By Brian George
“Coming into this particular body, and being born of these particular parents, and in such a place, and in general what we call external circumstances; that all happenings form a unity and are spun together is signified by the Fates (Moirai).” —Plotinus, II.3.15
Is human meaning something that can be objectively established, like the structure of a molecule or a natural law? Or is the sense of meaning closer to a physical sensation, the perception of a self-evident truth, a preexistent certainty, an ontological connection to the primal core of our natures?
Recently I helped to lead a discussion on Thomas Nagel's “A View from Nowhere”—a text that looks at the problem of human meaning in relation to the subjective and objective modes of understanding. One idea caught the imagination of the group, and was repeated in various forms throughout the morning. The idea was: that we are specks of dust on a tiny planet that orbits an obscure sun in an infinitely vast cosmos. Therefore human life has no significance whatsoever.
I was a bit disappointed. This was, after all, a group of artists, who should have been militant in their defense of the importance of subconscious symbols. How could you trust your own creative process if you did not believe that your subjectivity had any right to exist?
There is a song from the 1970s that is often played—inexplicably—at weddings. Its refrain goes, “Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind” While I confess to liking this rock anthem by Kansas, it has been 30 years since I last regarded the concept as profound.
Sipping milk from a glass, I would lie awake at 3 AM. My alarm clock would tick. Its minute hand would move. Shadows thrown by headlights would twist branches across the ceiling. My intellect would soar to the heights and depths of space—only to realize that the self did not exist. Vertigo would then take over.
My head was empty—like a manikin's. I experienced the silence that would one day supersede the accident of our biology. Hormones fueled the experiment in tumescent nonexistence. Annihilation was more intimate than sex. The cold touch of the inanimate transformed me. These experiences of the void were, in their own way, true. My mistake was the all too common one—to confuse spatial extent with philosophical depth.
(Illustration: Alberto Savinio)