Monday, 21 June 2010

In Pieces

A young woman discovers the beautiful Uncle Gabriel of family lore is a drunken, ugly failure, who has ruined the life of his second wife; a terrible shrew. While his great love, her Aunt Amy, who died young and who he cannot give up, may have been a cynical flirt. She has lived in world of fairy stories and legends!

This is her reaction.

She did not want anymore ties with this house, she was going to leave it, and she was not going back to her husband’s family either. She would have no more bonds that smothered her in love and hatred. She knew now why she had run away to marriage, and she knew that she was going to run away from marriage, and she was not going to stay in any place, with anyone, that threatened to forbid her making her own discoveries, that said ‘No’ to her. She hoped no one had taken her old room, she would like to sleep there once more, she would say goodbye there where she had loved sleeping once, sleeping and waking and waiting to be grown, to begin to live. Oh, what is life, she asked herself in desperate seriousness, in those childish unanswerable words, and what shall I do with it? It is something of my own, she thought in a fury of jealous possessiveness, what shall I make of it? She did not know that she asked herself this because all her earliest training had argued that life was a substance, a material to be used, it took shapes and direction and meaning only as the possessor guided and worked it; living was a progress of continuous and varied acts of the will directed towards a definite end. She had been assured that there were good and evil ends, one must make a choice. But was good, and what was evil? I hate love, she thought, as if this were the answer, I hate loving and being loved, I hate it. And her disturbed and seething mind received a shock of comfort from this sudden collapse of an old painful structure of distorted images and misconceptions. ‘You don’t know anything about it,’ said Miranda to herself, with extraordinary clearness as if she were an elder admonishing some younger misguided creature. ‘You have to find out about it.’ But nothing in her prompted her to decide, ‘I will now do this, I will be that, I will go yonder, I will take a certain road to a certain end.’ There are questions to be asked first, she thought, but who will answer them? No one, or there will be too many answers, none of them right. What is the truth, she asked herself as intently as if the question had never been asked, the truth, even about the smallest, the least important of all the things I must find out? and where shall I begin to look for it? Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past the legend of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic-lantern show. Ah, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t’ want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself. I can’t live in their world any longer, she told herself, listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on explain how things happened. I don’t’ care. At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance. (Old Mortality)

Katherine Anne Porter captures that urge to escape, that desperate need to get away from the pain of shattered illusions; to run from the soiled sheets of family lies (all inside the mind, of course, but we project them onto objects and close relations). You can feel it in the play of her desperate seriousness. How she spins back and fore! Back to the childhood, the time of illusion and her future hopes of freedom, to now, when that past world has failed her. She must escape! But her route seems to lie along the wrong path – is it really love that is the problem? Of course not! But is a broken love story that has precipitated the crisis, and the crisis is thus understood in those limited terms. We know what the answer is, but are trapped by our associations; the present moment and its fixed ideas!

Why do we feel such pain over a broken worldview – after all its only ideas and images… why is it so important to have a coherent viewpoint, which we must believe in? Hume, in the midst of his scepticism, found it almost too much – he needed to return to the solidity of good company and non-reflection.

The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I turn? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who any influence on me? I am confounded with all questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv’d of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras, I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, am merry with my friends…

Interestingly Hume calls these latter thoughts, the sentiments of my spleen and indolence.

Earlier he had written:

I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange and uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandoned and disconsolate.

Compare with Miranda, and her feelings of being cast out and alone. The difference between the two is that Miranda thinks she can find the truth; that she can do it on her own, that her reason will save her from despair. For Hume, his despair originates in his reason, or more precisely, the intense questioning of his philosophical scepticism, and his conclusion that no solid ground underpins our rationality. In other words, his crisis too arises from the ruins of his conceptual world, his magic-lantern show; only his solution is different.


Is it that the doubt, and the shock of discovery (that we were misled), makes the mind too active, too self-conscious? When full of this doubt must we rely more than usual on our rationality, on the rational workings of the mind, which then takes us over (heated my brain)? Note how Hume replaces all the things he would usually take for granted by questions. He replaces custom and habit with concepts and ideas, which turn out to be highly unstable; if not meaningless (no opinion even as more probable or likely than another). For Hume showed that reason cannot ground itself – it relies on our senses, and our passions (really a mystery we don’t yet understand). In the depths of the most intense doubt the mind leaves the body behind (thus Hume’s wish to return to the lively impression of my senses), and pays the penalty in uncontrolled questioning and activity. Do we need the body to tame the mind? and a stable worldview, does it facilitate this?

She finds her away again. But in that moment of confusion the author reminds us that her way of looking at the world, the very questions she asks, is shaped by that world – she is trapped, and she does not know it. For she will know the truth! Though it may be only the lies, the magic-lantern shows, that she is destined to uncover and destroy. To find the truth, to know oneself: how very difficult! especially when our understanding is created by the very thing we want to escape – thus her hopefulness, her ignorance.

Miranda sounds like Descartes. His starting point was how can I know the truth? Having witnessed a number of different societies, with their strange and conflicting beliefs, he wanted to determine what was false, and what was true; what was merely the detritus of a culture, and what could we know to be solid and certain. Thus his deep scepticism, and the foundation of his belief that the only certain starting point was the fact that we think: I think therefore I am.

Ernest Gellner has described Descartes as Robinson Crusoe, and connects his thought to the newly emerging scientific and commercial society; with the mindset of the new merchant class.

A young, poorly educated woman the equal of the great philosopher, who started a cognitive revolution? The question answers itself. No, what Katherine Anne Porter shows is how pervasive is the conflict between the individual and her community, and the doubts that it creates. She shows what once was revolutionary is now an everyday occurrence. That each generation will confront the beliefs of its forebears – and the solid picture of one generation crumbles in the hands of another. We create our castles, for we need stability, we need conceptual security, but industry and science, with their endless need for innovation and cognitive growth, will constantly undermine them; will show they are built on mud and water. This is our world now.

Ah, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t’ want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself. I can’t live in their world any longer

Let anything be hard and rational – give us just facts and logic – and let me control my world. Miranda has internalised the values of the modern scientific society, of the machine. But can you live life like that? The author has the last word: ignorance.

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