Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Whole Goddamn World Is Riding on Words for Thousands of Years

We get closer, therefore, to the true wickedness of Melville's book, when we see this reversal. What Ahab hates most thoroughly is the idea that the universe might be inscrutable to the last; that ultimately there might be "naught beyond." He therefore holds desperately and passionately to the idea that there is an ultimate, final, and universal truth about how things are; that there is, in other words, a traditional kind of monotheistic God. This misguided passion for monotheism, the book reveals, is the most dangerous and deadly kind there is. Melville's genuine wickedness, in other words, consists in his portrayal of Ahab's monomaniacal monotheism as itself the incarnation of what the universe most abhors.

...Since Karl Jaspers's 1949 book The Origin and Goal of History, historians and sociologists have emphasized a cross-cultural turn in the first millennium BC that Jaspers called the Axial Revolution. This revolution introduced the idea— through Plato's metaphysical philosophy, the Buddha's conception of Nirvana, and various religious notions of Eternal Life—that there is a good beyond what we can find in the everyday conception of human flourishing; that there is a transcendent good that is the nature of the Divine. As Charles Taylor explains it:

The Axial Revolution tended to place the Divine on the side of the ultimate good; while at the same time redefining this as something which goes beyond what is understood as ordinary human flourishing: Nirvana, Eternal Life.

It is precisely this conception of "going beyond" that Melville's faceless whale encourages us to resist. Rather than searching for some reasoning things behind the mask as Ahab insists on doing, Ishmael thinks we should nurture the moods of everyday existence—the mood of the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, and any others we can learn about or discover—for the meanings they already offer.

I've never read Moby Dick, but Dreyfus and Kelly's book makes me want to.

What they're saying is simple: our lives are full of meaning, just as they are. But to echo Alfred North Whitehead ("The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.") and Nietzsche ("Christianity is Platonism for "the people"), we've been trained by two thousand years of history to see everything around us as inherently meaningless; only things that last forever without changing have any true substance or meaning. And since nothing actually does that...

The thing that really staggers me is thinking about how we really have no idea what we even mean by desiring that the things we love should last forever. I mean it quite literally: we're not even capable of wrapping our minds around the concept of such an existence, yet we ruin our lives worrying about the possibility of not attaining it. What would it even mean to exist as human beings unbound by time? What need would there ever be to act? If you could get what you think you want, to have eternal life in something like your individual form, don't you realize that the lack of temporal constraints would render your "life" utterly meaningless? You could take a twenty-trillion year nap in heaven, wake up, and still have the exact same neverendingness stretching out before you. As Alan Watts said, having "all the time you want" is one thing; having, literally, "time without end" is another. The latter would actually be much more like what we call hell, a nihilistic prison that would drive us mad. We couldn't possibly exist in such a state with our identities as we understand them. We need the boundaries of time, loss and death to give our lives meaning. With no possibility of change, nothing flowing to break up the stagnation, life would lose everything worthwhile about it.

Earlier in the book, they talk about Dante's Divine Comedy, where his impoverished vision of paradise is where you spend eternity "contemplating the radiance of God", a radiance that obliterates your identity and former, earthly passions like so many moths in a giant flame. Again, this sounds like pure hell. If people weren't so utterly ignorant about what they're asking for, you'd have to conclude they're utterly insane for wanting it. And for this, people have spent centuries denigrating the very things that make life worth living. What a tragedy.