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Albert Camus on Consciousness and the Lacuna Between Truth and Meaning

“From the evening breeze to this hand on my shoulder, everything has its truth. Consciousness illuminates it by paying attention to it.”

Albert Camus on Consciousness and the Lacuna Between Truth and Meaning

“The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same,” Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant treatise on the life of the mind, adding: “The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.”

The nature of consciousness and its role in both creating and mediating that fallacy is what Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) explored three decades earlier in The Myth of Sisyphus (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the will to live and the most important question of existence.

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Noting that “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it,” 28-year-old Camus considers the nature of consciousness and its supreme object — truth. Fifteen years before he became the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for the “clear-sighted earnestness” with which he “illuminates the problems of the human conscience,” he writes:

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.

[…]

From the evening breeze to this hand on my shoulder, everything has its truth. Consciousness illuminates it by paying attention to it. Consciousness does not form the object of its understanding, it merely focuses, it is the act of attention, and, to borrow a Bergsonian image, it resembles the projector that suddenly focuses on an image. The difference is that there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration. In that magic lantern all the pictures are privileged. Consciousness suspends in experience the objects of its attention. Through its miracle it isolates them. Henceforth they are beyond all judgments. This is the “intention” that characterizes consciousness. But the word does not imply any idea of finality; it is taken in its sense of “direction”: its only value is topographical.

And yet the ultimate function of consciousness, Camus suggests, is not the retrieval of truth but the higher-order synthesis of meaning. He writes:

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that is what I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my condition?

If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world.

With this, Camus comes full circle to the opening sentence of his treatise, which remains among the most famous in literature and poses one of the most profound questions of philosophy — whether or not life is worth living. With an eye to his first great philosophical preoccupation — the experience of the absurd and the perplexity of how one is to live with it — he writes:

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

[…]

I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Myth of Sisyphus with Sy Montgomery on how the octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness and Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises, then revisit Camus on the art of awareness, how to bolster our spirit in hard times, what it means to be a rebel, happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, and his moving correspondence with Boris Pasternak.

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Art in the Light of Conscience: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Loving vs. Understanding and the Paradoxical Psychology of Our Resistance to Ideas

“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.”

Art in the Light of Conscience: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Loving vs. Understanding and the Paradoxical Psychology of Our Resistance to Ideas

“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them,” Bob Dylan observed in his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo about the unconscious mind and the creative process.

More than half a century earlier, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (October 8, 1892–August 31, 1941) explored the paradoxical psychological machinery of that resistance in one of the eight beautiful pieces in her collection of essays on art and writing, Art in the Light of Conscience (public library) — a discovery embodying my longtime saying that literature is the original internet, for I found a “link” to the book in a footnote in Tsvetaeva’s exquisite correspondence with Pasternak and Rilke, which was in turn “linked” to in Marina Abramović moving memoir.

Marina Tsvetaeva
Marina Tsvetaeva

In a sentiment of equal cultural and political perceptiveness, Tsvetaeva writes:

Not to like a work is, in the first and most important place, not to recognize it: not to find the pre-cognized in it. The first cause of not accepting a work is not being prepared for it… A physical turning away of the head: I see nothing in this picture, therefore I don’t wish to look at it. — But, in order to see, one needs to look; in order to really see, one needs to look really closely. Disappointment of an eye that is used to seeing at first glance, which means used to seeing along its old track, that of others’ eyes… [an eye] used to not an act of cognition, but recognition.

Tsvetaeva considers the only position from which we have the right — intellectual, creative, moral — to reject an idea or a work of art:

The only case worthy of respect, the only legitimate non-acceptance of a work, is non-acceptance of it in full knowledge… No one is obliged to love, but every non-loving person is obliged to know — first, what it is he doesn’t love, and second, why he doesn’t love it.

In a fine complement to her compatriot Leo Tolstoy’s ideas about the paradoxical nature of love, she adds:

Anyone who loves only something, loves nothing.

Although our instinctual reaction to that which we do not understand is to reject it, Tsvetaeva reminds us that such rejection is maladaptive and to the detriment of our evolution — be it in art or in politics or in our private lives. She writes:

Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.

What we reject most often is that which rebels against and challenges the status quo, but such rejection, Tsvetaeva admonishes, is antithetical to the creative force that propels us forward. Once again, what is true of poetry is true of life itself:

There is no poet who would reject any elemental force, consequently any rebellion.

[…]

What doesn’t accept (rejects, even ejects) is the human being: will, reason, conscience.

In this realm the poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptable — let me not understand, so that I may not be seduced. The sole prayer of the poet is not to hear the voices: let me not hear, so that I may not answer. For to hear, for the poet, is already to answer, and to answer is already to affirm, if only by the passionateness of his denial. The poet’s only prayer is a prayer for deafness.

Complement this particular fragment of Art in the Light of Conscience with Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and André Gide on art’s vital role as both acceptance of and rebellion against reality.

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Annie Dillard on the Winter Solstice and How the Snowy Season Anneals Us to Life

“Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

Annie Dillard on the Winter Solstice and How the Snowy Season Anneals Us to Life

Rilke considered the cold season the time for tending one’s inner garden. “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote a generation later. “If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely,” Adam Gopnik observed after many more revolutions of the Earth around the Sun in his lyrical love letter to winter. But if we are to reap winter’s quiet and invisible spiritual rewards, it seems that special regard must be paid to day of the season’s onset as the time to set such interior intentions.

That’s what Annie Dillard (b. April 30, 1945) invites in a splendid meditation on the winter solstice, originally published in her 1974 masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — which I revisit frequently as a sort of secular scripture — and later included in The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New (public library), one of the 16 finest books of 2016.

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Dillard writes:

Today is the winter solstice. The planet tilts just so to its star, lists and holds circling in a fixed tension between veering and longing, spins helpless, exalted, in and out of that fleet blazing touch. Last night Orion vaulted and spread all over the sky, pagan and lunatic, his shoulder and knee on fire, his sword three suns at the ready — for what?

[…]

I stood at the window, the bay window on which in summer a waxy-looking grasshopper had breathed puff puff, and thought, I won’t see this year again, not again so innocent, and longing wrapped round my throat like a scarf… Is this mystery or coyness? A cast-iron bell hung from the arch of my rib cage; when I stirred it rang, or it tolled, a long syllable pulsing ripples up my lungs and down the gritty sap inside my bones, and I couldn’t make it out; I felt the voiced vowel like a sigh or a note, but couldn’t catch the consonant that might shape it into sense. I wrenched myself from the window and stepped outside.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol

She considers how winter highlights one of the central perplexities of existence — the mystery of beauty. In a sentiment that calls to mind Baudelaire’s assertion that “beauty always has an element of strangeness,” Dillard contemplates winter’s strange and sorrowful landscape of loss, and writes:

Is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

[…]

A wind rose, quickening; it invaded my nostrils, vibrated my gut. I stirred and lifted my head. No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax… Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?, a lyrical illustrated story about the cycle of life and the eternal cycle of growth and decay

Watching a maple leaf twirl to the ground in its final flight, Dillard considers something else we easily forget, as essential as beauty — the irrepressible cycle of growth and decay, life and death, each rendering the other both necessary and inevitable:

Another year has twined away, unrolled and dropped across nowhere like a flung banner painted in gibberish. “The last act is bloody,” said Pascal, “however brave be all the rest of the play; at the end they throw a little earth upon your head, and it’s all over forever.” Somewhere, everywhere, there is a gap…

[…]

The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps … are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery.

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the solid, turn, and unlock — more than a maple — a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

Art Alessandro Sanna from The River, a watercolor ode to the seasonality of being human

In a passage that calls to mind Simone Weil’s beautiful notion of “the needs of the soul,” Dillard arrives at the ultimate existential gift that winter gives us when we make ourselves willing to receive it:

There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh your needs are guaranteed; your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock; seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” That’s the catch. If you can catch it it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you’ll come back, for you always come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for… Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Did you think you would keep your life, or anything else you love? … You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone…

I think that the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door… The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

The Abundance is a bountifully rewarding read in its totality. Devour more of its richness with Dillard on what it takes to be a writer, then revisit Henry Beston on solstice, seasonality, and the human spirit and Dillard’s abiding wisdom on the two ways of seeing, choosing presence over productivity, and how to reclaim our capacity for joy and wonder.

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