Wednesday, January 11, 2012

And what's it all about, anyway 2?


Many people become observers of life in order to answer the question posed in our title.  There is so much happening right before our very eyes to keep us busy indefinitely.  That's why most people love teavelling - wanderlust brings with it an ever-increasing canvass of activities to observe.  Then, different races and peoples, even communities, do things differently.  To my mind, the Northern Irish poet Louis McNeice put this beautifully and aptly in his poem Snow:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
(You can read the poem in full here Snow ) 

I have often crossed O'Connell Bridge in my native city here in Dublin, Ireland, and mused on the sheer variety of the incredibly numerous lives crossing all about me.  Why all this activity?  Who are all these people?  Where are they going to?  Where are they coming from?  That's why, I suppose, I was always smitten by the short definition of philosophy which says that it begins in wonder. Plato in his Theaetetus wrote that: the origin of philosophy is "wonder." However, this is not the wonder of the poet, as we have, say, in Patrick Kavanagh's wonderful poem, A Christmas Childhood.  Rather, the wonder here spoken of is 'wonder' in the sense of 'puzzlement' or 'perplexity,' not in the sense of 'awe'.  For me, my sense of wonderment here is of the philosophical, or of the Platonic, rather than of the poetic kind.  Having said that, I must admit that the wonderment expressed by the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot in a section of his great poem The Wasteland, lines 60-68, is also of the Platonic rather than of the poetic sense of wonderment as expressed in Kavanagh's lines.  These lines of Thomas Stearns Eliot always get me thinking, and have for many years rattled around in my mind:

The Halfpenny Bridge, Dublin
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

One can literally feel the burden of life as it weighs on both the people's shoulders and the poet's as they make their way across London Bridge.  To put this in existential terms I can feel the angst of these people - the very burden of the human condition.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This is a question I have long been concerned with?  Why does anything exist at all?  Needless to say, it is cognate with the overall title of these personal musings on the trajectory of that little life that happens to be this writer.  I remember years ago a rather learned old De La Salle Brother, named Patrick - I forget his surname - who lectured in the Philosophy of Education in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, always quoting this philosophical question for us as young students: Why is there something rather than nothing?    It was one, he said, that Martin Heidegger posed throughout his life and whose work was an attempt to answer that question.  And Bro. Patrick maintained that this was the ultimate question for a philosopher. As a good Catholic Christian he would have said that, anyway, you reply.  Indeed, it is more of a metaphysical question, than a philosophical question in the narrow sense of that term where some philosophers would rule such questions out of court completely as not belonging at all to the field of philosophy.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, why not? Why expect nothing rather than something? No experiment could support the hypothesis ‘There is nothing’ because any observation obviously implies the existence of an observer.  However, I still feel this weighty question posed by my learned teacher and by thousands of others over the history of time needs to be asked.  Why?  Well, we are essentially and indeed existentially questioners.  We reflect on our lives and especially on all the joys and pains we experience during the course of our little lives.  In other words, we try to make sense of what's happening to us, try to put a pattern and shape on our experiences.  In short we are meaning-makers and pattern-shapers.

There comes a time when we grow tired of cerebral questioning, that is, questioning things in a logical way all the time, because such is so dry, so life-denying, so soul-destroying - a machine-like approach to life.  This is not to say or deny that we don't need such a cerebral approach to life to tackle X, Y, and Z problems.  It is to say that pure logic will only bring the human animal so far.  We need to come to grips with our emotions and feelings as well as with our ideas and thoughts.  Likewise, we need to come to grips with how each one of these phenomena affects the other.  I remember years ago when I used to look at snooker on the T.V. and when Steve Davis, the wonderful snooker player, was at the top of his form and simply kept winning national and international competitions year after year people calling him "The Machine."  For us humans, machines while they may produce the "goodies," are heartless and soulless.  We want heroes who cry, who have a little chink in the armour now and then, who break now and again, but who generally win. And yet we know, in the game of life, there are no winners as none of us gets out of life alive.  We all have to die in the end.  We all have to lose the game in the end in other words.  And that's why meditation as advocated by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and other more enlightened agnostic philosophers and psychologists is so attractive and life-enriching - it takes as its province getting a handle on life and death and on death and dying not as the end of life but as part of life.

The Crunch of Gravel

I can even hear this sound in my ears as I type.  This aural image of gravel being crunched by black shoes - always black in my mind's eye - is part of me.  It brings me back to the Churchyards and graveyards of my childhood.  It was the crunching of the gravel as those great black newly-polished shoes of the mourners made their way up to the graveside.  This is where life touches us - at our very heart's core.  As I write these lines I am transported back into the graveyards where we buried my uncles, aunts, cousins and my father over the last forty or more years.  Dying and death are the shadows which we seek to repress at our very peril.  They are so much part of us that the only healing thing to do with them is acknowledge, accept and incorporate them into the overarching pattern or shape or form or meaning we construct for our little lives. 

Once standing by the graveside as my Uncle Pat's coffin was being lowered I spied a small white coffin down among the rotten timbers and lumps of clay.  To my boy's question, my father replied, "that's your older brother Thomas who died many years ago."

The above gravestone is a family one, weathered by the passing years in Roscrea Graveyard, Co. Tipperary.

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