Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nature Hides Itself

My life has been an attempt to understand how the following two sayings of Hermann Hesse can both be true without contradiction:

The hardest road to follow is the one that leads to oneself

It is good to know that within us is someone who knows everything.

The first saying indicates how arduous the road to self-discovery is: we can turn our eye to the outside world with little problem but when we turn inward we find nothing but false ideals and projections. The second saying encourages us by maintaining that there is indeed a True Self that lies behind the appearances, one who initiates the entire process and will be revealed at its end. This is the paradox that is my life: I am the self that sees through a glass darkly, but also the self that sees face to face. But perhaps I am blinded to the truth that these selves are actually one and the same?

I read some Thoreau the other day and recalled the times I used to go to the woods in order to “front the essential facts of life.” I remember my attempt to follow in Thoreau’s wake when I was in college; I was determined to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Many sufferings later I now wonder whether this was a juvenile attempt to escape from reality or whether it represents the genuine wisdom of youthful aspiration. Goethe once said, “it is a mistake to think that because we get older we get wiser.” Perhaps there are insights that I have lost after experiencing “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune?” But more likely I have traded certain insights for others. A dolphin’s perception is neither better nor worse than our own, and perhaps much the same can be said for the Romanticism of youth.

One wonders why the mistakes one makes in life have to be so often full of happiness. I recall the blissful week lying in the arms of a nineteen year-old with a body like a swan and a mind like a computer. I can remember looking into her innocent blue eyes and not feeling anything but a total and complete sense of the rightness of the cosmos. Everything is just as it is, nor can it become something it is not. At that moment the law of non-contradiction ruled the universe, and who was I to alter an unalterable law? But the pleasure was purchased at the expense of future pain, and can anything like that truly be called good? Does karma condemn us to an eternal balance of rights and wrongs or does it work towards an ultimate escape from the cycle of punishment? Eventually we will know, one might think. But that too can be called into question.

For Heraclitus “Nature hides itself,” and how much is this true for human nature as well. Maybe we are merely too primitive to understand ourselves and nature will correct our blindness through future evolution. On the other hand it may be intrinsic to our condition: like the eye that tries to see itself, we are condemned to see only a reflection, a perspective like one of the many possible shapes in a Cubist painting. The truth is out there, Mulder says to his skeptical colleague Skully, trying to convince her of the existence of extra-terrestrials, and though she disagrees, she must affirm his motto since she is a woman of science. But any philosopher will now tell you that the notion of truth itself is on shaky ground. This was already pointed out years ago by that pre-postmodernist Pontius Pilate who asked Jesus “What is truth?” then promptly walked away, as if to signal that there can be no answer to this interminable question. But this raises another question: is truth the ultimate seduction, or is it that which will truly set us free? And are you a saint if you choose one answer and a reprobate if you choose the other? Of course posing the question this way presupposes that there is a truth.

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