“I don’t want to read between the lines”

January 22, 2013

Anne Carson describes in the audience a preference that unwholesome truths be articulated at a safe distance from the blunt encounters of everyday life – as the meat of catharsis in tragic drama, a blood price paid by the actors. “You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy with your own life. … The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.”

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) wondered if learning to lean into the pain of cognitive dissonance helps, if it means not flinching from perceptions that challenge your self-assurance, not reaching for ways to rationalize the discomfort away, not trying to shrug off any challenge that was made.

But for all intents and purposes, there are silencing spells in real life, junctures of pain and denial at which the intensity of cognitive dissonance can make speaking out (or being heard) seem impossible. Moving around them is one thing – but pushing through them is considered a condemned effort.

Whereof one cannot speak,
thereof one must be silent.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

This preference not to have uncomfortable truths articulated in a way we cannot pretend not to understand is a sorry reason for the doctrine “show, don’t tell,” or the article of faith that some truths are the business of God to impose on each of us through revelation alone.

Can this be logical? Aristotle’s grammar of meanings in qualitative reasoning (The Categories) uses living beings as “primary substance” examples, not rocks or fingernail shavings, unlike the definition of substance used in thermodynamics to which the principle matter cannot be created or destroyed applies.

In this approach to logic, a living subject capable both of reason and of misunderstanding or dissimulation is implied. For such a subject, being and not being are unambiguous – only from outside the box is the existence of Schrödinger’s cat in living form uncertain.

Perhaps we have always known how to get ourselves boxed in by these irrational fears, and exasperate the man of action with notions about “not being” as an alternative to having substance that is possible to experience, and is to be feared. Of course, Herakles has a retort no different from the question for this commonplace: “Being and not being are very different things .. We’re all mortal you know. Think mortal.”

For believers like Aquinas, the coming into being and passing away of these observers meant there must be an untouched survivor and initiator of all effects – a magician or mathematician, but above all, one who knows better than the rest of us, whose view of the cosmos is not petty or defensive, one who has nothing to fear. A prior cause in a receding series of origin stories for cause and effect paths that seem to draw thin lines across the darkness in the passing along of perceptions that seem to have more than continuity of experience tying each to the next when ascertained in passing.


How can he not know?

Fear of some unspoken-for uncertainty that stands in the way of acting on reason for what it is worth? We want to see such a further capability in ourselves, but risk abandoning all that we are able to do in favor of what seems impossible, to wait on the unprecedented to show itself within ourselves instead.

In the Pythagorean cosmos described in The Republic, “the harmony of the parts of the cosmos, on the one hand, and of the parts of the human psyche, on the other, were seen as the basic elements of the same universal order” (from The Untuning of the Sky). All earthly music was an effort to evoke the more perfect music of the spheres, that is, the great sounds caused by the rushing past of the other planets.

None of us can see much of what lies ahead. What we do see coming can feel deterministic, but secrecy, miscalculations and ignorance hardly give rise to free will.

And even in “real life” there can be such a thing as a definite experience, a sense of certitude that defies all recourse to learned skepticism about one’s ability to make sense of the world as it really is. Something to write home about. Actors know too well that just because there are multiple solutions to the true interpretation of a role (hence, multiple solutions to the authentic delivery of a line), doesn’t mean the players can suit themselves.

Subjectivity by degrees, rather than an absolute sense of incommensurability, is how perspective-taking can be grounded in a shared interest in the real – instead of relying on the assumption that word games are played with tokens for which there are no shared understandings about their referents.

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