Monday, March 25, 2019

In a poem

We live in a poem.

We will never be able to reduce our experience into words for this poem but we will certainly experience its rhythm and we have already been inundated by its inescapable content.  We will never fully reach its inner meaning, but to move even one step closer to this would be our greatest joy, and to move one step away our greatest sorrow.

I thought this article would be longer, but that's all I had to say.

But I'm as much driven to understand, appreciate and live the spirit of this poem as anyone else, I will continue to speak.

In case anyone has forgotten that metaphor is closer to truth than analysis, I will start there.


"from Ancient Greek μεταφορά (metaphorá), from μεταφέρω (metaphérō, “I transfer, apply”), from μετά (metá, “with, across, after”) + φέρω (phérō, “I bear, carry”)" -

Truths are already close to us.  Things we do not yet know can be brought closer by connecting them to what is already close.  Metaphor does this, poetry does this.

When we look outward we see fragments.  Disconnected things which have not yet been put together into something we understand.  We are free to connect these things as we like but we do not have the ability to invent their right or true arrangement.  When we experience a good and harmonious explanation, it sinks into us to the degree we feel its goodness.  Most of our own stories fall apart and turn back into dust.  True stories come closer, they endure, they are held to our chest.

There is a false kind of truth which claims authority based solely on "fact".  Everything we see is a fact, so this is no special qualification, and the arbitrariness of such a basis should be obvious.  But taken in aggregate, connected convincingly, and verified from several angles, a story can sometimes be given an extra touch of glamor.  No elaborate assemblage of details, no matter how verifiable, can come close to us unless it resonates with an inward sense of value and goodness.  But this glamor can shine like gold to us, it can give the appearance of truth.

Especially if we have taken in something false, more false things can be attracted to it and find their home in us.

How is it possible to take in something false?

If only our inmost heart were absolutely pure from the start.  In a very important way it is, and was.  But in an even more important and more practical way it no longer is.

Let's look at it in terms of culpability (our fault) and responsibility (it doesn't matter if it's our fault).  It is theoretically (though not practically) possible to live without the first but it is not possible or even desirable to live without the second.  The potential for a clean heart is always present.  The reality of unclean hearts is inescapable.  Between these we live.

Was I not clear enough?  Goodness matters infinitely more than 'fact', yet goodness is inseparable from truth.  Facts are merely raw material.  Elaborate facts are no more true than elaborate fantasies.  It is a shallow and useless sort of truth that has no value, and facts cannot invent value.

Truth, divorced from goodness, forms a dangerous and confusing landscape in which monstrous beasts prowl.  Ferocious 'truths' formed only from facts but devoid of value, seek to devour humbler truths with real meaning.

Or, put another way, value and closeness to a (pure) heart are the same thing.
"Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." - Matt 5:8

"What is truth?" - Pontius Pilate
The most fundamental aspects of our experience, the most indisputable, the least controversial, the most utterly obvious, are these: that something is happening, that the seeing of it is central to its happening and that it could be better or worse.

Being, consciousness and goodness.  We might be confused about who we are and what is good, but we hopefully can at least agree that we are here, seeking goodness.

Truth holds a central role in our quest to understand these things: ourselves, each other and goodness, as it is the answer to all three.

There is a repulsive and suicidal notion, that truth itself is relative.  It's rationale is obviously circular, and it is really just a feeble minded justification for retreating into an infantile and solipsist view of the universe.  I mention it only because it points toward its opposite.  To embrace this puerile and narcissistic view is to give up on something.  On what?

The existence of real truth, of the singular, definitive sort, of real answers to the deepest questions, is implied to be difficult but possible by how weak and escapist its antithesis is.  The denial that there is a real truth, one which is common to all divergent views, is the denial of goodness itself, of the possibility of unity.  If the only unity we can achieve is through denial of real, mutual goodness, then it is a false and temporary unity.

But is the middle really excluded?  Is truth such that it's negation is false?  In "pure" terms, of course it is.  If one person says that the ultimate nature of all things is good and ordered, and another person says it is neutral and chaotic, there is an irreconcilable gulf of logic between them.  But is truth as we understand it, that is, incompletely and through a glass darkly, is that limited, human view of truth such that we could even begin to negate it?  Yes, but only in a limited sense.  There were two men, one a kind and thoughtful electrician, and the other a brutal crime boss.  They had children of about the same age, who were friends and had both come to school dressed up as their respective father.  They began to argue about who's father was the better role model.  One child was more correct but neither, still being children, had yet become that toward which they were aspiring. 

Along the lines of children innocently imagining evil to be good, here's a view I heard recently.  That to be certain about truth means that one will be certain about the falseness of contradictory claims, and this in itself constitutes arrogance and oppression: an imperialism of ideas.  Somehow, the assertion of encompassing truth is seen to be divisive, while escapist bumbling is imagined to be the acceptable alternative.  In this fantasy, a golden age of tolerance is imagined in which, though, nothing is true, some kind of goodness reigns supreme.  But when it comes down to it people have little enthusiasm for goodness decoupled from truth.  This view starts off with that sad, denatured glow of a plucked flower, all idealistic and full of dreams, obliquely rendering beauty through its loss, then devolves into something which really does become an imperialism of ideas: that all pervading naturalism which, in asserting that only the objective properties of objects are knowable, actively denies all other views.

It is, admittedly, a wild, an outrageous claim, that truth exists; that there is something which holds everything together, which makes sense, which actually works.

In a logical sense it is not outrageous at all, how could something without an encompassing set of principles hold together in a sea of eternity?  People try to argue that any order we do see is just a tiny little bubble in the froth of a much larger sea of chaos.  But if you press this logic you find that everything we can see is almost infinitely improbable.  We do live on a relatively small island of improbable beauty, consciousness and life, but that small island is surrounded by an impossibly vast and equally improbable set of physical laws, impossibly balanced such that our little island is possible.  In other words, no one has ever seen a chaotic universe not suited for life.  So, logically, since on close examination all we can actually discern is life-sustaining order, there is no difficulty at all in deducing a unified truth which is larger than what we see.

Experientially, however, there is a shock we must experience when we reflect on this claim.  If reality is ordered, all the way from top to bottom, then we cannot pretend to be in a little eddy off to one side, in a private bubble, living independently of this order.

People have sometimes wondered how badness could exist in an ordered universe, and have even gone so far as to question the goodness of the ordering.  The feeble, human way of imagining order is to project our neurotic delusions of power onto it, and see a total dominion: a completely deterministic order, where the top is the direct cause of everything below it.  Fortunately, the order we live in is not like this, and each level below is governed from above in broad strokes.

We are free within this order to do quite a few things.  The freedom to redefine truth is not one of them.

So, we have the ability to engage in badness at our own expense up to, but not beyond, a certain level.  The more we paint the world in naturalistic tones, the less we are able to see those limits.  The more we look at it in terms of meaning, the limits become more clear.  A lie changes the outward circumstances, often in very uncomfortable ways.  But a lie has no impact on truth or meaning whatsoever.  We are, it should be noted, creatures of both worlds: of circumstance, and of truth.  Our suffering on the circumstantial side is often limited only by the degree to which we and our fellows have not encountered truth.  This certainly leads to many unfortunate and unpleasant circumstances.  But it is also possible to live a life increasingly more identified with truth than with circumstance.

Clearly, when truth is seen as something distant and objective, a shift into a life based in it sounds more like an exercise in escapist theorizing than in any kind of actual refuge.  This is one of the compelling reasons why we need to improve our understanding of what truth is.  Because truth is a refuge: when embraced it does in fact have the power to carry us through on not just the strength of our convictions, but on its own power.  The truth is its own reward.

It stands to reason, and also to experience, that the order in the universe, the truth of the universe, is the foundation of what we mean by meaning and goodness.  The order behind the laws of the universe is the same order that undergirds the laws of biological life, and is the same order which is the architect of our being and consciousness.  Goodness and meaning are simply the natural, that is the proper, goals of any being endued with awareness.  Being, in the context of this order, this truth, has a natural course, a course which serves the truth, and which therefore serves all.

Truth touches both our potentially purified heart, which recognizes goodness, and all of the truly good things which we might recognize and hold close.  The truth is alive, after all.  Properly conceived, the truth is closer to us than we ourselves are.


People sometimes talk about "literal interpretation" as if this were something within our ability.  But take any experience we've ever had, no matter how direct, and then tell me honestly that you understood it.  Good luck with that.

It becomes even harder, not easier to interpret things which are farther away from us.  And it is harder, not easier to interpret a whole situation than an aspect of a situation.  We have to limit ourselves in some way to have any chance of understanding anything, but if we do accept limits (which are usually quite extensive) then we do have some real opportunities to understand a thing or two, in this humbled way.

This quickly adds up to metaphor being better, that is, more likely to lead to a truthful understanding, than is an analytic approach that attempts to piece together objective details into something we delusionally fancy to be a literal interpretation of events.

It isn't that literal interpretation is impossible, it is just much harder, and often lies outside our abilities.  It is much easier, and more practical, to start with a more allegorical understanding of things, a more metaphorical, symbolic, sympathetic interpretation of experience.  If we wanted to understand Shakespeare's century, for instance, we would learn more from one or two of his stanzas than from a detailed history of that century's wars.  If we don't understand someone's motivations we won't understand his actions.


What are we to do from within this poem?  If we attempt to carve out a channel of 'plain fact' we will only have etched a morbid and dreary line onto the fabric of our awareness, one which rather than telling us a straight story, warps us uncomfortably in order to see things in a particular way.

Too often we forget that we are beings, or we forget what it means to have being.  We should never have expected to be able to relate with objects, symbols or anything which does not also have being.  Outside of being there are only symbols, and symbols draw their entire substance from the context they are given by those who arrange them.

If we do not understand truth to be more alive than we are we are treating it as a symbol.  Value could never come from a symbol itself, it can only come from how the symbol is used, from what or rather who, is behind that symbol.  Truth, therefore, in order to be genuinely experienced, must be elevated in our understanding from symbol to being.

A truth to which we can relate is worth the loss of many straight lines, of many literal or analytical interpretations of experience.  To live the spirit of the poem in which we find ourselves is no sacrifice at all, rather it is to embrace reality not just as we actually experience it but as it actually is.  However small the glimpse we may have of truth, what matters is that it is the true truth, not how big or bright it is.  There is light at the end of the tunnel of meaning, but we have to enter into the tunnel to get there.  We are already thirsty for truth, so there is no shortage of fuel for the journey.  What we have to give up is false hope.  We have to cast aside our idols of analytic perspicacity, our half baked imaginings of concrete fulfillment, our borrowed garments of questionable assumptions.  What is most close and most real requires no real sacrifice to embrace.  We are already in the tunnel.  Once we acknowledge that the darkened light we have taken to be light is, in fact, darkness, then we will discover, with delight, that the home-like light beckons us and races toward us, from the far end of the tunnel.

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