Reality: too obvious to be true

Banksy and Baudrillard

untitled (Banksy and Baudrillard) (detail)

Nothing is wholly obvious without becoming enigmatic. Reality itself is too obvious to be true. (Jean Baudrillard)

In hand, a bunch of diverse quotations, most of them having at least some bearing on the nature of reality. The Baudrillard piece seems to have appointed itself chief amongst them, but Einstein can be heard muttering in the background.

Not unexpectedly – given the two words, ‘obvious’ and ‘enigmatic’ – Google Images quickly finds a picture/text version of the Baudrillard quote. But more interesting by far, I think, is this Banksy art piece with which it is teamed up on the Particulate Matters blog.

Clearly, both Banksy and “cosmicdebris” (proprietor of Particulate Matters) are saying something about the teachings of the Christian Church – particularly, it seems, in relation to the indoctrination of children. Look elsewhere on the Particulate Matters blog and you will find links to other ‘indoctrination’ stories: for example, Monsanto indoctrinating kids at the zoo.

Actually, I’m inclined to suspect that indoctrination is integral to every aspect of living – and that everyone is routinely doing it and/or having it done to them. And it wouldn’t necessarily qualify as either brainwashing or catechism. Let’s put it more simply: we’re all inclined to push our ideas on others – and we call it marketing, persuasion, instruction, education, or teaching.

Be that all as it may, it is not really the main point of my post.

A few months ago, on |cross-ties| – the blog of “The Other” – there was a bit of back-and-forth about the nature of reality. A piece titled Taking a cycle trip led one reader to discuss Derrida’s ideas, noting that in language there is a gap between words and things. I would take this further, asserting that there is a gap between what we perceive and what is actually the case.

A similar gap yawns between the words of every witness and the occurrences they describe – what we thought we saw, the way it seems to us, what we believe to be true, and everything that is ‘obvious’. (And, by the way, since it’s that obvious, why can’t everyone see it our way?)

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus begins with the proposition that “the world is everything that is the case” and ends by reminding us that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein isn’t saying there’s stuff we can choose not to talk about; he’s actually pointing out that there are some things nobody can put into words.

Albert Einstein asserts that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Elsewhere, he declares, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking.” He is not saying that nothing is real; what he means is that everything we experience as real is invented. “The human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things.” (Albert Einstein Essays in Science (1934), p27)

The way science talks about reality and truth is sounding more and more like the words of the ancient religions. For example, Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, a notable teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says: “The ultimate truth of all conventional truths is their being void of inherent existence. Conventional truths, ie empirical phenomena, exist dependently upon causal conditions, parts and imputation; they have absolutely no existence apart from these conditioning factors.”

But “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true,” wrote Francis Bacon (1560-1626). Called the creator of empiricism, “[Bacon] established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.” (GoodReads)

Ultimately, then, as Baudrillard says, whatever seems obvious is, in reality, the superficial manifestation of a profound mystery: the deeper you go into it, the less you are able to say about it.

In Poetry: This Death Is Incomplete (part one of an essay on poetry and death), Amy King talks about “spinning yarns to name things and claim power over them” – which, she reminds us, is not a new concept. In explication, King points us to Alice Notley’s The Book of Lies. The opening lines are especially apt: “Do you believe this stuff or is it a story? I believe every fucking word, but it is a story.”

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An ever-changing draft of this piece has been in my editor for months. There’s so much more I want to say, but it is long past time I got something posted. 

 

One-ended sticks

Carl Barron 4Carl Barron seems to have managed – for the time being, at least – to make himself pretty much the only one-ended stick in town. Google is clogged, not to say obsessed, with him. Apart from some inane Q&A stuff on Ask.com, the only directly relevant alternative within easy reach is on a web-site put up some years ago by Rochester Area Right to Life.

So why have I persisted? Because – from the time I started reading the signs: “Follow Carl as he looks for things that may not actually be there” – I really wanted to write about one-ended sticks. (I am, as you might have guessed, intensely interested in things that may not actually be there.)

But please try and follow me as I briefly backtrack: Why is the Right to Life web-site relevant? Because it quotes one Thomas J Fitzgerald on the subject of bias in media writing.

Fitzgerald explains that the one-ended stick represents the political spectrum as thought of by the politically correct. “At the one and only end of the stick one finds the extremists. This will vary depending on the topic under discussion. Sometimes it is conservatives, sometimes it is Catholics, sometimes it is all Christians, sometimes it is pro-lifers. Everyone else is a moderate, and they are in the middle of the stick. Since there is no one left, the stick has no other end.”

It might have been nice to have provided a diagram, but I cannot actually visualise it – although I’m wondering if Escher might possibly have done something that would make my meaning clearer. 

So okay, I’m poking a stick at political correctness – as some folks believe is currently fashionable to do. But I’m doing so only in passing.

Incidentally: these days, “politically correct” does not mean you should not offend anyone; it means no one will be able to accuse you of having said anything wrong (WikiHow: How to Be Politically Correct).

Why are we talking about one-ended sticks? Everyone knows that every stick has two ends.

Years ago, my parish priest (Anglican) memorably pointed out to me something which has stayed with me: all fundamentalists believe the same thing – that they’re right, that they know the truth, and that everyone else is mistaken, misguided, or wrong. The same is roughly true of extremists, I’d say.

Following this perfectly logical line of reasoning, one can easily see why all those right-thinking-and-righteous extremists and fundamentalists are hogging the “right” end of the stick: none of them wants to be at the “wrong” end of it.

Suddenly, the ancient argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin starts to make sense.

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NOTES:

1/ Touted as Australia’s most popular comedian, Carl Barron is “An Aussie larrikin persona that has been polished to shine brighter than an opal” (NZ Herald, quoted on Scoop Independent News). He gave a performance of his new show, A One Ended Stick, in Wellington on Saturday night, at the Opera House. I didn’t go. 

2/ Thomas J Fitzgerald is Editor Emeritus of the newsletter of the Kingston Council of the Knights of Columbus. The Knights of Columbus is the world’s largest organization of Catholic men and their families. 

3/ “In modern usage, the terms PCpolitically correct, and political correctness are pejorative descriptors, whereas the term politically incorrect is used by opponents of PC as an implicitly positive self-description …” (Wikipedia: Political Correctness).

The truth lies elsewhere

Epimenides-poetIn philosophy and logic, the liar paradox or liar’s paradox … is the statement “this sentence is false.” Trying to assign to this statement a classical binary truth value leads to a contradiction … (Wikipedia)

The Epimenides paradox (circa 600 BC) has been suggested as an example of the liar paradox, but they are not logically equivalent. The semi-mythical seer Epimenides, a Cretan, reportedly stated that “The Cretans are always liars.” (ibid)

St Paul, writing to Titus in Crete, reminds him: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” (Titus 1:12, KJV)

St Jerome, in a Homily on Psalm 115 (in protestant versions, Psalm 116), further compounds the issue:

I said in my alarm, “Every man is a liar!” [Psalm 116:11] The Hebrew text varies a little: I said in my alarm, “Every man is a lie!” for the meaning of the word ZECAM is lie. … There is no truth in our substance; there is only shadow and in a certain sense a lie – | I mean in our corporeal being, not in the soul. (The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 1, pp293-4)

It is one thing to devise sentences that illustrate mathematical or logical principles. But “classical binary truth values” do not provide a complete understanding of the way things work – and that’s something a writer needs to learn.

Our lives are based on what is reasonable and common sense; truth is apt to be neither. (Christmas Humphreys)

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there. (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī)

Nothing but lies comes out of my mouth. There I’ve done it again. (I keep saying it’s a Zen saying, but I’ve not managed to find it anywhere since I first found it, many years ago.)

In celebration of Schubert’s trout, Schrödinger’s cat, and Einstein on the Beach

Franz Schubert (31 Jan 1797 – 19 Nov 1828)

Franz Schubert (31 Jan 1797 – 19 Nov 1828)

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Schubert’s life is the quintessential example of the Romantic notion of the neglected genius who dies in obscurity. Even Mozart, who probably had a harsher life and greater obstacles to overcome, was at least accorded a modicum of recognition in his own lifetime. For Schubert, an entire generation had to pass before his most substantial achievements saw the light of day.

(http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/schubert.php)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Schubert

Philip Glass (and cat)

Philip Glass (and cat)

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[The music of Philip Glass] is frequently described as minimalist, though he prefers to describe himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures”. Although his early, mature music is minimalist, he has evolved stylistically. Currently, he describes himself as a “Classicist”, pointing out that he is trained in harmony and counterpoint and studied Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with Nadia Boulanger.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Glass)

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Oh! by the way, Schrödinger’s cat was a bit of a red herring.

These meaningless surfaces

Pieter Jansz Saenredam: Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht (1645)

Pieter Jansz Saenredam: Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht (1645)

In the Dutch still life, according to Roland Barthes, “There are objects wherever you look, on the tables, the walls, the floor:  pitchers overturned, a clutter of baskets, a bunch of vegetables, a brace of game, milk pans, oyster shells, glasses, cradles. … Still-life painters like Van de Velde or Heda always render matter’s most superficial quality: sheen.”

Pieter Jansz Saenredam, “a minor master who may be as deserving of literary renown as Vermeer …, painted neither faces nor objects, but chiefly vacant church interiors … [which] calmly reject the Italian overpopulation of statues … [and] the horror vacui professed by other Dutch painters. Saenredam is in effect a painter of the absurd … To paint so lovingly these meaningless surfaces, and to paint nothing else – that is already a modern aesthetic of silence.”

A paradox according to Barthes, “Saenredam articulates by antithesis the nature of classical Dutch painting.” Barthes’ point is that, in the work of Capelle, Van de Venne, Ruysdael, et al, we see that “men inscribe themselves upon space, immediately covering it with familiar gestures, memories, customs, and intentions.”

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Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. [Comprises 29 selections from the writings of Barthes, preceded by Sontag’s Introduction.]

The citations given in this post come from ‘The World as Object’, which is the fourth of Sontag’s selections from the writings of Barthes.

‘The World as Object’ (1953), from Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.

For a larger image of this painting, and of other works by Saenredam, see: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Pieter_Jansz._Saenredam

According to Wikipedia Commons, Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht (oil on panel, 58.1 × 50.8 cm) was painted in 1645, and is now to be found at Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

The fundamental tendency of matter

Legion (cover)

Legion (cover)

The human brain, three pounds of tissue, held more than a hundred billion brain cells and five hundred trillion synaptic connections. It dreamed and wrote music and Einstein’s equations, it created the language and the geometry and engines that probed the stars, and it cradled a mother asleep through a storm while it woke her at the faintest cry from her child. A computer that could handle all of its functions would cover the surface of the earth.

The hundreds of millions of years of evolution from paramecium to man didn’t solve the mystery, thought Kinderman. The mystery was evolution itself. The fundamental tendency of matter was toward a total disorganization, toward a final state of utter randomness from which the universe would never recover. Each moment its connections were becoming unthreaded as it flung itself headlong into the void in a reckless scattering of itself, impatient for the death of its cooling suns. And yet here was evolution, Kinderman marvelled, a hurricane piling up straw into haystacks, bundles of ever-increasing complexity that denied the very nature of their stuff. Evolution was a theorem written on a leaf that was floating against the direction of the river. A Designer was at work. So what else? It’s as plain as can be. When a man hears hoofbeats in Central Park, he shouldn’t be looking around for zebras. (William Peter Blatty, in Legion [pp104-5]) 

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Originally published by Simon & Schuster in 1983, and subsequently turned into what Rinker calls “a more than satisfactory sequel … Exorcist III (which, mercifully, has nothing to do with Exorcist II: The Heretic).” Legion appeared in a Tor paperback edition in 2011 (Tom Doherty Associates, New York).

Free to choose

Not comfortable —
an incurable malaise.
It won’t get better.

Disillusionment —
anything but satisfied.
Find something to do.

Reality and
meaning … purpose, destiny …
it’s all invented.

None of it matters —
yes, we already knew that.
So we’re free to choose.