Monday, April 19, 2010

Things in themselves, myself being myself

One of the consistent themes of this blog has been the search for "the thing itself," that is, a knowledge of reality that is not mediated by accidents of history, culture, religion, politics, or personal foibles and prejudices. Impossible, of course. We are always to some extent prisoners of our limited perceptual apparatus and the hard and soft wiring of our brains. Nevertheless, "the thing itself" remains the elusive Holy Grail of human knowing.

Science is the most effective instrument we have yet devised to minimize the intrusiveness of cultural and personal prejudice. The goal of science is reliable consensus knowledge of the world out there, not necessarily "the thing itself," but as close to "the thing itself" as we can get. Mathematics, quantification, instrumentation, experiment, impersonal communication, peer review, and all the rest have been devised to strip away the filters of culture and biology.

By its very nature, scientific knowing is limited to those aspects of the real that lend themselves to quantification and experiment. Which means whole realms of human experience -- self-awareness, love, beauty, the apprehension of mystery -- have been, so far, largely impermeable to scientific inquiry. Which leaves ample territory for artists to pursue their own quest for "the thing itself."

I have written here before about the photographer Edward Weston and his explicit search for "the thing itself," and the poet Wallace Stevens' "not ideas about the thing but the thing itself." Virginia Woolf is another artist who sought the thing itself -- "it," she called it -- especially in her novel The Waves.

Woolf wanted to express "the fundamental things in human experience," unmediated, as far as possible, by the novelist's art. She wanted "to reach into the silence" and retrieve something fundamental and universal. The novel begins with elemental description:
"I see a ring," said Bernard, "hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light."

"I see a slab of pale yellow," said Susan, "spreading away until it meets a purple stripe."

"I hear a sound," said Rhoda, "cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down."

"I see a globe," said Neville, "hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill."

"I see a crimson tassel," said Jinny, "twisted with gold threads."

"I hear something stamping," said Louis. "A great beast's foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps."
This would not seem to be a promising beginning for a novel, but at least the novelist shows her cards. What follows will be the voices of six characters trying to articulate their unvarnished perceptions and inner feelings. We are taken deep into the inner and outer realities of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis, searching for the thing itself. Recognizing that any apprehension of the real must be expressed in "flawed words and stubborn sounds," we end, as with Wallace Stevens, in silence. Or if not in silence, at least with many excrescences of the mind pared away. In his final soliloquy, Bernard says:
"I have done with phrases. How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone, I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but let me sit on and on, silent, alone."
The paradox: As humans we inevitably perceive and describe, seeking the real, never knowing with certainty which of our words are merely echoes in the sounding chambers of our minds.