Daimon Publishers

Gravity and Levity
by
Alan McGlashan

Excerpt

1 - 'Le Coup de Vide'

How deep-rooted an urge is this passion that has possessed so many men throughout history to find a single, unequivocal answer to their enquiries! Particularly scientists - at least till very recently. As Bronowski has said of Einstein: 'Like Newton, and all scientific thinkers, Einstein was in a deep sense a unitarian.' Religious-minded people - with the honorable exception of the early Taoists - also tend to seek, behind their varying formulations, a single Creator. But indeed anyone in any branch of human activity who comes up with what even remotely looks like a Final Answer - such as Freud's sexuality theory, or Nietzsche's concept of the Superman - is sure of a world-wide audience of partisans and enemies.

Hidden beneath this time-honored search for unity lies an element of fear. In spite of what John Keats asserted, men everywhere have a horror of 'uncertainty and doubt.' It is as if an empty abyss were opening beneath their feet, awakening in them that panic reaction that French mountain climbers call 'le coup de vide.' Frantically searching with fingers and toes for a firm hold on the slippery rock-face of truth, 'Rock of Ages,' we cry, 'cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee!'

Our panic misleads us. The abyss below is not the huge Void of outer space, through which we imagine ourselves plunging down, arms outflung, eyes shut, mouth rounded in a soundless scream. . . . Instead, a bewildering surprise awaits us. When finally we slip, scrabbling, off the vertiginous rock-face, what gently receives us is - salt water, the sea, mare the mother of all life. With a gulp of amazement we find that we can relax and float. Opening our eyes at last we see a ship on the water close beside us, white sails spread for distant adventure, and willing hands to lift us aboard. . . . Life offers no greater experience than this surrender of the panic-stricken search for certainty. It is death. And re-birth.

The classic reaction towards uncertainty was perfectly illustrated one summer's day when I was walking by the ornamental lake in Regents Park. A man in a rowing boat caught a crab and fell into the water. Arms and legs wildly flailing, he screamed - 'Help, help! I can't swim!' Finally a bystander shouted back, 'Stand up, you bloody fool!' The drowning man did so - and found that the water just came up to his waist.

But we should not underestimate the benefits that have come to men through this curiously stubborn conviction that there is in the final resort a single explanation for the cosmos. It has been the motivating force of many of the greatest human achievements. Pythagoras, as we have seen, reached his miraculous discovery of the relation between music and mathematics only because he was inspired by the over-simplified belief that 'all things are numbers.' Copernicus, who made the world accept that 'the Sun does not go round the Earth, but the Earth goes round the Sun,' arrived at his revolutionary idea through his conviction that 'thirty-four circles suffice to explain the entire structure of the universe and the entire ballet of the planets.' (It is true that he found himself compelled soon after to add another fourteen circles, and in later life became increasingly doubtful about the whole thing; but the simplistic background of his immensely valuable life-work remained - and was totally mistaken.) It was again this 'certainty' of a unitary explanation of reality that sustained Newton and enabled him to construct his majestic pattern of the universe, based though it was on his fallacious assumption of the 'absolute reality' of Space and Time.

Even today, when leading scientists and thinkers are at last beginning to catch sight of the paradoxical nature of reality, there is this flourishing French school of structural philosophy, headed by distinguished figures such as Foucault and Lacan, which carries the quest for a single and final explanation of everything to a point which approaches the ludicrous. Structuralism claims to have already revealed 'the few primary hidden codes' that determine all human thought and behavior and is now seeking the master-code behind all codes, 'the system,' to use Foucault's words, 'underlying all systems.'

When they find it, they may also find that they have inadvertently put the human mind in prison.

This tireless quest for the Ultimate Explanation, time after time proved mistaken, survives every exposure, springing up in new forms with each new generation of men. To challenge it is a bold, a Promethean gesture, inviting a Promethean fate. For be sure that the D.F.F.A., Defenders of the Faith in a Final Answer, will not surrender tamely. Their counter-attacks will be the tactics of desperate men. They will fight us on the beaches, they will fight us in the hills, they will never give in.

And in a way they are justified in this implacable reaction. What we are proposing to tamper with - in their view like a child fiddling with the switches of an atomic pile - is the motivation of a large part of all human achievements. We are undermining the moral conviction that a solution can be found for all problems if only we strive for it with resolution and persistence. Take away this conviction, they say, and the human race will become a vast, amorphous mob of 'drop-outs.' A terrifying prospect. 'Man the barricades!' cry the D.F.F.A.

They could be right. It is possible that men will lose all heart in the struggle for existence unless they are sustained by the hope of reaching a millennium, however distant, and a final answer to all their afflictions. It may be that a human being is kept going only by the kind of faith that apparently supports the coral insect: a creature that lives and toils and dies in the dark of the sea, in the obscure foreknowledge that out of the skeletons of a billion generations of its kind there will one day rise up from the tropical ocean a white and shining Coral Island. It must after all be a similar conviction that sustains the military mind in its belief that, built on the dead bodies of millions of men, women and children, there will one day rise the glorious white temple of Victory. Constructed, like a coral island, of skeletons.

It is possible that man will collapse without such dubious incentives. But I do not believe it. We have been bedevilled for centuries by the vision of Nature as a marvelously balanced and coordinated system - which it is - moving with a precision and harmony of parts that imply an underlying unitary structure - if only we could see it. Our failure to grasp unity behind apparent diversity, lies, we are taught, in our own uncertain selves. It is because we are such divided, conflict-ridden creatures that the grand, simple, unitary nature of Reality is still hidden from us. 'The fault lies in ourselves,' we are assured, alike by poet and preacher.

What if both poet and preacher were wrong? What if it were Reality that is always and everywhere ambiguous, paradoxical, open-ended? Such an insight at once lifts from us part of 'the burden of the mystery,' without lessening the mystery. And it transfers on the instant a multitude of doubts and dilemmas from the heart of man to the heart of Reality. If these two things can be accomplished without sacrifice of intellectual honesty they are surely worth doing. But this way of looking at Reality does more. Its unique reward is to allow a man - paradoxically - to be single-minded in his activities because he knows that Reality is not so.

A statement like that requires amplification. To be single-minded is immensely difficult. So much so that single-mindedness in any activity, even an absurd or an evil one, rouses in most of us at least a grudging admiration. Few would think it worth while to squat night and day for thirty-three years on the top of a sixty foot pillar. Yet, in spite of its absurdity, and even after the psychoanalysts have had their say about him, something in us whispers, 'Damn it, the man must have had guts.' And we give expression to this feeling by continuing to remember the name and occupation of St. Simeon Stylites for more than fifteen hundred years.

We are unanimous, nevertheless, in considering his single-mindedness to have been ludicrously ill-directed. And here lies the core of the matter. To be totally committed in any direction carries inescapably the corroding anxiety that one may have made the wrong choice, nailed one's colors to a broken mast, sacrificed one's whole life to an empty dream. Even the deeply religious person can only cry: 'Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.' In a moment of self-doubt even so great a poet as John Keats confided to his friend Bailey, 'I am sometimes so very sceptical as to think Poetry itself a mere Jack o' Lantern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck by its brilliance.' H.G. Wells went further: 'A committed writer is not a man; he is a mere footnote to reality.' Doubt is the canker at the heart of all human belief. If an individual is lucky enough, and simple enough, to have no shadow of doubt about the rightness of his beliefs, others will do his doubting for him.

But if Reality were once seen, as contemporary science is beginning to indicate, as itself resting on paradox, itself an endlessly elusive balance of contraries, a man would then be free to commit himself totally, without anxiety, to whatever reveals itself as truth to him. There would be no lurking fear that perhaps his whole approach to life had been mistaken. From the start he would recognize with perfect good humor that no effort of his could ever lead to a final, unassailable truth; it could lead only to the establishment of a worthy opposition to whatever might be advanced against it. Dogmatism would be out of fashion. It would be seen as the pretentious error it is. This, it will be said, is the recognized creed of every scientist. But you have only to listen to the abuse, lobbying and back-biting aroused at any Congress of scientists to realize that they don't believe a word of it.

When I was a child, mice, which were always to be found in the basement kitchens of those days, were caught in wire traps set every night on the kitchen floor. In the morning I would see the luckless mouse caught securely in the wire cage. But I noticed that he always managed to push his long tail through the wire mesh, and it would be wriggling wildly in the free air. For me, truth is that mouse. When we think we have caught it, there is always the defiant tail left outside of the most ingenious cage we can devise.

In any case it is not enough to offer an intellectual acceptance of the proposition that truth dances for ever just out of reach of any possible formulation. What is needed is to delight in this fact, to see in it a guarantee that the world is open-ended, inexhaustibly rich in meaning, and eternally resistant to Messianic solutions. What is needed is to relax and to begin to look on ultimate questions not as problems to be solved, but as mysteries that save us from despair. 'Life is not a series of problems,' said the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, 'it is a network of mysteries.' He was not the first to reach this conclusion. More than two thousand years ago the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar had a remarkably similar idea: 'Life has this mystery,' he wrote, 'that we dare not say the last word about it, that it is good or bad, that it is senseless or ordered . . . . Let me then banish from my mind the childish thought that it is among my duties to find some last answer concerning the nature of life.'

The desire to transcend all polarities and reach unity is a natural but tragic human error. Certainly we should practise to pass beyond the grosser polarities and become aware of, and be conditioned by, more and more subtle opposites. But as to the unity that lies beyond, we must while we live, as Simone Weil suggests, learn 'to adore the distance' between ourselves and what we seek. It is the error, the sublime error, of mystics to see their 'moment of illumination' as an absolute, beyond all opposites. For such a moment to exist at all, its opposite, a nadir of total, meaningless emptiness, must also exist. The reward of dying, it may be, is to pass through a gateway into that unimaginable region where all opposites meet and melt.

Questions, of course, are a challenge to human ingenuity and are there to be answered one after another to the best of human ability - till we reach the ultimate questions that are concerned with the irreducible polarities of life and death, time and eternity, beginnings and endings. Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, has said, 'In ultimate questions we are faced with a complex reality that demands a double description if it is to be adequately treated . . . one may not be reduced to the other.' Man started asking these questions a long, long time ago and is no nearer the answers now than he was then. Already, at the dawn of Indian civilization, the tenth hymn of the Rig Veda is hammering away at the locked doors of the Ultimate:

Being, then was not, nor not-being.

The air was not, nor the sky above it.

What kept closing in? Where?

And whose the enclosure?

Was the plunging abyss all water?

Who knows it, and who shall declare

Where this Creation was born, and whence it came?

Who indeed? At this point we should start to make daisy-chains of question-marks. They are, as it happens, conveniently looped for the purpose.

This last comment is not as impudent as it may sound to some ears. In fact the attitude outlined in this introductory chapter can be mistaken for a flippant dismissal of logical inquiry, or, by a grosser misconception, for a devaluation of the religious impulses in the human spirit. It is neither of these things. What is here solely advanced is the need for a sharper recognition of the limits of the causal approach to phenomena.

2 - Loosening-up

One way of arriving at a recognition of the limitations of all human experiencing is to consider the many fields in which a series begins logically, factually, measurably, and ends in a mocking question-mark. What, for instance, could be more definite and down-to-earth than millimeter, centimeter, meter, kilometer? But extend this series to the measurement of inter-galactic distances and to the limits of the cosmos, and you are at once faced with unanswerable problems, and involved in abstruse theories about the curvature of Space. At this level your careful measurements start wriggling about like epileptic snakes.

The same thing happens to minutes, hours, days and years, which begin rationally enough and end facing the ultimate mystery of Time. Speed, too, starting with meters per minute and ending in the wild-eyed fantasy of galaxies of stars receding at ever-increasing speed till they surpass the speed of light, at which point they are said to cease to exist. Moreover all these and many other series are open-ended in both directions. Extend any of them in the direction of the infinitely small instead of the infinitely large, and you find yourself in the equally irrational and crazy world of micro-physics, where unpredictability is the only thing that is predictable.

Paradox, in fact, is not an intellectual parlor-trick; it is the Rule by which we live, the existential situation of man, the basis of human consciousness. It is also the guarantee that Reality will remain for ever the dawn-fresh, tantalizing prize that men will reach for but never, luckily for them, possess.

Many men have always known this. Plato understood it when he spoke of that 'Something about which we can know only that it exists, and that nothing else can ever be desired, except in error.' St. Augustine, himself a highly paradoxical personality, saw the beauty and necessity of paradox: 'As speech,' he once said, 'is enriched by antitheses, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries arranged, as it were, by an eloquence not of words but of things.' Nearer to our own day, A.N. Whitehead defined religion in terms which make it a perfect example of a paradoxical quest. 'Religion,' he says, 'is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, yet the greatest of all present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, yet eludes comprehension; something whose possession is the final good, yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.'

These being the views of three not inconsiderable figures - a philosopher, a saint and a scientist - it would seem that paradox as a central fact of human existence has its serious supporters.

We are altogether too complacent, too rigid in our conclusions about life. Carlos Castanada speaks of 'The dogmatic certainty, which we all share, that the validity of our perceptions, or our reality of the world, is not to be questioned.' We sit back, like T.S. Eliot's commuter, 'assured of certain certainties' that are not certainties at all. Clever as the human being may be, there are a surprising number of things he has forgotten how to do. He has forgotten, for instance, how to digest food without a stomach, how to breathe without lungs, how to excrete uric acid without kidneys and expel it without a bladder. He has even forgotten how to make movements without muscles. Yet, as J.W. Kratch reminds us, there are living creatures called protozoans in every part of the world at this moment who are doing all these things. Protozoans are, of course, simple souls, being composed of a single cell. But higher up the evolutionary scale there are many other creatures daily performing what is humanly impossible. There is, for instance, that curious fish the Gymnarchus which although blind contrives to 'see' by self-generated electronic messages, successfully pursuing and capturing by this means the darting, twisting small fish on which it feeds; and the homely honey-bee whose dancing discloses a wealth and precision of meaning that no human choreographer can match. There is the tern, which performs the unbelievable muscular feat of flying from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back some thirty times in the course of its life. These literally superhuman feats, however, are easily outclassed by a small coelenterate called the Hydra. If you cut off a Hydra's head it will grow a new one.

Even in the sphere of knowledge, that proudest of human achievements, there are areas in which our awareness cannot compare with that of some of our very humblest neighbors on the earth. There are rhythms in nature, particularly solar and lunar rhythms, to which we are grossly insensitive in contrast to many other forms of life. A large body of evidence, which is increasing almost daily, suggests that many living things have an awareness of the changing phases of the sun and moon, and a finely adjusted response to the electromagnetic influences proceeding from them, which is far beyond human powers; or at least far beyond any attention we have yet given to these matters. It may, for instance, come as a surprise to some people to learn that 'potatoes, algae, carrots, earthworms, and salamanders all "know" where the moon is, whether it has just appeared over the horizon, whether it is at the zenith, or whether it is setting,' and respond to the knowledge by an appropriate adjustment of their metabolism. To be outclassed in any branch of knowledge by a potato should surely loosen up the most arrogant intellectual.

The possibility arises that there could be some form of mind or mental processes without brain. Plants have neither brain nor nerve-tissue, yet the cells of the Venus plant are capable of the instantaneous, concerted, purposive action - equivalent to a tiger-spring - required to entice and then suddenly capture a passing fly. (Incidentally, without either mouth or stomach the fly-catching plant is able to eat and digest the fly, probably with a good deal of quiet enjoyment.) An American researcher, Cleve Backster, has achieved world-wide attention by his claim to have demonstrated that plants are actually sensitive to emotional stress. His results appear to have been confirmed by controlled tests in several separate research laboratories and are moreover in line with the long-published researches of Chandra Bose, the distinguished Indian scientist; though it is hardly necessary to add that these results have been scornfully dismissed by indignant members of the Door-Slammers' Union. The activities of this ancient and powerful Union will be discussed in the next chapter but one.

However it may be with the daring hypothesis of emotionality in plants, all the other statements above are established beyond reasonable doubt. Simply to ignore them can lead to an irritating anthropomorphism. In the light of them what becomes, for example, of the dismissive assertions that there can be no mental life on any of the planets comparable with human mental life, unless the planets' atmosphere and conditions can support forms of life with brain-boxes as large as our own? These people are not giving nearly enough credit to the ingenuity of the life-force. They could be right that on other planets there is no life comparable to that of human beings - but not for the kind of reasons they put forward. They should loosen up.

Logical minds that find it difficult or distasteful to loosen up in this way would do well to read a highly ingenious essay, first published in 1971, on the subject of The Equivocal Universe. The authors' demonstration of the open-ended nature of the universe is, for the logically minded, disarmingly objective. Very briefly, their argument consists in drawing our attention once more to an image which has intrigued us all since childhood, the image of the Chalice and the two Faces:

They point out that two important facts emerge as we look at this image. In the authors' own words -

(1) We cannot see the Chalice and the Faces simultaneously. However rapidly we may oscillate between the chalice and the faces, we cannot see both interpretations at once. If we could do that, we should see nothing, a void; both chalice and faces would vanish.

(2) The status of both interpretations is the same. We cannot say that the chalice is the true interpretation and the faces false, nor that the faces are true and the chalice false.

The authors then work out with clarity and humor the implications of these two equivocal facts in relation to the way in which we normally see the world. The implications are considerable. 'It may be,' they suggest, 'that the two worlds we live in, physical and metaphysical, material and anti-material, exist in a relationship analogous to that of the chalice and the faces: we can only see one at a time, each filters out the other.' Since we have been taught by both science and religion to search beyond all apparent dualities for a single interpretation of the world, and since this unity of interpretation is 'equated in our minds with logical consistency, and is held up to us as a virtue synonymous with honesty and integrity,' then the scene is set for endless sterile conflict. On every basic issue, say these authors, men will find themselves separated into two opposing groups, the 'Chalice-landers' and the 'Face-landers,' each entrenched in their own equally valid world, eyeing the opposition with unappeasable alarm and distrust.

The point has been made before. At the turn of the 19th century Gilbert and Sullivan were saying much the same thing in expressing their amused surprise that - in their simpler political day -

Every little Englishman that's born into this world alive

Is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.

Ridiculous as it seems for adults to play these endless games of Oranges and Lemons, it must be remembered that the clash of opinions is a time-honored way of testing their validity. 'Without contraries, no progress,' said William Blake, or as C.G. Jung put it in a letter to a friend, 'There is no energy without opposites . . . no sooner do you get out of opposites than you get out of life altogether.' Once we can accept that the human mind is so constructed that only by taking sides can it get to grips with many of its problems, we are free to conceive and sometimes to enter that region of our psyche from which these furious battles are seen to be nothing more than necessities of our mental mechanism; shadow-fights where victory of either side only provides the stimulus for further conflict.

Even if we achieve this degree of self-awareness, the furious battles will of course continue. But less viciously perhaps, less rancorously, with less commitment to the monstrous illusion of total victory. They will continue because there is a spark of spiritual jingoism in the human psyche which seems to be inextinguishable. Students everywhere will mount one kind of war as a protest against another kind of war. Even so fine a spirit as Blake can shout -

We shall not cease from mental strife,

Nor shall the sword sleep in our hand

Till we have built Jerusalem - .

It all sounds splendidly heroic, but the flashing of even purely symbolic swords does not lead to the building of Jerusalem, but to the building of long, long graveyards filled with identical little wooden crosses.

There is a part of our psyche which already knows this; but we don't live there. We don't live there because of the terrifying Condition of Entry: to accept gladly in ourselves a state of 'uncertainty and doubt' that is beyond all human effort or appeal. We shudder away from the freedoms this would create, not daring to give up the hope of one day finding unity and a final answer.

Why on earth is the human mind so hell-bent on finding unity? Suppose we did suddenly arrive at the final, unitary, incontrovertible truth as to the nature of Reality - that mirage which we have passionately pursued for all these centuries. What a straitjacket it would prove to be! Man would have robbed himself of choice. For once such an ultimate truth were universally believed, failure to accept it would simply prove a man to be an enemy of society, or mentally deranged. On either count he would be liable to find himself locked up. The 'goodies' and the 'baddies' would be branded instantly and automatically by a gross over-simplification reminiscent of a Calvinist vision of the Last Judgment or even more, of the technique of government in a modern totalitarian state: a nightmare world where freedom, not merely of action but of thought, would be in eternal exile. Precisely the kind of choice-deprived world which our prime ancestor, Adam-Eve, found intolerable.

And if, like him, we found ourselves trapped in so claustrophobic a universe, we should be driven, as he was, to commit some huge, iconoclastic crime to earn once more our banishment beyond the gateless walls of our man-made 'Paradise.'

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