Kafka’s Great Wall of China, with the system of piecemeal construction, is filled with gaps and does not offer protection from barbarism. Likewise, the builders of the Tower of Babel, who purport to found a universal language, end up inviting God’s punishment, speaking different languages and becoming barbarians to each other.
Rather than failures, I subscribe to the view that these constructions succeed in their objective. Consider this: What we secretly desire are differences and barbarisms. What if the goal is not the wall but the gaps between the blocks which enable the flow of barbarians? What if we trick God into giving us the punishment so that we can escape from a unified humanity which speaks a single language?
Who has one voice and yet becomes three-footed and two-footed and four-footed? Sophocles’ Oedipus, the most suffering figure of the Greek tragedy. Oedipus crawled on three as a baby (because his ankles were pinned together by his parents who abandoned him), limped as an adult, and walked on four legs as an old man (blinding himself after he learnt that he killed his father and married his mother, he is led by his daughter Antigone).
As fate would have it, he got to his destiny by solving the riddle of the Sphinx: which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? If Oedipus grasped the riddle’s irony, he would recognize that he is the exact opposite of “human”, who should be ignorant. Wisdom is an unnatural abomination. Nietzsche saw it in the terrible trinity of Oedipus’ fates: the same man who solves the riddle of nature must also destroy the orders of nature by murdering his father and marrying his mother.
Sophocles’ closing line of the play is more eloquent yet: “Do not seek to be master in everything, for the things you mastered did not follow you throughout your life.” Given that we want to be wise, why do we not prefer to be ignorant?
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, as Herbert Simon said. When attention is scarce, secrets can be hidden. Dialogues from G. K. Chesterton’s The Sign of the Broken Sword illustrate this vividly.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a pebble?
Flambeau: On the beach.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a leaf?
Flambeau: In the forest.
Father Brown: What does he do if there is no forest?
Flambeau: What does he do?
Father Brown: He grows a forest to hide it in. A fearful sin.
Flambeau did not answer.
Father Brown: And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it.
Staring into the dreamy Shanghai dusk, a few lines of verse cross my mind:
The candle died, the water-clock was exhausted,
I rose and sat, but could not be at peace.
Man’s affairs are like the flow of floodwater,
A life is just like floating in a dream.
A few years ago, an up-and-coming musician magically reenacted these poetic verses, when he was down and out in Shanghai. Many centuries ago, these lines were first uttered by the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty. He achieved greatness in his poems, not his reign.
Jorge Luis Borges said that the world is a book in which all men are being written. Is it true that we write the verses, or the verses write us? I believe the latter. For it could be said that a single, all-knowing master has written all the books in the world. Tonight, the emperor, the Shanghai musician and me are one.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prince Andrey enumerated the factions within the Russian high command during Napoleon’s invasion. You usually see the full range or a subset of these dynamics as a group responds to situations.
- Rigid military theorists
- Non-planners favoring spontaneous actions
- Courtiers reconciling the first two groups
- Advocates of surrendering to Napoleon
- Adherents to Barclay de Tolly
- Adherents to Bennigsen, calling for Barclay to be replaced
- Devoted worshippers of the Tsar
- Place seekers chasing crosses and promotions (the largest group)
- Older politicians who can withdraw from conflicting opinions and take an objective view
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky makes reference to this painting by Ivan Kramskoy (The Contemplator, 1876) in describing Smerdyakov: “he stands as if he were lost in thought, but he is not thinking, he is ‘contemplating’ something.”
A contemplator greedily stores up impressions he had been under while contemplating, even without realizing it. Why and for what, he does not know. Perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, “he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both.”
There are contemplators. Look around.
The majority of writers just makes noise, but some can see well ahead of their time.
I find Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki such kind of writer. As early as 1908, he wrote in Sanshirō that “Japan is going to perish.” His advice: “Even bigger than Japan is the inside of your head. Don’t ever surrender yourself – not to Japan, not to anything.”
That was written at the height of international respect for Japan – merely 6 years into the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and 3 years after Japan won the Russo-Japanese War – and nearly four decades before Japan perished in atomic bombs.