ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
The Great Disappearing Act - 2019 [EN, essay]
The Great Disappearing Act
A brief history of Western philosophy, money and art
Descended from a long line of poor sowers (ragged tenants struggling vainly against adversity, sand-hole-dwelling have-nots and jacks-of-all trades) and having spent a lifetime scratching and scrabbling for an absolute pittance, we are hardly qualified to speak of pecuniary matters. For we barely grasp the secrets of household economics and have never had more than two pennies to rub together. For having the impudence to proffer an opinion on the subject, there is but one excuse: our apparent ability to string a handful of words together. Few monied people seem to possess this talent due to the fact that no one is ever perfect, and nor would we want to add to God’s unbearable loneliness by depriving Him or Her of the ultimate consolation (the satisfaction of being the only perfect being). We are ever mindful, therefore, of our limited insight, and write in full awareness of our ignorance, which we consider to be our inexhaustible driving force.
When we did not yet know language, as the old ones teach us, there was no other value than immediate pleasure. Unfortunately, we possessed vocal chords capable of producing many different sounds and fingers that were able to hold the most delicate of objects, which meant that we began to play with sounds and touch things, thereby refining our minds. Until they became so discerning that, as the gift of language slowly dawned, we were deprived of our ability to appreciate the moment. Henceforth, we were doomed to an existence that ricochets between a sorrowful contemplation or a jubilant celebration of the past, and agonising dreams of the future. Fortunately, language also brought death into our lives. For while our mortal state casts a long shadow over all words, dreams, deeds and creations, it also confers a certain value to the present moment, albeit only occasionally and never for long. Thus, we are dragged back and forth, slipping and sliding between the moments of yesteryear and those that are yet to come, to the extent that our lives become a strange kind of perpetual postponement or boundless waiting. And in a desperate attempt to catch hold of something, we translate all our hopes and deferrals, and the impalpable fleetingness of the moment, into monetary terms.
The first philosophical writings in the Western world, as the old ones tell us, are those of Heraclitus, who stated that fire was the ‘father of all things’. His thinking is anything but systematic, and is suffused with painful contradictions and riddles, which is why many scholars refer to him as ‘the Dark’. Others contend that Heraclitus expresses the insolubility of the world and is thus the bearer of light. In this respect, his thinking accords with Eastern spirituality, where the miniscule and monumental can be one and the same thing, depending upon the vantage point, so that nothing is ever truly great or small and all things are of equal value. This also applies to destiny, or to any other kind of fate, because every gesture is an illusion, as is every endeavour. (An eagle catches a giant fish, the name of which can also mean ‘fish egg’. The higher the eagle flies with its prey, the smaller it gets, until the pair of animals are no bigger than the egg of a fish.) And so, we learn that the Ancient Greeks enjoyed speaking in unfathomable riddles and defying one another by demonstrating that it is impossible to speak of anything with any certainty. Because knowledge, in all its various forms, was perceived as just a series of useful sounds that are superimposed upon nature. And thinking, they mused, was not the mindless and boastful repetition of these sounds, but the questioning of them, so as to create chinks in the grey curtain that separates us from reality, which they described as ‘a veil to be lifted.’ And what they saw when they raised the veil was not an unambiguous truth, but typically just death and eternal chaos, which still they dared to evoke and behold.
And they did this by way of contradictions, which were not oppositions in the tangible world, but assemblies of incongruent words. For it is the ambiguity and vagueness of language, which stems from the careless use of the available sounds and the limitations of our minds, that enables such contradictions and playful turns of phrase, which we call aporias (or poems, depending on the actual linguistic form). And amidst this endless confusion, our brain looks for meaning like a restless mouse in a labyrinth, and make us laugh when it momentarily thinks it has alighted upon a profound explanation, which is almost simultaneously revealed to be the expression of a secret dream. For we are nothing more than bodies that seek a pathway towards the light, a route that often transpires to be determined by the body itself, which is doomed to look for ways of bringing yet more new bodies into the world.
The old ones also tell us that Heraclitus lived during an age that witnessed the striking of the first coins. His ability to call fire the ‘father of all things’ – as if it possessed giant hands and scratchy cheeks – appears to have coincided with the capacity to transform the value of objects into a form of delayed gratification, one that was guaranteed by a metal object. For indeed, nothing is created without first dismantling something else – without its destruction and disappearance –, and this reproductive principle consumes the world, plunging it into an ongoing renewal and replacement, so as to remain eternally green, fresh and young, as Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself.
A disappearing act
The ancients also show us that we are dealing with a disappearing act. For first there was an immediate pleasure, which was blissfully attainable. But this pleasure was subsequently deferred and was converted into coins, the latter of which might later prove to be useful. And this continued for centuries, mercilessly, until the time of the second disappearing trick when the coins suddenly vanished. Where they had gone, nobody knew. Yet their haunting representation ruthlessly proliferated and gradually placed a whole range of instant pleasures out of reach, until everyone was forced into the same state of deferral, and life became unbearable. And the deferred life became increasingly concrete, thus giving rise to the supernatural, genuinely real world of Plato, and later still to the Christian belief in life-after-death. For Christians sing of the life-to-come, the one true life, and thus advocate the avoidance of all earthly pleasures. Yet this life-to-come is forever unknowable and remains, in spite of everything, a ghostly apparition. Just like the coins. For even after a thousand years of relentless toil, they have failed to reappear. And this spectral life was considered true and real, likewise the value of a coin, so that we not only entered a world of language, but one in which deceitful words were attributed a reality that is harder to crack than a nut.
The old ones also recount how the invention of money and abstract thought was accompanied by the development of yet another illusion, namely that of innate exceptionalness, or the individual. The man who separates himself from the choir and steps on stage as a protagonist. In the first centuries, the Greeks rightly left this hero to die, because they still remembered that the dream of the individual was a damaging chimera. But the Platonic mutilation of Greek thought, whereby the body became ephemeral and fictitious objects were accorded a reality, the latter of which exists somewhere beyond our world, led to a degeneration: the dream of innate exceptionalness started to gain weight and we began to believe in individual destinies, accompanied by special gifts for this and that, whereby everyone stands out from the crowd. And the longer this dream was given credence, the more inevitable it became, as the old ones tell us, that superstitious rituals would arise around a solitary and lonely God, who knows everything better. As was bound to happen, this God immediately took the guise of a punishing father, for how else can a fearful individual who pretends to be immeasurably wise and invincible behave, if not like a tyrannical toddler?
And within this world, where words can evoke a reality, we began, on the basis of our deferred existence, to invent stories and create images, thereby ascribing meaning and solidity to the perpetual transience or even celebrating the flux itself in a tangible and visible way. This is because everyone who has lived without a body will delight in the depiction of a young man, enjoy tales about deferred love, or revel in the obstacles that trip up heroes or send them to their deaths. And last but not least, the beauty of art is that it presents itself as a pleasure. The painting not only represents a beautiful boy, it is a kind of beautiful boy in itself: ravishing to behold, to smell or touch.
We simultaneously see, therefore, the birth of language, death, money, fatherhood, a real but elusive world, the individual, a lonesome God, and art. And also note that the Christian version of this cocktail has become increasingly influential, undoubtedly because the Christians were granted little to nothing by their moral counsellors, thereby making them overly tense. They could never sit still, the Christians, as Pascal said. They had to keep moving, measuring the world and, in so doing, destroying as much of it as possible.
The invention of money, the rise of the individual, the Platonic suppression of reality and the Christian disembodiment of our existence, eventually led to a world in which the dream of personal heroism was increasingly accompanied by a surge of isolated and one-dimensional thoughts. These reside in enormous heads that are carried around by invisible and odourless bodies. Occasionally, something miraculous ensues, such as Spinoza’s logical attempt to reconnect God with the whole world, to re-establish the weight of things, to enrich them and add flesh. Generally speaking, however, the fatal dissolving of reality proved to be unstoppable. Finally, the aged Borges dreamed that, while sitting on the shore of Lake Geneva, he was conversing with his 20-year-old self, who handed him a coin. And when he awakened from this dream, he found the coin beneath his pillow. For when our all earthly existence will come to an end, only a few gold coins will remain, impossible to find.
Montagne de Miel, 6 January 2019