I am writing half an hour before nightfall. Before I awoke on Sunday, a mosquito kept buzzing in my ear, reminding me of dear Emily’s buzzing Fly. I awoke with the dawn, the sun having made its case rather nonchalantly this morning. Around 7:20 a.m., the sun cast itself upon room and walls and trees and all. It does the same at Grand Central, though there with far more grandeur. At 9 a.m., I had planned to speak with one conversation partner. The internet and land line had been down and quiet since Saturday morning, so I thought it might be good if I put my laptop in my eggplant coop bag and headed around the corner to a coffee shop. As it happens, she emailed me earlier about another day. I nodded my head and called another who was already awake, she said, but still lying in bed. Her voice began with a stretch and had that scratchy quality that voices have when they have yet to try themselves out. A brave one, she was not frightened by the caller who was phoning from “Escondido, CA.” In the early afternoon, I met a man who delighted in the Blushing Lady Tulips and who cradled the ears of the tulips with gentle hands. We ate cookies whose coconut oil became the perfume of the garden, the accompaniment to afternoon birdsong. As we sat, we turned our ears to this. As I write, I sit and look up at the clock. It is 7:15 p.m. and the evening light is clinging to high-climbing ivy and equally to paling, soon to be pallid sky. In a few minutes, I will sit and meditate and then speak for a time with another conversation partner living in ancient, dusky desert. We may talk about coercion, or so I suspect, and trace some lines of thoughts together from previous conversations. After the conversation, I will meditate again, then finish packing. By the time I publish this post early tomorrow morning, I will be sitting on a subway, then sitting in a cafe, then riding in a car. I will be on my way out of New York City as the sun reaches its zenith. By then, we will be out of the city and making our way toward the country. Soon after, we will be hiking on a trail that ascends to a cliff overlooking a yawning hollow and by nightfall, under aphotic sky and below the celestial sphere, we will be drinking wine from glasses shaped from the sand.
Joan’s PET scan came back negative. The doctors don’t know what the spot on her lung is. Maybe just a scar.
Joan turned 89 the week before last. Today she said, “Eight-year-olds are such a marvel. They see and say so much.”
We drank champagne on her birthday and, with her two sons and also with the eldest son’s common law wife, talked about the best traps for catching rats and mice. Elizabeth, her Hungarian housekeeper who’s been coming twice monthly for three decades, came again on Tuesday. She is such a dear. “I spoke with my lawyer last week about changing my will. I’m leaving some things for her.”
In the back garden near the compost bin, Elizabeth tells me her thyroid is growing. Her father back in Hungary is a good man; he is frail. “You’re too young to know death.” My sad smile corrects her.
Joan’s heel is healing slowly and her cough, the one she’s had off and on since winter, is slowly going away.
Andrew Taggart, “When Lois Came to Stay”
Theodicy (Leibniz’s coinage) is a justification of the ways of God to man. To “justify the ways of God to man” was Milton’s project in Paradise Lost. This justification can seem urgent, and especially fraught, when one cannot deny the existence of evil but at the same time believes wholeheartedly in the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent being. How could it be that such a benevolent being would allow for evil to exist?
Theodicy may seem to be about God–his nature and attributes–but, in truth, it is about man and his ownmost concerns. The problem is an intimation of an even greater rational commitment that most of us have. I am referring to reason’s plea that we be able to see ourselves in the cosmos, that we be capable of being at home in the world. The Principle of Sufficient Reason holds sway whenever we postulate the claim that for any being’s existence there must be a reason for its so existing. For if this were not the case, then a being’s existence would be a “brute fact,” something that is simply there but that belies further investigation. And in the face of a “brute fact,” we would have to be mum or turn to repeating tautologies of the form, “It is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is….” However, to grant that reality, at bottom, is inexplicable (it consists in or is identical with brute facts) or to hold that most of reality is explicable yet that there are “gaps” in reality that must remain brute facts only throws us further into arbitrariness, contingency, quite possibly into the depths of despair. Staring at brute facts, we are frightened.
(To see why the problem has teeth, imagine your child dying, as we say, well before his time. Calling this a “brute fact” will not provide you with any consolation. Nor could it. The problem, therefore, has a strong ‘vitalist’ dimension: it grips us during our darkest hours.)
The claim that reality is shot through with brute facts would have awakened Hegel’s ire. For him, “to be is to be intelligible” (this formulation courtesy of Robert Pippin, a Hegel scholar). The copula”is” should be regarded as an urge, a plea, or a demand: reason is called to see the world as intelligible. And the world can only be intelligible once we have grasped not one part in isolation from another but the Whole as a Whole. At least since Plato, the answer to the desire for intelligibility in general and to theodicy in particular has been sought in the metaphysical distinction between an intelligible and a sensible order. There is some higher order “behind” the order we perceive, and this higher order, in some fashion or another, explains the existence and nature of finite entities.
Last night, I was rereading Arthur Lovejoy’s magnum opus, The Great Chain of Being. I would like to share to you what has struck me as an appealing and perspicuous vision of man’s place in the universe. I do not say that this Neoplatonic vision of things is true, only that it is gripping and beautiful.
Lovejoy says that the Neoplatonic vision is grounded in a “principle of plenitude.” As I understand him, there are three main conditions to plenitude. First, the creative being creates the sensible world out of fecundity: he engenders the sensible order in order to manifest himself entirely. The “act” is one of logical necessity, not one of choice. To say that it is not a choice is to say both that there is no modality of possibility (i.e., no sense in saying that he created world X but could have instead created world Y) and that he did not “select” the best world from among a suite of possibilities. Rather, the god simply realized himself in and through finite, albeit imperfect, beings.
Second, there is the immediate demand that essence or idea be embodied or engendered. An idea, whatever it is, only becomes itself once it is instantiated. There is no sense in which any idea can be “left hanging” as an idea only. If that were to be the case, then it would be as if the idea were nothing but a phantasm. And what good would there be to having extra ‘non-material’ cloth lying around if it weren’t to be made into an actual robe, the fabric of the cosmos, the fabric that is the cosmos? In this second condition, we comprehend a certain thriftiness in the operations of the creative being.
Third and most importantly, the creative being creates all conceivable kinds. To the question, “Why this crocodile?,” the answer would be, “Because god had to achieve maximum diversity so that there could be no gaps whatever in reality. Every being would have a place in the sensible order, every being would be realized, and there would be no sense in asking about croco-hippopotamuses or man-trees or whatever.” Hence, every being from the ‘worst’ and ‘grotesque’ and to ‘best’ and ‘most beautiful’ would be made actual. If we focus our attention solely on this finite being in particular, then we cannot see why it exists or what place it has in this world. Yet if we ascend to god’s point of view, we thereby comprehend that no conceivable kind could have been left out. Indeed, we must see that we are all here, for where else would we be?
I leave you in mid-breath with a thought to mull over throughout the day. Would not this characterization of the Neoplatonic god as plenitude be a phenomenology of love: of love not as scarcity but as potency, love as fecundity, a love without the possibility of jealousy or envy, a love so filling and full that this filling fullness would be beyond measure?
Overcome by rage, Ajax would have his revenge. He would steal upon the Greek camp, would bleed Odysseus alongside the other men who had had a hand in the scheme. Achilles had died and his armor was rightfully his–for who greater than he, what warrior more mighty and more deserving, what man nobler? Odysseus was ever a cunning one, ever a man of fine words and misdeeds. But no more. So disgraced, Ajax would be so no more.
Except that Athena intervenes before,restrain[ing] him, casting on his eyes O’ermastering notions of that baneful ecstasy That turned his rage on flocks and mingled droves Of booty yet unshared, guarded by herdsmen.
So a “god contrives,” making men seem beasts, and Ajax is carried into “heaven-sent madness.” It is a madness so utter and complete that he spends his wrath on cattle and sheep. He butchers. A few he brings back to his tent and tortures with irresistible, unspeakable force. He is found in the morning lying amid the blood, ram’s guts all around him.
And how does Sophocles describe the onset of Ajax’s madness? As a “turbid wildering fury.”As a “maddening plague.” As “madness [that] has seized” him. As if “his spirit” had become “diseased.” In his plot for revenge, he was “foiled,” “thwarted” by a god such that, under Athena’s power, “even the base may escape the nobler.”
Sophocles’ account of madness as a mood that comes over one could be regarded as fancy or myth in favor of a more modern psychiatric evaluation of insanity or, as I think, it could be taken as being about as phenomenologically perspicacious as we can hope for. For when we are overcome by madness, we do not ‘lose our heads’, as if the ‘problem’ could be pointed to as residing only and just and entirely inside our heads. Surely, this can’t be right. Surely, in madness we lose our way of being, our entire standing in the world. We lose our world and we thrown into a world of madness.
Here, we may be tempted to draw on a metaphysic according to which the objects Ajax sees are not objects in reality. This temptation would suppose that there is a true world that the rest of us who are not in madness can see clearly behind the one that Ajax sees. The true world alerts us to the fact that Ajax is only seeing illusions which his ‘mind’ has ‘draped over’ reality. What is apparent, on this picture, is not what is real but the two can be said to exist within the same basic order of reality.
This temptation should be resisted out of honesty, accuracy, and humility. To begin with, madness is not a state of the mind or an extrinsic property that I privately experience but rather is a way of being that comes over me, totally coloring my world, coloring it so utterly, the bluing and reddening and yellowing so full as to make this the only world, this world I experience, the world a world only of bluings and reddenings and yellowings. Second, the mood is not ‘mine’ as if I could ‘claim’ it but is the world into which I am thrown, the world in which I now dwell. The world, so to speak, has me. Third, madness, so long as I am truly in it, does not admit of the memory of a ‘before’ or ‘after.’ Afterward, I may say that I was mad and may point to certain ‘actions,’ yet this retrospective pointing at singular actions misses this way of being, the way of maddening: there was no single action, only a seamless cloth, no more or other than an ongoing experience of maddening.
Overmastered, enthralled, the madman perceives this his only world as enraging and the rage-of-this-world finds its attention turned upon the beings that are the source of enraging. The madman does not act; he perceives and spends his time out of a time in the way a madman does.
We can thus go back to the opening paragraphs and remove all subjects and objects, all actions performed by subjects, and in the very same breath put long hyphenated verbs in their places. Thus:
He spends his wrath wrath spending itself; He butchers discharging; he tortures spending, then resting.
We who are not in the throes of madness must imagine Ajax mad. Truly, we cannot grasp the qualia of madness–its everywhereness, its every feel and sense and view, its all-envelopingness. Nonetheless, we must imagine him mad for only by doing so can we immunize ourselves from false moralism and dangerous idiocy. The burden falls on our shoulders. Are we strong enough to hold the burden up before our eyes?
Two days of steady rain have left the city sodden. I am feeling the effects of slumped shoulders and the vertebrae in my lower back have been gabbing more than usual. I look to my right at the brooding Lake Geneva, compare it with the graying of the sky. On cue, someone, perchance looking down at the sogginess, proclaims in a knowing voice that the farmers really do need the rain. I believe the line always begins with a well and a short pause and may require a knowing nod of the head around the silence following the period.
I do not know that this about the farmers is true nor that it is untrue but I did hear the line often enough when I was a boy to know that it is believed to be true by most. No one ever knew how much rain the farmers actually needed at one time or another, nor did anyone know a farmer who said he needed the rain in a bad way, but everyone seemed assured that, yes, the farmers needed the rain and now was as good a time as any for this need to be met. Some rhyme about corn runs on well ahead of memory.
There may have been a few exceptions to the almanac line about needful rain such as when the rain was too plentiful that spring or early summer. Then I don’t recall people saying that the farmers needed sun. Maybe this is because sun is a given in most parts where crops are grown each year and maybe it is also because sun falls plentifully like love.
I once told a conversation partner that, when life is going well, the ground seems made for giving. If the ground were to have a reason for being, I would venture it would be to give our steps a light-handed lift, a gentle upward leavening. Year after year, forgiving ground hums the same tune our feet do while unforgiving ground seems to hold our feet in place like mud and fog and marshland.
Florida was once marshland and still there are reminders. My mom used to travel by car with her parents to Florida. They would pack up the car and head to Florida, there where they grew oranges and mosquitos and sand. Where my parents now live in Florida, there is an ocean on one side and a marshy river on the other. Their home straddles, does a balancing act, sitting high above as if on stilts. Dressed in pink the color of salmon, the condo would walk happily like a crane if it had its druthers. No question but that it would hold fish in its mouth and stand on one leg and then, hearing commotion nearby, would stir itself to take flight.
Yesterday morning there was a moment, as there most always is, when the rains died down and the birds piped up. “The birds,” I tweeted on key, “have taken the reprieve from raining as an invitation to flutter and share notes. One asks, ‘The breeze is feathery, isn’t it now?'”
To which the other, who’s just now got the hang of it, replies, “Suppose so. My leathery coat is beginning to wear itself into a handbag.”
“A handbag, you say? When I travel, I keep all my valuables on my person.”
The breeze picks up and, taking one long look at me, the birds hightail outta here on toward their pick of bounding rivers, their few remaining words becoming sodden with the newly falling rain. I hope the farmers, those humble one percenters whose prayers have been heard these past two days, are pleased with this forgiving sky.
Andrew Taggart, “Childhood as Spiritual Exercise: Peter in Snowy Day“