By Brian George
As puzzled as I was by the near consensus among young artists in the discussion group, I was more puzzled by the attitude of Nagel, a rigorous thinker, who appeared to take the “speck of dust in space” idea quite seriously. Was I missing something? His own understanding of the idea was of course far more sophisticated—more finely tuned in language and more rooted in historical context—than that of the young artists. He was careful to emphasize the equal importance of subjective and objective modes; subjectivity was, after all, one part of the objective world. It was fully real.
By employing the method of “dual vision,” Nagel attempted to locate meaning in the play of contradiction. Were he successful in this ambition—and able to remain in a state of “negative capability”—I would have been pleased to follow where he led. I found, however, that he gave far more credibility to the demands of the objective mode.
Nagel writes, “Objectivity is not content to remain a servant of the individual perspective and its values. It has a life of its own and an aspiration for transcendence that will not be quieted in response to the call to resume our true identity.” He does not grant that subjective consciousness is allowed to pursue any such aspiration for transcendence. Its significance is purely local. The astounding event of consciousness has no large-scale implications.
Choice of imagery betrays the unconscious attitude of the author. “Playing in a Little League baseball game, making pancakes, or applying a coat of nail polish are perfectly good things to do.” In tests, the objective mode is preferred by two out of three mature adults. Without knowledge of the self, however, there can be no true detachment.
If we say that understanding of the meaning of our life is a purely subjective phenomenon, something that each person must determine for himself, by his own inexact and yet pragmatic methods, does this imply that our experience of this meaning is in some way insubstantial?
Subject and object are the two sides of one inexpressible symbol. Although the self exists at an angle to the world—i.e., it is in it, but not fully of if—what is true of one should not be less true of the other. The self, like a heat signature, fades into the fog. It cannot look too directly at the world from which it comes. A wave carries the other off. External structures are themselves more insubstantial than they seem. A promethean technocracy floats on the pregnant waters of illusion. It could be, however, that this apparent lack of substance is due to our use of the inappropriate tool.
“When I think about modern art I reach for my revolver,” said Mussolini, the defender of heroic nudism. “Stark violence is the sire of all the world’s values,” wrote Robinson Jeffers, whose weapon was the pen. An experience of the “telos” can be killed, but never forced.
For the breaking of eggs a revolution is perhaps too large a hammer. The occult instrument that can crack the cosmic egg leaves little or no direct evidence behind. As is specified in the code, the true seer is not permitted to communicate. He does not speak, but rather shows by a sign—as Heraclitus said—whereas the ignorant cannot be tempted to shut up. The big stick of the WTO creates order (of a kind) as it empties out all meaning from past cultures. The key of fractal chaos can be slid into the locks of most self-organizing systems, thus opening them for use, but such systems do not automatically connect each soul to his/her origins.
Eugenics cannot determine why the statue of the Archaic Greek warrior smiles, despite his wounds, as though he were in possession of some secret, and laughed inwardly at a joke too subtle for his descendants. An early cosmonaut once boasted that god was nowhere to be found in outer space; his nosecone had established proof of death. GPS cannot be used to track the imagination of the artist behind the animals at Lascaux.
Lamp in hand, Diogenes wanders back and forth through the city. It is noon. He cannot discover the location of the sun, and decides to look for an honest man instead.
“Nature loves to hide”—said Heraclitus. Should our own natures be any different? Perhaps our natural sense of meaning dies when subject to examination—like a heart removed from a living body.
Like life, meaning can best be understood by its presence. When it is absent, no act of will can create it. No arbitrary word can call it out of nothing.
If we stand outside of ourselves, beyond and above the paradox of the human, like a doctor probing the unconscious subject of a laboratory experiment, the hard light can indeed prompt us to regard existence as absurd. The subject is a kind of bladder, which we are glad to inflate with our demiurgic dreams.
So too, from this vantage point, we might logically jump to the following conclusions—that:
Consciousness is a mishap. The brain is chemical soup. Nature is promiscuous—an unfit mother. The net of interdependent origination is a joke. Pain warrants no compassion. Since humans are weak, it is better to be a perpetrator than a victim. It is a good thing that the observer is in charge.
Objective methodology allows for the accumulation of data. It does not allow us to enter into the experience of the subject, let alone to determine “why” the subject is. Many parts do not make a whole. If there was no subject to transmit the living spark, then our electromagnetic field would not be able to cohere; there would be no difference between a body and a corpse, and no way to distinguish between a human and a robot. Many facts do not add up to one truth.
In the space beyond Earth’s orbit, there is no fixed platform on which to position our Archimedes lever. We cannot objectively enter into the experience of another subject. Should we assume that the objective viewpoint is any more effective in allowing us to understand ourselves? If the self is an object, it is a strange and disturbing type of object—as de Chirico has said—which we turn this way and that to see how it is made, only to discover that it is haunted. The self is an absence that appropriates the other.
Beyond the existing framework, and inclusive of all contradictions, a truly objective consciousness might only be possible after death.
(Illustration: Pierre Roy)