I stole the title from a book by Walker Percy. I woke up hours before dawn to rummage through the attic, needing to find it. I remembered there was a clue in it, a shield against despair. One should listen to a man who survived suicide and then wrote books trying to make sense of it all. I couldn’t find it under the garbled heaps, the remains from years of dead ends and blind alleys. I am lost in the cosmos with no signposts on the road.
“When all of life fails, what’s the use of going to Wales?“, wrote Auden somewhere. When everything crumbles into dust, why write? What’s the use of voyaging through seas of thought. alone? Why plumb the Deep, only to dredge up an old shoe? Is it worth the loss of earthly belongings, the resentment of those closest to you?
Philosophers, especially those not housebroken by academia, were mocked or slandered by their contemporaries. Spinoza, Nietzsche, Blake, C.S. Peirce, all lived, as a result, precarious lives in rented rooms, ignored and belittled. Still, they wrote. Spinoza could not publish in his own name. Nietzsche went mad. Peirce left thousands of manuscript pages still being organized a hundred years later. Why? They were pulled by a persistent aspiration, the pull of Immensity. Gilles Deleuze intriguingly writes that the mystery of a philosopher’s life, his poverty, humility, the ascetic virtues, are all effects of a singularity, the effects of a rich life sufficiently powerful to have conquered thought and subordinated every other instinct to it. It is an attempt to bring another world into view.
They achieved takeoff velocity in their seeming ascetic life that enabled them to soar. They didn’t write to sell books, start revolutions, or generate views online. They tapped into a realm, which, through their words, entered our world and grew on its own. Self-propagating, taking hold of other minds, spreading influence by thought. Through words.
Unless we are absorbed by the weapons of mass distraction, we cannot possibly be content living on the surface, like some bug who travels across the lake without breaking the surface tension of the water. But even for those brave philosophers, it’s not enough just to know in a passive sense. In Plato’s allegory, one must escape the cave and withstand the brilliance of the Sun. And yet such Illumination is only the halfway mark. One must return to the cave, tell the tale, and be crucified.
I haven’t the courage for that and thus remain lost in the cosmos. Nor have I reached the Sun, and escaped the cave. The halfway path is not well lit. Yet there is an Immensity whose presence I sense, but can’t see. I can’t let it go, poor acolyte that I am.
The ancient dawns of human knowledge have left us their witness to this constant aspiration; today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primeval longings. The earliest formula of Wisdom promises to be its last,–God, Light, Freedom, Immortality…These persistent ideals…are at once the contradiction of its [humanity’s] normal experience and the affirmation of higher and deeper experiences which are abnormal to humanity and only to be attained…by a revolutionary individual effort or an evolutionary general progression.
…to build peace and a self-existent bliss where there is only a stress of transitory satisfactions beseiged by physical pain and emotional suffering, to establish an infinite freedom in a world which presents itself as a group of mechanical necessities, to discover and realise the immortal life in a body subjected to death and constant mutation—this is offered to us as the manifestation of God in Matter and the goal of Nature in her terrestrial evolution.Sri Aurobindo, Life Divine, pgs 3-4.
The Egyptians were fully conscious of this and organized their society around this manifestation. We are cut off from the ancient wisdom. I don’t have the capacity to reassemble the fragments. The Cosmos still beckons us, relentlessly, to the full realization of its splendor and glory. It is still a steep climb out of the Cave.