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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

doubt

I've just spent time keying notes over my morning coffee, from A History of Israel, volume 1; The Golden Bough; and Cosmos, Chaos, & the World to Come. Sticking with the plan, sticking with the flow of normality (insofar as the creative life can be called normal).

This sticking with the flow is important when one's mood is not ideal. Now, when I lie awake in the dark of predawn, I find myself racked by worse doubts than usual. At such times there is no optimism; the inertia of lying in bed seems to be an expression of life in general. Then I wonder about the very concept of "success", one of the mirages we chase through life.

All around me I perceive sureness in people: certainty. People are definite in their opinions, both in the conversations around me personally, and in printed matter and among TV commentators. We all like the feeling that we know, and dislike the sense of uncertainty, ignorance, which is so paralyzing to action. If you strap explosives to your body and go detonate them in a crowded place, killing yourself in the process, you must feel very sure of what you're doing, very certain that your view of the world is correct. You're sacrificing your own life and the lives of others on the altar of your certainty.

My point, of course, is that such certainty is mistaken. It's as though the pleasurable, affirmative
feeling of certainty were so important and desirable that we adopt it even though the content of our thought lacks actual certainty--the thing itself. This was essentially the problem noted by Rene Descartes in 1641 at the beginning of his famous Meditations, when he noted that he himself had for many years held many things as true which turned out to be false. Or, as he puts it in the opening of his first Meditation:

It is some time ago now since I perceived that, from my earliest years, I had accepted many false opinions as being true, and that what I had since based on such insecure principles could only be most doubtful and uncertain; so that I had to undertake seriously once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted up to then, and to begin afresh from the foundations, if I wished to establish something firm and constant in the sciences.

Here is the famous Cartesian doubt. Doubt generally prevents action. Descartes describes in the very next sentence how he came to start writing his book in spite of his doubt:

But as this undertaking seemed to me very great, I waited until I had attained an age sufficiently mature that I could not hope, at a later stage in life, to be more fit to execute my plan; and this has made me delay so long that I should henceforth consider that I was committing a fault if I were still to use in deliberation the time which remains to me for action.

Hmm. "Committing a fault if I were still to use in deliberation the time which remains to be for action."

Rene, I hear you. For me, the "action" is now merely to follow the deep groove of habit in my task, and hope for the best.


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