Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Count the Stars

Two among the most dangerous words in almost every language are: “What is” and “perhaps”. Even a keen thinker like Søren Kierkegaard felled in the trap by asking: “The man is the spirit, but what is the spirit?” But if the spirit is not “a thing”, how can you ask “what it is?” Those two apparently simple and innocent words make you believe there is “a something”, an essentia, that can be really “grasped” to the extent that we might “know” what it is. “What is” imply something that “is” (substantia), and “perhaps” implies the grasp of possibilities, some sort of insight on what could be or not (affirmation and negation, two cornerstones of Western thinking). This is the point where the Danish Prince Hamlet brutally asks: “to be or not to be” and, as he rightly points, “that is the question”, not “a” question, but “the” question i.e. not be on one or the other side of being, but be always in between. Prince Hamlet, a literary Socrates, teaches through example: being forever undecided, between revenge and forgetting, because if you know, there is no other way to be.
Hamlet doesn’t seem to believe in “what is”, nor in “perhaps”, he lives in between. The Prince knows, that’s why he is so lonely, he knows that every certainty, each step into one decision or another, is not a commitment, but just another name for nonsense: “words, words, words…” You can’t win against Hamlet because he doesn’t leave any room for victory or defeat. The Prince is apart because it is the only place he could be. He stands fiercely, he questions life because he knows that the deepest wisdom is in not-saying, in not-doing; “I would prefer not to” (Bartleby). “To do” is to decide to be on one side or another, erasing all the rest in between. When asked how much he loves Ophelia he can only give a puzzling answer: «Doubt thou the stars are fire, \ Doubt that the sun doth move, \ Doubt truth to be a liar, \ But never doubt I love» (Act 2, Scene 2). The Prince of Denmark can only point into a hermeneutical direction, the way where the blind will never be capable to look; Hamlet is hiding in plain sight because “naked is the best disguise” (Congreve). The blind, i.e. the materialist, can only see what’s “there”, his question is “What is”, and his answer: “How can I do that? How can I doubt that the sun doth move or truth to be a lie?” The blind is always confessing, though involuntarily, through his words and actions. If you listen to him he reveals himself and therefore fails Hamlet’s test. Hamlet is well aware of this and his words have also the scope to push away those who can’t see. If you can see, you’ll see. Do not try to count the stars with your fingers, count them in your heart, that’s the real question. Do not say what it is or what could be, read what is not there and see through it, read the absence; do not expect an answer or a decision, those are for the fools that calls themselves “smart”. The other important question here would also be: does Ophelia really love Hamlet? But that’s another matter.

At this point someone like the academic W. V. Quine would be totally lost because, contrary to his claims, in Hamlet there is no “ontological problem”. There is no “what there is?” But such academics are Aristotle’s nephews and, same as the Stagirite, whenever there is a conceptual problem, they invent a new partition. Hamlet does not divide: he asks to ponder what’s in between. The Eastern thinkers got it right in the first place: Master Dōgen did not divide being from time and taught, instead, the concept of being-time (Uji), seeing them as identical and inseparable. The Kegan Buddhism will declare that one of the ten mysteries is that all things exist in their times and in all time. Borges should probably have heard that while writing The Aleph.

Words can have many different meanings, but still fail to grasp the totality, and sometimes could even be incapable to grasp, or say, only one single thing right. You might have the words but not the keys. Words can generate paradoxes and we are so foolish to believe that paradoxes are like strange dragons waiting to be killed by an armored Knight. When a paradox is real, teaches that there is no solution, at least not through words and his real lesson is: “count the stars”.

(© Sergio Caldarella)