Sunday, March 11, 2007

Dealing with Doubts

"Once granted the first step, I can see that everything else follows -- Tower of Babel, Babylonian captivity, Incarnation, Church, bishops, incense, everything -- but what I couldn't see, and what I can't see now, is why did it all begin?" -- Mr. Pendergrast, in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall

Of course the answers to "why" are everywhere and anywhere. Mr. Pendergrast is a fool, as most characters in Waugh's novels are, with only the novelist not one. Waugh is reassuring in that way. Unlike other satirists, he gives us a nice us and them, and I say this not to belittle him in any way. It's a good thing to occasionally find some satire where the bad guys are stupid and the author isn't one of them and where the reader gets a chance to share the joke with the author, rather than being the butt of it. It's the sort of satire that has necessarily gone out of vogue.
(Pretty picture, isn't it? I took it. It's the sky in the year 2000.)

I'm reminded of... Oh, heck, that would be cheating.

No, I've changed my mind. I'm reminded of Job's answer from God: put on your big boots, when you ask questions like that. I'm reminded of a lot of other answers, too. The world exists to explain itself. 42. It exists to ask itself why. I like God's answer to Job better. God tells Job that he is part of the creation, that he is a character, not the narrator. Like Mr. Pendergrast, he is a fool, and only the creator of the world gets to be free of the taint of ignorance. Man might bite the apple from the Knowledge of Good from Evil, but that's not the same thing as the apple of planting the garden.

Knowing good from evil is a deadly knowledge, for it means participation in good and evil. Before such knowledge, there is no evil. After such knowledge, evil is within you. Once there is evil, there is decay and death. What, then, is the stem of knowing why? What is it to know why a world is created, except participation in creation and therefore in negation. In other words, if Job could know why he was born, he could know fully how he could be not made.

I don't want to be gnomic, or a hippie, but to know something is to enclose it, to have it both in its positive and negative. To know a hamburger is to know the state before eating it, during eating it, and after eating it. (I say this because a hamburger is not an object, but a food, and a food is only eaten.) To know good and evil means knowing both the good and the evil, having them both within one's mind, having the action of obedience to God and disobedience to God. (Thus, picking the apple and eating the apple made the swallowing of the apple irrelevant. Once they had done the first bit, they knew good and evil. Note that they knew it without the expulsion from Eden. Evil has nothing to do with punishment or even suffering.)

So, Mr. Pendergrast wants to know why the universe was created. He doesn't want to know why it is the way it is -- figures that all makes sense once it gets created -- but what could make the creator go to the trouble. Other people have puzzled that one, too. Plato figures that God would be far too contented to move. The Stoics need randomness. Even pure empiricists need a something of unknown quality to trigger a boom. Well, don't look to me to answer the question, because I have only the vaguest guesses.

What does occur to me, though, is that the character can never know her own non-iteration. A piece of the machine can never see the machine it is in. It cannot hold within its mind the lack of a system. I cannot see beyond my horizon, for my horizon always moves with me.

I just saw Stranger than Fiction, and I rather enjoyed it. It was a bauble, but it was a very pleasant and well constructed one in all respects, and I even tolerated that dreadful comic in the starring role. However, the person inside the grid never knows who drew the lines.

You can't know your narrator. You can't know your genre. You can't know why the world was created. You can't trust any answer you get about these things. I would argue that you cannot even be sure if you were to get knowledge through revelation. The process of understanding what you were told would transmute the message into something comprehensible, and comprehensible means cut to measure to fit the world you inhabit.

The moral of this story? Well, it could be awfully nihilistic or irresponsible, but I don't think it should be. One thing clear is that we are creative creatures, narrators, tellers of all sorts. Furthermore, we are molested day and night by responsibility for the stories we tell and over the creatures we make. Do they fit well with the stories of others? Do they mesh with the stories that made us? Do they fit with what we can tell of the grand story? Nothing can allay that worry, and nothing should.

We have no knowledge of telling and not telling. To suggest that that gives us an excuse to just live our lives without regard for the shape of the story is logically inconsistent. We could only "go about our business" if we knew that such was part of the story, and the fact is that we don't. We don't know either way, and therefore we cannot take comfort in our ignorance. It wouldn't even be a question, except that we keep telling stories ourselves. We are compulsive. This is not a good or bad thing, but simply the function of us as characters. We are compulsive in fretting, and this, too, is neither good nor bad. We do go about our business when we anxiously look to the skies and wonder whether or not we're starring in the play because by doing that we reflexively tell a story.

No comments: