Monday, March 23, 2009


If we look for the sign under which Modernity hopes to conquer, that sign surely is becoming. This fascination with process and change deeply marks the philosophical current of the Enlightenment. Dynamism is everything. Everything’s emergent by a dialectical fusion of the opposites. The superior emerges magically from the inferior as Hegel’s god creates himself. This mode of thought submerges being in a flux. Being remains but merely as a recurring but temporary term. No wonder that even destruction gets decorated with the adjective creative in modernist parlance—much as the word sheikdom must be decorated with oil-rich.

I’m sometimes quite sure that this position arises from a temperament, the temperament itself the product of a state of being, the state of being perhaps stamped on us in a preexistence we no longer can remember. Karma? I simply don’t remember ever consciously choosing the side of being in this controversy. Or did I acquire my mental stance by osmosis during a Catholic education? Perhaps. In any case, it feels more like a skin I came with than an acquisition.

My traditional attitude seems innate because orientation is important and meaningful to me—and orientation seems to require a fixed spot on which to stand (in Archimedes’ sense). The concept of being serves that purpose admirably, but only if being is absolute and prior, meaning all-inclusive, thus including within its sphere becoming itself as one of the modalities of being.

In the traditional temperament, everything has a place. We may change places, but each of those, in turn is also rooted in the firm ground of—let’s call it eternity. What modernity cannot offer, adrift as it is in a torrent of flux, is genuine orientation that has a bite, as it were, that makes a demand on us. The chief orientations appear to be those in space and time, narrowly considered, but these are relatively trivial. Those that matter are dimensions of existence I associate with Paul Gauguin’s questions, placed as the title of one of his Tahitian paintings: “Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?” What I’m seeking for here is an apt name for a dimension that transcends time and space: the dimension of meaning. Too bad that nothing Greek’s on offer to make this sound profound.

Modernity’s answers to Gauguin’s questions are not exactly satisfying. Who are we? Biological products of matter. Why are we here? Because the conditions of matter on this planet favored the appearance of living matter, a state that routinely emerges if random events and background conditions favor the process. Where are we going? Back to the earlier form of matter from which we first emerged. Wow! Five hundred years of scientific thought have truly produced—a mouse… Well, not even quite a mouse yet.

This being the sum and substance of modernity’s meaningful answers, that situation entirely justifies my seeking grander myths of worlds beyond the Mountains of Qaf—as the Islamic mystics would have it. A leaning towards being is not a bad start toward that journey. The Mountains of Qaf, by the way, form the outer shell of the visible cosmos.