Don’t Look Down

My father believes that the 21st century by necessity will be a metaphysical age. Our tacit metaphysics so divides us from one another and from the world, that we will have to find our way back again. I do not doubt that a new, great unified metaphysical framework may bloom. As to its necessity—I wonder.

For a long time, as a devoted believer in the philosophy of David Hume, I thought that “metaphysics” was simply the highest form of rationalism; a word that must always be said with a sneer. Metaphysics is synonymous with hubris, with the folly of man leaping over an open cliff with no real hope of reaching the other side.

A greater appreciation of history has helped me to see that Hume’s anti-metaphysics metaphysics, and the sorts of metaphysics it was aimed against, tend to run together. For every Plato and Aristotle there is a Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, for every Hume there is a Kant—or more to the point, a Hegel.

Today, the echoes of the Hegelian and Marxist projects, as well as the anti-metaphysical positivist ones, are all we are left with. They have fallen into ruin, but their ghosts continue to haunt us as the most recent of such projects to be taken up. Behind them we see the long reach of their predecessors; the continental rationalists and the English-speaking empiricists.

But in this accounting we leave out a very different sort of project. We can see it in the phenomenological and hermeneutical schools in Germany, and in the “ordinary language” philosophy in England. Its most prominent figures are Heidegger, whose putrid prose and National Socialist politics left a foul odor on the enterprise, and Wittgenstein, who made his name through a cold formalism he subsequently abandoned for the enchantment of language.

These thinkers were not so much metaphysical or anti-metaphysical as mystical. Their critics would agree, for positivists, Hegelians, rationalists and empiricists alike can think of no higher insult to a thinker than the accusation of mysticism.

But mysticism is not here meant as an insult, but as an appreciation for ineradicable mystery. Heidegger’s forgetting of Being can be seen as the inevitable result of attempting such an eradication. In seeking to remove all mystery, we simply fence our attention into specific areas and soon forget that a whole world exists beyond them. As Wittgenstein put it:

It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…”—and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.

A serious commitment to truth accepts that unconcealing some aspect of it necessarily involves some other aspect falling back behind the veil. Total unconceilment, Hegel’s great promise, is not available to frail, finite beings such as ourselves.

And yet there is wisdom, there is truth—even moral truth—immanent in life. It is not really grasped through theory, though theory does play a partial but important role in the life of such truths. These truths are best approached cautiously, sketching them out as living phenomena rather than attempting to reduce them to some formula.

Poetry and storytelling are beyond compare as methods for approaching these truths. It is precisely their indirect, figurative, and suggestive nature that leaves them open to vastly more than direct examination allows. More than even poets and storytellers are capable of realizing they have captured.

I don’t think anyone has any trouble seeing and feeling this when they aren’t taking the stance of philosopher or scientist. As children, stories seem to have a simple meaning. As we age, we notice meanings in familiar stories that we had missed the first time. The danger is to suppose we have finally grasped all of the meanings, or that we are capable of doing so. True adulthood requires an acceptance of the multitudes forever beyond our reach. This acceptance must be paired with a faith that such multitudes exist at all.

Metaphysics, and even anti-metaphysics, has its place. But living in the world requires a deep seated belief in its enchantment. In practice, we are all mystics.

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But He Will Rule You

Mary Ellen was always pretty as a girl, and she knew it coming through grade school. She kept the boys enthralled with a wit that drew them close and kept them at bay, like Redbones on the scent without a command to hunt. “You might be tall, Hugh Johnson,” she told him, “so tall the Lord God couldn’t reach up to put any brains in your head.” When she blossomed, they howled. Right then she determined not to marry in her town because they knew her too well.

In the next town they ached for her. The other young ladies frowned severely, each trying to look through the back of her gentleman’s head, whose neck was twisted dangerously, too tight, you might say, if you understand what I mean by that frown. They puzzled, too, wondering how a girl without much in the way of physical attributes could twist every neck in town. Was it her dress? Her shoes? Her hair? Her money? All were the same as theirs. In fact, nothing about her stood out except her glow, and when she smiled: oh, my…

Was there a man in town made for her? In fact there was a man every young lady hoped she was made for. He was Jeremiah Fenton, Jeremiah, Jr., in fact, the son of Jeremiah, Sr., who was the owner of Fenton Construction, a contracting outfit interested in new home builds, garage builds, remodels, and general home repair. As for Jeremiah, Jr., he was a savvy businessman himself, right out of high school, having the good sense to listen to his father, who had built up that business before the war, during those dark times of the Great Depression, then holding on until the soldiers came home. The soldiers listened to him, and then to his son, whom he taught the business.

It didn’t hurt that Jeremiah, Jr. was the very definition of strapping, with shoulders broad and proud. Good humor tinged everything Jeremiah said and did, so that even when he made a mistake, a customer could point it out with equal good humor such that whatever was lacking was made right without much fuss for either party. “If I had used a bigger hammer,” Jeremiah said to Willy Gaithers, “I might have had to build you a new sun room on the back of your house.” Willy Gaithers laughed while Jeremiah’s crew plastered over the hole Jeremiah had made while putting some finishing nails in the trim Willy Gaithers wanted around his windows.

Jeremiah took the blame, but everyone knew (because Willy Gaithers told everyone) what really happened was Jeremiah discovered a leak in the roof which had rotted away one of the wall studs next to the window frame. He climbed up on the roof, found the problem, fixed it, figured out a way to replace the stud without taking out the whole wall, then patched the greater hole that had formed anyway. In other words, everyone knew that not only was Jeremiah an honest businessman, he was generous.

When he saw Mary Ellen out of the corner of his eye, his neck twisted so hard that he was forced to let go of Martha Johansenn’s hand and pursue Mary Ellen’s. “Aha!” he declared. “At last! I have a woman who is for me!” Mary Ellen thought that was nice, and she told her folks, and her folks met with his folks, and the two towns were, on the wedding day, brought together in the union of this man to this woman. It was a match made in heaven, and everyone treading that ground knew it, and they smiled under the blessings of God.

It wasn’t that Mary Ellen was dissatisfied with the money; she wanted the prestige. While the two towns waited for progeny to embody the union, Mary Ellen lay awake at night crafting a plan to attain an upper middle class lifestyle, and from there, to step into the elite class, replete with its invitations to invitations, invitations to socialize in air-conditioned buildings up off the ground and away from the people of the land.

She said, “You should think about commercial construction. There’s a building boom going on.”

“You mean business buildings?” Jeremiah, Jr. shared with Jeremiah Sr. his misgivings.

“Can’t get comfortable,” said Jeremiah Sr. “There ain’t no such thing, not in construction. You can grow the business out or you can grow it up.”

“I’m going to need a construction manager,” he said to himself. “And a loan.”

What made Mary Ellen leave her town to make a union in Jeremiah’s town made her make Jeremiah leave his deliberations and take out a loan. A tax accountant advised them to stay liable for the money instead of sheltering it in a corporation. Something about equipment depreciation. Jeremiah barely understood. Mary Ellen guided his hand onto the bottom line. “This is our house, too,” he said.

The money froze the marriage. Progeny were not possible.

Jeremiah doused his God-given natural desire by gulping down Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey, a habit that made him a little unpleasant in the mornings, which made his hired hands a little displeased in doing their work, and they made mistakes. He roared at them, and they quit. While he was watching them leave, the bank tapped him on the shoulder, demanding to know just what in God’s name happened to those contracts to build additions, wings, wards, and extensions to hospitals, churches, department stores, and supermarket groceries.

The bankruptcy judge was perfunctory and cold. He didn’t even shake his head in disappointment. Mary Ellen was in the truck outside the courthouse, waiting for Jeremiah. He hopped in without a word. She was in tears. “We still have each other, don’t we?” she asked. He stared straight ahead, with his jaw clenched. Mary Ellen fixed her eyes upon her man, Jeremiah, Jr., waiting for a word from a him, that he might treat her as his bride. At a stoplight near their house, which now belonged to someone else, Jeremiah turned to his wife, and with all the strength he had in his broad shoulders to maintain his calm, he uttered, “This is all your fault.”

The light turned green and he turned his attention to the task of driving home.

Where was home?