Friday, January 06, 2006

We are only measured by time

I have never been much of a thinker but neither have I thought anyone else's thoughts. A profound weakness but also a kind of strength. I have seen much more intelligent people than me not living their learned by heart second hand thoughts. What is the point of thought, of intelligence, if you don't live by it? My natural experience was Cartesian - and a shock it was to discover and understand the structuralist and poststructuralist objections to the logical coherence of the autonomous subject. Wittgenstein, in contrast, never really moved me either way: he seemed to be in an obscure cul-de-sac of his own, happily debating toothaches. (Not in reality of course, but that is how he appeared, and appears, to me.) Heidegger was as obviously bonkers with his Blut und Boden, finding justifications for all sorts of idiocies, and worse.

Instead, what I have found inexplicable is this experience of being in the world - that is the way I would describe it: we are in the world, but simultaneously, or little after, we experience it also. That difference, that delay makes us what we are: uncertain, individual, capable of great reason and wisdom, so rarely showing them for our panicky reflexes, our hunger for security and comfort. There is a great mystery in this human experience. The greatest mystery, I would argue. I have been talking about history in terms of natural science, but that is not to say that I would value, say, physics over the study of human history. I don't. The former is a fairly simple, uncontroversial matter of working out a theory of everything, or whatever it is, the latter an impenetrable mystery: unique, desperate.

My intelligence, my understanding tells me that there are no certainties, no final answers in our human life, but what I feel, sense, being true is that time is all we have, that eventually everything, everyone will be lost, everything will turn out to be transitory. I can't construe any final consolation, other than resignation to losing all you have in the end. It does not make the good things, the long views - love, friendship, art - any less valuable, it makes them desperately more valuable. They are all we really have. We give hostages to fortune with our lives, with our loves - if we are lucky. And I have been lucky in my life, passionate, after all, insistent on living in truth, having finally also found love and friendship - even coming to this moment, this week that has had so many hours beyond description, seeing landscapes I had thought were far behind me. We are only measured by time: I have been lucky in my life.


helsinkian said...

Thanks for a moving post. One of the greatest things about time is that it helps us to put things into perspective. Since we're all mortal and all things are equally perishable, there is also a great mercy when it comes to the extent of the mistakes that one individual can make. Still, our planet has been around for a long time and it is an incredibly scary thought that only a handful of people can put a swift end to our slowly evolving societies.

Whoever starts the next nuclear war can cause such damage that is totally immeasurable and what can be destroyed will be irretrievable. I think the extent of one person's mistakes can be limited and ridiculously small in the long view but huge crimes against humanity can have gigantic consequences, making a small individual a frighteningly heinous monster when circumstances allow such crimes.

When we witness great art and literature from ancient times, we know something valuable has been created. All beauty may fade but it can from our limited perspective appear as close to eternal. The lasting great human contributions to philosophy, history and art endure for thousands of years and pass many of the tests of time.

When we measure people like Hitler and Stalin by time, I'm sure the sentence of history will be harsh. Some people do so much damage that it will leave its mark for centuries to come. Nazi Germany and the USSR may be things of the past but the legacies of the great tyrants of the 20th Century are there, inspiring new dictators and wannabes as we speak. Because totalitarianism can strangle great civilizations and threaten the survival of the planet, the struggle for an open society and for freedom of thought is the one lasting legacy we can leave to future generations if we are to succeed with our democratic experiments, still young when measured against the cumulative experience of the past.

stockholm slender said...

That post was written in a fairly desperate moment - I had to remind myself where I truly stand. It is interesting, at times scary, how unfixed our personalities are. Reason is permanent, but it is a brittle foundation. It is the road I chose long ago though - and that is what I am, if I am to be anything. Strange, that it did come to this bare essence - a moment hopefully not repeated very often...