Friday, 20 April 2012

The Long March

The myth of Sisyphus is surely the easiest of all ancient parables to relate to. Every human life consists, in a sense, in waging an unwinnable war against gravity. From apocalyptic seismic upheavals to surgically unalterable sagging tits, the weakest of the universe's fundamental forces has her way with us all in the end. Still, it comes as a surprise - call me naive - to find oneself suddenly at the bottom of the anthill one has spent so many years laboriously climbing. I think in this situation it would be better to be an ant. I suspect that individual ants are fairly resigned to their lot in life, whereas I am not.

Mao Zedong's ascent to total power was enabled by the manner in which he turned a long series of defeats, retreats and retrenchments to his advantage. History has not, of course, been kind to Mao but he surely lived the dream in his own lifetime. It's not that I think I'm Mao or anything but they're not feeding me lithium yet, so I am still capable of fantasising that somehow I will yet snatch victory, or at least continence, from the jaws of defeat. Do I have the stomach, or the arsehole, for another assault on the anthill? I don't know.

Thank all the gods in whom I do not believe for giving me a hobby. When I was a child my profoundest wish was to be old and rich enough to be able to add a specimen of Conus gloriamaris to my shell collection. When I was old and rich enough, I found that I no longer wanted one. This constant failure of one's means to satisfy one's aspirations is another of life's bitter lessons. I have found however - and this may be my salvation - that the urge to collect, cultivate and share as many as possible of the world's plants has become a consuming passion that I hope will burn as ferociously as it does now, for the rest of my life.


Dave said...

Torquatus, I stumbled upon your blog from a link on another one. I didn't originally intend to post, and I probably won't post here again, but you remind me so much of myself some years back, that I thought I'd offer you this anyway.

After many years of dabbling in popular science books, evolutionary psychology, academic philosophy of the Analytic school, and other witty writers who deem all human existence purposeless and insignificant, it struck me that one great cosmic mystery remains: Why am I living the life I currently am, as opposed to some other, or none at all? Indeed, I could be here right now, in my present form, entirely as a result of random chance, destined to disappear from existence forever. But there is really nothing that rules out the possibility that I'm currently living the life I am at the behest of some as-yet-unknown higher power with a plan. By way of analogy, let's say I put on a virtual reality helmet and started playing a first person shooter video game, but then suffered a bout of retrograde amnesia mid-game. I'd have no way of knowing that I wasn't reallya combatant on a battlefield. I'd have no idea that I was a sock puppet worn by some other sentient being from another whole reality not visible to me.

I make no claims to know what such an external plan could be. I make no claims about the nature and intentions of such a higher power or force. That's not the point. The point is that, on its own merits, this human existence is a pretty painful one, and as long as there is some remote possibility that I'm right here right now for some (any) external reason, I'll hold on to such hope.

Spirituality, stripped of all cultural baggage, really just boils down to this one question: Might my life be part of some greater plan? I don't see this as an invalid question at all. Nothing science has to say could ever invalidate it; even if humans evolved undesigned through random processes, that still doesn't rule out the possibility of a sentient being from some other realm intruding into our universe and choosing to live a human (or other) life first-person, in order to accomplish or learn something.

And why not? I see absolutely no point in pushing pointlessness. I'll not speak for anyone else, but being a nihilist didn't empower me at all to reach my fullest potential and get the most out of life. Quite the opposite. Since being able to entertain this minimalist modicum of spirituality, I am no longer depressed, sardonic, cynical, alcoholic, unmotivated, or socially isolated. And I do it all without rejecting science and truth.

Yes, I'm fully aware that my quest for "something beyond" might be a misguided quirk of my biological evolution. But I'll take the chance it's not misguided, because in my experience, I have little to lose and much to gain by doing so.

Make of me what you will. Given your blog entries, I wholly expect you'll be very dismissive of me, or even make an example of me as the type of fallacious thinking you don't respect. That's no skin off my nose. I'm on no crusade to make you change your mind -- I'm secure enough in my worldview to not really care if I ever win over anyone with it. I only offer my viewpoint to you out of compassion, in case there is any chance you might find it helpful.

Lux et veritas,
Dave from New York

torquatus said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for your comment. If you've received the impression from reading my blog that I'd be dismissive of your opinions, I've obviously not made myself clear. I'm dismissive of ignorant opinions (aka prejudice) and I'm contemptuous of anyone who attempts to foist superstition on others, especially on children. You have clearly been through the mill and have found, on your own account, solace in a homespun variety of spirituality-lite. Good for you.

Solipsism is a seductive philosophy. I first wondered whether I might be a dream in god's imagination when I was ten or eleven and thought at the time I was the first person ever to have had the idea. I was quite disappointed when I discovered that it occurs to almost every thinking human being at some point in their lives. You are of course absolutely right that solipsism can't be disproved but 'you can't prove it ain't so' is surely a slender thread on which to hang ones hopes. It seems to me that you need to have some positive reason to embrace your spirituality diet in order to differentiate it from full-fat versions of mumbo jumbo.

Speaking for myself, I find that falsehoods offer no consolation. It is often argued that materialists should back off, because so many people find the rituals and tropes of their superstition comforting. I find this advice exceptionally patronising. If someone is deluded, it is one's duty to put that person straight and I trust my friends to do the same for me when I am deluded.

Incidentally, I'm not a nihilist. My existence gains meaning from my relationships with my family and friends and from my intellectual life. Also I am a gardener and gardeners always want to live, at least until next spring. From your list I am depressed and an alcoholic and occasionally moved to sarcasm for want of a writerly talent for parody but not sardonic, cynical, unmotivated or socially isolated. But even if I were, imagining myself to be a program running in the mind of a hypothetical supernatural entity does not strike me as likely to unlock the gates of paradise. The gates to a secure mental institution perhaps.

What I 'make of you' is someone who has thought deeply about the big questions and come to the wrong conclusions. On really bad days I do sometimes wish I could sit there in the third pew shaking my tambourine and singing Kum Ba Ya, secure in the knowledge that, however shit my life, I am part of some powerful entity's great plan. Actually, that's a lie. It never gets that bad. If you are now happy, free of depression and in control of alcohol, I am sincerely happy for you. But your path and mine diverged long ago.

Best wishes,


Dave said...

Well, as Alan Watts said, if I lose this bet, I won't even be around to know that I lost.

I only reached out to you because I picked up a vibe of deep unhappiness in your posts, and I related. I'll take you at your word that I was wrong about this, and so I apologize if I came off as patronizing.

May whatever paths you choose lead you where you most yearn to be.


torquatus said...

Amen to your last comment.

You didn't come off as patronising at all. Just as wrong. I can't bring myself to insert an 'emoticon' here but, honestly, I'm sure we'd have a fine evening of discussion, especially if you were paying and the venue were the Union Square Cafe, the most civilised place on the surface of planet Earth.