Friday, December 25, 2009

* Rocking-horse winner, pass by!

Endlessly Rocking in the Teleological Tide. . .

Sitting across a restaurant table from Thornton Wilder in The Old Heidelburg in New Haven was like sitting across from Halley's Comet, chained to a chair. (see

And that was when he was 78, only months before his death in 1975. Imagine what he was like when he was young!

Now that I am pushing the years further and further and have looked death straight in the eye myself, I understand what Thornton Wilder was doing, not only for himself, but for those around him: He was defying oblivion, "out of the cradle endlessly rocking". (He once said, "It is the duty of the old to lie to the young.")

In case you have any doubt that the author of Our Town believed in personal -- indeed humanity's --oblivion, consider these words about his attraction (at 78) to the writing of Claude Levi-Strauss:words from The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder by Gilbert Harrison:

". . . he continued writing hours each day, and with faltering eyesight reread Goethe's converstaions with Eckermann, Madame de Sevigne's letters, Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle('spledid'), Boswell's London Journal ('a little Scotch puppy and how he grew') and, most stimulating, the social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss whose thought in The Naked Man paralleled his own. "Man has to live and struggle,think, believe and above all preserve his courage,' wrote Levi-Strauss ' although he can never at any moment lose sight of the opposite certainty that he was not present on earth in former times, that he will not always be here in the future and that, with his inevitable disappearance from the surface of the planet which is itself doomed to die, his sorrows, his joys, his hopes, his works will be as if they never existed'" (Harrison, p.373)

Four years earlier, at age 74, Wilder had written an aging, ill friend:

"I -- and Goethe -- acknowledge a God but we don't anthropomorphize him. We call him die Natur and we know He, She, It embraces this vast process and has fashioned it with a million marvelous smaller processes which betray an intense concern for how the whole thing works --- a concern that much resembles love. All Nature strives to bring every detail to its truest expression of its function. All Nature is working for you. Rise above immediate things and feel that. Float in the teleological tide." (Harrison, p. 371)

How can the "teleological tide" be reconciled with the planet and humanity's "inevitable disappearance"?

It can't.

But as Bertrand Russell says (somewhere): Just because the human mind is structured to search for cause-and-effect, does not mean that the universe operates in cause-and-effect.

Just as Nature may make quantum leaps, so too may the human mind.

Wilder's, floating in the teleological tide as opposed to swimming with it
(Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"?) or against it (Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night") may actually be the ultimate religious adjustment to the
certain uncertainty of extinction (to crudely reword Hamlet).

Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Rocking-horse winner, pass by!

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