Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Taste and the Abstraction

In a post the other day (“Difficult to Express”) I remarked as follows:

In fact, I must confess, I don’t ... much like that word: abstraction. It suggests some kind of paltry residue of the physical, the last considered real, all else a derivate.

I’d like to expand on that now. The more time passes the more conscious I become of the limitations of concepts. They work fine for personal understanding. In using words, I know what I mean; but we have a tendency to use words we understand to communicate with others—and other people understand those words in quite other ways. For this reason I’ve long felt that genuine inner discoveries of how the world is fashioned and how it moves and has its being can only be communicated effectively using stories and poetry. But those forms of communication, of course, will leave some people dissatisfied. They want their concepts more sharply defined, made mathematical, as it were, stripped of flesh, guts, and circulatory systems, seeing only the supporting structure of bone. But the maddening aspect of reality is that it is captured by the very fusion of its parts. Bones aren’t prior to flesh and blood; but tissue cannot be placed above bone in any hierarchical sense either. It’s the totality that counts. I must assume that bodies came about by a circular or iterative process in which, no doubt, a single fuzzy, undifferentiated intention came to manifest, by degrees, as a structure that has many complexly integrated parts.

In the same post I make the point that for me essences, or forms, are best viewed as intentions, and by that I mean that intentions have a formative impetus. But when I compare this understanding of form to the eternal forms associated with Plato, I see something quite different. Plato’s forms appear to be static—whereas intentions are always dynamic. Eternal forms don’t seem to have life, but intentions are life. In the usual ways of teaching young students the basics of Greek thought, form and matter, the examples for form tend to be static: it’s the image of Venus rendered in stone or bronze, the static idea of a residence, fully formed and rendered as architect’s drawings. But behind that Venus or that residence was, first, a living form in a living mind, and not present in full detail at all but, as I say above, in a fuzzy state, at least as much feeling as image. The concept of “form” has a great deal more energy and life hidden within it than that word routinely suggests. Now I suspect that Plato’s own conception was undoubtedly much more like what I’ve just laid out than as it has come to be passed on to later generations, but the exigencies of communication have eroded its most essential characteristics into a caricature.

Yesterday, after writing a brief and very foreshortened piece on existentialism—and discussing it with Brigitte—and later pondering our talk while on my walk, it suddenly dawned on me that what Heidegger called care (Sorge) and what Sartre called engagement, that very same whatever is what I routinely mean by consciousness. That happens to be my pet expression for something that, in its native form, is an experience, a complex something, a feeling as much as an understanding or, perhaps, an understanding of a feeling—what the Sufi’s call a taste. You have to taste it to know it, the Sufis say. But a taste, alas, is very difficult to convey to someone who hasn’t already tasted the same thing.

In my own personal lexicon, consciousness contains a meaning quite missing for many other people. In my personal understanding, it gets a certain emphasis. It has the character of being awake, really awake, more dynamically of coming awake, of realization, of a sudden grasp. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn—if I could summon the spirit of a long-dead gnostic—that what one calls care, another engagement, and a third consciousness a Gnostic might have called a gnosis, a knowing. In this contexts I might mention that Hans Jonas, in his superb The Gnostic Religion, concludes that Gnosticism in its own time was what, in ours, we experience as existentialism.

Now I would submit here that the storyteller, novelist, and poet—all using a much more comprehensive language than merely that of concepts—is much more able to communicate the taste, the reality, and the flavor of experience than the person who tries to balance the entire insight on the single leg of abstractions.

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