Saturday, July 07, 2012

The top -- a Saturday reprise

(This post appeared in December 2005.)

There is a short (very short!) story by Franz Kafka about a philosopher who hangs around children in the street who are playing with tops. As the tops are sent spinning across the pavement, the philosopher leaps to grab them, to the distress of the kids. He has this idea that if he can understand any detail of reality, a spinning top for instance, he will grasp it all. But as soon as he has a top in hand, he is depressed, nauseated even. He tosses the top away -- until the next time.

The story is called The Top, and is, I suppose, a parable, one of those Kafkaesque parables we can make of what we want. I see it representing our desire to know and understand the reductive laws of nature, the perennial quarry of science. But knowing those laws does not satisfy our deepest yearning, which is for the thing that spins, the non-reductive thing.

Some folks are content to watch the spinning top, the blur of color and squeal. Others are satisfied by the solidity and heft of the thing in the hand. And others of us struggle as best we can to balance whirl and heft, to have our spinning top and grasp it too.