Block

This weekend, waves of birds moved in to the city, bringing their song with them, and the grass seemed to turn green over night, which was impressive. I had one of those moments of clarity, when certain ideas fall in place. Except that sometimes ideas are far harder to crystalise materially: they seem to be clearer in the mind, beyond the reach of words or even symbols.
But the ideas had to do with symbols; I was thinking of the woods of simplicity in the characters 朴 which mean simple, unadorned  - even sincere. Those characters denote certain Taoist principles related to the ideal of being an "uncarved block," sort of akin to Rousseau's tabula rasa, but implied is the latent creativity that comes with living things.
I wondered about similar words or concepts in ancient Greek, and found the word απελέκητο - uncarved, unhewn. Before shapes are impressed by force. Again, the promise: in the Odyssey, Calypso gives Odysseus an axe, the name for which is the inverse to "unsmoothed stone" - (α)σκεπαρνον: with this adze, he carves the boat that will take him away, "escaping the great bonds of woe" and the hermetic island.
With adzes, as we go places, we too, like our vessels, are chiseled at by time, our environment, the company we keep - something. The question is how 'natural' these influences are: one may think of the jardin à la française compared with a wild garden.
It is rather curious to plonk down the uncarved block in a conversation about culture. There is a Greek expression that compares the illiterate person to an uncarved block of wood. Accordingly, the educated person receives a form - which reminds me of the formation of the finishing school. This is not the Taoist ideal, though in the Tao Te Ching there is no explicit rejection of culture: culture - civilization? - is fine so long as it is serving man's higher purpose, a form of simplicity and sincerity.





These thoughts brought me to Gadamer's Truth and Method, which is a book that I cannot believe I have not read by now. In the preface he explains that understanding is a subjective relation to the history of the 'effect' of an object; man is to question effects, question the difference among contexts. The universal is applied to specific historical conditions - I'll add: bringing a carved form to what in essence is formless. The Tao is to go with the flow and not pursue tradition, culture, etc, with a mind bent to it, so deformed by it, but rather to seek the universal: the carving will follow.
This was the thinking behind my new pen name, which I decided on yesterday and wrote about here: it means 'unfinished, unpolished' - which certainly better represents the stabs in the dark I make on this blog than the pseudonym I borrowed from Ruskin, which nonetheless continues to inform my new one, in its aspiration toward the 'natural.'
Also, I am barely literate, so 'unfinished' works for me. I read this weekend that Western Civ ended in the 1970's: I agree and want to make up for that small but important increment of lost time by teaching myself Latin and Greek. But to be truly literate, one ought also know at least Sanskrit and Chinese. Words in early languages contain postcards from the past, mediated through etymological ideograms, so helpful to the critical apparatus and imagination.
It occurred to me this weekend just how much of a blockhead I am - but when I write that, I wish to soften the words by saying that in tandem with that realisation, I understood that it may be time to start cultivating the hope that comes with formlessness. The hope that through seeking one's own simple nature, one may in turn intuit nature.
Instead of dreading one's unpolished state, to put it to use: to hold it as the map of one's origin and final destination. There is no simple way to end this post, but to simply end it. These are, after all, "rough ideas."


  

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