Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/19/2011

Was there ever a “there” there?

Was it ever "there?"

Was it ever "there?"

I am compelled to quote a chunk from my January 2 post, the one about the passage of time and my birthday: 

Do you remember when you were a kid wondering if everyone sees “red” the same way? I used to spend more time than was warranted pondering if what is red to me is something different to you. How do we know we experience a color the same way? I know about the physics of the spectrum, the retina, optic nerves and brain receptors. I’m not thinking about how it works. I’m thinking about the truly impenetrable mystery: does red impinge on your consciousness as it does on mine? 

Describe for me what you experience as “red” —without telling me any of that scientific stuff. Just” red.” Tell me what it looks like. You can’t. What if what you see as red is what I see as blue? What you “see” as that color is what you’ve been taught to call “red.” What I see I’ve been taught to call “red;” my parents told me to call that experience “red” even though they had no idea what my experience was (1).  

From an old book I started to reread last week: 

It is immediately apparent, however, that this sense-world, this seemingly real external universe—though it may be useful and valid in other respects—cannot be the external world, but only the Self’s projected picture of it. It is a work of art, not a scientific fact; and, whilst it may well possess the profound significance proper to great works of art, is dangerous if treated as a subject of analysis. Very slight investigation shows that it is a picture whose relation to reality is at best symbolic and approximate, and which would have no meaning for selves whose senses, or channels of communication, happened to be arranged upon a different plan. The evidence of the senses, then, cannot be accepted as evidence of the nature of ultimate reality: useful servants, they are dangerous guides. Nor can their testimony disconcert those seekers whose reports they appear to contradict (2). 

I began reading Underhill because I can’t find my copy of Meister Eckhart’s writings—it’s hard to believe I would have given it away; I probably left it in some hotel room somewhere—and Barnes and Noble doesn’t have it on Nook yet (a new hard copy of his “mystical writings” costs $98, which I definitely cannot afford). The citation is somewhat misleading. Underhill first published her work in 1910. It’s old stuff, probably discredited long since by theology students and philosophers. But I like it. Underhill speaks a language I (either) understand (or) like. She knows and quotes some of my favorite writers. 

Every time that the powers of the soul come into contact with created things, they receive the created images and likenesses from the created thing and absorb them. In this way arises the soul’s knowledge of created things. Created things cannot come nearer to the soul than this, and the soul can only approach created things by the voluntary reception of images. And it is through the presence of the image that the soul approaches the created world: for the image is a Thing, which the soul creates with her own powers. Does the soul want to know the nature of a stone—a horse—a man? She forms an image (3). 

As I said, I suppose this kind of old fashioned “mystical” writing is most likely discredited in fashionable circles. I, however, am not fashionable. In any way, I fear—except that I do keep on using this electronic media stuff. 

Yesterday I tried for hours (again, as I did the day before) to write something about my fear that men (mostly men although Sarah Palin fits right in) who are certain they understand reality—they know for sure the meaning of life—are more and more in power (or perhaps it only seems that way because we have instant access to everything anyone says through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other unknown “social networks”). That any human being can thank Jesus for his election as chairwag of the national committee of a political party simply boggles my mind. Reince Priebus is a whole lot more certain about reality than I am. Of course he’s young—only 38—and, if he’s lucky he will get a better grasp on things than he has now. 

It’s that age thing I’ve been thinking about. A week or so ago I wrote to an old friend that I have “no belief and very little faith left.” I thought I was walking down some path that only an old fool or an idiot would transverse. I must be living some sort of ungrateful apostasy, some rejection of all that is beautiful, good, true, you name it.

 However, in conversation with a close friend and mentor last night, I discovered I’m not alone. He’s 60, too. And we managed to think of many people our age besides ourselves who have “no belief and little faith” left. 

But it’s not giving up anything of value, I think. It’s discovering what Evelyn Underhill and Meister Eckhart and the whole cloud of mystical witnesses have known before us. We look at reality, and it isn’t there. As Gertrude Stein famously said of her hometown, Oakland, California, “There is no there there.” She was not disparaging the city, however. She was simply lamenting the fact that her childhood home, her school, her synagogue—everything familiar to her was gone. 

Her experience is, I think, universal. For anyone who is willing to look, there is no there there. But you can’t know that until you’re old—unless, of course, you are a mystic by Evelyn Underhill’s definition. Young people like Reince Priebus and the new governor of Alabama who is certain he knows his true “brothers and sisters” (those who know Jesus Christ as their personal savior) have no clue about reality. They are not especially deluded. They simply get the press.  

There is no there there. The question all humans might (I won’t way “must” because few ever actually do, I think) is, “What is real?” 

. . . artist and surgeon, Christian and rationalist, pessimist and optimist, do actually and truly live in different and mutually exclusive worlds, not only of thought but also of perception. Only the happy circumstance that our ordinary speech is conventional, not realistic, permits us to conceal from one another the unique and lonely world in which each lives (4). 

Is this depressing? Sad? Happy? None or all. I don’t know. I know only that I’ve had to reach a certain age and come to a certain willingness to stare at things until what I have always thought was the “evidence of the nature of ultimate reality” disappears and I see things for what they are not.
(1) Knight, Harold. “A birthday lament: Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (or is it?).” Sumnonrabidus’s Blog. 01/02/2011. Web. 19 Jan. 2011.
(2) Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. Forward by Ira Progoff. New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1990 (p. 11).
(3) Eckhart, Meister. Mystische Schriften. Trans. Gustav Landauer. Berlin: Vershollene Meister der Literatur, 1903 (p. 15). Quoted in Underhill, p. 6.
(4) Underhill (p. 10).


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