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Great are the Multitudes

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Note: This is an essay originally sent to subscribers on my mailing list, where I send essays every 1-2 months. If you would like to receive all my essays, including pdfs and the occasional voice recording of these essays, subscribe here. Though the following essay is a bit long, it contains much of my philosophical work (though most of it in more subtle, poetic form). I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, or supplements by email or in the comments below.

“What seems natural to us is probably just something familiar in a long tradition that has forgotten the unfamiliar source from which it arose. And yet this unfamiliar source once struck man as strange and caused him to think and to wonder.”— Martin Heidegger

The morning awakens to a careful foot placed on a sun-smeared floor, to me swimming sleepily through her wide, clear body. Passing through the kitchen, I’m caught in a band of light from the window, turn to touch a host of floating dust mites. The day has not yet solidified; the world is a melted multiplicity. And so I turn away and begin boiling water for yerba maté, but in me an unspoken affinity with those dust mites, a neutral knowing that I am something less than solid, held briefly visible by a strand of light.

Pouring hot water into my green yerba, I am already blinking awake before the caffeine has spread, the light pouring early from the sliding glass door. The door is opening: a sharp scent of green. A single bird call— no, two, three! Not quite spring, though the sun is spreading. These warming days are followed by weeks of gray rain, so that no one can say precisely what season is surrounding, pressing in.

Slowly, the tea warms, clarifying perception. But still, the slight vertigo of placing an in-between. Before the next cluster solidifies—of color, temperature, and light— we inhabit a strange and fertile gap. Not quite of one season or the other, this age or the next, a placelessness multiplies. You may sense that no one means their words (you may wonder, then, where the meanings come from, where they go), you may tilt your head at ways of thinking, seeing how haphazard their justifications, how unhinged from reality. If you’re still enough, you’ll sense a stirring: an in-breaking thought might flight through your body, a rogue possibility. In these in-betweens, alternative lives are fragile beyond belief— find a way to tend them according to their needs or they’ll dissolve like stars in the bone-white broth of morning.

I carry my maté on the train to my university. A single finger taps my gourd as I sip: out the window, eyes graze the tops of trees. Still naked, though singing with invisible birds, I presume. Birds I cannot hear from inside the train, but they fill my sight with their imagined presence, vivifying the emptiness between branches.

This isn’t the first time a sun has pulled into the port of this landscape. Each morning, a reception like a round of leafy applause, as if nothing had happened before— neither dawn nor dark nor a seasonal changing. This is the wisdom of the land, I think, her continuous happening stripped silent of hope, fear, or story.

Eyes closed, fingers warm around my gourd, I am a cell in a slow-greening body, a body much too big to be seen (only sensed, sometimes, when touching the blurred edges of things).

To be between seasons is to be between bodies. I wear the winter inwardly, toes always cold. The spring wears me— fleshing me inside out, blueing the gray of my brain.

Until I can place myself in a new body, I dance the old one in the rain.

This scene is so overused— not just in movies, but when our lives try to convince us of a care-free joy— but it’s true: we pulled on our boots and let ourselves be soaked. It was Sophie’s idea, who, being four years old, is not yet suspicious of tropes.

Once we made our way to a path in the trees, we began chasing. Ostensibly each other, but the rain was distracting. Sometimes we seemed to be chasing the rain itself, or perhaps its origins (impossible without moving vertically). The dancing was a gesture, no more, twirling as if we were wearing wide skirts. Sophie stuck out a tongue to catch drops—she must have seen this in a movie— and I had to stop myself from warning that scientists say rainwater is now too polluted to drink.

Anyway, the cold is grounding. We laugh, easy in the ageless friendship between. We chatter like flightless birds. We head home. Warm in the apartment, snuggling in a blanket and watching a movie, she looks up at me: “When I’m a baby again, will you still take care of me?”

The question doesn’t jar me; she’s been talking as if lives recycle since she could speak. When she does, I dance around the topic. “When will you be a baby again?”

“Someday. And when you’re a baby, I’ll take care of you and daddy.”

“Hmm,” I say, neither confirming nor denying her assumptions, “that’s really kind of you.”

As we watch, I think of my recent research. A stable identity is a story, requiring a basic sense of beginnings and endings. This begins at around the age of four, when the child starts acquiring a consciousness of death and episodic memory. Unlike recollection of general knowledge, episodic memory is imprinted with a mineness that both requires the inklings of selfhood and possibilizes its conscious construction. On a species level, homo sapiens likely evolved episodic memory—and thus the capacities for story-telling and self-making— between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago. Within a single evolutionary leap, humans learned to appropriate time, become a protagonist, and mythologize beginnings and endings. Until Sophie makes this leap, she cannot construct her self as a story. For now, her life is a simple happening, impersonal as the trees, belonging to nobody.

Like death, beginnings are incomprehensible. When my daughter sees pictures of me before I met her father, she invariably asks me where she was. “Not born yet,” I say. But she’s insistent: “Where was I?,” and then suggests various countries she has learned by studying world maps. Nothing I can say matches her impenetrable sense of birthless, deathless existence. “I don’t know,” I accede, and she quiets.

Of course, nothing she has seen— aside from movies and books— has taught her the reality of beginnings. Such finitude on either side does not exist in the empirical world. Take a fetus, for whom no one can find a beginning without arbitrarily drawing a line. Did you begin at conception, or in the egg? If in the egg, then you began in the womb of your grandmother, when your mother’s fetus had developed all six million eggs before emerging from the dark. Or was it your great-grandmother’s womb, when your mother—and thus, you— “experienced” one of countless tiny births?

As for endings, even the corpse is a false idol of completion— we die a little every day, no one throwing a funeral. When we mourn the corpse, we mourn the person’s lifelong deaths and the continual process afterwards. No one will follow the last flake of your cremated body, no one will grasp for the smoke, for even these are not yours. The earth recycles everything, including mistakes and memories, relations and insights. And recycling knows no finitude.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates wonders how we can speak of non-existence— not just the non-existence of the dead, but the non-existence before life. These are the same, he implies. So this moment is already the afterlife of the unborn me, one afterlife of many deaths. Traces of non-existing persons ripple endlessly before and endlessly after, until both “before” and “after” empty themselves of meaning.

Bookended on both sides with a nothing that cannot be conceptualized, here and now we’re slivered by a ray of light we call “life.” Briefly illumined by time, we slip now and then into the brightness of eternal brevity: a door pouring light, a bird-studded tree, bodies dancing in the rain like a movie.

Rushing through lovers, through books, money, or countries: what are humans seeking?

The instant, I think, the suspension of that eternal brevity. Not the “moment” as it’s caught and boundaried, extracted from the flow of experience.

Not extracted, but expanded— the “now” made large enough to encompass your living, deathing multitudes. Silent slides the instant from ordinary time, slippery and inept, blinking back the ceaseless light.

Back to my reading, my schoolwork, my grading. But time marches slowly, or maybe not at all, because the season still drags its feet towards being something complete. Meanwhile, I glide. Faces I can’t possibly know seem familiar, I cannot place from where. Faces I know seem strange, and I wonder if I knew them at all. When I can, I escape to any piece of “nature” I can find, as if wanting to be an onlooker when the world decides to spring—

I choose a nature preserve, where I drive before dusk. How strange, I think, that we must keep these places so carefully fenced, must let the humans loose between gates. I should be grateful for the nearby nature, but I’ve begun seeing everything as a symptom of our estrangement: from land, bodies, plants, time. There is no single culprit: not capitalism, language, philosophy, ideology. Alienation reaches far, into dim human history. Language opened an uncrossable gap between the world and human meanings, bringing abstraction, empathy, and complexity. Then written language, with its objectification of life’s flux into abstract, fixed meanings. With both oral and literate language, time travel intensifies. I can invoke the name of a far-off human, and their presence arises, clear as witchcraft. I can speak of spring in the winter, and of distant places while planted firmly from afar. Now ensconced in finite stories and abstract landscapes, now both knowing death’s permanence and resurrecting my dead through speech, I imagine utopia and dystopia on far horizons; I learn both hope and existential fear.

In this soil-less ground of manifold estrangements, religion took root. If these roots can be easily uprooted by unbelief, then blame the soil, not the faith. Beliefs are the mind’s plastic: artificially and conveniently closed and thus unmatched to reality, impermeable to earth. Ideologies—

including political, historical, and scientific paradigms— are more complex and diffuse than beliefs, like artificial landscapes or intangible cities.

Perhaps the original estrangement can be traced to the birth of episodic memory, when the self became something other than the simplicity of experiencing flesh, became a finite story that can be authored, narrated, and lived. The essence of technology is this: we make a thing alien to ourselves, then manipulate it for our chosen ends. The self was perhaps the first technology: a thing made alien, then performed and manipulated to curry favor with the world, to become useful or loved.

Each new technology demarcates reality, de-constructing and re-assembling parts. All creation is a species of separation, and creation is good (very good). But technologies are not neutral. Each tool opens the place of a particular world, circumscribes a set of possibilities. And with this opening, a closing of older worlds.

Can we count the number of worlds we have lost? Few of them are known, because they are too subtle to be recorded, and we’d rather not scrutinize so many species of lack. Some have faded in our very lifetimes, with nearly no one tracking the change for future humans to note. Do you remember being a self before the smartphone selfed us in particular ways?

We’ve been flattened with the leveling of time and space. Now, a perpetual sense of simultaneity, time stretched colorless across zones, blurring the waxing and waning of light out of windows, the particular taste of place. If the self is a story, then with our paling place and time, so pale we.

A placeless age that wonders: is there a human left to place?

Dusk among the pine trees. I slam the car door at the nature preserve, pleasantly impressed by the thicket of pines. Small, like all preserves on Long Island, but I had been spoiled living in the American West. Nothing wild here, but pockets of connection, at least, even if highways hum nearby.

Walking with my eyes on the dirt, soon a stump jumps out. I take off my red scarf, wrap it around the felled body. Inhale, exhale, a palm on the spiraled center. A few words mumble out— later, they’ll be written on a notepad, then recorded in a word document for a book of “performance poems.” This one is more like a prayer, a forgive them for they know not what they do.

Time is still frozen, not yet spilled into spring. I remove my chilling hand, pocket it in my coat. Walking, walking, and something like an ancient upwelling rises from the hollow of my bones, rising too from the pine branches and pine roots, conversing through a common twilight. I want to walk for hours, but I don’t. Instead, I capture the trees with my smartphone, indexing the moment.

As the photo stares back at me, I remember a story about Native American reactions to photography: some preferred not to be captured by white settlers, believing the photograph could take their souls. As colonizing narratives do, this was framed as a primitive superstition. The “Western” paradigm tends towards an extreme: only literal, historical, or scientific truths are real, and we assume these “facts” map directly onto reality. But the photo-hesitant Natives were speaking a different sort of truth, one whose meaning was poorly translated into the hegemonic paradigm.

Just as globalization flattens difference, capitalism flattens value and social media flattens introspection, photography flattens souls (if the “soul” is the ineffable isness of each material being). I glance at the photo on my phone: a mere thicket of pine trees. No amber upwelling, no ancient murmurings. We experience life as a dynamic conversation with the sensory world, a fruitful exchange of meanings. But the photograph effects an instant self-world alienation, a rendering of the richness of experience into an object of objective scrutiny. The subject now stands opposed to an artifact: I become the romanticizer and the meaning-assigner, observing a frozen “other” that cannot speak without me. Walking on through the trees, I sense the conversation ceased.

With this decade’s instant photography and the pressure of immediate expression—both modes of objectifying experience—the world has been emptied of reciprocity. The subject/ object divide, a useful abstraction, has become sedimented in perception as if it were endemic to reality. Invisibly, the alienation grows. Then the human wonders such absurdities as “What is the meaning of life?” as if life’s meanings could be condensed to a single human value— permanent and-out of-touch with the speakings of the wider body.

In the midst of this dualism, the objective exerts a totalizing presence over the subject. Objectivity must reign supreme in order to impose a realm of socially determined normality. The crowd-gaze is always upon me— as I walk, as I think, as I breathe. My subjectivity becomes an add-on, in spite of the culture’s growing emphasis on being unique. Adorno claimed that this flourish of false individuality is a symptom of the social’s hegemony. The thinness of the inner life desires external tokens of individuality: mark me out, we must demand, precisely because I’d rather signal my center to the crowd than live that allotment of space with deep-rooted integrity, precisely because you cannot bear the life that is yours alone, cannot maintain your personhood when thronged by superficialities.

Conversation ceased, but I won’t surrender my smartphone, my car. Society demands such alienations. Besides, I don’t yearn for an idealized primitive state. I’ve lived in the woods— a few times, actually. And I returned to civilization bristling with sensitivity, flinching at the clamoring noise, the disordered sense of time, the complete inability to hear the silent stirrings of another’s presence. But while living in nature, I missed my creaturely comforts, my writing and my books, modernity’s exotic foods and chaotic cultures and endless possibilities (let’s not mention antibiotics, birth control, and clean water).

A return to origins must be a return to a particular sensibility, not a return to a material state of affairs. Heidegger wrote that we must think from the place where the gods were thought—not to resuscitate the same old gods of each age, but to inhabit the many wombs that grew them.

Even now a womb around these worlds, growing new bodies in a slow, liquid darkness. Here, we’ll let the trees join human governings. We’ll let the dead join the wakings of the now-flesh. Forehead to the forest floor, I make promises I can’t keep. Dusk dims, light breaks through the cold, birds streak.

I take careful notes during the first half of a lecture on Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology, entitled something with “a leaf of being.” Then, I stand up and sneak out the door. Carefully, I gather my books from my office, sliding out the back into the duskening blue.

Windows down, I drive to the beach. An east coast beach— wild grasses, scraggly trees, cold sea stones beneath the feet. Near the parking lot stands a tree which I climb with an instinctive ease.

Nestled on a limb, sunk against the rough skin, we watch the waters, breathing cigarettes from an unseen smoker, gasoline from the lot beside me. No place is pristine, but we— me and the tree— must learn to belong to polluted places.

A slow expansion as we watch. Even the waves grayly murmur, the cold punches holes. I don’t regret escaping. The lecturer had done her duty— so well, in fact, that I knew when I had exhausted mine. The purpose of philosophy is to self-suicide— I am not naïve or self-important enough to believe otherwise. We begin what we cannot end without various forms of self-immolation (the various forms are what interest me, the manifold failures). The problem is inescapably simple: linguistic realism has failed, language does not map onto the world. Beginning with language, philosophy cannot refer directly to reality, not without self-emptying on the way.

Wittgenstein’s ladder: at the end of his groundbreaking Tractatus, in which he (prematurely) claims to solve all the problems of philosophy, he writes: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)”

And after disposing of the ladder? Are we left suspended in midair or hurtling towards the ground? And is this the same ground from which we started, or a different ground? We climb to such heights only to forgive our tools their selectivity, only to let such selectivity slide into non-being. A vista atop, I imagine, though no ground to uphold the view. Wittgenstein was making a mystical move.

Then, the famous line: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

I’ve tried keeping silent about these evasive themes: the stun of blue sky after rain, the vivacity of stars in the evening, the dim gray waves and the bark of a tree. But the birds keep singing, and I must follow.

Later, I think of a gnostic poem, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind.” Likely of Egyptian origin, it unites all opposites as it flows: “I am a mute who does not speak, and great is my multitude of words.”

Great are the multitude of my words, I who know the incommensurability of words against the brute beauty of a sensing body, against the language-breaking pain. Wittgenstein, after instructing the reader to throw away the ladder of his work, appeared to abandon philosophy. But he continued reading, writing, and teaching children, and his later work constructed what many consider to be an entirely new theory of language. He couldn’t take his own advice, though he guarded spheres of wordlessness until his death.

Great are the multitudes of my words, and great the multitudes behind me. As the gap between winter and spring widens her in-between, I sense these multitudes quite simply. My work is useless, after all, if it doesn’t widen the net of my flesh, texture my presence with manifold beings, warm the dead behind my eyes: Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty. Their questions walk through me, their lives elongating.

It rains, and I let a thought pry open my brain: your mind is a shelter, your heart a pavilion. The cold seek me out, the afraid. Even un-housed thoughts flock towards my warm interiors, un-harbored feelings ask for mooring. I unfold myself gently, unwrinkle my skin like a tarp.

When it comes, nothing could be simpler than this knowing: I am the place the season seeks.

Ah, I smile, settling into a relief. And all this time I’ve been seeking.

I wonder: will the instant make a sound when it finds me?

If spring has sprung, it didn’t bother to announce its beginning. Instead, a thousand small springings. Driving Sophie to preschool, the blue above so bare as to empty me. So weightless the morning that I wonder if every corner will vanish me into another life, each rimmed by brighter and brighter skies.

We walk, hand in hand, to the door— she stops to pocket a pine cone— and I hug her. “I’ll send you lots of love today,” she promises. “Me too,” I say. “Stop to feel it when you think of me.” Kisses and I leave, her warmth still clinging.

Now I’m walking to my office over campus lawns and philosophy is reduced to the land and the land is a song that we’ve forgotten how to sing. A heart leaps through the grass, each blade a cipher, each leaf a tendril of being. Bracketing the light-bent trees, the sky unlids a great blue eye. Blinks. And time slides back, slack as grass beneath the feet.

The world becomes only through me, in the sliver of “now” where two strands of non-existence meet. In the instant that is me, the world bangs into being

(Note: "Sophie" is the false name I've used for my daughter since my 100 days project, in the —perhaps vain— attempt to protect her privacy until she's an adult.)

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