Monday, September 22, 2014

William Bronk

William Bronk [Vassar]

from William Bronk's Vectors and Smoothable Curves: Collected Essays:

Copan: Unwillingness, the Unwilled

What do we want? Say everyone were healthy and beautiful, were rich and together and would never die: well, hardly. But that or something like it had seemed to be what we want. Just the same, any increase in personal favor, relief from some particular ailment, or to live if only a little longer, — these partial benefits seem good. But, in either case, it is the imminent certainty of deprivation, whether whole or fractional, we stand on. How should we seem to want these things without that certainty?

So; what do we want? Sometimes, to go, in other ways also, counter to the truth, to mark ourselves off from what there is around us, and make that subject to our will: to be masters of some sort, of the political-military sort that leaders and conquerors are, or of the intellectual sort that devises a rationality strong enough that it seems to impose that rationality on what there is. But what there is continues outside and beyond any rationality imposed on it, and political-military mastery is brief and apparent. The notion that [sic] man's condition can be stated in such a way that there is, for one thing we, and for another, our environment which we master or fail to master, is in itself a wrong idea. It might be said that we are everything, that the only reality is internal, there is nothing outside of us. Or, it might be said that we are nothing, have no real being, that there is only something else whose existence ignores us, and asks us for nothing. The two statements seem to be opposed but may not be. They are equivalent, at least, in denying the duality. Whatever there is, if there is something, we, if we are, are part of it. There are not two realities: [sic] man and his medium, of which one is the subject and one the object. It is only by a willful act in the face of the truth that we become an entity separate from what there is around us; and how much the more willful it is to presume to master what we have marked ourselves off from.

There is something which is and we are not separable from it. Then, if we want something, it is something wanted through us; we are the instrumentality of a desire which it would not be quite accurate to call external because we are part of the wanting, but neither is it right to think it personal. If something is wanted, we feel the want but we are not apart in wanting it. It is always tempting though to transmute the something wanting into personal terms, to look for, or even to find, our own satisfactions as though that were what was wanted, as it proves not to be. At any rate, our personal satisfactions, once had, often seem nothing; whatever it was that was wanted, it wasn't that, and we are puzzled by trophies that seem to have been won by someone we don't even remember. Not always though.

The attempt to put personal desires in place of the general want which we feel, is a simplification, and makes the problem of desire appear to be something we could hope to solve. Isn't it, at bottom, a trial to be something of our own, a separate part with its own desire? It is interesting that our separation is rarely a branching and gradual departure, nor is it a process of development by which inherent and hardly perceptible tendencies express and realize themselves. It is a removal to an existent position as though it were transferable, as though we were molten and gave ourselves into some mold that we saw in order to borrow the form of that mold. We might make much of the implications of external labels which are neither natural nor inherent — of name and place and time and function. It is the somewhat removed mold, often, that seems to attract us, though sometimes the removal is only the distance from actuality to pretension. It may be that the attraction of hypocrisy is only the unnaturalness of the position which it offers, a position which is well-defined because of its falsity. We are uncertain where something real begins or ends, or of its nature; the false can be sharply defined however hollow it is or however little it means. The human situation seems less a come-as-you-are party than a party to which we are bidden to come as our favorite character and, though we are sometimes cheap or shy, we do fairly well. We put on the costume and badges, the mental attitudes, the facial and vocal expressions of something, of someone. Such an action gives shape and clarity to our desires, gives them poles and simplicity; it sets us up as some sort of marked-off existent. It is of course evasive. It is hard to face how insanely evasive until we have watched the fatal despair with which we fight off the loss of an assumed identity. An assumed identity is made from appearances and lets us be nothing and yet appear to be something. We don't so much want to be something as we want to be allowed to look like something, to be granted general recognition — even acclaim — as what we pretend to be, to win the prize for Best Costume. A declared identity is an assertion of independence, often an aggressive and defiant assertion as though our separate person were a prime value; and it is an avoidance at the same time of any person we might have inside lest it look like the nothing it fears to be. Avoidance, removal, displacement: these seem to be the center of our wanting to be something, our assumption of an identity on our own, as though in order to be something it were necessary to move away, to break some existing connection whatever we sense it to be. But it may be the other way: that we want to be something in order to justify our real desire which is to move aside. There are societies where it is recognized as essential to have an assumed name under which to function and to conduct a mature life, suppressing a real name such as it might be. In certain ways, our own society admits the same need.

We may well be nothing or if not, are tenuous and frail. Resoluteness of being which seems to make us something acts to block our emptiness into which something which is might flow. If we start playing a role and let our energies and devisings embellish and serve that role, we are reflecting, however in error, the flow into our emptiness of energies and intentions from what seems outside, but which finds some sort of reception in us. Something enjoys being. Our imitation in our own right, of being, may pass for pious homage or a satisfaction at least, of those self-generated desires. We envy actors who have a role into which their passions can be directed, or else we envy the dead, that melted flesh no longer faced with the question.

If something wants through us, if we are the instrumentality of a desire whose source is not internal, then to interpose our own will or personal desires is an avoidance of reality, and the wants which our willfulness includes are irrelevant wants and may be dismissed as not important, as not what we want, no more than we want, as we seem to, an endless life, endless wealth and fairness and company. Order and security, to be caressed and honored and to caress and honor in turn — we seem to want these things, but in order to make us a separate enclave, a refuge apart from what may be wanted through us. If we are not to falsify life, but to have it for what it is, we must leave ourselves open to it and undefended, observant of what may happen, since our private will is not relevant and we are not capable of apprehending or assisting any other will, and what we observe and feel is perhaps less will than being and the nature of being. We have made up complicated frameworks of activity and attitude on the foundation that somehow we grasp what may be wanted from us, some challenge or imperative. The challenges and imperatives may not be anything like each other in any respect except in this: that they assume our receiving them. But in experience (and on the contrary) nothing is revealed to us of what our nature may be, or of what we must do. Nor, though we spy on it most diligently, do we learn things of consequence about whatever else there may be besides ourselves. We have no inkling of its wants or purposes or whether it has any. There may be some divine or historical or biological or evolutionary determinism and we may be wholly subject to it — it may want something of us — but it is without our consciousness, and we cannot bring our wills to consonance with it, not knowing what it is. I think we are totally unable to affect it: that any action of ours which is contrary is null by its contrariety, and any consonant action is an action not by us but through us, not by our will or any necessity. We have supposed that there are wants and purposes but it seems likely that none exists.

How empty all those schemes are, and they are very many, which propose our necessity or which propose that we need to do this or that in order to assert or maintain our own existence, or to realize what may have been intended for us. Noting that we do devise as a convenience a kind of machinery of social and political and economic organization, we project that a more searching and more diligent devising would make use of what there is and organize reality into the mechanism. Noting that we do personify ourselves, that we devise a characterization by means of, say, the superego, or historical imperative, or evolutionary vectors, moral precept, or what we will, we project that our courage and intelligence have the means to produce in our own person the fulfilled and realized [sic] man who has dared to embody reality in himself, not flee from it, and so has permitted reality to have real being. But what there is — we are part of what there is — is what it is regardless of us. It has real being without our help. We are whatever we are, squirm or resolve what we will to avoid it. We can make as though to run away and leave only a token of ourselves behind, but the token we leave behind is what there is. Anything else is pretense and subterfuge. We need not want anything; nothing needs us to want.

There are things which we feel, certain angers, rejoicings, fears. These feelings astonish us. Set beside our expectation of a real world, they seem not to have the habit of reality. They seem unrelated, and there is a lapse of time before we take them as real in the absence of a more expected reality. We learn at last, and accept the learning at last, that these feelings come to us without our willing or acceding or inventing. They come from beyond our skin like approaches to us, like messages; and we respond, trembling and shaking, or vibrating in tune as though we were instruments a music were played on and we arch and turn to have the contact closer. Our responses are presences that tower around us, seemingly solid as stone.

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