Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

It takes excellent sobriety of spirit to know your depths and limits. It takes an exceptional grandeur of nature to know the limits of your self-knowledge. A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) titled “The Mirror of Enigmas,” found in his Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of stories, essays, and parables that gave us his timeless legend of the divided self and his classic refutation of time.

Titling the essay after St. Paul’s famous cryptic statement Videmus nunc per speculum in animate — loosely translated as We now see through a mirror, enigmatically — Borges considers the tribe of thinkers who have perched their efforts to reconcile knowledge and mystery, the scientific and the spiritual, on the assumption that “the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — has an incalculable, symbolical value.” With his characteristic poetic precision, he condenses this common and somewhat tired hypothesis:

The outer world — forms, temperatures, the moon — is a language humans have forgotten or cannot distinguish. No one, Borges argues, has taken this precarious hypothesis to the more surefooted ground than the French novelist, poet, and philosophical pamphleteer Léon Bloy (July 11, 1846–November 3, 1917). Digging through the surviving fragments of Bloy’s written thought, he surfaces a passage emblematic of Bloy’s uncommon physics of the metaphysical — and 1894 passage fomented by his interest in the teachings of St. Paul. Translated by Borges himself, Bloy writes:

the Universe

[St. Paul’s statement] would be a skylight through which one might submerge himself in the true Abyss, which is the soul of man. The terrifying immensity of the sky’s Abyss is an illusion, an external reflection of our abysses, perceived “in a mirror.” We should invert our eyes and practice sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our hearts… If we see the Milky Way, it is because it exists in our souls.

A century before Milan Kundera considered the eternal challenge of knowing what we want in his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bloy shines a sidewise gleam on the elemental self-opacity with and within which we live:

Everything is a symbol, even the most piercing pain. We are dreamers who shout in our sleep. We do not know whether the things afflicting us are the secret beginning of our ulterior happiness. These ideas haunted Bloy, animated his pamphlets, his poems, and his novels, then culminated in his 1912 book-length essay The Soul of Napoleon — a philosophical prose poem that sets out, as Borges puts it, “to decipher the symbol Napoleon, considered the precursor of another hero — man, and symbol as well — who is hidden in the future.” Bloy, translated again by Borges, writes in this uncommon work:

Every man* is on earth to symbolize something he is ignorant of and to realize a particle or a mountain of the invisible materials that will build the City of God. No human being on earth can declare who he is with certitude. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, ideas, his real name, his enduring Name in the register of Light… History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and the dots are worth less than the entire verses or chapters. Still, the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden.

But as you contemplate these existential immensities, you face the limits of contemplation — the limits of meaning-making to elemental truth. Borges recognized this, closing the essay by acknowledging, “it is doubtful that the world has a meaning… even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning.” I recognized this upon sitting down for morning meditation in my garden after a nightlong storm and watching an almost otherworldly deposit roll onto the cushion: a tiny, perfect robin egg, improbable and sorrowful in its displaced blue beauty.

I considered climbing the neighbor’s colossal tree to find the storm-shaken nest and reinstate the egg. (Perfectly, the tree is an Ailanthus altissima, known as “tree-of-heaven” in its native China — a migrant now rooted in Brooklyn, like me.) But then I considered this chance event as the product of the same impartial forces that deposited the exact spermatozoid of my father’s onto my mother’s ovum at the precise moment to produce the chance event of my particular configuration of atoms animated by this certain consciousness that is, the consciousness mourning the robin that will never be. To call one expression of chance good and another bad is mere human hubris — the hubris of narrative and interpretation superimposed on an impartial universe devoid of why awash is.

No one knows the meaning of why anything comes to be or doesn’t. Here is this pale blue orb, dropped from the tree-of-heaven onto a tiny Brooklyn point on the face of this Pale Blue Dot, itself a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” within an immense and impartial universe, conceived in the creation myths and early scientific theories of our meaning-hungry ancestors as an incredible cosmic egg. Here I am, and here you are, and here is the robin’s egg in its near-life collision with a chance. To ask for its meaning is as meaningless a question as to demand the importance of a color or a bird. On this particular day, in this specific moment — the only locus of aliveness we ever have — the contour of meaning comes in shades of blue; singing only is.

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