Friday, March 1, 2013

Words and Worlds and Worms and Pearls

I don’t get belief. I’ve never understood the attraction. Believing in something has always fundamentally seemed sad. As soon as you believe something, it ceases to have true existence.
I agree with Montaigne: the more a mind is empty and without counterpoise, the more easily it gives beneath the weight of the first persuasive argument.
Belief has little cognitive value. Unless we question, research, query, test and experiment on various assertions and phenomena, belief merely dapples the ground of our knowledge with the play of shadows. It does not give actuality. It coaxes, but does not have the weight of bone.
It is equally foolish, asserts Montaigne, to go around disdaining and condemning as false whatever does not seem likely to us. Which (and I have found this to be true as well) is an ordinary vice in those who think they have more than common ability.
To condemn a thing with unflinching certainty is to reduce things to our capacity and competence. This is what is known as a smart ass, or asshole. There is no shortage of these people. They think they know everything, and so learn nothing. They turn away from the sun if the sun doesn’t fit their notion of sunlight.
But the sun doesn’t give a shit. It just keeps shining.
What I see and taste and hear as ordinary was once a miracle. It continues to be a miracle, but I don’t see it as a miracle, because I see it all the time. Water, for instance, or light. What a miracle light is. Or electricity or rhubarb. Words and worms and worlds and pearls. All miracles.
I grew up in Minnesota. I did not see the ocean until I was twelve. The first time I saw the ocean I could not contain my wonder. I had seen photographs, had seen it in movies and on TV, had heard stories of men at sea and the creatures that live in the dark of its depths. But until I saw and heard it for the first time, it was an abstraction, an imagined entity, a word.
The mind becomes accustomed to things by the habitual sight of them, observed Cicero, and neither wonders nor inquires about the reasons for the things it sees all the time.
I could not tell you how images appear on television, how they are transmitted through the air. I could not tell you how, when I plug a hairdryer into the wall and click a red button, it begins to whir and produce a flow of hot air. But these things happen.
Belief is often accompanied with a feeling of reverence. I believe belief begins with a feeling of reverence. The sense of awe that is produced when I see light begin to appear at the jagged summits of the mountains to the east leads to the production of poetry. Poetry is a strange phenomenon. It begins as an incident in the mind and drops to a sheet of paper in words.
I can’t say with certainty that after we die nothing happens. We just die. We don’t linger, we don’t walk toward a bright light, we don’t sit on clouds playing harps. That’s my belief. I believe that when we die, we die. We cease to exist. We leave our memory behind for a time, our image and behavior continues to have some residual effect on the people we know, especially the people we knew intimately. Actors leave behind movies, their images still vital and dramatic on the screen. Writers leave behind their thoughts and impressions and dreams in words. Musicians leave songs and music behind, their voices as real and ardent and textured as when they first sang into the microphone. But their actual spontaneous flesh and blood selves are gone. This is my belief. But since it is only a belief, I weigh that belief as I would a leaf. A light leaf of cherry, or maple, or oak. A leaf has dimension and color and shape. So does belief. A belief can be a fork. I can believe that a fork has meaning. The fork has a story to tell. The fork conveys a message. But is it the fork, or my mind reading meaning into the fork?
Or these letters. Assembled in a certain order, letters will have catch a penumbral wave of shadow during a solar eclipse and hang it in the mind. Carry purple. Taste grapefruit. But these things are the hallucinations of language. They remedy a lack, and insist on touching you. 

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