, “As above, so below,” but “As inside, so outside”? Or: “As physical, so spiritual”.
But it is New Year’s Eve, so one is prompted to consider the old year & the new year to come & to suppose that somehow the new one will be better than the last, that one oneself will be better than one was before…while the current state of the world & one’s incipient old age seem to point to a development in quite the other direction.
The idea of renewal, after so much life, so many centuries, so much pre-history. “Virginity renews itself like the moon,” Yeats said somewhere. Every morning &, as Thoreau had it, “when there is a dawn in me”. Possibly every 3 seconds, as the brain scientists measure the length of a thought, a nowness of 3 seconds. Every spring. & now the days are lengthening so we may consider that the spring is already on its way, as we mark the sunrise’s begin with the soft lightening of the morning sky. But as I am thinking about seemingly infinite projects & obsessions, quests that continue to spin out so far from their beginnings that they can no longer see their feet or origins, I wonder what newness might mean. Is every new “proof” or correspondence a return to the beginning? Fresh excitement & sparks in the brain every time one sees the process, the dance, the phenomenon happen again but in a different new iteration? Every new word & every newly defined meaning of that word in the O.E.D., every newly discovered myth or new juxtaposition with another myth even though neither of them are new in themselves? Oh, the world is so full of so many wonderful things & they all behave in extraordinary ways—we are dullards when we cease to see the differences, wen we are blinded by habit. A practice, then, of new seeing in the everyday & I have already begun to check myself when reading if I find myself defensively closed to certain ideas—ones I suspect of smelling of some corrupt mode of thought. Instead of shutting down & critiquing them, I hold my mind open a few moments (as one practices holding the breath in and out at the top & bottom of yogic breathing) & entertain the conjecture to see if it might not feed me or lead me in some new direction. While discriminating & cutting one’s own way is fundamentally beneficial, at a certain point one must also work to avoid ossification! I can afford to entertain foreign, even enemy ideas, for I am rich & strange as the world.
I have three anemone flowers near me in my bedroom, frilled colours & bright, sweet petals: mauve rose, white, & dark, velvety purple. They are like three young ladies dressed for a party & I feel sad for them that they only get to be here, instead, in my staid boudoir-scriptorium-reading room, where the only romance is intellectual. A projection, perhaps, of my own mortal sorrow for my lost youth & life of sensuality, flirtations, passions, which is so complete that I barely think to remember to regret its absence.
“…in science we do find people who can neither see nor hear through sheer learning & hypothesis. Such people look at once within; they are so occupied by what is revolving in themselves, that they are like a man in a passion, who passes his dearest friends in the street without seeing them. The observation of nature requires a certain purity of mind, which cannot be disturbed or preoccupied by anything…”. Goethe to Eckermann.
Migraines & related indispositions have kept me from steady writing, but now returning, with weak but opening mind to the question: how to know the world & answering that we know it by making certain arrangements & correspondences of its seeming disparate parts, by selecting out—“cherry picking” is the critical term for what we often do by necessity—but that we may nevertheless attempt accuracy & some approximation of “objectivity”? I have piles of books to read on the subject—more than manageable. Snow is falling in soft tiny flakes & I sort of feel like I am in the middle of one of those snow globes, shaken up, sleepy, confused.
Perhaps one question might be: why do we seek for truth or knowledge at all? Why not live in ignorance, the attraction of the mysteries left unprodded, the Veil of Isis unlifted, & the faith in 4-fold vision which reveals (to those who do not fall under what Blake called “Newton’s curse”) the True arcana without bothering about evidence or explanation, which are, afterall, the provinces of petty, practical men who tote up figures & calculations while the universe is swirling above their heads—they never look up, lost in their data? Like all dualities, this between the mystic & the mathematician is too polarizing (the man of the future, as Musil hoped, would be both mathematician & mystic), as there have been mathematical mystics and mystical mathematicians, or could be, or should be. And there is no end to wonder, especially for the scholar who gets lost in the details, as long as she keeps her eye also on the macrocosm her microcosms illuminate. Microcosm-Macrocosm.
The dreary feeling that I am going around in circles, vaguely postulating, while aware that this is a necessary phrase. The small, flaming points need to be sewn together to create constellations that illuminate the darkness & point us in one direction or other, it hardly matter which, just as long as we are moving, searching. As long as we feel alive.
That Newton performed dangerous experiments upon himself, staring too long into the sun to see how it might alter his perception of color, poking himself behind his eye with a “bodkin” to “observe the circles that then appeared (Robertson in Enlightenment book). Another category to pursue: hurting ourselves to learn, injuring our bodies, eyes, heads, by overmuch strain even, or our hearts & friendships & social acceptance by learning things that alienate us from common pieties & eternal verities. Lessing wondered whether truth was something one should strive for, considering its probable tendency to cause damage & pain, but being Lessing, of course, he chose to take the risk. When we learn things that make us love each other less, or love the world less, or that make us disbelieve our comforting delusions or question our purposes & sense of meaning? What then? But truth-seeking itself displaces all other purposes. And—or—somehow one trusts (???) that what will ultimately be revealed is even more awesome, even more beautiful than the comforting delusions—an ultimate glorious void even, awesome in its blackness, its brave vast openness? We create complex patterns of accounting, weaving webs of corresponding threads, but these may all be mere chimeras; should we tug at one snag: the whole world fabric of our fancy could come undone, & beneath it, beneath where we have woven this fabric-map of meaning—do we fall, without this net, into the abyss? What is left? Still very much, actually. Still all the parts of the world, & their similarities & differences, the music of chiaroscuro they make together, the possibility of weaving other patterns one might follow with one’s curious eye or mind. Not paucity, poverty, nihilism, but over-abundance, embarrassment of riches.
& importantly: “Scientific knowledge is bound up with discovery—with finding out aspects of reality that are not ‘constructed’ or ‘produced’, but were always there waiting to be found….” (Robertson).
Consider also Steiner’s Grammars of Creation.
The 19th century physicist Arthur Worthington, who had, for years, drawn what he believed to be accurate images of the morphology of water droplets, revelling in their symmetry & beauty, discovers, with the aid or new photographic technology substituting for his observant eye, that he has left out (not consciously seen) the irregularity of the droplets, somehow regularizing them in his mind to conform to an ideal vision of their shape. And is horrified. Thus, nach Dalton & Gaston (who begin their book Objectivity with this story), 19th century science (& philosophy) begins to be suspicious of the role of the observer (subjectivity) as an obstacle to epistemology, & to develop the concept & practice of “objectivity”. The older method, which they call “truth-to-nature,” consisted in creating images of “the characteristic, the essential, the universal, the typical,” is substituted in part by “mechanical objectivity,” whereby “an individual snowflake is shown with its peculiarities & asymmetries,” and then by a method called “trained judgment,” a mixing of “the output of sophisticated equipment with a ‘subjective’ smoothing of the data”. But even the individual, idiosyncratic snowflake reveals a surprising, a satisfying regularity, even though many of Worthington’s photos of water droplets deny us such pleasure.
I failed miserably the other day to describe this room, not only because I could not delineate the shapes & materials or textures of individual objects, but because I barely nodded to their relationships with each other & the so-called negative space between them. This morning I noticed that the genie bottle’s diamond shaped top points upward to the pointing downward of the Japanese lantern’s finialled bottom, as suits on cards do, side by side. & that this oscillation of down-up, or up-down delights & moves the eye. Certainly, in art school, one talked about the way certain things led the eye or stopped it—& it seemed that most painters had a characteristic geometric pattern that underlay whatever was being painted—an instinctive arc into which each person divided the space. My default subconscious dynamic was a sort of diagonal from top right to bottom left, an S-curve or arabesque—Hogarth’s line of beauty? Not, then, to lose track of these morphological questions as I get lost in systematisers. Systems are morphologies. Though some of them seem to cram things into spaces that disregard their shapes. Systems are, in any case, often arranged based on morphologies: as plant leaf shapes or the recurring patterns of mythic tropes in Levi-Strauss. The tropes themselves (boy stealing fruit, magical object, forgetful bridegroom, raw, cooked) are themselves images, one may consider, which, while themselves also shapely or aesthetic, can be seen as semantic bundles. But when they are repeated or juxtaposed against others, they begin to make patterns—shapes of meanings.
But this needs to be worked out. What is the relationship between shapes, patterns, physical qualities & ideas, words, categories, beyond the fact that categories are often arranged based on their physical qualities? Are not categories themselves imitations of the way the world is? (Central question of Deconstruction.) Or do they impose themselves upon the irreducibly fluid world?
My attempt—somehow—to establish or revive some meaningful relationship, despite the ultimate truth that no two things or experiences or persons are exactly alike (cf Nietzsche’s On Truth & Lying in a Supramoral Sense & Musil on metaphor). That making correspondences as Musil says brings beauty & meaning into the world—that these correspondences need to be understood to be provisional (?). That we cannot do without them ?
To distinguish, perhaps, between rigid categorisers, who intend to pin down their butterflies definitively, & others, who understand that each individual sensuous fact is its own living theory but who nevertheless love to follow echoes & love to make bouquets of corresponding but differing blooms because that is how we live, how we think, see, love?
If when we are young we affect poses of world-weariness or morbid moods, in older age these feel real & can permeate all visions. At least once in a while. & these past few days I have been afflicted with this dark lens. Through it, everything is unconvincing, tinsel, tawdry; disappointing & uninspiring. It is the same world, but my organs of perception are mud-spattered. One of course wonders, too, if perhaps this vision is not the more accurate one, closer to the truth, which is normally distorted by internal rose-coloured delusions.
“Critique of hope in the light of love”. Proust’s disappointment in real things that never live up to his ideal picture of them. (Yet nature satisfies him.). The impossibility of matching, covering, mapping the whole vast strangeness of reality, its particularities, natural phenomena, though, observed (as in Emerson & Thoreau…after Goethe, Humboldt, et al) as educating analogy for human life & meaning.
The receding, but then ever-returning tides of inspiration keep one eternally young—as each new beginning is a fresh attempt. Cause & effect, action & reaction, each conclusion only opening up new paths & questions.
The trajectory of myth & scientific explanations of cause & effect has ranged from a story about gods & God influencing creation & events to one in which human action & thought (rituals, sacrifices, prayers) influences God & gods’ actions, as, also witches & other malefactors were thought to manipulate daemonic forces for particular aims (also good wishes & well-wishers) to considerations of randomness, to moral arguments for man’s innate ideas of right & wrong action, to social systems educating & enforcing such action (by punishing transgressions, etc.), to contemporary scientific ideas of genetic & evolutionary habitual behaviour that is beyond even one’s own will & choice. I have skipped over many intermediate stages, but in a sense we are back, with contemporary rejection of free will, closer to the days of belief in Divine Will, where a human is driven or in some philosophies or theologies predestined to be a certain way or do a certain thing. All those centuries in between, blathering about self-control & affirming the higher moral goodness of those who chose the better action, all those centuries of trying to correct, either through religion or psychoanalysis or social conditioning (of course we still do this, but only be ignoring science!) immoral impulses & tendencies. Now they may be deemed correctable only via genetic engineering. Else we may finally abandon moral judgment altogether & treat problematic social activity as a practical issue, without shame (See Sapolsky’s Behave).
If only one could fully accept that one is how one is, & not constantly trouble oneself with striving to overcome oneself or wondering if one is a bad person or lazy or a genius. Or all three at once perhaps. But of course we fascinate our selves. Our own psyches, tendencies, capabilities, weaknesses. We pick at them as at a scab & we don’t really have a way of conceiving that we might really have no free will, no way of living that does not include (an illusion of) choice, mustering reluctant energy, fighting to resist a particularly tempting pleasure. So perhaps the contemporary findings about free will (let’s call them scientific predestination) alter our behavior or thinking about as little as do scientific-evolutionary explanations of courtship & love as elaborate mating rituals whose aim is only to duplicate our genes. An interesting fancy, in other words, but not convincing enough to assuage heart ache or belittle the passionate amorousness we feel for another person.
Grumbling in the underground the old question of whether too much investigation strips the mystery, tears away the Veil of Isis from the obscure face of Nature, or if Reason assumes or affirms more absolute mastery than it really deserves. If science is not itself, also, only provisional. The famous treachery of de-constructing & de-mystifying everything. But there is, I think, a kind of investigation that only increases the miraculousness of the world & its details. Goethe in Conversations with Eckermann critiques the expansion of Enlightenment criticism:
“Man is not born to solve the problems of the universe, but to find out where the problems begin, & then to restrain himself within the limits of the comprehensible. His faculties are not sufficient to measure the actions of the universe; and an attempt to explain the outer world by reason is, with his narrow point of view, but a vain endeavor.”
Then he brings in divine reason, &c. Also “historical criticism,” which, he says, robs us of our belief in grand & heroic persons:
“What are we to do with so pitiful a truth? If the Romans were great enough to invent such stories, we should at least be great enough to believe them”.
But of course Goethe, too, is always searching for truths, or laws, & for the particulars that suggest them. The difference may be in this different way of seeing: seeking to discover beauty & wonder rather than seeking to debunk & discredit. Either extreme may be just as tendentious as the other, though these days we assume that the debunker is more truthful than the researcher who begins with a pre-conceived vision of wholeness or goodness. The debunker begins with a belief as well, and with a pre-conceived will to NOT see the beauty, honour, meaning; he is just as likely to read this disjointedness, this ugliness into what he sees as the believer is to idealistically see what isn’t there. Except that the brain is predisposed to see patterns & beauty, so that those who don’t want to see it must work extra hard not to. In an anti-natural perversion of sorts.
What Daston & Gallison (Objectivity) call “truth-to-nature” observation, as opposed to “mechanical objectivity,” aims to present the typical, archetypal, universal form of a flower, animal, leaf; & believes to be more… accurate, true, helpful, ethical, right….? Certainly, this method allows for a general instruction, a gathering of similar particulars into a category, which helps with further study, which makes up the building blocks of knowledge. The mechanical objectivity practitioners (in D & G’s thesis a new bias circa 1860 on) see this former process as dishonest, as an attempt to project the viewer’s subjective ideal onto the object under study, deceitfully leaving out all the differences, imperfections, disharmonies of the individual specimen. But they ultimately undo their very discipline by following mechanical observation to its extreme, because once they try to present each idiosyncratic object with all its (minor) variations, they resist groupings, categories, & types to such an extent that there are no longer any standard types from which to learn or to study. Communication (between scientists) breaks down. The analogy for language is obvious. But, as my previous day’s entry enquires, perhaps there is an interim stage of approximation, whereby the scientist is clear about particularities—even aberrations—but still dares to approximate generalizations. The fear of, 1) subsuming disparate things under a single heading, 2) of assuming that there can be objectivity (God’s eye) at all , when it is impossible (the self is always projecting), & 3) that too much objectivity is inhumane, mechanical, cold….Is answered by the practical necessity of living as if there were some general categories (to use language, to practice medicine, to impart knowledge, to follow recipes), while acknowledging differences & variations. The treachery of Universal Absolutism on the one hand & impossibility of particular irreducibility on the other. If mechanical objectivity is more accurate to life, it is also less helpful for life. & also less natural (brain function is truth-to-nature, not mechanical objectivity). Truth to nature is also more beautiful, serves more to bring people together (communication by shared definitions, categories). Though contemporary de-constructionists will argue that it actually justifies violence & prejudice, by solidifying groups & their generalized differenced (the race theory that people within different ethnicities are more different from each other than they are from people in different ethnic groups belongs in this bundle of thoughts?). The critique (Foucault) of categories of madness & sexuality as treacherous techniques of control & normalcy is well taken, but I don’t think he took into consideration the dangers of the other extreme: a society with no shared generalizations or categories. These thinkers may celebrate différance, but not difference between categories, groups, types—rather difference of every single subject & object (every individual fact as theory)—but to the extent that nothing may have a name used by something else. We would need an infinite number of words. But the eye & mind would still see & think similarities, distinguishing reddish objects from bluish ones? Or would we? Is a word & concept necessary (as some linguistic theories propose) for us to complete this very basic infant pedagogy? If the anti-conceptualists succeeded in ridding us of our prejudicial categorizations, unlearning the terms, the names, the groupings, how would we see & think & live?
It would be a world in which no one could practice abstract thought, where correspondences would be totally taboo, where analogies were considered projections of self’s shameful desires for assurance, familiarity, relations.
If each object is so distinct that we cannot differentiate it into groupings, then we actually paradoxically see less difference—imagine not gathering dark tesserae into an area of a mosaic to contrast against gathered light tesserae.
Dark moodiness temporarily dispelled. Bitterness of emotions overcome by sweetness of raspberries & honey smeared on buttered toast.
The “idea” of sweetness, sweetness as abstract emotional state learned (?) from actual physical sweetness of concrete foods. Or the taste is so like to the feeling of love—which is not abstract, but embodied—that one associates them. Does honey taste of love or love of honey?
The monotony of this pandemic winter number 3; sitting all day, every day, in this same chair. I may be going insane.
About the Author
Genese Grill is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities”: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), translator of a collection of Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (2015), of Musil’s Unions (2018), Musil’s Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama (2020), & Robert Musil: Literature and Politics (2022), all published by Contra Mundum Press; and co-translator, with Samantha Rose Hill, of What Remains: The Collected Poetry of Hannah Arendt (Liveright, 2023). Her collection of essays, Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, will be out on November 6th: thisissplice.co.uk/our-titles/living-essays/portals/
There are no known restrictions on the use of New Year’s morning, preparing to call, New Year’s calls and New Year’s evening, the finale. The photographs were published by George Stacy around 1861. Thank you to the Library of Congress.