Seeking the Safety of Certainty: Totalitarian Minds in Religion and Science

Emil Nolde - Verlorenes Paradies (Paradise Lost) (1921)

Guiding my thinking is the very clear recognition that I am nearly always a partialist who at times spouts a partialism that upon reflection seems a tad embarrassing.

I know some things fairly well in the sense that I have repetitive experience of certain things as well as having studied certain things with some depth and focus.  I have a mind and body, together and apart, that have (each has) shared in particular acts as well as in the repetition and re-imagining of those acts.  I have many times tried to recreate past occurrences in my private thoughts; I have at many times performed the same tasks again and again with, if any, only slight variations to achieve expected effects.

However, I recognize that most of what I consider in my mind as conscious thought is partial and not often impartial.  That is too precious; rather, I have incomplete knowledge and understanding of many things (disciplines of study, texts, machinery, bodies, planets, botany, ad infinitum) and yet, even when I am conscious of this I will hold a strong belief that with only this partial encompassing of a considered thing I can assert a satisfactory comprehension to make “whole” my mind on said thing/topic/event

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Perhaps this little bit from opening of chapter twenty-seven of George Eliot’s (Marian Evans’) Middlemarch will illustrate my point.  (This novel, to be sure, is full of thinking, and rethinking and is a useful text with which to begin the study of your own thinking.)

Let the high Muse chant loves Olympian:
We are but mortals, and must sing of man.”

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person…

Scratches abound in our lives.  Is your candle of egoism fixed to perceive scratches in just one way?  Your candle may move on occasion but it seems that one tends to forget that the candle was recently showing a “complete vision” while resting at a different angle.  That is, we may be plastic enough to change our minds, but not self-aware enough to realize that the very act of change has meaning and deserves exploration as well.  Why were we so certain before?  What makes us equally certain of some other perspective?

Another illustration might serve.  This from a review at Rain Taxi of Eliot Weinberger’s anthology of Chinese poetry is instructive as to the ways that minds differ one from another and also the ways they offer rather drastic revisions on themselves (or on their “products”–which is thinking) over time.  We often find philosophers using this “over time” argument to discuss the concept of personal identity.  Am I the same I now as I was then and will be in some future place?  What keeps the “I” fixed in identity?  While that is certainly a valuable consideration to the topic at hand, it admits of much more to be concerned with and is not within my partial reach today.  In the snippet below we are shown how one mind (Ezra Pound’s) changes over time while seeming to retain a consistent intention; we also are introduced to another way of “minding” poetry (and life) by considering another translator and poet, Kenneth Rexroth.  Weinberger’s anthology

is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Shih Ching, or The Book of Odes, which means that except for one Pound translation from 1915, the entire first section comes from Pound’s translations of 1954, when he was interred in a mental institution. Here, his earlier Cathay-era calmness is gone, and instead he sounds like a cross between Gerard Manley Hopkins and Langston Hughes. Listen to how he translates the first stanza of “Song of the Bowmen of Shu” in 1915:

Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots
And saying: When shall we get back to our country?
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen,
We have no comfort because of these Mongols.

and the same stanza again, forty years later:

Pick a fern, pick a fern, ferns are high,
“Home,” I’ll say: home, the year’s gone by,
no house, no roof, these huns on the hoof.
Work, work, work, that’s how it runs,
We are here because of these huns.

Amazingly enough, Pound’s impetus is the same in both eras: to create a new idiom for poetry.


Ezra Pound’s translations are attempts to change the music of poetry in his age. Kenneth Rexroth’s translations attempt the opposite, and try to fit the classical Chinese rhythms to a calm American voice (Rexroth and Pound form a perfect odd couple: one was a fascist atheist Confucian who translated Li Po, the other was an anarcho-socialist Christian Buddhist who translated Tu Fu). Weinberger describes: “Rexroth had reimagined the poems as the work of someone on the other side of the Pacific Rim, speaking in a plain, natural-breathing, neutral American idiom. Ignoring the Chinese line, which is normally a complete syntactical unit, Rexroth enjambed his, often with end-stops in the middle, to give them the illusion of effortless speech.”  (my emphasis)

We might ask of each poet what master they serve when they translate, and this seems the paramount concern when interrogating perspective in translations.  We are given indications above as to what both these poets were trying to do but the very existence of such difference in what we might consider the “common” conveyance of language suggests to us that to know any particular we must know the whole.  To read Rexroth’s translations should we know, as highlighted above, as much about the man’s politics and life-practices as possible in order to “filter out” the Rexroth to find the “roots” of the Chinese poems?  Of course, to do that we’d need to know the Chinese as well.  And we’d need to know more than the language and ideograms, we’d need to know the history of the Chinese poet (was he too an anarcho-socialist, or perhaps also a fascist atheist (poor Pound, replacing one hierarchy with another just as demanding and unsympathetic)?

And when we read, we are in the first place reading within our own idiomatic and axiomatic minds.

It is perhaps the greatest freedom in the world to be able to assent to and assert that these very particulars seen clearly in this case of translation relieves us of our burden of certainty.

Take a breath and repeat after me: I know nothing.  With complete clarity you can admit this.  Likewise you will see this truth in every other person in the world.  You might be careful though in how you apply this “certainty of uncertainty” as it too becomes dogmatically axiomatic as a kind of cudgel wielded against “weaker minds.”

What we can know is that this uncertainty provides you the freedom to be a mind set free from the strictures placed on it by social and cultural frameworks.  To make use of what Walter Jens wrote in the wake of World War II and Hitler’s “certainty” (“Der Schriftsteller und die Politik” or “The Writer and Politics”–alterations highlighted),

The…writer of our day, representing no class, under the protection of no fatherland, in league with no power, is…a threefold lonely person.  But it is precisely…this freedom from ties, that gives him a terrible, unique opportunity to be free as never before…In a moment when blind obedience rules, the ‘No’ of the warner, the Erasmus-like hesitation, as well as thoughtfulness and Socratic caution, are more important than ever before–Not least in a country (such as the United States) where the ‘Yes’ counts more than the ‘No’, the corporation more than the individual participant, the aggressor more than the defender.  (quoted in John Ralston Saul’s “The Unconscious Civilization,” p 42*)

To foster doubt is not to represent meaninglessness.  Rather it is to refuse the ideological vision and offer a wider perspective.  It is not to rely on the promise of a “good to come” to the degradation of the demonstrable good that can be reached for in the now.  There is no golden age that was or Eden to rediscover.  There is instead the doubt of unknowing in the now that can bring us together, questioning single minds, with a human commitment to the equal good of all.  We must set this against at fearful projection of certainty which asserted itself as an iron law against doubt.

It is in the cage of of this iron law that we lose ourselves and our human being; if we are rare and unique as a species because of our self-awareness and cognitive capacities then certainty is of itself an abdication of those unique adaptations.  One thing I think we fail to realize in our weak, culturally-directed understanding of Darwin’s presentation of the Theory of Evolution is that “fitness” is itself “variable” and myriad.  Co-operation is a kind of fitness and likely more useful than the idea of “competition” for “resources.”  I am very uncertain as to a “best practice” for species survival.  But if my eyes are open to the world I see no end of misery and no end of destructive division when we place conceptions of the good in the hands of the “few” and “mighty”; when our gods and our prophets are partisan; when the glory of creation shines from one light, in one direction, on one tribe, with one outcome.  These ideas seem anathema to adaptability and freedom.

Freedom is another word for uncertainty.  Apply liberally.

 *Sauls’ chapter “From Propaganda to Language” is highly recommended and the more so for the incredibly useful figuration he uses to characterize knowledge and dissemination of knowledge: one is the “apple” and the other “the snake.”  We have accepted the “snake” as a stand-in for the “apple.”
Photo Credit: Cea

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  1. Bobby V. February 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    It would sure be useful if the Western mind could occasionally assume an Eastern perspective. Eastern thought has always fascinated me, so much so that I studied Mandarin many years ago as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. While there, I also took classes in Japanese art history and sat for a while with a Zen monk. None of it was easy for me – except the art, maybe. The tonality of Chinese languages was beyond me. I know it’s there, I can hear it, but I can’t understand it or reproduce it. Sitting was just boring and infuriating. Aesthetics made more sense, probably because I could accept the value without trying to quantify it. Even today I still feel like there is something in the East that is important but just out of my reach.

    1. Douglas Storm February 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm

      I agree with that. It’s interesting to me to see how the vast empty soul of America siphoned off the surface of the East, treating its deep and ancient traditions as facade to putty the holes in the usual quick fix fashion. We did not and do not attend to the volume.

      Further it is worse to see the East equally lost in our own soullessness–taking the only thing we have to give, ostentation–by attempting a kind of grotesque mimicry of our popular culture.



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