What Do We See When We Don’t Know What We’re Looking At?


What is it, that is the world, after the Twin Towers disintegrate? What, if anything, is left standing? What dread beast rises from the ruins when the invisible pillars supporting the world’s financial system tremble and fall? What do we see when we are swept up in the fire and drama of a National Socialist rally, or cower, paralyzed with fear, in the midst of a massacre in Rwanda? What is it that we see, when we cannot understand what is happening to us, cannot determine where we are, know no longer who we are, and no longer understand what surrounds us? What we don’t see is the well‑known and comforting world of tools–of useful objects–of personalities. We don’t even see familiar obstacles–sufficiently troubling though they are in normal times, already mastered–that we can simply step around.

What we perceive, when things fall apart, is no longer the stage and settings of habitable order. It’s the eternal watery tohu va bohu , formless emptiness, and the tehom , the abyss, to speak biblically–the chaos forever lurking beneath our thin surfaces of security. It’s from that chaos that the Holy Word of God Himself extracted order at the beginning of time, according to the oldest opinions expressed by mankind (and it is in the image of that same Word that we were made, male and female, according to the same opinions). It’s from that chaos that whatever stability we had the good fortune to experience emerged, originally–for some limited time–when we first learned to perceive. It’s chaos that we see, when things fall apart (even though we cannot truly see it). What does all this mean?

Emergency–emergence(y). This is the sudden manifestation from somewhere unknown of some previously unknown phenomenon (from the Greek phainesthai , to “shine forth”). This is the reappearance of the eternal dragon, from its eternal cavern, from its now‑disrupted slumber. This is the underworld, with its monsters rising from the depths. How do we prepare for an emergency, when we do not know what has emerged, or from where? How do we prepare for catastrophe, when we do not know what to expect, or how to act? We turn from our minds, so to speak–too slow, too ponderous–to our bodies. Our bodies react much faster than our minds.

When things collapse around us our perception disappears, and we act. Ancient reflexive responses, rendered automatic and efficient over hundreds of millions of years, protect us in those dire moments when not only thought but perception itself fails. Under such circumstances, our bodies ready themselves for all possible eventualities.[175] First, we freeze. The reflexes of the body then shade into emotion, the next stage of perception. Is this something scary? Something useful? Something that must be fought? Something that can be ignored? How will we determine this–and when? We don’t know. Now we are in a costly and demanding state of readiness. Our bodies are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. Our hearts beat faster. Our breath quickens. We realize, painfully, that our sense of competence and completeness is gone; it was just a dream. We draw on physical and psychological resources saved carefully for just this moment (if we are fortunate enough to have them). We prepare for the worst–or the best. We push the gas pedal furiously to the floor, and slam on the brakes at the same time. We scream, or laugh. We look disgusted, or terrified. We cry. And then we begin to parse apart the chaos.

And so, the deceived wife, increasingly unhinged, feels the motivation to reveal all–to herself, her sister, her best friend, to a stranger on a bus–or retreats into silence, and ruminates obsessively, to the same end. What went wrong? What did she do that was so unforgivable? Who is this person she has been living with? What kind of world is this, where such things can happen? What kind of God would make such a place? What conversation could she possibly initiate with this new, infuriating person, inhabiting the shell of her former husband? What forms of revenge might satisfy her anger? Who could she seduce, in return for this insult? She is by turns enraged, terrified, struck down by pain, and exhilarated by the possibilities of her new‑found freedom.

Her last place of bedrock security was in fact not stable, not certain–not bedrock at all. Her house was built on a foundation of sand. The ice she was skating on was simply too thin. She fell through, into the water below, and is drowning. She has been hit so hard that her anger, terror and grief consume her. Her sense of betrayal widens, until the whole world caves in. Where is she? In the underworld, with all its terrors. How did she get there? This experience, this voyage into the substructure of things–this is all perception, too, in its nascent form; this preparation; this consideration of what‑might‑have‑been and what‑could‑still‑be; this emotion and fantasy. This is all the deep perception now necessary before the familiar objects that she once knew reappear, if they ever do, in their simplified and comfortable form. This is perception before the chaos of possibility is re‑articulated into the functional realities of order.

“Was it really so unexpected?” she asks herself–she asks others–thinking back. Should she now feel guilty about ignoring the warning signs, subtle though they may have been, encouraged though she was to avoid them? She remembers when she first married, eagerly joining her husband, every single night, to make love. Perhaps that was too much to expect–or even too much to cope with–but once, in the last six months? Once every two or three months, for years, before that? Would anyone she could truly respect–including herself–put up with such a situation?

There is a story for children, There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon , by Jack Kent, that I really like. It’s a very simple tale, at least on the surface. I once read its few pages to a group of retired University of Toronto alumni, and explained its symbolic meaning.[176] It’s about a small boy, Billy Bixbee, who spies a dragon sitting on his bed one morning. It’s about the size of a house cat, and friendly. He tells his mother about it, but she tells him that there’s no such thing as a dragon. So, it starts to grow. It eats all of Billy’s pancakes. Soon it fills the whole house. Mom tries to vacuum, but she has to go in and out of the house through the windows because of the dragon everywhere. It takes her forever. Then, the dragon runs off with the house. Billy’s dad comes home–and there’s just an empty space, where he used to live. The mailman tells him where the house went. He chases after it, climbs up the dragon’s head and neck (now sprawling out into the street) and rejoins his wife and son. Mom still insists that the dragon does not exist, but Billy, who’s pretty much had it by now, insists, “There is a dragon, Mom.” Instantly, it starts to shrink. Soon, it’s cat‑sized again. Everyone agrees that dragons of that size (1) exist and (2) are much preferable to their gigantic counterparts. Mom, eyes reluctantly opened by this point, asks somewhat plaintively why it had to get so big. Billy quietly suggests: “maybe it wanted to be noticed.”

Maybe! That’s the moral of many, many stories. Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. But no one says anything, as the shared society and negotiated order of the household reveals itself as inadequate, or disintegrates, in the face of the unexpected and threatening. Everybody whistles in the dark, instead. Communication would require admission of terrible emotions: resentment, terror, loneliness, despair, jealousy, frustration, hatred, boredom. Moment by moment, it’s easier to keep the peace. But in the background, in Billy Bixbee’s house, and in all that are like it, the dragon grows. One day it bursts forth, in a form that no one can ignore. It lifts the very household from its foundations. Then it’s an affair, or a decades‑long custody dispute of ruinous economic and psychological proportions. Then it’s the concentrated version of the acrimony that could have been spread out, tolerably, issue by issue, over the years of the pseudo‑paradise of the marriage. Every one of the three hundred thousand unrevealed issues, which have been lied about, avoided, rationalized away, hidden like an army of skeletons in some great horrific closet, bursts forth like Noah’s flood, drowning everything. There’s no ark, because no one built one, even though everyone felt the storm gathering.

Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.

Maybe the demolished couple could have had a conversation, or two, or two hundred, about their sex lives. Maybe the physical intimacy they undoubtedly shared should have been matched, as it often is not, by a corresponding psychological intimacy . Maybe they could have fought through their roles. In many households, in recent decades, the traditional household division of labour has been demolished, not least in the name of liberation and freedom. That demolition, however, has not left so much glorious lack of restriction in its wake as chaos, conflict and indeterminacy. The escape from tyranny is often followed not by Paradise, but by a sojourn in the desert, aimless, confused and deprived. Furthermore, in the absence of agreed‑upon tradition (and the constraints–often uncomfortable; often even unreasonable–that it imposes) there exist only three difficult options: slavery, tyranny or negotiation. The slave merely does what he or she is told–happy, perhaps, to shed the responsibility–and solves the problem of complexity in that manner. But it’s a temporary solution. The spirit of the slave rebels. The tyrant merely tells the slave what to do, and solves the problem of complexity in that manner. But it’s a temporary solution. The tyrant tires of the slave. There’s nothing and no one there, except for predictable and sullen obedience. Who can live forever with that? But negotiation–that requires forthright admission on the part of both players that the dragon exists. That’s a reality difficult to face, even when it’s still too small to simply devour the knight who dares confront it.

Maybe the demolished couple could have more precisely specified their desired manner of Being. Maybe in that manner they could have jointly prevented the waters of chaos from springing uncontrollably forth and drowning them. Maybe they could have done that instead of saying, in the agreeable, lazy and cowardly way: “It’s OK. It’s not worth fighting about.” There is little, in a marriage, that is so little that it is not worth fighting about. You’re stuck in a marriage like the two proverbial cats in a barrel, bound by the oath that lasts in theory until one or both of you die. That oath is there to make you take the damn situation seriously. Do you really want the same petty annoyance tormenting you every single day of your marriage, for the decades of its existence?

“Oh, I can put up with it,” you think. And maybe you should. You’re no paragon of genuine tolerance. And maybe if you brought up how your partner’s giddy laugh is beginning to sound like nails on a blackboard he (or she) would tell you, quite properly, to go to hell. And maybe the fault is with you, and you should grow up, get yourself together and keep quiet. But perhaps braying like a donkey in the midst of a social gathering is not reflecting well on your partner, and you should stick to your guns. Under such circumstances, there is nothing but a fight–a fight with peace as the goal–that will reveal the truth. But you remain silent, and you convince yourself it’s because you are a good, peace‑loving, patient person (and nothing could be further from the truth). And the monster under the rug gains a few more pounds.

Maybe a forthright conversation about sexual dissatisfaction might have been the proverbial stitch in time–not that it would be easy. Perhaps madame desired the death of intimacy, clandestinely, because she was deeply and secretly ambivalent about sex. God knows there’s reason to be. Perhaps monsieur was a terrible, selfish lover. Maybe they both were. Sorting that out is worth a fight, isn’t it? That’s a big part of life, isn’t it? Perhaps addressing that and (you never know) solving the problem would be worth two months of pure misery just telling each other the truth (not with intent to destroy, or attain victory, because that’s not the truth: that’s just all‑out war).

Maybe it wasn’t sex. Maybe every conversation between husband and wife had deteriorated into boring routine, as no shared adventure animated the couple. Maybe that deterioration was easier, moment by moment, day by day, than bearing the responsibility of keeping the relationship alive. Living things die, after all, without attention. Life is indistinguishable from effortful maintenance. No one finds a match so perfect that the need for continued attention and work vanishes (and, besides, if you found the perfect person, he or she would run away from ever‑so‑imperfect you in justifiable horror). In truth, what you need–what you deserve, after all–is someone exactly as imperfect as you.

Maybe the husband who betrayed his wife was appallingly immature and selfish. Maybe that selfishness got the upper hand. Maybe she did not oppose this tendency with enough force and vigour. Maybe she could not agree with him on the proper disciplinary approach to the children, and shut him out of their lives, in consequence. Maybe that allowed him to circumvent what he saw as an unpleasant responsibility. Maybe hatred brewed in the hearts of the children, watching this underground battle, punished by the resentment of their mother and alienated, bit by bit, from good old Dad. Maybe the dinners she prepared for him–or he for her–were cold and bitterly eaten. Maybe all that unaddressed conflict left both resentful, in a manner unspoken, but effectively enacted. Maybe all that unspoken trouble started to undermine the invisible networks that supported the marriage. Maybe respect slowly turned into contempt, and no one deigned to notice. Maybe love slowly turned into hate, without mention.

Everything clarified and articulated becomes visible; maybe neither wife nor husband wished to see or understand. Maybe they left things purposefully in the fog. Maybe they generated the fog, to hide what they did not want to see. What did missus gain, when she turned from mistress to maid or mother? Was it a relief when her sex life disappeared? Could she complain more profitably to the neighbours and her mother when her husband turned away? Maybe that was more gratifying, secretly, than anything good that could be derived from any marriage, no matter how perfect. What can possibly compare to the pleasures of sophisticated and well‑practised martyrdom? “She’s such a saint, and married to such a terrible man. She deserved much better.” That’s a gratifying myth to live by, even if unconsciously chosen (the truth of the situation be damned). Maybe she never really liked her husband. Maybe she never really liked men, and still doesn’t. Maybe that was her mother’s fault–or her grandmother’s. Maybe she mimicked their behaviour, acting out their trouble, transmitted unconsciously, implicitly, down the generations. Maybe she was taking revenge on her father, or her brother, or society.

What did her husband gain, for his part, when his sex life at home died? Did he willingly play along, as martyr, and complain bitterly to his friends? Did he use it as the excuse he wanted anyway to search for a new lover? Did he use it to justify the resentment he still felt towards women, in general, for the rejections he had faced so continuously before falling into his marriage? Did he seize the opportunity to get effortlessly fat and lazy because he wasn’t desired, in any case?

Maybe both, wife and husband alike, used the opportunity to mess up their marriage to take revenge upon God (perhaps the one Being who could have sorted through the mess).

Here’s the terrible truth about such matters: every single voluntarily unprocessed and uncomprehended and ignored reason for marital failure will compound and conspire and will then plague that betrayed and self‑betrayed woman for the rest of her life. The same goes for her husband. All she–he–they–or we–must do to ensure such an outcome is nothing : don’t notice, don’t react, don’t attend, don’t discuss, don’t consider, don’t work for peace, don’t take responsibility . Don’t confront the chaos and turn it into order–just wait, anything but naïve and innocent, for the chaos to rise up and engulf you instead.

Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future? Because the possibility of a monster lurks underneath all disagreements and errors. Maybe the fight you are having (or not having) with your wife or your husband signifies the beginning of the end of your relationship. Maybe your relationship is ending because you are a bad person . It’s likely, at least in part. Isn’t it? Having the argument necessary to solve a real problem therefore necessitates willingness to confront two forms of miserable and dangerous potential simultaneously: chaos (the potential fragility of the relationship–of all relationships–of life itself) and Hell (the fact that you–and your partner–could each be the person bad enough to ruin everything with your laziness and spite). There’s every motivation to avoid. But it doesn’t help.

Why remain vague, when it renders life stagnant and murky? Well, if you don’t know who you are, you can hide in doubt. Maybe you’re not a bad, careless, worthless person. Who knows? Not you. Particularly if you refuse to think about it–and you have every reason not to. But not thinking about something you don’t want to know about doesn’t make it go away. You are merely trading specific, particular, pointed knowledge of the likely finite list of your real faults and flaws for a much longer list of undefined potential inadequacies and insufficiencies.

Why refuse to investigate, when knowledge of reality enables mastery of reality (and if not mastery, at least the stature of an honest amateur)? Well, what if there truly is something rotten in the state of Denmark? Then what? Isn’t it better under such conditions to live in willful blindness and enjoy the bliss of ignorance? Well, not if the monster is real! Do you truly think it is a good idea to retreat, to abandon the possibility of arming yourself against the rising sea of troubles, and to thereby diminish yourself in your own eyes? Do you truly think it wise to let the catastrophe grow in the shadows, while you shrink and decrease and become ever more afraid? Isn’t it better to prepare, to sharpen your sword, to peer into the darkness, and then to beard the lion in its den? Maybe you’ll get hurt. Probably you’ll get hurt. Life, after all, is suffering. But maybe the wound won’t be fatal.

If you wait instead until what you are refusing to investigate comes a‑knocking at your door, things will certainly not go so well for you. What you least want will inevitably happen–and when you are least prepared. What you least want to encounter will make itself manifest when you are weakest and it is strongest. And you will be defeated.


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood‑dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.[177]


William Butler Yeats

Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because to specify the problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, say, from friend or lover–and then you will know, precisely and cleanly, when you don’t get it, and that will hurt, sharply and specifically. But you will learn something from that, and use what you learn in the future–and the alternative to that single sharp pain is the dull ache of continued hopelessness and vague failure and the sense that time, precious time, is slipping by.

Why refuse to specify? Because while you are failing to define success (and thereby rendering it impossible) you are also refusing to define failure, to yourself, so that if and when you fail you won’t notice, and it won’t hurt. But that won’t work! You cannot be fooled so easily–unless you have gone very far down the road! You will instead carry with you a continual sense of disappointment in your own Being and the self‑contempt that comes along with that and the increasing hatred for the world that all of that generates (or degenerates).


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


What if she who has been betrayed, now driven by desperation, is now determined to face all the incoherence of past, present and future? What if she decided to sort through the mess, even though she has avoided doing so until now, and is all the weaker and more confused for it? Perhaps the effort will nearly kill her (but she is now on a path worse than death in any case). To re‑emerge, to escape, to be reborn, she must thoughtfully articulate the reality she comfortably but dangerously left hidden behind a veil of ignorance and the pretence of peace. She must separate the particular details of her specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of Being, in a world where everything has fallen apart. Everything–that’s far too much. It was specific things that fell apart, not everything; identifiable beliefs failed; particular actions were false and inauthentic. What were they? How can they be fixed, now? How can she be better, in the future? She will never return to dry land if she refuses or is unable to figure it all out. She can put the world back together by some precision of thought, some precision of speech, some reliance on her word, some reliance on the Word. But perhaps it’s better to leave things in the fog. Perhaps by now there just isn’t enough left of her–perhaps too much of her has been left unrevealed, undeveloped. Maybe she simply no longer has the energy.…

Some earlier care and courage and honesty in expression might have saved her from all this trouble. What if she had communicated her unhappiness with the decline of her romantic life, right when it started to decline? Precisely, exactly, when that decline first bothered her? Or, if it didn’t bother her–what if she had instead communicated the fact it didn’t bother her as much as it perhaps should have? What if she had clearly and carefully confronted the fact of our husband’s contempt for her household efforts? Would she have discovered her resentment of her father and society itself (and the consequent contamination of her relationships)? What if she had fixed all that? How much stronger would she then have become? How much less likely to avoid facing up to difficulties, in consequence? How might she then have served herself, her family, and the world?

What if she had continually and honestly risked conflict in the present, in the service of longer‑term truth and peace? What if she had treated the micro‑collapses of her marriage as evidence of an underlying instability, eminently worthy of attention, instead of ignoring them, putting up with them, or smiling through them, in such a nice, agreeable manner? Maybe she would be different, and her husband, different too. Maybe they would still be married, formally and in spirit. Maybe they would both be much younger, physically and mentally, than they are now. Maybe her house would have been founded more on rock and less on sand.

When things fall apart, and chaos re‑emerges, we can give structure to it, and re‑establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it–often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.


Дата: 2018-09-13, просмотров: 17.