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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, February 10, 2006

searching and not finding

Brilliant sunny day with a cloudless sky. I went running again before lunch (cheddar-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, apple).

Before that, of course, I had to face the headwinds of my project. Again I could not make myself get back on-task. Instead I opened up my document on identity, and found myself reading my notes there with much interest, and wanting to do more. I went with it. This topic is calling me, magnetizing me--I don't know why, or to what end, but I trust that it is what I need to focus on now.

Over morning coffee I keyed notes from The Ghost in the Machine; The Inner Ocean; and Comparative Politics. I'm groping, groping. For what? Where do I hope to land?

One of my issues is that after a lifetime of reading, study, and thinking, I often feel I haven't arrived anywhere. Yes, I know things, I've learned things, but in the sense of having some key insights or ideas on which I could anchor further thoughts--these I feel I don't have. All is shifting sand. As you look more closely at anything, it dissolves in vapor, in unresolved questions.

This is the fate of all thinkers to some extent. Mature philosophers look on the ancient questions with a wry nod, an ironic canniness. Certainty is generally not to be had, except in mathematics, and sometimes it too frustrates the efforts of even the most gifted. Mathematicians in history have driven themselves nearly to madness, certainly to despair, over their inability to crack stubborn problems. The most brilliant, such as Kurt Gödel, come up with things that seem to break the system. His incompleteness theorems (the most important published in 1931, when he was 25) demonstrated that in any powerful-enough mathematical system there are true statements that cannot be proven within the system. In short: every logical mathematical system, no matter how complete it "thinks" it is, is incomplete. Or more briefly: truth is a more powerful concept than provability. Truth is stronger than proof; there are more things that are true than can be proved. (And to think--Gödel proved this!)

So maybe I shouldn't be too distressed at the elusiveness of knowledge. If I wanted "certainty", I would've stuck with Buddhist philosophy, which would eventually have led me there (in some lifetime or other). But I became wary of even that premise, for a couple of reasons. One was that there is controversy even within Buddhism. Even at the deepest, subtlest levels of philosophy, the masters disagree. What then is the truth?

Another reason is that for any spiritual or mythological tradition to be transplanted to new soil, to a new culture, it must be transformed; it cannot survive in its original form. The images, language, and concepts of the system, which worked their magic on one people, cannot work the same magic on another people who have no familiarity with them, no history with them. The Buddha himself did not invent any new ideas or images with which to spread his teaching; he took things from existing Indian tradition. He made use of what was around him. But the images of ancient India can't speak to 21st-century North America--certainly not in the same way.

Having ventured forth from the Buddhist fold, I feel lonely and isolated, but also excited. The feeling reminds me of certain feelings I have as I read articles on the recent explorations of Mars by the remote rovers. Astronomy magazine's Collector's Edition of Mars has lots of surface-level views of desert regolith, all colored like tomato soup, and lonely enough, I'm sure, to make a robot cry. It is solitary, frightening, new, and amazing. There are wonders yet to be discovered. Will I discover some of my own?



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