Tag Archives: heraclitus

I read the Iliad once a year, and every time I do, Hector dies at the end and Achilles in an act of compassion gives the Trojan hero’s body to his grieving father. 

And every time I read Moby Dick, Ahab dies tangled in rope to the whale, and the beast sinks the Pequod. Likewise, the Maltese Falcon always turns out to be lead, and Dorothy always returns to Kansas.

These are stories and they have beginnings, middles and ends. We may know that Achilles is destined for an early death, even though it is not in the Iliad, and we may wonder if Ishmael ever gets on another boat or Brigid O’Shaughnessy hangs by that pretty neck of hers or spends 20 years in Tehachapi, or if Dorothy ever gets a Ph.D. or lives to bear children to a dunce. But all this is outside the knowledge of these stories. 

There is self-containment in a story, even one with sequels, in which each sequel is its own story, with its own beginning, middle and end. There is a front cover to the book, and a back cover, and when we close it over, we put the book back on the shelf. 

This seems to work for books about history, too. We know that Cornwallis will surrender at Yorktown and that Lee will surrender at Appomattox. When we read about Abraham Lincoln, we know his story ends at Ford’s Theater. 

Napoleon ends in Moscow, at Waterloo, or St. Helena, depending on the focus of the history book. Hitler will lose the war and the Berlin Wall will come down. No matter how many times we turn the pages, the end is always the same. We know it even before we start. 

So history seems to be constructed of discrete bits, sewn together. Each with a beginning, middle and end. Alexander will die in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the Middle Ages will come to an end in the Renaissance. 

So, when we read about Neville Chamberlain, we know he was a failure because we know what happened after Munich. We know in advance that Communism fails and that computers didn’t go all cattywampus after Jan. 1, 2000. 

It is seldom we acknowledge, even if it is obvious, that Washington didn’t know that he would win the battle, that Lincoln didn’t know he wouldn’t return from Our American Cousin, or that anyone living in AD 800 didn’t know they were living in the Middle Ages. Middle of what? They were modern at the time.

We get a false sense of the world when we look at history as a story. One thing follows another in consequence and bingo, Napoleon comes to the end we always knew he would come to. 

History as it happens isn’t history. It is simply the now of back then. Its participants are just as ignorant of the outcome as we are of what will happen in Syria or North Korea. Or the legacy of Trumpism. Eisenhower didn’t know that D-Day would work; Oppenheimer didn’t know if the plutonium bomb would actually explode; Neil Armstrong didn’t know if he would ever get back from the moon. It is all contingent. 

History is not a story. It is a flowing chaos, a million-billion strands floating out into the ether and gathering in unanticipated knots. You might as well stand at the banks of a river and ask, “Where did that water start, where does it end.” 

So, we don’t know where our future is going, where those knots will form. Only afterwards do we go back, pick out the bits that make sense to us at the moment and weave a story out of them, creating coherence where there never was any. Doughboys never called their fight World War I. They had no idea that their suffering was only prelude to a sequel. World War II was the “Good War.” World War I was “the War to End All Wars.” These are tales we tell to ourselves as if we were our own children. 

A story is a pattern. We may call it plot, or timeline, but in essence, a story is designed to fulfill our innate desire for pattern. In fiction, that pattern is engineered from the episodes the author invents. In history, it is created by simplifying the complexity so that we can impose the same sort of pattern we are used to in a story. 

Different eras find different patterns in the evidence, and so history is constantly rewritten to the specifications of a certain time and place. The old guard cries foul and calls this re-organization of data “revisionism,” but history will always be pushed and pulled like clay, into whatever form is needed for the day. 

So, Napoleon was a great man, a monster, an exemplum, or, like Tolstoy claims, an irrelevance. Which was the real Bonaparte? They are each a story fabricated from bits, like a Frankenstein reanimation. 

Reality offers an infinity of possibility and for mere comprehension, we cut and prune to make the whole digestible. To make it a story. 

For years I was a journalist, and I cringed at the idea that what I was writing were newspaper “stories.” Reporters are trained to make the news comprehensible by making them stories: beginning, middle, end. The truth is always muddier, always messier. 

There seems to be a biological need for stories, or why would we keep writing them, writing fictions we know are not literally true, but reinforce the patterns we know. A story is a theater of shadow puppets. 

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Panta Horein:” Everything changes, or everything flows, depending on your translation. A story petrifies that flow into a single unmoving image, which always distorts the cascading reality. 


Who are you?

I don’t mean your name or your job or your nationality or ethnicity. But who and what are you? I should like you to think about that for a moment.

Many people believe in a heaven after death where they will meet their loved ones again. But what will they look like? For that matter, in heaven, what will you look like? If you have an internal sense of who you are, what does that person look like? This is not a random question, but a way of considering one of the fundamental issues of existence and of our way of understanding that existence. If you had an entry in the dictionary, what would the picture look like next to your name? Is there even a single image that captures the totality of your existence. When Alfred Stieglitz proposed to create a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, he took a bookload of photographs, since one could not ever be enough.

The problem is in thinking of existence as a noun.

For most of us, the cosmos is made up of things; indeed it is the sum total of things. This is a misunderstanding of the reality we live in. It is also a misunderstanding caused by our reliance on language as a way of dealing with that reality. Language leads us astray.


When most people consider what the world is made of, they expect to encounter nouns — that is, things. When they consider themselves, they either think of how they look in the mirror now, but more often of an idealized version of them at the peak of their existence, perhaps when they were 25 or 30 years old. It’s how we will appear in heaven. We have this peculiar idea that nouns are a static identity, that a horse is a horse, a flower is a flower and a bed is a bed. Webster’s dictionary is a catalog of reality.

I bring up beds because of Plato and his damnable idealism. He posited that all earthly beds are but a misbegotten imitation of the “ideal” bed, which does not exist in this world, but in some idealized non-material realm. There is an ideal bed, he says, and an ideal chair, ideal tortoise, ideal apple pie, ideal human, compared to which the earthly item is a knock-off. These ideals are perfect and unchanging, whereas the world we know is sublunary and corrupt.


I’ve written before about this blindness in the ancient Greeks, that they conflated language with reality, that they truly believed that the word they knew was a perfect and complete representation in language of the reality they lived in, and further, that the logic of language replicated identically the order of the universe. Language and reality had a one-to-one relationship. It was a naive belief, of course, but one that led them to believe that nouns were a real thing, not merely a linguistic marker. We still suffer from vestiges of this superstition.

(There was at least one Greek who demurred. Heraclitus recognized that all existence was movement. “Panta Horein,” he said. “Everything flows.” It is why, he said, you cannot ever put your foot into the same river twice. Heraclitus is my hero.)


plant-life-cycleFor in the real world, there are no nouns, there are only verbs. It is all process. A noun is just a snapshot of a verb, freezing it in a particular time and place. But the one ineluctable thing is the verb — the process, the motion, the growth, the dissolution and re-formation. A flower is not a thing, but a motion. It begins as a seed, sprouts beneath the soil and breaks its surface, grows upward, pushing out leaves, swelling into a bud at its apex, popping open the bud to a blossom, which fertilized by a moving bee, dries and drops, leaving a fruit encapsulating a new seed, which falls into the soil once more. The whole is a process, not a thing.

It is the same for you or me. When we were conceived, we were a zygote turning into a fetus, into an infant, a toddler, a boy or girl, an adolescent, a young adult, a grown-up (when we set the seed once more for the next birth) and then accept middle age and senescence, old age and death. We are not any of the snapshots we have in our albums, but the motion forward in time, always pushing up and outward.

“I am inclined to speak of things changed into other things,” writes Ovid at the beginning of his Metamorphoses. Indeed, Plato’s bed began as a seed, a tree turned into lumber, the lumber into a bedframe. Eventually the bed will rot away into the soil once more. Just because the movement is slow doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and isn’t constant. Fie on Plato. (Plato that proto-fascist — I despise the man).

This brings us to the recent election. I never intended to write about it, but I cannot avoid it. Plato is a fascist not merely because of the deplorable blueprint for totalitarianism in his Republic, but because that very belief in a noun-world leads to a belief that there is a stasis, a final solution, a political order that will finally and forever settle all the problems we face. Current American conservatives have this sense that if we would only do things their way, we would finally solve the problem of crime, of a stable economy, a balanced budget, of creating a smooth-running order. Oddly they share this teleological view with Marxists. They do not see politics as the constant give-and-take of contending interests, but rather as a kind of machine that could remain static and ever-functioning. They see a noun, not a verb, but politics is a verb. Panta horein.

the-whole_edited-1Just as every flower leads to a seed, so every solution leads to a new problem. There is no ultimate order, no final stasis. It is perpetual churn. Contending interests constantly change, upsetting the received order, and anyone who believes that if we only did this, or did that, everything would be hunky-peachy — well, good luck with that. But there is no end to labor; we keep working, moving, changing until we are no longer aware of the changes that will take over when we die.

I see this clearly looking at the series of pictures of myself from when I was an infant to now, when I am an old man. In between come the student, the husband, the ex-, the career, the exhaustion, the grayed hairs, the grandfather. Which is me? Instead, what I see are frames from a continuous movie and the only reality that counts is the movement, the constant flux from one being into another, no boundaries, no scene changes, no new chapter headings, but one continuous wipe, from beginning to an end now approaching close enough almost to touch. copepod

Further, I can look backward to my parents and their parents, and forward to my daughter and her children and can easily imagine their offspring and those following — all one continuous sweep. My wife had her DNA tested and that allowed her to see her background past sweep from North Carolina back through Ireland, the Mediterranean, the Levant and into Africa, mutation by slow mutation. If there were tests sophisticated enough, I’m sure we could peer back through microscopes at that same DNA to lemurs, crocodiles, placoderm fish, hydrae, algae, and various spirochetes.

And then the planet back through the accretive dust, into the exploding novae, back to the plasmic hydrogen to the Big Bang. From then, it is always moving forward in a cosmic rush, skating through space-time — the long verb.

A noun is just a snapshot of a verb.

Monument valley windows 2

We’ve all had the experience of revisiting some place that meant something to us when we were young, only to find it ruined by the passing years — the blight in tract homes where there had been woods we played in; the proliferation of 7-Elevens or Starbucks; the widening of roads we had ridden our bikes down and the concomitant soot-spewing storm of traffic. The divided-highway bypass and the Walmart near the exit. Time has not been good to the landscape we knew.

But I have always thought, there must be someone of a generation previous who looked at the landscape I bicycled down and thought, how much better it had been when the road was gravel and there were no houses — including the one I grew up in — lining that road.

The fact is, time is furious and eats up the land just as it eats up the remaining years of my life. “Panta Horein” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Everything changes.” Doubtless, there was someone before my elder who loved the same land when there was nothing but a footpath through the forest and thought it better for all that.

And no doubt there will be some future progeny who will look at the scene some 50 years hence and lament the loss of those same 7-Elevens, replaced by something even crasser and more demoralizing. To them, the land I now lament will have been Eden.

Holbrook, Arizona

Holbrook, Arizona

Too often we think of the land as something permanent through which plays the impermanence of our comings and goings — a static stage set for our dramas. Its pace may be slower than ours, but the land changes, also; it has its own drama. I particularly love to see the scars of those changes, the evidence of what used to be, the peeping out from under the macadam of the buried eyes of the past.

Along old 66 Signs and storm

One of the prizes I have is a Rand-McNally road atlas from the year I was born (1948). The map of Arizona has no interstates on it, and you can see that the very getting from Phoenix to Flagstaff was a detour, driving first through Wickenburg and up to Prescott before either heading north to Ash Fork and then east on U.S. 66 to Flag, or taking the more mountainous route up Alternate 89 over Mingus Mountain, down to the Verde Valley and then up the hill through Sedona and up the face of the Mogollon Rim to your destination.

Along old 66 Tumbleweed

Of course, there was a more direct route, through Dugas and Camp Verde, but the road was mostly dirt and rutted.

The thing is, that if you look for them, all those ruts are still there. You can, if you wish, and if your car is sturdy enough, drive those roads up through Bumble Bee, through Orme, through Skull Valley, Iron Springs or Happy Jack. Like Schliemann digging down through layers of Troy, the archeology of Arizona is there — or its fossils are.

West of Kingman

West of Kingman

All of which brings me to the slice of Arizona across its northern tier, now defined by Interstate 40. The interstate ate up what used to be U.S. 66 — Route 66 of legend — and takes the speediferous driver across the flatter parts of the Colorado Plateau, up through Flagstaff, and down through Williams, Kingman and on to California. “You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino…”

Along old 66 Interstate 40

But, if you get off the interstate, right at the state line in Lupton, you can find the ghost road, mostly paralleling the freeway, and you can drive along it, at a steady 45 mph, watching for potholes, and see the scars of the past dug into the dry stony soil. The road is discontinuous — you will have to get back on the interstate for an exit or so, or ride over the tide of traffic to pick up the auxiliary road on the other side, where old 66 will start again. It is a ghost of itself, and along it are a few forgotten towns, many gutted old service stations with their paint peeled, their windows blown out and their driveways split by weeds busting through.

Along old 66 Minyard Feed Store

Time is fierce, it eats everything.

I admit to a weakness for these pentimenti, for the palimpsest of time, showing through the later “improvements.” They provide a glimpse of the process, of the metamorphosis — using Ovid’s word — of the constant writhing and seething of the planet and our place as people in the ferment and bubbling.

Along old 66 sunflowers

It comes in the shorter term, such as old Route 66 being devoured by grasses and crucifers, but it also comes in longer terms, such as the Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly and Betatakin, the petroglyphs of Rio Puerco in the Petrified Forest National Park.

Rio Puerco Ruins

There are remaining parts of old Route 66, running through Seligman, and it is mined constantly for nostalgia. But it isn’t that I am feeding on, but the sense of sand sifting through my fingers, of time leaving. It comes out of some chthonic well and runs past us and dissipating in an ocean of we know not where. The old road is still there, and it will be there even when there are no cars — just as the wagon ruts can still be found along the Santa Fe Trail, sunk into the grasses of Kansas.

Old 66 to Seligman

I relish all the different tickings and tockings of the various clocks running their various races.

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

You stand at the rim of Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Reservation and look down to the braided stream at the bottom that scoured this great hole out of the sandstone and wonder how long it must have taken. Then you see the tiny Anasazi relics built into the walls of the rock and realize how long people have been living here, and then you see the sandstone itself an think about how much longer ago — exponentially longer — that ancient river deltas deposited the silt that later became that stone.

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

How much more do you sense these multiple time scales at this rift’s big brother, the Grand Canyon.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

If you want to have the planetary feeling without racing around the globe, you can get it standing still in Arizona: with your feet planted at the edge of the Grand Canyon. In that case, you stand stock-still and let the planet do the moving.

North Rim, Grand Canyon

North Rim, Grand Canyon

The first time I saw sunrise at the Grand Canyon, my wife and I were camping on the North Rim outside the National Park. We had arrived with the naive assumption we could wander in late in the afternoon and get a room at the lodge. Or failing that, we could get a slot at the campgrounds.

The desk clerk took pity on us and explained that although they were completely booked, lodge and campground, for the foreseeable future, we could find a dirt road just outside the park that would take us to a place in the National Forest where people often camped.

It was dark by the time we got to that road, and when we turned into an open place where two or three other tents were set up, it was already night.

We slept, we dreamed, and we woke before sunrise, when the earliest glow floated in through our tent flap. And when we got out to stretch and start up the camp stove, we gasped: We were about 15 feet from the rim of the canyon. It dropped out of sight below us.

If we had pulled forward just a little farther the night before in the blackness, it would have been Thelma-and-Louise time for us. We were hard on the edge.

But more impressive, the humid late-July weather had left the entire canyon as a gigantic dish of cotton. The clouds filled in the canyon-hollow like apples in a fruit bowl. A 215-mile long fruit bowl.

The mists swirled and wisped below us, over precipices and down canyonlets, in constant motion, rising and subsiding as the new-hatched sun warmed patches of the air the mist rode upon and the breezes wafted the veils.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

The Classical writer, Longinus, said that we enjoy the day-to-day things of our lives, but when it comes to awe, we get that only from the sublime. Hearth fires, he said, were nice, but erupting volcanoes make us consider a planet and cosmos larger than we are and well beyond our control. The sublime is beautiful, but it is also scary: It is the source of religious feeling.

You cannot avoid that at the Grand Canyon, with its stony layers of eons piled upon each other. The Canyon is a great wound in the Earth into which we can look and see its organs pulsating at a rate so slow as to make all of human history a mere blip on its EKG.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a clock. It has a big hand and a little hand.

The little hand moves very slowly, telling the time in geologic terms. To see the hand move, you must wait millions of years.

In that time, you would see continental oceans lay down sediments and tectonic forces push those layers upward, only to be eroded by a river, like a sand pile washed by a hose.Grand View Point, Grand Canyon NP Ariz

One stands at the rim now and looks back into the past, washed away eon by eon, stratum by stratum, until one’s eye stands on the Vishnu schist, the Precambrian footings of the Canyon.

You hardly can take in the vastness of it. It is an earthly reminder of eternity, that time beyond time that turns our lives into flyspecks.

But this geological clock has a fast-moving big hand, too. And it changes all 200 miles of the Canyon second by second. It can seem to the observer like time-lapse photography in real time as the sun jumps from the horizon and changes the shadowed blacks of the deep walls to a burning cherry ruddiness and on much too quickly to the weathered indigo blueness of noon.

Cycles and epicycles, wheels inside wheels, the turning of time on itself in all its speeds.

The first time I saw the Canyon, I got there before dawn. My wife and I had arrived late the previous night and wound up camping in the Kaibab National Forest outside the park. I set our alarm clock for 4 a.m., and when we got up, it was completely dark.

We drove to the overlook at Lipan Point, and I set up my camera in the blackness, out on a rocky ledge beyond the guardrail.

The tripod barely could find purchase on the narrow outcrop, and my wife warned me about taking chances, especially by the glow of a flashlight.

A little after 4, the horizon began to appear. It was July, but it was icy cold before the sun rose. The batteries of my light meter ceased to work in the cold.

Yet it was beginning to be possible, as the far edge of the Canyon contrasted with the blue-gray of the lightening sky, to focus my lens on the ground glass of the camera. And I saw there little more than that dividing line.

But down in the bottom of the Canyon, a mile below us, there was a snaky line of a reflecting light.

Dawn, Grand Canyon

It was the river, a white tube of neon cut off here and there by the mesas and buttes below us. At times, the rope of water actually seemed brighter than the sky.

I managed to take a two- or three-minute exposure of the nearly black landscape. The glow in the sky had begun to make some of the rock texture visible, but less so to the eye than to the camera.

Dawn, Grand Canyon NP Ariz 2

Moment by moment, the scene changed, a slow crescendo of light that began where the river disappeared in the northeast until the fire broke the horizon and the first sliver of sun appeared.

What is most surprising is the quickness of the change. If you were to take a photograph once a minute over the course of a day, you hardly would have two alike.

When the sun is on the horizon, you actually can see it move. And as it rose and sank its light deeper into the Canyon, what had been a charcoal mass of rock mazes became lighted at the top ends of the rocks, like the cherry end of a cigarette in the dawn.

You could see probably scores of miles down the Canyon to the west and see the angle of the sun on the edge of the rock.

Nothing is so like the Earth waking up.

Grand Canyon NP, with shadow

Looking toward the sun, the Canyon became a receding stage set of silhouettes, each lighter and grayer as it retreated toward the sunrise. Looking away from the sun, the rock faces became increasingly red, then orange, then brick, with layers of white and green thrown in.

The Grand Canyon is grandest in the dawn. Those willing to awaken early enough stare into the clock of the day playing on the stone and see their lives moving before them. If time is a stream, as Thoreau says, at the Grand Canyon you can see its rapids. The change continues all day. On most summer days, the midday hours are the least interesting. The hazy blueness of the distant rim seems steady from about 10 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. But if you stare with enough commitment, you can see the changes even then as the downward angle of the sunlight twists slowly from one side of the cliffs to the other.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

Later, when the sun’s angle lowers to day’s end, the changes accelerate once more, taking the rocks back from blue to red and into darkness.

There is no mistaking the Earth as a clock, turning with the sun as the hour marker, moving in orderly procession around the rim of the great circle we live on.

But the two clocks at the Canyon also remind of the conflicting realities of the place. On the one hand, the slow clock tells of the everlastingness of things, their physical endurance. On the other, how can you believe in reality if the same limestone that can be red at 8 a.m. can be blue by 9?

It reinforces your sense of rock-solid reality and undercuts your belief at the same time. To live in two times at once: This is the central message of all the world’s religions.

When people find spiritual meaning in the Canyon, perhaps it is these conflicting clocks more than anything else that create that sense. Certainly, the Canyon’s vast space is inspiring, but it is time that speaks of eternity and our place in it.

Snake infinityClick any image to enlarge

marigolds“Ooooh, language,” Stuart said. “It’s why I hate Plato.”

“Surely only one of the reasons,” I said. “Let’s not forget Plato was a fascist pig,” I said, only half jokingly. “But why ‘oooh, language.’?”Marble statue of  the ancient greek philosopher Plato

“I can’t blame only Plato for this, but most of us habitually think of the world in terms of nouns; we name things and believe we have described existence. Plato’s so-called ‘forms’ are little more than sanctified nouns, nouns privileged as ultimate reality. But truly, nouns are only resting places for things in motion, as if a snapshot could be more real than a movie.”

“I’ve been writing about that for years,” I said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve reiterated, ‘Nature is a verb.’ The Heracleitan flux rather than the Platonic stasis.”

“Yes, yes.” There was a tone of impatience in Stuart’s voice.

“I mean,” I continued, “that Plato would have us believe in an ideal  marigold, say, and any real flower can only approximate the ‘real’ one. But I say, the marigold is not a thing, but a process. Depending on where you start, it is a seed, a seedling, a sprout, a plant, a flower bud, a flower, a fruit that bursts into seeds, which fall and start the whole thing over. A verb.”

“And that doesn’t even task Plato with the question of whether an ideal marigold is a red one or a yellow one, or if there are separate ideal forms for red and yellow marigolds, or whether that is different from an ideal flower, or from an ideal plant, or ideal living thing: Where do you take your category from when positing these damnable ideals?”

“So, nouns are only place-holders, parking spots for verbs. Being Greek, Plato has in mind an ideal human being, which is, of course, male, and young, maybe 20 years old. But a man, like the marigold, is always on the move — an infant, a child, an adolescent, a youth, a grown man, a father, a middle-age man, an old man, a geezer, a corpse. We move through it all. Panta horein.”

“Let’s not forget women, too, with perhaps their own verbal cycle, parallel, but often diverging from the man’s.”

“And let’s also not forget,” I added, “that the hangover from Plato’s noun-based reality is the demotic Christian sense that when we get to heaven we’ll be our ‘ideal’ selves, not the decrepit senexes we have become before we die. Heaven is full of beautiful people, in their ideal perfection — which is defined, as Plato would have it, as ourselves when we were, say 20. Maybe 25.”

“This is all well and good,” Stuart said. “But I have a quibble.”

Stuart always had quibbles. This explained the earlier impatience. He wanted to get on to what he was really thinking about.

“The view of existence — metaphorically of course — as a verb is existence seen objectively, as if we were gods looking at the universe and seeing a vast process in motion. But if we were to look at the cosmos subjectively, from our individual points of view, then the essential word-form is the preposition. The preposition and the conjunction.”

Now I knew the trolley had arrived in Stuartville.

“These tiny words, barely noticed as they whiz by in a sentence, are the key words that describe our place in the universe, and our relation to it. They are the most important words. They create whole plots, whole novels in two or three letters. ‘By,’ ‘over,’ ‘near,’ ‘but,’ ‘and’ — they force us to create at least two nouns — they give birth to the nouns — and make us see those two nouns in a relationship, and what is more, they imply movement, or at least imply a temporal situation.

“In the beginning was the word, and that word was a preposition.

“The Greeks recognized that certain sentence formations had meaning in and of themselves. Like, ‘on the one hand, blah blah, but on the other hand, blah blah.’ or ‘He says blah, but his actions prove blah.’ The sentences can be filled in with various content, but the structure of the sentence carries its own meaning, a description of a part of reality.

“But I am saying that the same thing can be said for the simple ‘but.’ You don’t need the whole sentence. Just a ‘but.’

“It implies a stop sign; a motion forward, but a redirection. There you are, a point in the universe at motion, under the rule of inertia, unstopping unless another force is applied, and suddenly, ‘but,’ and that force is applied. The conjunction has cosmic meaning.

“You can say something similar about ‘and.’ There is something in the universe, and suddenly, there is something else. ‘And.’ point in motion

“The prepositions do the same. You are that point, with no defined volume, mass or blood — at this moment, completely undefined except for your beingness, your awareness, and then, you are driven ‘under,’ ‘around,’ or ‘through,’ and with the advent of the preposition, you have a relationship to that cosmos.”

“It all sounds very, well, cosmic.”

“Yes, it is. Or at least, it is like a thought experiment. You don’t need to have a dog or a truck or a marigold to have the relationship. It is inherent in the ‘if,’ ‘and’ or ‘but.’

“Which is why I say that the verb is a description of the objective, divinely- observed universe, but the conjunction and preposition are the same for a subjectively sensibility-observed universe.”

“But — and I use the word advisedly — you are an atheist.”



Goldsmith whales 1horizontal
“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.”

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. goldsmith fish 1What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

“You mean like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” I said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”goldsmith fish 2

“Of course, that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”goldsmith fish 3

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about carbon dioxide or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about. They had a peculiar relation to their language. They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”goldsmith fish 4

“Yes, I remember: Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.”

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” I said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is rife with such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or trickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”goldsmith fish 5

“My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

“Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water.”

“We still have the language problem,” I said. “We cannot always separate the language from the experience.”

“Certainly. But what do you mean?”goldsmith whales 2 horizontal

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”goldsmith crustaceous fish

“God, yes. I have a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, and he divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’ A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ goldsmith shells 1But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

Stuart got up and left the room, looking for his copy of the book. He came back with it and opened up to the chapter on fish.goldsmith fish 6

“This is one of my favorite passages,” he said. “ ‘Our philosophers hitherto, instead of studying their nature, have been employed in increasing their catalogues; and the reader, instead of observations of facts, is presented with a long list of names, that disgust him with their barren superfluity. It must displease him to see the language of a science increasing, while the science itself has nothing to repay the increasing tax laid upon his memory.’ ”

I took up the book and leafed through it. The illustrations were exceptional. I thought they might be worth showing off in borders of this discussion.

“I have another good example,” I said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those we kill by drones in the Middle East. So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”goldsmith fish 7

“It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century. Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”goldsmith fish 9

Stuart considered this a moment and then brought up his own.

“I would offer the belief in opposites and pairs. We think opposites exist, but it is really just a trick of language, enforced by habit. There is the lit end of the cigar and the end we draw smoke from, but there is really only one cigar. Hot and cold are thought of as opposites, but they are really only sliding marks on a single thermometer: Sunspots are ‘cold spots’ on the sun, but they are hotter than anything normally found on earth. Hot and cold, rather than being opposites, are relative.

“The corollary is that we think of many things that are not really opposites at all as fitting into the brain-slot we save for opposites.”

“Like salt and pepper,” I said. “Like chocolate and vanilla.”

“Exactamente. It is habit alone that gives us these pairs. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.”

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”goldsmith fish 8 horizonntal

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, we still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“And the internet is stuffed with ‘top 10’ lists. As if one movie were provably better than the number two choice. ‘Ten worst dressed politicians.’ ‘5 most influential bloggers.’ The scalar nature of these is another mental figment, a meme, that gets reproduced like DNA.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn. goldsmith shark horizontal

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

Genevieve called from the other room. “Dinner is ready, if I can cut through the chatter.”

What awaited us was a pork roast, crispy with a rind of fat across the top, Brussels sprouts in butter and a rice pilaf and salad.

“This is the real stuff,” she said. “It’s not words.”

Romeo and Juliet in frame
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“Maybe in literature, but not in real life,” I said.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck. But even if love doesn’t die, the lovers do.”

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” I put forward that possibility; I’ve been married 30 years.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other and eventually, both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.

“Romeo didn’t have to die the way he did,” Stuart went on, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart had never seen a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the accountants and dentists of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life — the sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that this is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” I made a sour face.

“But that is not the real issue,” Stuart said. “The real issue is the frame.”

“The frame?”

“Yes. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Every comedy ends in a marriage, it is said. The curtain drops and the audience goes home enjoying the happy ending.

“But, if we followed Beatrice and Benedick after the end of the play, in a few years, at least, there would be divorce — or more likely, murder. Happy endings are always provisional. So, there is an artificiality to comedies that is ineradicable. The happiest comedy, if drawn out to the uttermost, ends in dissolution.”Raphael

“So, you’re saying that the frame — the curtain — reveals any art as an artifice.”

“Yes. And not just in theater. Take the photographs of Garry Winogrand. We are meant to see the frame — the edge of the photograph — as an arbitrary border drawn around some episode, but beyond the frame, there are other people doing other things. This has become something of a trope in photography.

“It used to be that we understood the frame in a painting — say a Renaissance crucifixion, or a Madonna — as merely the point at which our interest in the visual matter evaporates. It is the Christ or Virgin that sits in the middle that is meant as an object of contemplation. A frame could be larger or smaller and still contain the essential action.Tintoretto, La crocifissione, Sala dell'albergo, Scuola di San R

“In Baroque painting, there is often the growing sense that the frame cannot contain the action, but that there is something worth knowing just beyond the edge. That sense has become central in certain strains of contemporary photography. winograndA photograph may contain an image of someone looking back at the camera, over the photographer’s shoulder, at something behind him that we can never see.

“The first kind of frame serves as a kind of fence, or corral in which the important information is contained. The second is more like a cookie cutter, which sticks into the welter of existence and excises this small bit for us to consider.

“That is the frame, the ‘beginning, middle and end’ that gives us such satisfaction in a play or opera.”

My concern at this point is that I could see that Stuart was unwinding his own life from the bobbin, and holding it out in his fingers to examine, and what he was finding was deflating. What set Stuart apart from most people was about to be undone. siegfried

I had known Stuart since college, and what made him glow from the inside was not just his energy — or jittery intelligence — but his sense that he was the star in his own movie. Or rather, that he saw in himself a larger, mythological version of himself playing out among the chess pieces of the universe. He was Siegfried voyaging down the Rhine; he was Odysseus; he was stout Cortez.

Don’t misunderstand, please. He was never grandiose — in his exterior behavior, he was as normal as you or me. But inside, was something larger, bursting to get out. He saw the world swirling the way Van Gogh did. For Stuart, every bush was the burning bush. Take away that internal furnace, and what would be left of Stuart? He would have grown up. Not something that any of us who knew him would wish for.van gogh

“This is the fundamental fallacy of American conservatism,” he went on, making another 90-degree turn.

“They seek to enforce a static vision of society, of law, of human behavior. They keep telling us, that if only we would do things their way, everything would finally be peach-hunky, into eternity — the happy ending that we know (and they don’t admit) is always provisional. They see a — excuse me for the exaggeration — ‘final solution’ for something that has no finality to it.

“Politics — real politics — is always the flux of contending interests. You want this, I want that, and we wind up compromising. Conservatives see compromise as surrender, precisely because they see politics with a frame. Get the picture right, and then it is done. Deficits are erased; the wealthy get to keep what is rightfully theirs; order is established. It is the underlying metaphor of all Shakespeare’s plays: The establishment of lasting, legitimate order, final harmony. stew

“Only, we know that after Fortinbras takes over, there will be insurgencies, dynastic plots, other invasions, a claim by mainland Danes over island-dwelling Danes, or questions of where tax money is going. It is never ending. Fortinbras is only a temporary way-station.

“Existence is a seething, roiling cauldron and sometimes this bit of onion and carrot comes to the surface, and sometimes it is something else. It is never finished, there is no frame, no beginning, middle and end.”

“So, where does this leave poor Juliet?”


“Yes, where does this leave us all, we who are all bits of carrot. We who are married for 30 years, we who entered the field of contention, worked for our required decades and left the battlefield to become Nestors — or Poloniuses. All this washes over us and we see that, in fact, we have a frame. Existence may not have one, but I do. I am getting old. 67th birthdayI just turned 67 and I feel it. And I know that my Juliet will die, or I will go before her. We do have, in fact, a frame, a curtain that draws down and leaves us — as Homer says — in darkness.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said, “and this is my point. Every one of us lives two very different lives. You can call them the external and internal lives. The first is the life in which we share the planet with 7 billion others. We are a tiny, insignificant cog in the giant machine. The second is the mythic life, the life we see ourselves as central to, in which we are the heroes of our own novels or movies, and everyone we know is a supporting actor. If we live only in the first life, we are crushed and spit out. But if we live only in the second life, we are solipsists. Sane people manage to balance the two lives. A beautiful counterpoint.

“We are most engulfed by that second life when we fall in love. We are certain that we invented this condition. No one else has ever felt what we feel. It’s comic, of course, but it is also profound. Without this feeling, life is unbearable. We have to have meaning, and meaning is created by how we imagine ourselves.

“Politics hovers oddly in the intersection of these two worlds. We need to sober up and consider the other 7 billion people if we are to create useful policy, but we mythologize those who lead us, and those who lead do so most effectively when they mirror back some version of mythology. The most extreme example I can think of is Nazism in Germany. A whole nation bought into the fantasy. Disaster follows.

“But all ideology is ultimately built on mythology: on a version of the world with one or two simple dimensions, when existence is multi-dimensional. The political myth is always a myth of Utopia, whether right-wing or left-wing. And it is always a static myth: Racism ends and everything is great, or government spending is curtailed and everything is great. That simply isn’t the way existence is.”

“The world is always bigger and more varied than our understanding of it, and it will always come back to whack us upside the haid.”

“Right. The conservative sees the world only with his ego eyes, not from outside himself. That frame — his death — is something he cannot see beyond. There is something egoistic about conservatism. Often selfish, also, but the selfishness isn’t the problem, it is the egoism — the frame they put around the world, the static sense of what is finally right — the so-called end of history. In this, the conservative — or at least the tin-foil-hat variety — is no different from the dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Both see the establishment of their Utopia as the endgame of human existence.” hubert robert

“You’ve been reading Ovid again.”

“How did you know?”

“The Pythagoras chapter.”

“Right again. Panta Horein, as Heraclitus said: ‘Everything is flowing.’ As Ovid has it, even landscapes change over time, and Hercules’ brawn withers and Helen’s breasts sag. Cities grow and are demolished; Mycenae gives way to Athens, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Byzantium and Baghdad, then to London and now to Washington, with Beijing waiting in the hopper. ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ “

“How’s that?”

In saecula saeculorum: World without frame.”