I am down with a heavy cold and sickness bug, and write to you (mostly) from a rather wonderful log cabin in Copenhagen university’s skovskolen woodland in Denmark. On Friday we worked in the rain to scrape and de-grain roe deer skins on the beginning of their journey to become fat tan, more widely known as buckskin. It was a joy to use my lats for the pull-down action of scraping hides on the beam, but by the end of the day two things had become apparent: the cold virus meant I tired more swiftly than usual, and it’s been almost a year since I last scraped a hide, so my technique had become rusty indeed. It was good to get corrections from Theresa: attention to detail when scraping is what was needed, less haste. The opportunity to return to the reality of touch, via long, vigorous physical work alongside others, even in a soaking wood, is a blessing.
With my head in a fog four days later, unable to sharpen my wits to finish the new essays, I offer instead two pieces from the last half decade of letters to friends around the loose theme of uncertainty, which cajoled my handful of functioning brain cells to put them together. When I publish emails here, I edit them only very lightly. Some pieces were originally off-the-cuff, others were serious replies in months-long back and forth conversations, yet others were plain outlandish, and words ran away with each other in little gangs. Occasionally I laugh when I reread them, or wince, or wonder how I ever knew or thought such a thing. But with these feral photons, I wanted to create a different kind of space for myself, and by extension, for my readers here on Substack, one that I had not yet found online but was experiencing in my network of friends and colleagues. Not tidy, but lively and somewhat shaggy, a place to roam and rant, but also to rest and consider1. I hope you have found a little of that here, over the last year. I have.
Excuse my late posting and exhausted phone voiceover.
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Cause as yet unknown
The universe, once started, cause as yet unknown, expands and coalesces, atoms and forces making pockets of seeming equilibrium and pattern, even on this ongoing dive into eventual entropy and future crunch back into a cold state. And yet, the utter generosity of matter seeking to become conscious in whatever form: archeopteryx, blue whale, tree, human. Not seeking maybe, but emerging.
I don’t doubt that ‘we are like straw dogs to the Tao’. Life and death are two states available to humans but there is more choice than that for gods, atoms, energy and what cannot be described. In that sense it is also available to us. It’s impossibly vast.2
On the microcosmic scale, all is intrigue and disaster, celebration and event. On the macrocosmic scale we ‘roam freely in the vast homeland of nothing whatsoever’ under the ‘useless’ gnarled ancient tree.
My task is to have a heart wide enough to hold all this all at once, indeed to hold all things.
But right now I have to go get the shopping.
October 2017, from an email to P
Firstly, regarding the community of selves, the one who writes really good, occasionally ecstatic emails and sometimes gets to run these two fingers I type with; she is also not exactly 'me', but is a very close friend of dreaming Caro, and is closest to her of all the parts, I think. Very occasionally she gets to run the mouth too, and that's when people ask to join my cult3. So best tie her to the laptop, probably. The last episode of Mr Robot was spot on, I thought, re all this, though neater than life, but then it's TV.
Secondly, relating to your insight into your friend’s conflation of the map with the territory, which is a hugely widespread view, (and the unexamined subtext of Netflix's 'Devs', I feel). You’ll remember Gödel's incompleteness theorem. Longgggg story short, how Bertrand Russell attempted to show, using the best possible and most complete and exact modelling system, mathematics, how all things could be described within a powerful enough system, in Principia Mathematica. Gödel, using only the terminology and the logic from within the proposed system proved that there will always be emergent phenomena which appear in any sufficiently complex and powerful system, that are not of the system itself. My T’ai Chi teacher described this beautifully to me as Gödel computing, using solely the logic of Russell's algebra, a formula that could be paraphrased as saying, 'I am not from here'.
All this is to say, very powerful, complex, systems, which map very accurately in many ways onto reality, are often mistaken by those invested in them for the reality the system they seek to describe. These are people who have lost 'sense'4 in the truest meaning, I think. Most of them are also not aware of the proofs that systems contain within them things that cannot be described by those systems and therefore are inherently incomplete. Unlike reality. Which is, last time we looked, self-identical and complete.🙂
(A smiley face after discussing maths is important.)
I say all this because a common effect of left-hemisphere dominance or right-hemisphere deficit, is the sure and certain knowledge that one's system is complete, that one has all the answers, and it is only lack of proper implementation that causes all the trouble... Hmm, where have we seen this before?
One wise interviewee in a great philosophy programme, now lost to me, put it as,
'Tragedy is the inevitable outcome of adherence to any ideal.'
I concur, sadly. I was once an idealist, and now I am more interested in correct method. Doing the right thing often leads to what one could call iatrogenic5 effects, whereas non-doing appears to have far fewer unforeseen side effects. This is possibly because in the grander scheme of things, 'things' are in the minority, and are in fact a product of mind. Whereas 'stuff going on' is the natural state of the universe. Making this stuff into things (objectifying) is a wrong-headed view. Even if a system / description / techne were 'right' in theory, in implementation it could not be so, as by definition, other things would arise from it, emergent phenomena, which would cause it to fail, or break. At best this can be seen as Deleuze and Guatarri's 'desire production machine' (in my probably rather simple view of the Anti-Oedipus). At worst it is the clear failure of all hegemonies to be able to adapt to the changes in reality, what Taleb would call being 'fragile'.
So this is perhaps why the Tao Te Ching says, 'The Tao resides in the lowest places, the places that people despise,' and that 'Tao is like muddy water'. It is not meant to be clear. That is not New Age fuzziness, that is a precise description of things as they are. If people didn't mind the lowest places, the muddy puddles, and didn't constantly seek to say they are not made of earth, then we wouldn't have to waste our breath on sighing.
Thirdly, my T’ai Chi Grandmaster's critique of the Buddhist preoccupation with the cessation of suffering still stands. John Kells insisted that suffering was hardly the most important of all the things that make up a life, and as such did not need an entire path created for its avoidance. I remember him saying something like, ‘Suffering happens, sure enough, but you carry on, and energy is a much more interesting subject.’ (By the way, in recounting some of our conversation to my teacher recently, he remembered a few more of John Kells’ classic understatements, one of which was: 'Jesus; a young man, quite sensitive, he had some interesting ideas.')
What I notice every day is the profound adaptability, flux and mutability of the universe. Today I have been drawing all day when not talking with you, and the phrase of James Joyce's that my ex-husband loved came to mind: 'the ineluctable modality of the visible'. When I was younger, I had no idea how to approach this, but recently it seems rich and strange, which is to say: right. I seek out these oubliette corners as that is where the fertile dust congregates, in which life grows. When my teacher was first at a Tibetan meditation centre, unbeknownst to him an incarnated lama sat down next to him, before the talk started. He turned straight to him, before they were introduced, and said: 'Sometimes, in my tradition, clarity is the enemy.' For my teacher, this was the perfect teaching at the right moment: a young man ready to grasp all things in his powerful understanding was gently delivered a cure for budding hubris.
Life also delivers me blessed fresh uncertainty each day. May I always appreciate it. Warm greetings to you, Caro.
May 2020 From an email to DH
This week’s good thing: Greetings from the beechwoods, beside a Morsø Squirrel stove - in my opinion, one of the greatest things ever to come out of Denmark. I have owned 3 of these iron hearths over the years, and they make every boat, cabin, or room a pleasure to be in. Hygge, indeed.
con - sidere : sit down together (Latin)
My thoughts on the grand prime cause of all this have evolved since writing this email, but I have let the piece stand.
As previously stated, I do not wish to start a cult, but I acknowledge the benign, ongoing extant one of ‘Yorkshire Tea drinking from my private stash while travelling abroad’. I recently founded the USA, Swedish and Danish chapters and devotees, or perhaps, ‘devoteas’ are thronging.
Iagtrogenic = ‘doctor-caused’. In the voiceover I read this wrongly as etiological. Apologies.