Oct 18, 2012

for the time being

it's been a few years since i was up late in snowmass after a day at the woodshop reading annie dillard's for the time being, a many-threaded extended reflection on theodicy and the ways humans are evil to each other. the book ranges considerably into the realm of cultural evolutionary biology, which i've been thinking about of late (robert boyd and peter richerson write compelling about it in a book anyone interested in the evolution of culture should read). she writes:

Cultural evolution happens fast; it accelerates exponentially and, to put it less precisely, explodes. Biological evolution takes time, because it requires biological generations; the unit of reproduction is the mortal and replicating creature. Once the naked ape starts talking, however, "the unit of reproduction becomes"  in the words of anthropologist Gary Clevidence  "the mouth."
more from pierre teilhard de chardin (who also plays a supporting role in dan simmons's hyperion cantos, one of my favourite space operas):
Geologists have considered every concentric layer forming the Earth except one: the layer of human thought. [chardin might also have said, and of human history and its impact on the land.] However far we look into the past, we see the waves of the multiple breaking into foam.
a recurrent theme: the disparity between religion (which abrogates to itself the experience of holiness) and the experience of holiness itself.
Throughout my whole life, during ever minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within. (chardin)

The more I work, the more I see things differently, that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is. (giacometti)
freeman dyson's infinite in all directions (his gifford lectures) captures this same sense of holiness, of sensing the flame behind the form. there is also an element, as the shakers understood, of doing something for the sake of doing it. mother ann lee said "Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as though you were going to die to-morrow." dillard finds an example from one of the layers of our shared history:
Solutrean artisans knapped astonishing yellow blades in the shape of long, narrow pointed leaves. The longest Solutrean blade is fourteen inches long, four inches at its beam, and only one-quarter inch thick. Their intricate technique is overshot flaking; it is, according to Douglas Preston, "primarily an intellectual process" ... Hold one of these chert knives to the sky. It passes light. It shines dull, waxy gold  brown in the center, and yellow toward the edges as it clears. At each conchoidal fractured edge all the way around the double-ogive form, at each cove in the continental stone, the blade thins from translucency to transparency. You see your skin, and the sky. At its very edge the blade dissolves into the universe at large. It ends imperceptibly at an atom. Each of these delicate, absurd objects takes hundreds of separate blows to fashion. At each stroke and at each pressure flake, the brittle chert might  and, by the record, very often did  snap. The maker knew he was likely to lose many hours breath-holding work at a tap. The maker worked in extreme cold. He knew no one would ever use the virtuoso blades. He protected them, and his decendants saved them intact, for their perfection. To any human on earth, the sight of one of them means: someone thought of making, and made, this difficult, impossible, beautiful thing.
looking beyond trappings and outward signs is the key. chardin is the originator of the virtual sacrament, first as a soldier in the second world war, and then later as an archaeologist in china:
Since once more, my Lord, not now in the forest of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia, I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I shall rise beyond symbols to the pure majesty of the real, and I shall offer you, I your priest, on the altar of the whole earth, the toil and sorrow of the world.
it comes back to a particular type of love for the world:
We love in all we seek. The hidden shows up in too-plain sight. It lives captive on the face of the obvious  the people, events, and things of the day  to which we as sophisticated children have long since become oblivious. What a hideout: Holiness lies spread and borne over the surface of time and stuff like colour. What to do? There is only matter, Teilhard said; there is only spirit, the Kabbalists and Gnostics said. These are essentially identical views. Each impels and individual soul to undertake to divinize, transform, and complete the world, to  as these thinkers say quite as if there were both matter and spirit  "subject a little more matter to spirit," to "lift up the fallen and to free the imprisoned," to"work for the redemption of the world," to "extract spiritual power without letting any of it be lost," to "help the holy spiritual substance to accomplish itself in that section of creation in which we are living," to "mend the shattered unity of the divine worlds," to "force the gates of the spirit, and cry, 'Let me come by.'" When one of his Hasids complained of God's hiddenness, Rabbi Pinhas said, "It ceases to be a hiding if you know it is hiding." But it does not cease to hide, not ever, not under any circumstance, for anyone.
on this, also see: a marvellous stagewheatcakes; and the expanding self.

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