Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/20/2011

The (moderately opaque) night of the soul

It seems to me

(What? what seems to you? I’d ask a student who began an essay with those words. “It?” What is “it?” “It” refers to nothing. If you don’t know the subject of your sentence, how can you know what you’re writing about?)

But I digress. It seems to me that if the universe was going to yank the rug out from under someone’s feet, he or she would at least be someone who had some resources—mental, physical, spiritual, or whatever the dimension is that we don’t know about—to catch him or herself and not fall flat. On one’s face.

It refers to Nothing.

One can take comfort, I suppose, in the absolute certainty that one is mostly ignorant. Even Ihab Hassan, the literary critic’s critic, has never heard of—I’m sure I know stuff he’s never heard of.  I know absolutely as much as he does, but what he knows is more publishable, more thought-provoking, more useful to humankind than what I know. But “it” refers to Nothing.

Of the many useful bits of information in the most recent article of Ihab Hassan’s I’ve read—yes, I do try to “mak[e] a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully” ideas that will expand my knowledge or, more importantly I guess, exercise my mind (1)—is an event in art history of some (at least passing) interest. (One does not, by the way, read Ihab Hassan’s writing to find tidbits of information, unless, of course, one simply doesn’t know enough a priori to understand what he’s saying.)

Back to art history.

When Leonardo’s masterpiece – she of the sweet, twisted smile – vanished for a while from the Louvre in 1911 (stolen by one Vicenzo Perugia), thousands came to stare at the blank spot on the wall – thousands, including Franz Kafka. The power and fascination of absence. Fort da! takes us forth (2).

I’d do that. I’d pay an admission price to stare at the blank spot on the wall where a masterpiece of Western art had hung before Vicenzo Perugia stole it. (Here we have an example of something I know that apparently Ihab Hassan doesn’t—or I’ve read somewhere that conflicts with what Hassan has written. Other sources say Vincenzo spelled his name Peruggia.) Especially since poor Vincenzo stole it based on something he though he knew that was incorrect. Napoleon did not steal the Mona Lisa when he conquered Italy (who knew he conquered Italy—it’s always Russia I hear about). Apparently Leonardo da Vinci himself took the painting along as a gift to the king when he moved to France to paint as the court painter (who knew Leonardo da Vinci ever lived in France—I must have known it at some point in my life because I read a biography of Leonardo da Vinci once because someone told me he wrote backwards in his journals and I wanted to know about someone else who did that).

Linda Holmes makes a distinction between “culling” from the galactic amount of information we have available to us and “surrendering” to the impossibility of knowing everything (I’d say “anything,” but that’s putting much too fine a point on it). She says “culling” is an effort

to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we’re missing less painful. There are people who choose not to watch television – and plenty of people don’t, and good for them – who find it easier to declare that they don’t watch television because there is no good television (which is culling) than to say they choose to do other things. . . (3)

She goes on to say that, if you cull too much and then admit you’re missing out on something (the example she uses I’ve never heard of—so I must have done too much culling) that’s “surrender.” But isn’t she really talking about paying an admission price to look at the empty spot where the Mona Lisa hung before Vincenzo stole it (by the way, in case you didn’t know, it was recovered, and Vincenzo spent a few months in jail). The point is that

Nihilism is of a noble lineage. . . Think of it as the philosophical unconscious of our race. At best, it is a penultimate form of lucidity, the emptiness intellect must traverse but spirit abhors. We are nihilistic thoughts that come into God’s head precisely because we introduce human reason into the ‘mind of God’. Reason is corrosive; it reduces the universe to rust; nothing withstands it– nothing except faith (3).

The emptiness intellect must traverse but spirit abhors.

I do not like this emptiness. My spirit certainly abhors it. But my poor intellect has no resources with which to traverse it. If Hassan is right and reason is corrosive, then I must not be any danger to the universe because I have so little reason. At least so few resources with which to traverse this emptiness.

But I keep trying to get through it. It’s my own emptiness. “It” is Nothing. Especially to anyone else. I don’t know even if it’s nihilism or apostasy or agnosticism or atheism or simply a large black hole. I keep trying to explain it to myself, and part of my explaining it to myself is—for reasons which seemed clear back on September 19, 2009 when I began this—writing here.

Quite a few people read what I write every day. I don’t know why. So I’ll let another do a chunk of the writing.

Now, the most basic duty of those who have human language is to use it, and to use it not just to get by, but to let one’s experience be, to let it have its shine in the sun. The texture of the world depends on us speaking it. And . . .  it is precisely those experiences not already fixed in cliché, that most need saying. . . . it remains the duty of all who gather communally around whatever campfires there are in today’s digital world. Heidegger himself would probably be suspicious of the avid blogger and find in her a tendency to idle talk, but there is something about her determination to leave nothing unsaid that he could not fail to cherish. So, I argue, we have a duty to words, a call to language. Any recourse to ineffability is an evasion of that call, a ploy to escape our distinctive task of wording the experiences that move us. The world and its things, the language which brings them to presence, the community which both creates language and is nourished by it, are all owed more. Nothing is ineffable (4).

I so much want to believe that. But my soul isn’t experiencing this opaque night that way. It is Nothing. Nothing is ineffable. If I could write my way out of that conundrum, the awareness of what I’m missing would be less painful. Because what I am missing is Something.
(1) Holmes, Linda. The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything.” NPR. April 18, 2011.
(2) Hassan, Iban.  “The Authority of the Void: A Kenotic Meditation in Five Parts.” Third Text 19.1 (January, 2005): 1–13.
(3) Hassan, Ibid.
(4) Conlon, James. “Against Ineffability.” Forum Philosophicum: International Journal for Philosophy 15.2 (2010): 381-400.


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