That title, from Pascal’s Pensées, summarizes the modern experience. All significance seems to be drowned out in all that we know and discover. The greater our power to explore, the more efficient our technology to build, the more insignificant all these operations seem. We have lost paradise. And here, the paradise lost a second time can never be regained.
Perhaps this is the quintessentially modern question, one that Thought, in its proper place, is called upon to answer: “How can we confront these infinite spaces?”
No wonder that anxiety is the dominant modern emotion. For Heidegger, Angst is the fundamental mode of attunement for Dasein (Dasein, as Heidegger describes it, is the modern being). But we would rather flee, fall into a numb everydayness, than to confront that unsettling nothingness (the groundlessness, the non-relationality) which presents itself to us in anxiety, and perhaps this is not even our fault. The job for us is to find a way out that acknowledges angst as a reality.
Therefore a kind of Jungion collective consciousness, a new-age Taoism, a qseudo-Spinozian pantheism, won’t work. To believe them is to cheat ourselves. An empty profoundity is the greatest expression of the “One”, the dominant form of ideological discourse (as Žižek puts it, the feel-good Dalai Lama Buddhism). Fragmentation, deconstruction, irony, are what we are left with. But they are not enough. For they have but the power to kill—and they are effective at doing that—but have not the power to live. They can destroy grand narratives, but in the wake of their enthusiastic ravage we are left with nothing. Only a wreckage and some debris.
I don’t think there is any good answer to this other than a neo-Kantian rejoinder. Of acting ethically—that is, acting because that is what I have to do. An acting out of who I am as a person. (We do this all the time when we fall in love. We don’t ask ourselves why we love someone else. Nor can we answer it. We just love. And though that love may be the most insignificant speck in the scope of the entire universe, we nevertheless cannot but think that the event is cosmic. We cannot but derive meaning. Our rational side can tell us that it doesn’t matter. But fuck them. We know it does.) If we were to go back to Homer, it would be how the guys and gals feel in the epics when they are possessed by the gods. But now there are no gods to possess us; we have to possess ourselves. I am not sure whether this is the right way out. Nor am I trying to say something stupid like “Love will solve everything.” This has to be something very precise. But I haven’t thought it through. It would take a long time to really think this through.
In one of his last cantos Ezra Pound begs forgiveness to all whom he loves for having tried to write paradise and to have made a mess of it. That may be the modern predicament, how to write paradise when paradise is so far away?
Notes for Canto CXX:
I have tried to write Paradise Do not move Let the wind speak that is paradise. Let the Gods forgive what I have made Let those I love try to forgive what I have made.
One thought on ““The Eternal Silence of These Infinite Spaces Terrifies Me””
I experienced it once, this awe-full sense of being less than a speck in an infinite cosmos. Then I heard a voice whisper, “Why not?” I gave myself to it, to something or someone from the deeps of “those infinite spaces.” I became a clergy person. One day, years and years later, talking to a church member whose grand-nephew had just died in a car accident, I felt he had become part of those spaces. I have no answers, no assurances, only a slight sense of belonging to something or someone wonderful. It’s little more than a suspicion. But occasionally it’s enough.