Thursday, December 31, 2015

Only Connect

Lucretius, ancient author of the poem De rerum natura, is one of only a few people in literary history to combine the search for truth with poetry. This is for good reason: poets tend not to be levelheaded enough to see things as they are, and scientists tend to lack both taste and patience for decoration. (In the last couple centuries, with respect to Ms. Frizzle and Neil deGrasse Tyson, we’ve learned anyway that reality is gray and monotonous rather than poetic.) But once in a while you get a poem like De rerum natura, which is no less insightful into the reality of things than it’s decked with metaphor and poetic grace. Here is an example of this coupling: in the middle of his first discussion of atoms, Lucretius makes a basic scientific point: like matter clings to like. Atoms of a certain kind stick to other atoms of their kind, and that gives order and form to what would otherwise be a spinning mass of inert particles. These connections, he argues, are present on every level of resolution. Flat atoms join to flat, water to water, trees to the forest, and a mother to her son. It all seems too prosaic to be said in a poem. Then all of a sudden, we get this illustration:

For often, when before the splendid gods
A calf is slaughtered on a smoking mound
And sputters out a stream of tepid blood,
His mother wanders through the leafy woods
Tracking the hoof-prints of his cloven feet,
Casting her glance all around, as if somewhere
She’ll find her missing son. She fills the woods
With moans. She stops, she wanders to his stall,
Speared with feeling for her little calf.
Nor tender willows now, nor the dew-flecked grass
Nor swollen rivers gliding in their banks
Can pacify her soul in sudden care.
Nor can the sight of other frisking calves
On happy lawns give solace or relief:
So far do mothers know and seek their own.
(II.352–66, my translation)

This illustration is obviously painful in its own right: Lucretius feels almost human pity for animals throughout his poem, and this is probably the clearest example of that. But the philosophical point that the example serves is actually just as poignant. Lucretius, as I said before, has set out to prove that atoms do not spin randomly in the void—they in fact are connected to each other by a tangled, subtle, and of course breakable net. And so, out of nothing more than an unfeeling mass of matter, every single one of our tender attachments is born: to our home, our land, and the people we know. This thought can be solace to the materialist nihilist. He will always remain a materialist—but his nihilism might be warmed and diffused by the thought that friendships, memory, and love are all legitimate children of chaos.

Our happiness, in other words, is no less real for the fact that it’s constituted on the accidents of atoms. It is certainly fragile because of that fact, but not false. More than just happiness, meanwhile, can come out of the atomic shuffle. So can deep sorrow, which is a far profounder feeling than simple joy. Or even mystical transport: I first heard Tallis’s Spem in alium when it came on WQXR at 3:00 in the morning. The feeling of simultaneous horror and divinity that it produced seemed too profound to have come from anywhere except the finger of a god. But it came from dumb matter, just like everything else.

Here’s something else: if you happen to be one of the very few people to have a real friend, it is cause for divine wonder that the random dice of geography, birth, time, language, etc. have determined that this should happen. If it had been intended by a forethinking god—like the marriage of Adam and Eve—then gratitude might be appropriate, but not this sort of wonder. In just the same way as a glowworm finds another glowworm, you have found a fellow. (Of course, the glowworm might not have found its mate, nor you your friend. But you did.) There is something sweet in the knowledge that your friendship has been snatched, against all likelihood, out of the storms that make up the natural world.

Now, as Lucretius makes so clear, the disquieting flipside of atomism is the danger of failing to find any meaningful connection. A spiritualist, for his part, can believe in the underlying oneness of things, so that any separation is an illusion. That way, he can pass his entire life sunk in loneliness, which is just a temporary appearance of being out of the swing of things. Everything will be alright, because the universe gives a warm home to all her children.

To an atomist who believes in the supremacy of division, loneliness is the general rule and connectedness a strange exception. It’s nothing special if the universe happens not to have made an exception for you. You’re just screwed, and you will remain screwed until you go to the grave just as friendless and unwept as you were on earth. And you’re even worse off if, like Lucretius’ cow, you are first connected, and then cut off. You can get used to perpetual solitude—even rationalize it—if it’s the only thing you’ve ever known. But once you know connection, there’s no pain quite like being thrust out into endless friendlessness. This is why atomists ought to be savagely jealous of whatever ties they do have to places and people. Like Hector, pleading uselessly to Achilles:

Then the powerless helmet-shaking Hector spoke to him:
“I beg on your soul, and on your knees and your parents,
not to let me be pray to the dogs of the Achæans,
for you’ll receive a ransom of bronze and gold
from my father and my noble mother.
Only let my body be carried back home again, so that
the Trojans and the Trojans’ wives can have me dead upon the pyre.

 We should all feel Hector’s terror. The universe does not give a damn about leaving us to the dogs—there is, after all, no thinking “universe” that could feel anything, much less prevent anything. There is only hard reality, which can cause unspeakable suffering as readily as it can give us delight. Like Hector or the cow, we can delight in the joyful connections we have, and then weep without pious consolation when they’re torn apart.

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