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).

Truth, facts, beliefs

A fact is just a belief that you have some attachment to keeping. (Harry Palmer)

Men willingly believe what they wish. (Julius Caesar, in De Bello Gallico)

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened. (Winston Churchill)

The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth. (Edith Sitwell)

I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible. (Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray)

The fact that something is far-fetched is no reason why it should not be true; it cannot be as far-fetched as the fact that something exists. (Celia Green)

Reality consists of the experiences we believe are real. What is real may or may not be the same for everyone. (Harry Palmer)

Men are probably nearer the central truth in their superstitions than in their science. (Henry David Thoreau)

The beliefs you truly hold, the ones you’ve decided to believe, your faith, will cause you to create or attract the experiences which will verify them. When you change your beliefs, your experiences will change. (Harry Palmer)

All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things. (Nagarjuna)

A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it. (Oscar Wilde, in Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young)

The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new. (Pema Chödrön)

The fact that stares one in the face is that people of the greatest sincerity and of all levels of intelligence differ and have always differed in their religious beliefs. Since at most one faith can be true, it follows that human beings are extremely liable to believe firmly and honestly in something untrue in the field of revealed religion. One would have expected this obvious fact to lead to some humility, to some thought that however deep one’s faith, one may conceivably be mistaken. (Hermann Bondi)

It is good to know the truth, but it is better to speak of palm trees. (Arab proverb)

Do things mean something?

Words cannot have ultimate meaning, after Babel; they are no longer centered on any truth; they don’t correspond to reality the way we think they ought to.  In vain we try to find universal meaning in written and spoken language; in vain we try to make ourselves understood.  But all is vanity, and a chasing after the wind. (EddystoneLight, in The Agony of Babel (Myths of Language, Part II))

Roland Barthes, in an interview entitled ‘Do Things Mean Something?’ (first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 13 October 1962), explained that his passionate, lifelong interest was “the way men make their world intelligible to themselves. … Men give a meaning to their way of writing; with words, writing creates a meaning which the words do not have at the outset. That is what must be understood. That is what I try to express” (Barthes, 1985 (2): p8).

Such seemingly straightforward speech might wisely be regarded with scepticism. In her Introduction to A Barthes Reader (Barthes, 1982: xi), Susan Sontag reminds us of Barthes’s assertion that “The aim of literature … is to put ‘meaning’ into the world but not ‘a meaning’”. She also warns that “Barthes is always after another meaning, a more eccentric — often utopian — discourse” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: x).

Back in the ‘seventies, Philip Thody (1977: p100) had remarked that “Barthes has not so far always had a very enthusiastic reception in England.” Regarding as self-evident the view that language which sets out to communicate ideas should first of all try to be clear, Thody considered such a view “difficult to eliminate from minds brought up upon Hume, Russell or Ayer” (ibid). Branding Barthes as “one of nature’s structuralists,” Thody — who apparently regarded as axiomatic the view that ‘la clarté est la politesse de l’homme de lettres’ — accused structuralists generally of “the new obscurantism … neither Foucault, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss nor Roman Jakobson writes books whose meaning leaps off the page” (Thody, 1977: p109).

Thody went on to suggest: “Surely it would have been better if Barthes had set out with the conventional aim of communicating with his readers and influencing their way of looking at language and society” (Thody, 1977: p102). Jean-Paul Sartre — with his commitment to writing as communication (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xix-xx), and an “intellectually brutal, bon enfant view of the world, a view that wills simplicity, resolution, transparence” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xxi), but which at times descends to “latent philistinism” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xx) — might well have sympathised with such an attitude.

Always an assiduous and meticulous writer, Barthes (1985 (10): p81) insists that the only way to create a dialectic is “through a readiness to write, to enter into the movement of writing, as exactingly as possible.” Sontag (in Barthes, 1982: viii) observes that “[Barthes] always wrote full out, was always concentrated, keen, indefatigable.” Nevertheless — while not always easy to understand — Barthes makes “no efforts not to be understood” (Sontag, in Barthes, 1982: xvii).

But it is not always Barthes’s intention to be unequivocal: for Barthes, as for Nietzsche, the point — in many instances — “is not to teach us something in particular … [but] to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached. And to give pleasure” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xvii).

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Barthes, R. 1985. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962‑1980 [39 items], translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. London: Jonathan Cape (1985). Translation copyright © 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as Le Grain de la voix, copyright © 1981 by Éditions du Seuil. 
(2) ‘Do Things Mean Something?’, from an interview conducted by Pierre Fisson, first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 13 October 1962.
(10) ‘On S/Z and Empire of Signs’, from an interview conducted by Raymond Bellour, first published in Les Lettres françaises, 20 May 1970.

Thody, P. 1977. Roland Barthes : A Conservative Estimate. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Are we wrong to believe?

There are no facts in themselves. It is always necessary to begin by introducing a meaning in order that there can be a fact (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted by Roland Barthes in The Discourse of History).

Gilles Deleuze, in Proust and Signs, asserts that “Philosophy supposes direct declaration and explicit signification, proceeding from a mind seeking the truth. Physics supposes an objective and unambiguous matter subject to the conditions of reality” (Deleuze, 1972: p90). Given that our knowledge of both nature and culture is shaped, conditioned, classified, and formulated by our language (Norris, 1982: pp4-5), “We are wrong to believe in facts; there are only signs. We are wrong to believe in truth; there are only interpretations” (Deleuze, 1972: p90). 

In the view of Roland Barthes, “it’s impossible to consider a cultural object outside of the articulated, spoken, and written language which surrounds it” (Barthes, 1985 (9): p65).

In Language, Truth and Logic, A J Ayer states that “the propositions in which we record the observations that verify these hypotheses are themselves sense-experience. Thus there are no final propositions” (Ayer, nd: p94). 

On such a basis, then, the objectives of physics and philosophy are unattainable: all their writings are “cultural products” (Barthes, 1983: p4) — constituting (borrowing Barthes’s description of Gide’s novels) “a fine fiction … in which one agrees to believe because it explains life and at the same time is a little stronger, a little larger than life (it affords the image of an ideal; every mythology is a dream)” (Barthes, 1982 (1): p13). 

Of course, such statements are no more ‘the truth’ than the assertions they challenge and deny; accordingly, they might be read not as an attempt to express the inexpressible, but rather as an endeavour “to unexpress the expressible” (Barthes, 1972: p15).  Their intention (their ‘revolutionary task’) is not to supplant physics and philosophy but to transgress, to recognize and to reverse, to challenge, to deny (Barthes, 1985 (1): p47).

Ultimately, then, the narratives, rhetorics, and ideologies of physics and metaphysics — indeed, all notions of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ — are subject to a transcendence at once elegant and sublime: “The odor of a flower, when it constitutes a sign, transcends at once the laws of matter and the categories of mind” (Deleuze, 1972: p91). 

Whereas — in terms of anything that language might articulate — there is no truth, it is equally clear that (for Barthes, as for Deleuze) “Everything is implicated, everything is complicated, everything is sign, meaning, essence” (Deleuze, 1972: p91).  It can fairly be said, then, that (like Proust) Barthes is ultimately concerned neither with philosophy nor physics, neither ‘culture’ nor ‘nature’, but with ‘the peculiar interplay between nature and culture’.

All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth (Friedrich Nietzsche).

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ayer, A. nd. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover.

Barthes, R. The Discourse of History, translated by Stephen Bann, on a web-page http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/pcraddoc/barthes.htm identified as belonging to Patricia Craddock, Department of English, University of Florida

Barthes, R. 1972. 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.

Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. (1) ‘On Gide and His Journal’ (1942). Translated by Richard Howard. Translation copyright © 1981 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. ‘Notes sur André Gide et son Journal’ was published in July 1942 in Existences, the magazine of the Sanatorium des Etudiants de France at Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet (Isére).

Barthes, R. 1983. Empire of Signs. London: Jonathan Cape [“First British edition”]. First published by Hill and Wang, New York, in 1982. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as L’Empire des Signes; copyright © 1970 by Éditions d’Art Albert Skira SA, Genève.

Barthes, R. 1985. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962‑1980 [39 items], translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. London: Jonathan Cape (1985). Translation copyright © 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as Le Grain de la voix, copyright © 1981 by Éditions du Seuil.

Deleuze, G. 1972. Proust and Signs. New York: George Braziller, Inc. Originally published in French under the title Proust et les Signes, © 1964, by Presses Universitaires de France. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1972 by George Braziller, Inc.

Norris, C. 1982. Deconstruction : Theory and Practice. (In a series: New Accents; General Editor, Terence Hawkes.)  London & New York: Methuen & Co.

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Norris_(critic)