Friday, October 28, 2005

The great bran pie

Sharing several hours every week with Bailey and Greg -- so young, so eager, so curious, so bright -- reminds me of a passage from Virginia Woolf's The Waves, a book I discovered when I was about their age:
"The complexity of things becomes more close," said Bernard, "here at college, where the stir and pressure of life are so extreme, where the excitement of mere living becomes daily more urgent. Every hour something new is unburied the the great bran pie. What am I? I ask. This? No, I am that. Especially now, when I have left a room, and people talking, and the stone flags ring out with my solitary footsteps, and I behold the moon rising, sublimely, indifferently, over the ancient chapel -- then it becomes clear that I am not one and simple, but complex and many."

College as a great bran pie -- one of those Victorian Christmas confections in which were buried gifts and treats! What lesson is more important than this -- that we are complex and many? Churches, corporations, and tyrants want us to believe that the world is one and simple: tithe, buy, die. But of course the world is not as simple as all that. Lewis Thomas, the admired essayist, once said that the greatest discovery of 20th-century science is how little we know and understand. The philosopher Karl Popper concurred: "The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance -- the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite."

And that is what I felt when I read The Waves as a student: We are immersed in mystery up to our eyeballs; it soaks creation as water soaks a sponge.

Later, in maturity, Bernard confesses:
How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn up on half sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on pavement. I begin to see some design more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably. Lying in a ditch on a stormy day, when it has been raining, then enormous clouds come marching over the sky, tattered clouds, wisps of cloud. What delights me then is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and movement; something sulfurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost, and I forgotten, minute, in a ditch. Of story, of design I do not see a trace then.

And then, and then -- we scratch about to make our own meaning, trying, as best we can, to patch together a content of sorts.