Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday. Even in in a year marked by catastrophe, it was a blow. Memes keep up the joke about this being a cursed year: murder hornets, fires, the plague, aliens, etc., but as time goes on it feels less and less like a joke, and more and more like something dark and fated. Doom.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not a millenarian (despite millenials having some reasons to be). I know better than that - lives end, even civilizations end eventually, but the world is something that never ends. But like many, I can't seem to shake the growing feeling that the events of this year are not mere coincidence, not meaningless but somehow "important" for our collective future. This forms a kind of test, an aperture through which we as a people must pass in order to get to some 'other side.' There, those of us who made it will have been changed inw some important and irreversible way. This was supposed to happen. In order to affect that terrible and necessary change, everything is happening just as it must. As terrible as this sense of doom feels, it also aggrandizes us: this generation was chosen to experience a special suffering, yes, but at least we were chosen.
But isn't this grander meaning, this sense of a collective calling, a delusion? A kind of coping mechanism to give us back a sense of control and orientation in a world in chaos? If this is the case, then not only is there no anchor of meaning in the present storm, but there is no lighthouse guiding our way forward, no "meant to be" future to redeem our present suffering and make it somehow worthwhile. This plague, our suffering, our deaths (and by extension our lives) are all without meaning. As cynical and nihilistic as that view may feel, it is surely the view that best reflects the set of material facts that constitutes reality. 'Meaning' is simply not an attribute of the world or any of the things in it. Instead, we have evolved cognitive biases toward magical thinking and irrationality, because otherwise what we know would kill us.
But does reality consist merely of material facts? Perhaps for the vegetable world, certainly the mineral, but for ourselves, at least, there is a symbolic dimension to reality, and though it is as thin and epehermal as a soap bubble in places, it gives the whole material world all its color and weight. Itis through teh influence of this hidden dimension that we know the events and things around are not meaningless (if it were meaningless, by definition we wouldn't care, couldn't care, but we do). Instead, everything has meaning because everything is connected to us, connected to everything else. Everything causes everything else, is a necessary condition of its existence. Things have meaning to us because they condition our existence, define the scope of what's possible.
Which brings us back to a cursed year. As a spiritual person might frame it, "why is God doing this to us? Why is this happening to us?" To find the meaning it is to find the telos or end goal. What futures are being conditioned by this? What is the aperture through which we're passing, and what will it change about us? What is it making possible?
We can't answer this definitively now, of course, because the future hasn't happened yet. But even now we can see new possibilities emoerge into view, with the way we live our lives, work and relate. Remote learning and working, the accelaration of automation, the rise of a new hyperconnected isolation that would have seemed mad to our ancestors. But also - a groundswell of deep-rooted antagonism to these very same things. An absence of the physical that perhaps makes the heart grow fonder. In a cutlure and age obsessed with replacing the physical, perhaps we are meant to learn more deeply about the nature of physicality itself - not only the dangers of it, but the irreplaceable aliveness of it.
Whatever does happen, I know this time will be looked back upon as a kind of test. In a world that seems more senseless by the day, we're being challenged to make sense of it all. Making meaning from tragedy is not about rationalizing, about reading signs that are "out there" in the world. It is about telos - about seeing the possibilities conditioned by the present and choosing a specific path forward, choosing our future which retroactively gives meaning to its past. When we get to where we're going and look back, what we went through will all make sense, not because that meaning is inherent to what happened, but because we put it there.
I have written and journalled for many years now, and whilte I edit and publish things digitally (obviously), my initial writing takes place on paper. This isn't out of a sort of Luddite romanticism, but the result of years of back and forth, trial and error, trying to get to the best state of flow. I bounced between writing in Evernote, OneNote, Word docs and even .txt files in a version-controlled repository using Git. In the end, I do most of my writing on legal pads with tearable pages, and cheap composition books. What always brings me back to this process is that somehow my thoughts cohere better there. Why though?
All those things that are supposedly a benefit of the digital space - the erasability, copiability, hypertextuality - seem to work against me rather than in my favor. Something about the digital text seems to proliferate in an unhealthful way, causing a story to branch, sprout mutant limbs, denature in some way. Even the mouthfeel of the words turns out wrong somehow, lacking texture and fullness. Perhaps it's in my head, but it seems like the page-brain barrier has been made too thin by the speed of typing. Without friction from pen on the ragged tooth of paper, the word processor results in a flimsy text lacking bite: too mutable, too quick, too easy to create and therefore too easy to destroy. These words remain not just digital but virtual. Weightless, depthless, they have all the appearance of words but they are not. They are potential words.
Writing by hand, in contrast, is a visceral experience. Before I put my mark on paper I often have to pause, think about what I'm saying, because it costs me something to undo it. I am making a small choice, but an irreversible one. Whether by whiteout, a strikethrough, or totally crumpling the paper and starting over with a fresh sheet, there is no way to completely eradicate the trace you leave. That greater sense of commitment lends weight to what you're doing, gives words a life of their own outside of you.
Of course, like so much in the modern world, it will pass through a series of filters, edits and touchups before being presented to the world in what is ultimately a digital format. But what I find writing by hand, at least for the first draft, does is change my relationship to my own thoughts, cforces me to commit in a more meaningful way. Word choice is significant. Sentences have consequences. Text grows roots. And isn't that much truer to life?
The Demiurge, a conception of God in gnostic theology as a 'half-maker.' A penultimate God who created the world but as a kind of show, tricking its hapless inhabitants. It is either a terrifying idea or, perhaps, a comic one. A God that shares our foolish pride, and fallibility.
The Demiurge introduces also the notion of a greater force, a god, goddess or principle that forms the ground the Demiurge creates from. Think here of the "face of the deep" over which God seems to float in Genesis. Even before he created, Something was there. An unbridled sea of creativity that is represented in ancient Babylonian mythology by the great deep Tiamat.
The mistake that the demiurge, this false creator God, makes is analogous to humanity‘s own mistake in believing that we are masters of our own destiny. One could read the creation story of Genesis a little bit differently, as a demi-urge who, moving over the face of the abyss (which, of course, already contains everything as unrealized possibility), creates cleavages over and over, distinctions which create reality: between light and dark, between wet and dry, between plant and animal, between good and evil, add infinitum. Everything that he creates is good, but in some way it is less than the formless abyss from which it came. His week of frenzied creation could be read as an attempt to restore the original totality that was lost by introducing new elements over and over again. At each step he sees that while it is good, it is in some sense incomplete, and he is always chasing after a nagging sense of loss. With the introduction of man, created in his own image, this endless quest is continued in us. We, too, are born with a sense of incompleteness, and spend our lives chasing after totality. We imagine that this totality is God, but it is really the formless abyss that is older than God himself.
This indivisible remainder is a constant reminder of the incompleteness of God's own conquest over that initial formless deep. There was nothing created that wasn't already held there in the primal abyss of the beginning. There is something perpetually unformed still dwelling in the cosmos, and that uncreated source is in fact the wellspring of all creation, even God himself. This is a fact that, according to differing interpretations, either God himself is unaware of, or desperate to conceal from us in order to hide His shame at his own limited nature. It means in fact that nothing we profess to create is really 'ours' after all, it is Tiamat's.
Universally we prize the clarity and purposiveness of black and white pronouncements, of bold decisions. The hero of our story is almost invariably he who determines the outcome, the decisive one. He (I say he only to underline the tendency of this mode of thought toward patriarchy, naturally) is successful inasmuch as he, through force of will, suppresses any opposition to the ego-decision, including any subconsicious opposition of his own. This drive toward dominance exists across both the animal and rational poles of our nature, and one to which we owe much of the shape of our world. It is how man achieves the things he desires.
That side of our nature is clearly adaptive, but there is another side of our nature often disparaged and equally necessary: ambivalence. It isn't a state of not caring, but an ability to care in both directions at once, to hold in relation multiple feelings about something, oftentimes conflicting feelings. To decide is inevitably to reduce ourselves, and there is a power in remaining open... undecided.
Our conception of ouselves changes if see the ambivalence / polyvalence not as a problem to be solved but as inherent to who we are, a stunning capacity - a gift. It is not an inability to decide, but a capacity to perceive. We can see through our own aattachments, through to the polyvalence that is inherent not only to us but to reality itself, is already a part of everything. Like the world, we are not one thing but many things. Many drives. If we can keep that space of indecision open, it is in that space that we can learn what to desire.