The metaphysics of “not”

On a summer’s day made for a perspiring glass of Coke on the rocks, sitting again on the slope of an old knoll will bring stirrings of familiarity.  This sensation — stirring, I called it — comes from a movement, a shift from unawareness to awareness.  It is like waking from sleep.  A human being, her five senses imbibing a constant stream of data from the local space and time like a mad dog, needs to call on the resources of this higher awareness to recall all the places she is not.  I am not manning the machine at a grocery store, I am not in the bakery-scented streets of Paris, I am not smoking a joint on a rooftop, etc.

Somehow, having spent all of this time in London, the thought never occurred that to the extent that I was in London, I was just as much not in Iowa City.  Being away from the “home” university for seven months therefore affords a unique opportunity for retrospective — unique contingent on a return to the object of consideration, allowing the retrospection to look forward as well as backward.

Quite unrelated is this tension between identity and knowledge which has presented itself. Tension because knowledge is immediate — it changes you on contact and persists like an infectious disease, marking a point which bifurcates “before” and “after”.  Identity is slow, and builds on itself over time, creating a relationship between moments in time somewhat more complex than the “not” relationship in logic.  Knowing something is not equal to becoming something.  Perhaps the two are not related, as the Tao would insist, and it is possible to fruitfully devote a lifetime becoming something which is elementary and unknowable.

To bring the bull to the altar, the idea was in my mind that Islam was a religion of practice and that Christianity was a religion of ideas.  Never mind the Catholic pilgrims who filled S. Maria Maggiore and S. Pietro last Easter.  Then, reading Desmond Tutu’s The Rainbow People of God, I learned an alternative presentation of Christian practice.  One in which social and political activism is brought under the banner of “religion”.  It’s still a far cry from the five pillars of Islamic practice, but a good piece of evidence in the case against any who would relegate “religion” to an equal footing with “beliefs” — because a confession is not an identity.

How could anyone make such a shallow mistake, you ask?  I would guess there are many recipes, but the one I followed is illustrative: a love of books and a profound poverty of imagination. Books because they are inherently biased toward ideas and against acts.  In books one can read the thoughts of St Augustine as he reasons with a recently lost friendship — exactly and unfortunately one step away from where the action is.  The trick is to connect information to action.  Here “imagination” is what Hume calls “passion” — that part of a conviction which actually produces the drive to act, beyond only meditation.

As Borges writes, in the land of Tlön an argument is considered incomplete if its counterargument is not presented.  A book cannot be published unless it also contains its opposite book.  The metaphysics of “not” relationships and the tension between identity and knowledge are the major forces in my mind right now, and fortunately they apply well to the present situation.  Why else was it so difficult to explain to my parents why I wanted to go to South America — while now that it is happening, they instinctively understand the pursuit of “becoming” which set this ball rolling, among others?  Here the language of argument is insufficient.

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