Saturday, January 13, 2018


(Continued from Birthday & The Man)

- What we said about Goethe's Elective Affinities,* that it was the opposite of the romantic call to accept passion as opposed to reason I always thought it was, I have to admit is hard for me to accept. I looked back at Goethe's views on nature, and found, in fact, they were in accord with our dismissal of thinking of ourselves as things moved by things, parts moved by parts. For him science was or ought to be like perception: seeing things as a whole, seeing how things were composed. But -
- Yes?
- In Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship there are major religious and mystical elements: a whole separate novel is inserted of a woman who wishes to live entirely in religious feeling; and in the main story there is another woman who has an intimate relation with astronomical movements, with the stars and the planets, with the Cosmos. What do you make of this?
- I'm afraid you'll think I'm joking.
- 'It seems my fate to be in the wrong with you about the smallest things. I must be very good-natured to overlook such an unfailing superiority as yours.' **
- Fine. Jonas, you remember, the author of The Phenomenon Of Life, describes life as an interrelation with the world, involved in the world by feeling its intrusions, and willing in turn to intrude on it, in a constant movement that retains the form of life, with the goal of self preservation through constant remaking of itself. 'Will' and 'feeling' are not, he says, facts about the world: they are not parts of things put in movement against other parts. They involve a sense of direction. That is, they involve a selection between possible arrangements of the world. Freedom of how to speak of the world, how to see the world, arises out of the fixed 'vocabulary' of things come to be known.
- We respond to the world, we feel it, and willing it to take on a preferred arrangement we act on it.
- Yes. The character who is detached from the world in religious feeling can be seen to be, by an act of will, standing back from the world, being 'the knower of the field'. And the character who's in intimate relation to the cosmos, and can perhaps act on it to make it better, that reflects the capacity life has to will the world into shape. Well?
- Here's the thing. Brain scientists, neurophysicists, whatever they are calling themselves now, they imagine they don't feel and don't will. They call mental states epiphenomena. That is, things in a world of parts moving parts but which themselves don't have parts therefore can't be anything. How can people be so stupid? They say they know how to talk about the world and if some part of the world doesn't let them talk that way they say it must not be in the world. Where is it then?
- A good question. Do you know, I think the reason, as you put it, they can be so stupid is that they know the experience of making an error in their conclusions, dumping the bad idea, and backtracking.
- But dumping a bad idea, a logical progression or scheme of classification, is not the same as dumping knowledge of your own experience.
- It is, if you never consider these kinds of questions.
- And they don't.
- They never consider these kind of questions because they can't imagine how the freedom that comes of not having parts acting on each other is related to the lack of freedom in having parts acting on each other.
- Can you?
- Has Goethe given you any ideas?
- Yes and no. Sometimes he seems to believe in meaningful coincidences, fate, a personal destiny, the world taking on a form that suits our will; other times he seems to be making fun of the idea, for example showing that when Wilhelm thought he was pursuing his own way in life actually a secret society had been guiding his fate.
- Try putting that together with Goethe's views on nature.
- The science he said he wanted to do was of making representations, rather than explanations.
- Yes. We know that when science looks for a relation of explanations to each other it looks for whether the parts in one move the parts in the other. What is the relation of representations to each other?
- I don't know.
- What about when we talk?
- Yes, you already said that with a fixed vocabulary we have infinite freedom in ways of combining words into sentences. Representations are kinds of symbols. But how does that solve our problem?
- Our feeling of the world is a perception of the world, of how what we see is composed as a whole, and this knowledge, coming about through our body's response to the world, is unfree, part acting on part. But the will's use of that perception, how it puts it together with other perceptions, is unlimited, like the unlimited way of combining words into sentences. That perception, knowledge, feeling all arise together gives will something to grab hold of, without being tied to, or determined by.
- I can't say I'm convinced.
- Then let's return to Wilhelm Mesiter's Apprenticeship and the strange confusion of fate that is being followed and directed at the same time. The coincidences that occur in the story and Wilhelm thinks are fate but may really have been staged by the benevolent secret society: the staging can be like feeling, the act of the world on us, that is also perception and knowledge, and his impression of fate is his will to make his life his own.
- And why the coincidences?
- They are like words in a sentence that seem to go together, to be representing the world, but where the sentence goes, how it concludes, is up to him. I'll tell you something that happened last night in the courtyard up the street. A very well dressed woman in her late 60s sat down on the bench next to me, first time anyone had done that in the month I'd been going there. I strike up a conversation with her: she takes out a notebook and starts writing down words - in Catalan, French, English - suggested to her by the objects nearby, the color of my thermal flask, the name of the man on the cover of magazine in her lap, the words or subjects from our conversation struggling through bits of many languages. Separating parts of words from each other, these parts she then interpreted and connected to the other words, or their parts. And these words and suggestions were related to her recent experiences, places she had been and the words associated with them or seen there. She makes sure, she says, connections lead her in a positive direction. This was a first coincidence: I'd hours before finished reading Pullman's new fantasy La Belle Sauvage, in which a clockwork (but mysterious exactly how) device, the alethiometer, in response to questions, reads out symbols that yield layer upon layer of interpretations. The elegant woman tells me she wants to write to Amazon, the internet retailer, about something she's discovered. She takes out a metal box of pastilles, on the lid the brand 'Bezos', also the name of Amazon's founder. I tell her that Amazon's grocery delivery service I briefly worked for in L.A. has its Barcelona warehouse occupying the next block's interior courtyard, the block where I'm staying. Another coincidence. And then she, on the subject of these courtyards inside residential blocks, tells me the drug company Beyer which she once worked for, and I too once worked for in Budapest, used to be here in this courtyard before the city cleared it out to be reopened to the public. There I sit every day using the wifi from the Toyota showroom along one side.
- Good thing you don't write novels.
- You'll have to excuse me if my coincidences don't stand up against Goethe's. Like the times we live in they are mostly commercial: objects exchanged as if people involved don't matter, rather than the reverse, exchange of objects that don't matter except in their bringing people together.*** But that only makes it clearer, doesn't it?
- What clearer?
- That the coincidences are objects, parts of things tied to parts of things, meaningless in themselves, freely made use of to make our relation to people better.

Further Reading:
A Time Of Beauty
* Elective Affinities
** Denis Diderot, 'Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage' (1772)
*** See Marcel Mauss