Preparation, No.1

The light comes now, unbanishable,

Missile through a high glass dome.

All around crashing, itself a kind of life.

No violence familiar enough for us.

 

Unless it is this, the turn which awakens the skin, the joints,

Innocent of nothing:

And what to do now

But bundle ourselves into it and wait?

 

It is like crossing roads —

 

On the other side, well into a dark which licks

The collarbone, still visible

A light like fire but not of it.

 

How pictorial.

 

I say now missilery is not enough, we are bleached,

Our caliber is unknown;

There is no vacancy in the nerve.

 

So we are drawn. Come here, be still:

And though you are this close, this close —

 

It is a wonder how one time can become another.

We are alone. Against the broad thrashing nothing left

But the weft,

The wow and flutter of the heart.

Jesus Among the Utilitarians

Matthew 22:36-40 (KJV)

 

“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Preface

[So I wrote this after I wrote the introduction, because what I intended to be an introduction got considerably more technical than I wanted it to be and didn’t look like an introduction anymore. In any case, this is the real introduction. Feel free to skip the intro below and get to the real thing.

In any case: the stuff below is an (atomic, ethical) exercise in what I think taking religion seriously would look like – that is to say, if we actually took religion seriously as a guide to matters on ethics, metaethics, ontology, etc.[1] Don’t treat it as a thing meant to persuade you of anything in particular. It’s more of a reeling-out, more of a demonstration, I’d say.]

Introduction

So obviously if you are a religious person, and in particular if you are a Christian, the little bit of the Bible you see up there is kind of important. Important because it’s probably about as close as the book comes to telling you, in precise axiological form, not just what you ought to do, but what matters. The passage kind of signals its own importance, really: On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, it says pithily, wagging a finger at you.

Before we get to the thing I want to talk about (which is what it might mean to love thy neighbour as thyself), I suppose, for clarity’s sake, that we should take a look at this passage and what’s going on here, because it’s irritatingly complicated.

Let’s name three kinds of obligation. (1): Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; (2): Love thy neighbour as thyself; and (3): everything else the Bible might oblige you to do.  What’s complicated is figuring out, from that passage, what the relevant relation between (1), (2), and (3) is.

There’s lots of possibilities.

One is that Jesus is providing the (apparently cynical) questioner with a lexical ordering, viz., saying that some rules in the Bible trump some other rules. Maybe he’s saying that

(A1): (1) trumps [(2) and (3)]; or

(B1): (1) trumps [(2) and (3)], but (2) also trumps (3); or

(C1): [(1) and (2)] trump (3).

These readings suggest that at least one of the two specified commands is great because it overrides: anything that runs up against it must give way, step aside, be thwarted. These lexical readings only really makes sense if you assume the Bible has contradictions, and so needs some rule by which the priority of different moral commands can be sorted out. But then it’s obvious that the Bible is full of contradictions.

Another option is to adopt an elaborative reading of the passage: Jesus is saying that the 600+ rules in the OT, and possibly all the guidance that comes after (although I’m casting a wary eye at Paul), are really just elaborations of one or both of the two commands, or that one command is an elaboration of the other. On this reading at least one of the two commands is “great” because it contains everything else. Possibilities:

(A2): (2) is an elaboration of (1), and (3) is an elaboration of (2); or

(B2): [(2) and (3)] are just elaborations of (1)

(C2): (3) is just an elaboration of [(1) and (2)]

I think all of these views are probably a bit off the mark. I think that (A2),  (B2), and (C2)must be wrong, because (2) is hugely contradictory to (3). I.e., “love your neighbour” really, really, really does not sit easily with all the genocidal stuff, stoning of children etc. in the OT. You’ll notice that it’s the fact that Jesus mentions (2), the whole love-your-neighbour thing, that rules our nearly all purely elaborative readings of the passage. If you took out (2), I think you could quite comfortably assume that “love God” = “follow all the rules of the OT”, i.e., (3) is an elaboration of (1). But the insertion of that radically compassionate element in (2) throws this all into a bit of disarray.

So I think there’s some lexical ordering going on. In fact I think it’s necessary, given the welter of contradictions the Bible throws at us. I think A1 and B1 are not obviously wrong, but are not to be favoured, really, because I don’t think that (1) has lexical priority over (2). Jesus was asked: which commandment is the greatest? Assuming that Jesus intended to answer the question (and that he was not stupid)[2], it would be weird for him to reply, “Well, so-and-so is the greatest rule. And this is the second greatest rule.” Why talk about the second-greatest rule when only asked about the greatest? My preferred reading is what we’ll call C1+, viz., [(1) and (2)] trump (3)], and that (1) and (2) are coequal because (2) is not merely an elaboration of (1) but is identical to it. If you find identical a bit too strong, a version of more widespread appeal to ordinary Christians would be that (2) is almost completely identical to (1). So a person who abides by (2) is a person who loves God, but does not love him fully, in the personal sense which (1) captures. So (1) guarantees (2) completely, and (2) guarantees (1) almost completely.

This is basically the third of our lexical-ordering options, with a little rider tagged on clarifying exactly what the relationship between (1) and (2) is. It might make sense of the mysterious bit where Jesus feels compelled to say, “and the second is like unto it”. Like unto it because it’s very nearly the same thing. On this reading, Jesus is really responding to the question by saying something like:

“Well, OK, the greatest commandment is the obvious one – love God absolutely, because God is that object which is deserving of our total and unconditional devotion. But I can see that that’s not really helpful, since I might just be telling you to just follow the 600+ rules of the OT, without giving you any sense of where the moral weight of Biblical teaching is, or without giving you real guidance re how you should behave morally. So I guess I should clarify that what it means to love God absolutely is to love your neighbour the same way you love yourself. And this second commandment (or statement of (1)) does give you some real guidance on how you ought to reason morally.

Hey, was that meant to be the intro? That was long.

The point is: (2) is important, even if you don’t accept, as I do, that (2) is (1) translated into practical-reason terms and that (2) trumps (3). If you subscribe to C1+ then obviously (2) is overwhelmingly important. But on any other reading (2) at least puts itself forward as giving you real moral guidance in one way or another.

The Real Thing

Let’s talk about what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

It would be weird if neighbour was literal, ofc, so I’m going to assume that neighbour means people. And since I can’t think of a good reason “neighbour” should exclude some people,[3] I’m going to assume neighbour = all people.

This command to love your neighbour as you love yourself really sets out a rule, therefore, that is some sense unbiased. It says, take a relation which you have to yourself, and apply that relation to all other people. The corollary of that is that the same relation is applied to all people.

That relation is love. There’s a bazillon different theories of what it means to love, but the command does at least tell us that whatever it is referring to using the word love, it is a relation that is also internal to us: whatever understanding of love we choose must allow us to sensibly say that we love ourselves. We are asked to love as we love ourselves, after all. This immediately rules the application of any “love as union” theories in this context, viz., and theory which stresses that love is about two “I”s becoming a “we”. Nozick for instance argues that love is a pooling of well-being and autonomy – but that makes no sense when there is just one person’s well-being and autonomy to consider.

The idea that we love ourselves is actually really hard to parse. This is because we usually think of a relation (such as love) as applying between two different things. A mereologically simple object – something with no parts at all – really can only have one relation to itself: it is itself. And that’s it. Can’t stick a cigarette wrapper in there, much less something as glompingly big as love. Even a set which contains itself and nothing else is not a simple object: you can talk about a set and the thing in it quite sensibly, even of those two things happen to the same.

So when we say we love ourselves, what we really have to mean is that there is some relation between us and a part of us, or some relation between a part of us and another part of us. I guess this is the thing we need to pin down. And the most obvious way of pinning it down is use the intuition that we have a certain kind of robust concern for ourselves, that we act to fulfil our preferences – that we pursue our goals and desires with all the effort and ingenuity we have, and regard failure to achieve these goals as bad, regrettable, unfortunate. And with just the right amount of merciless cribbing from Hume, you can kind of see that this seems separates out clearly enough (for our purposes at least) two distinct bits of us which are related in a way which gives meaning to the word love.

  1. That bit of us which consists of our preferences.
  2. That bit of us which rationally pursues those preferences.

And so what it means when we say we love ourselves is that we display robust concern for ourselves. And what that means is that we act on our preferences by formulating certain plans, trivial or complex, to realise those preferences.

All that matters because we can now figure out what it means to love our neighbour as we love ourselves: it’s another way of saying that we ought to have the same relation to other people’s preferences which we have to ours: we pursue them. This coheres kind of well with a common feature of many understandings of love: when you love someone, you don’t try to make them into something which they are not simply because you might desire that thing more: rather you take them as given, as they are right now, whole. My interests are also your interests, but they are still yours; I’m valuing you for your own sake, rather than for mine. That’s why there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything like an intrinsically bad preference, or an evil preference.

So: let’s imagine the set of all preferences which exist, and let’s call this the Total Universal Preference Set, or TUPS, because a snappy abbreviation will give this essaylet the dignity it would otherwise lack. Our goal is to pursue TUPS – to maximise the satisfaction of TUPS.  Pursuing TUPS is kind of difficult, because many preferences will be wildly contradictory with others. Well. Not quite. A preference by itself cannot contradict any other preference, so what I’m really saying is that the pursuit of a preference will often be incompatible with pursuit of another preference.

Let’s consider first the situation where these incompatibilities cannot be resolved. When we are deciding what to do when our preferences conflict, we generally do one of two things. Often we simply act according to the preference which is more intense. Pretty straightforward stuff: at gunpoint, we’d rather pass our wallet to the robber than risk getting shot. Or: we abandon one preference (or several preferences) if it conflicts with several other preferences (or some greater number of preferences) of equal strength. So according to this interpretation of the command to love your neighbour as yourself, the right thing to do in a trolley-problem-esque situation would be to try to satisfy as many preferences (to be alive) as possible: hence pull the lever, push the fat man, and so on. So far, so straightforward.[4]

But we can also try to resolve incompatibilities, in one of two ways. We could modify the world so that the pursuits of two preferences no longer run up against each other, or at least run up against each other a lot less. On a trivial level, nearly every preference restricts pursuit of another preference because resources are finite. Capitalism (one might say) is one way of coordinating our pursuit of preferences so that they don’t conflict quite as much as they might.

The other solution is to modify preferences so that they align. Which preferences should we modify? Well, each preference has at least two characteristics: an owner, and an intensity. There are some preferences which are both intense and widespread. Off the top of my head, here are four of them, not-too-precisely stated:

  1. A preference for being alive rather than dead.
  2. A preference for being loved / cared for, rather than being alone.
  3. A preference to be treated with dignity / non-arbitrarily, rather than capriciously.
  4. A preference for being free of intense physical pain.

These 4 preferences seem to be so powerfully embedded in most of us that a person who does not feel all 4 of them would usually be considered quite pathological. This is not to say that such a person is in fact pathological – I’m just pointing out that these 4 preferences are really, really, really strongly held by most of us. It’s hard to get you to feel this, but imagine how much you’d prefer not to suddenly appear naked in a prominent public space (say, the entrance of the nearest subway station) with a thoroughly distasteful symbol (say, a swastika) emblazoned across your chest. You’d be fucking mortified if that happened to you, yeah? Well: I bet that you’d endure that, like, a thousand times over if that meant that you got to stay alive, or not be alone forever, etc.

Importantly, we regard it as good if our own preferences conflict as little as possible in the first place, so that we can maximise the satisfaction of our preferences: think of how often we speak of a coherent plan of life, of directedness to our existence. Think of how a person who is an alcoholic – who has a strong preference for drink – also prefers that he not be an alcoholic, because this prevents him from pursuing many of his other preferences. When we apply this logic to TUPS – to the universe of preferences which are not our own – what we really are doing is extracting subsets of TUPS which are pathological because they seem get in the way of fully satisfying TUPS, (in particular because they conflict with intense + widespread preferences such as the 4 listed above) getting rid of them, and replacing them with non-pathological preferences.[5] These subsets might be

  1. The subset of other-hating preferences.[6]
  2. The subset of all selfish preferences.[7]
  3. The subset of all sadistic preferences.[8]

So basically: try to make others less racist, sexist, selfish, sadistic. In fact it seems to be more or less a direct logical consequence of the command to love our neighbours as ourselves that we try encourage others to love their neighbours as themselves.

What We’ve Got at the End of All This:

One not-obviously-stupid way of taking seriously the moral directive to love your neighbour as you love yourself:

*Maximise the satisfaction of all preferences, viz.,

A. Minimise conflict between pursuit of preferences by:

  1. Modifying preferences
  2. Modifying states of affairs

B. Resolve conflict between pursuit of preferences by:

  1. Ceteris paribus, preserving the pursuit of more intense preferences
  2. Ceteris paribus, preserving the pursuit of the greater number of preferences;

Which, I realise, is probably as good a place as any to end this exercise.

 

[1] This has been done before, of course, and many times over, but the point is that it’s super weird that the average religious person who professes to genuinely believe in that some-text-or-another contains within it deep + abiding truths bothers to form no coherent thoughts about it at all, relying instead on the platitudes which are usually dished out at sermons today. Plus, TBH, a lot of the more well-known results of People Taking Religion Seriously are just too full of woo for my liking. Take the Thomist doctrine of Divine Simplicity, which turns out to be motivated more by a desire to make God seem all great and cool and abstract and stuff rather than to be even minimally coherent. So: if God is w/o parts and possesses no contingent qualities and is actually metaphysically equivalent to concepts such as goodness, justice, mercy, power, etc., then it follows that each of God’s properties is identical with each of his other properties, so that mercy = power, which is insane. Plus if God = his properties (and his properties are properties) then God also = a property (the property of being itself, I guess), but that means God can’t actually do stuff, because properties don’t do stuff, and it isn’t conscious or capable of loving, because properties aren’t conscious or capable of loving. Which is also insane – or at least stupendously unattractive as a view to hold. Plus if God is absolutely identical in all possible worlds (because possessing no contingent properties) then we need to discard fairly intuitive ideas such as “it is contingent that God punished Adam”, and, even more weirdly, all possible universes must be exactly the same, because in every universe God would have to know exactly the same things, and God knowing X = X is true.

[2] Depending on your persuasion, you might think these are generous assumptions. Whatever. They make it easier for me to do the thing I want to do.

[3] Especially given all that Good Samaritan + other-cheek-slapping  stuff in the NT.

[4] Although I guess I should clarify that when you push the fat man over you’re really weighing up his preference not to be used as a means to an end + his preference not to die + and your preference not to murder against the preference of 3 people not to die.

[5] E.g., compassionate preferences, such as the preference that there is less suffering in the world, rather than more. More specifically, preferences that (1) other people are alive rather than dead, (2) other people are loved and cared for, rather than alone, (3) other people are treated with dignity / non-arbitrarily, rather than capriciously, (4) other people are free of intense physical pain, and so on.

[6] E.g., preferences which are racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, or otherwise discriminatory.

[7] E.g., nationalism.

[8] I think sadistic preferences are a lot more common than we realise: I’d regard the desire for retribution as a preference that’s both straightforwardly sadistic and almost universal, for instance.

I-22, Re: love

“So I’ll let you take as fixed what you want to take as fixed.” And so, after all, even night, no evening colour, down The Barrel, the R. speaking now: “But I think we should start there. And I think it’s complex.”

I have an affinity for roads. This one smells faintly like smoke and the first air that comes out of the air-conditioners in your car in the morning. But that might just be the car, although it hasn’t smelt this way, at least not that I can remember.

“I think that we don’t know yet how to deal with love. It’s too direct, it washes out things around it that might become referents. We can’t accommodate or express the facticity of love. So for example—”

Traffic jams, even. If you look properly you realise how beautiful they are. The quality is that of pilgrimage. The taillights in the rain, going on, are some kind of cultic inscription. And people in their cars, in their silences inside themselves, whatever sound moves outside.

“–why is the genre of romance so totally bankrupt? I don’t mean emotionally. I’m not referring to sincerity at all. I mean in a purely aesthetic sense. The songs borrow lines that come out of an email with FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD in the header. It’s shit.”

But the fact it’s the end of this world. That I guess is the fact I’m clustered around. Beyond the lone road everything is completely dark. We’ve moving fast now: we slur. I-22, High Sirr., Zuniga NP, all passing. “For You,” I say. “My Electric Body.”

“Exactly. And everything else. First Face. Every Single Kind of Falling. Over There. Zambrano. Hear/tbeat. Nothing Has Changed Or Everything Has Changed. Some Lights Never Go Out. Just listen to them. Nothing anywhere that for any moment reveals anything. The point is that love resists any attempt to make it special. That was not right. Resists–”

“Packaging?”

“No, that sounds like I’m implying that the genre is cynical, or –”

“Craft – technique – refinement…”

“Yeah, that, maybe refinement—”

“Ingenuity?”

“Maybe refinement, or, hm, exaltation, is the word. Resists exaltation. Resists exaltation – ”

Night around. We, all us people in our cars threading this, a universe unto ourselves. No more rain. The windscreen remembers it though. Way past.

“ – and therefore any kind of aestheticization. Agambe made an observation. You familiar with Agambe?”

“No, no. Heard of him.”

“Her.”

“Not read anything.”

“Love is an instantiation of the evolutionary need to fuck.” The R. laughs. “200 pages, there you go. But that’s what it says. It is part of that bit of you going, make babies, make babies, I want to pass on: this is the case because it could never have been anything but the case.”

“Extinction, otherwise.” The R. gets my message, I am sure of it, but all it does is tilt slightly towards me, digesting that silently, moving on:

“The issue being that against this truism, this weird axiom of evolved existence, we’ve got intelligence which abhors ungraspable things. That is to say: we want to explain something, we want to take it apart and put it back together to say what was inside all along. But love can’t fit with that, because it’s not a conclusion from but a premise of. You know about the Principle of Human Existence, I suppose?” I nod. The Pesske goes over a tiny bump in the road. I feel my neck move. “It’s not sensible to ask: why is it that the world can sustain our existence, because we could never have observed a world that could not sustain our existence. Extend that beyond existence to the causality of a particular type of existence. It is not sensible to ask why we love because simply because it looms so large in our ontology. But this same loomingness means that love asserts itself as a thing to be parsed. We can’t help it. We’re smart. And then love’s very thingness defeats us. It’s quite sick. Hence: love a futility and like all futilities only our willing it a paradox makes it so, etc. This is a nice place to bring us back to aestheticization, actually. It all comes down to the fact that we don’t have the logical or even expressive grammar with which to capture the brute fact-ness of internal life, especially those bits of internal life that seem basic.”

“You keep saying we.” The blackness outside makes for an absolute intimacy. How to think in such confines? I decide that in the near future I’ll ask the R. to put the Pesske on manual, let me drive. Otherwise = paralysis.

“You still don’t think I am alive.”

“Give me your expression.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

“I have turned to you. My eyes have opened in a way which makes me look surprised but my face has caught on itself. My body is hanging there, close to yours. My hands are together.”

“Okay.”

“So you don’t think I am alive.”

“I don’t have to think you’re not alive to think that you’re differently alive.”

“You’re wondering about how I was made.”

“I want to know how you were given those things which motor you.”

“Look.” The R. stops. “I wasn’t given them.” I shake my head. The R. speaks again. “I want to talk about love instead. Let me talk about that, and you can think anything you want. That okay?” I say nothing. The Pesske hums. The R. moves it, and me with it, without thought. “There are other things about love. I don’t think it’s unexaminable. I think it cannot be accounted for  as a rational subject, but it can be used, it can be located here or there or somewhere else. I’m not an expert on this. But there are some things. For instance: love appears, you know – ” and here the R. makes a tiny sighing noise, not a sigh exactly but the sound of air expelled by thought, frustration even “— relational. You can experience things about your inner world. You feel grief. You feel bereavement. Your feel hate. You feel anxiety. You feel worry. You feel happiness. You feel pleasure. You feel relief. These sentences have a meaning about you, and that meaning is perfectly precise and clear. But if I say – if you say – if you say I feel love, the meaning of that sentence is vague.”

“It sounds as if I’m trying to say that I am loved by someone, is what you’re getting at. That I am beloved.”

“Our speech suggests that love is not an experience but a relation. And if you really wanted to accurately say what you felt, you would have to say: I love someone. You couldn’t easily form a sentence about what you felt without another person asserting existence, just – coming in, like this, through the cracks. And you’d be saying something that other person too.”

“But many feelings are other-regarding. You can feel disgusted or hateful at someone. You can be mystified by someone.” B. Bollar standing at the P.C., making animal noises in his throat, crying without knowing it, the R. saying I shall not hurt you, us in that moment made to feel guilty by no action of our own, simply in knowing he, too, could be damaged directly because alive.

“Sure, yeah. But the point is that love is not just other-regarding in this unpindownable way but that it looks like it’s fundamentally other-regarding. If you said to someone you love that your love to them was justified, viz. correct and necessary because of something about them – they are kind, they share your essential projects in life, they are thoughtful, they are generous, they know you – and that your love was – located, you know what I mean, if it was located in these characteristics, there would be something wrong. You wouldn’t really love this person, merely the characteristics of which they merely happen to be an instantiation. Transfer the characteristics to someone else and you would love this other person and that love would be the same as the first love. This is a love of properties, not persons. That seems wrong.”

“Give me your expression.”

“My hands make small movements. My head goes forward, sometimes, when I am emphasising something. I grimace at the fine distinctions, not in pain but in an attempt to delineate.”

“Why do you sound unhappy?”

“Sorry?” I know that the R. does not say such things because there is a gap in its mind. Why does it even say such things at all?

“Why do you sound unhappy?”

“I don’t think I sound unhappy.”

“Okay.”

“Did I sound that way to you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m guessing it was what I was saying, not the how.”

“I don’t know. Possibly.”

The R. says, “Hm. Hm.” It is quiet for a while. “You’re not the first one to say that.”

“Could you put it on manual?”

“Yeah, sure.”

I put my hands on the steering and my body vibrates. “So your fungibility problem. Is that a fungibility problem? Being able to replace one person you love with another.”

“That’s a part of it. Not the whole of it.”

“I think the way out is this: when you love someone, you become a common entity with them. So you can love because of characteristics, but after that love actually happens something irreversible takes hold. You form a, you know –”

“Extended self.”

“—Extended self. And that think is actually a whole. So, there’s no way you can say it’s fungible.”

“You could say that. But then does sacrifice become possible? Look at what people say. Love is a substantial kind of pain. You give up something. You want to experience suffering for another, or at least you want to be the kind of person who can experience suffering for another. If you’re just some common entity with them that loses meaning.”

“You do sacrifice some things. You sacrifice your –  sense of self, your freedom, all that.”

“But that’s sacrificial in only a very thin sense. Those are sacrifices we make all the time. What about big things. What about dying? What about actual pain? That’s the thing to explain. ”

I am interested. I am alert. There is a sedan pulling alongside us. In the back seat a boy looks out at me. The window is down and the wind moves his hair. Only his eyes move over me. The temperature of the air outside is 25°C. One hand of the boy grips the edge of the window. I can see the hand. My God. Oh my God.

Notice: at night people don’t tint their windows as often as they do during the day. “What is your way out?”

“My way out is this: loving someone else means caring about them for their own sake. It’s not that your well-being is expressed through them; it’s that you give it priority over your own. Love is disinterested, in that sense.”

“You invite the fungibility issue back in, however. Well, no. You limit it a little. You can’t replace someone you love in the sense of replacing them as a means to an end, but you – in the – what I mean is you could imagine a world where you loved someone else just as much.”

“I don’t think so. I can’t imagine such a world, but only because in this particular world it happens to be the case that I can’t imagine that world.”

“That isn’t – ”

“I mean that phenomenologically, as an experienced thing, love is always non-fungible. But for someone else who loves another person I can see that their sincere experience of non-fungibility could be instantiated differently, with another person.” The R. waits and then says, “Iren.”

“It’s strange how you had to go through all of that to arrive at something so trite.”

“Well, perhaps it’s trite. Our conversation on the second day, about other people existing, really existing:  remember that?” I nod. A bullet going back down its barrel. He never felt it, the R. had said. But I feel it. “I said that it’s only in very rare circumstances that we take seriously the idea that other people exist.”

“So you think this is why love matters. Because it’s – about giving the person you love a kind of priority over you, so that you’re not really desiring on their behalf as much as simply – desiring for them, full stop. And in doing this you respect the existence of other persons in a way you think allows for moral reasoning to operate. That sounds muddled.”

“No, I think you’re right. These things are tricky to talk about. After all, we don’t quite have the grammar to say lots of things. Nonetheless these things matter, they reach out to each other in ways which we don’t always notice. Take the question of grief. Someone has died.  Do you grieve because you have lost, or do you grieve because someone else has lost? Is grief basically self-regarding? If it is not, I suppose the question then is: what is the way in which a nonexistent being can be worthy of grief? How can nothing be worthy of anything at all? A lot turns on the more basic question: did you love – did you have concern – for some person for their sake, as if their factic internal being had some ordinal priority over yours?”

“Give me your expression.”

“I don’t know my expression.”

“Okay.”

“You’re looking at me— ”

“I’m wondering—”

“—like there is something you don’t understand.”

“I’m wondering—I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed. I thought there would be more to you than this kind of, you know, this kind of banal contradiction.”

“Between me being a savage monster and the fact of what it’s like to be with me?” The R. does not speak as if it is angry, or even sad or surprised or mocking. It says this not-quite matter-of-factly , but it does say this with a certain kind of sympathy so naive and point-blank it’s hard to read it as condescension. Perceived: that’s how, at this moment, I realise I feel.

“Yes.”

“I have told you what my contradictions are. You know them as well as I know them and you know that I take them as my failings. But talking about – all this – you know that generates no contradiction. I have my own history. I have my worries. And my worry is to justify love, because if it generates needs whose fulfilment is purely contingent why is it good at all? You know, all this wanky stuff, it’s important. Love makes for a lot of pain. All that stuff: is love a fact or an event or a feeling or a perception?—that comes after. But now I want to know how to justify a lot of that pain. This sounds like I’m doing this on behalf of all of us, as if I put myself on a mission to find by myself the justification for it, and then come back to the rest saying, ‘I have found it’, and reveal some new justificatory argot, but it’s not. This is just what I think about. You can imagine the reasons for it, I suppose. It might be a random part of what I got from the beginning, some symmetry which broke this way, or if could be something from my history, or from the people I know.”

“Why are you concerned? I know what your Leviathan would say. I know what L.E. would say. They’d say: if there is pain then it is not good, if there is joy or pleasure then it is. And then they’d say, okay, okay, there is suffering, but that’s just outweighed.”

“Yes. They’d probably say that.”

“Wait. You don’t agree with them.”

“Well, no, I don’t.” The R. laughs. “Is that surprising?”

“I thought you all basically agreed on everything.”

“We agree enough.”

“Are you allowed to disagree?”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You know—”

“I trust their judgment a lot more than mine. Anyway—the things I am asked to do are the things they know I think to be right.”

“So you do think love, at least, is basically good.”

“I don’t know. I want it to be the case. There might be a justification for that.”

“In the impulse of saying: you exist.”

“Yes. Because of its linkage with the naked subject of the person. Even—”

“But—”

“—though there’s something ridiculous to it. Because it’s mostly pain, you know. The sort of need you can’t signify.”

“Mostly pain?”

“Yes.”

“Proof.”

“What do you mean, proof?”

“I don’t know.”

“At this moment under a tree in Torena, Ilb., at a time one hour ahead of us, a boy leans over to a girl and speaks through his burning teeth into her ear. Hate it when the night is this warm I love you, he says. He knows that later tonight he will kill himself. The girl laughs. She is tired. She watches the way the boy’s shoes leave prophetic marks in the grass.

“In that Torrey ahead of us two people are sitting. The woman is driving, looking hard at the road. She can see the lane markers going past. They have not talked for a while. They’ve come back from the hospital, where the doctor has told them a lie, which is that they will try to save the life of their daughter, which they cannot do, because there is not enough at this hospital, and everything they’ve got they are spending on the people in the fire. The man and the woman know this but they haven’t thought about this yet. The only thing that happened to the daughter is that she had a fall no-one saw and will not wake. The man says to the woman I love you. She does not say anything. The man is thinking of making love. After more silence he suggests this to the woman, but the woman says nothing. She is not the one crying.

“In Forfex, Cn., where the sun is close to coming up, a woman lies in bed. She has not slept and her hands are cold. A child is crying downstairs, saying mom, but she does not go down. She wonders if it is good that she remembers the father of the child as a real thing, passing through rooms, filling the blind numen of the home, even though he is dead. The child waits, and calls again. She does not reply. The child calls out again, after a shorter wait. He is afraid of the dark. After some time the woman, without moving, calls out to ask the child what is wrong. She hears only silence.

“In Wattern, Po., there a young woman has been waiting at the gates of the station. She thinks that her lover will come through the gates and will make clear the fact of her love, and ask her a question of impossible significance. But at this moment she has been waiting for too long. She hears of an accident on the Cardinal line. In her head she imagines the lover dead. She imagines what she will say at the funeral, and she knows it is simple and heartbreaking. Her calls are not answered. She memorises what she has put down in her head. But now, four hours later, she sees her lover coming through the gates. The engine under her collapses. Everything has gone wrong. She walks away. Her lover walks after her. She starts to run.

“In Avstbeg, Hm., a boy is in a room. A girl is in the room also. He has come back after a long time. He says I cannot believe you are here. She shakes her head and smiles. She looks away from him as she smiles. He puts his hand on her and she does not move. He feels suddenly like he needs to hurt her. He says I am so happy to see you.  He chokes on it. She is close.

Do you want more?”

“No, no.” How much exactly? “I didn’t know you knew all that.”

“You must remember what I am,” the R. says, lightly. I let go of the steering wheel and look out of the window. “Where do you want to go?” the R. asks. I shrug. Not pilgrimage, I realise: more the idea of trammelling, of having a common axis of movement. From here to here, and then onward to wherever: running away.

“I met someone who said that they knew you. Just a couple of days ago. Do you know that?”

“No,” the R. said.

“She told me to do something. She wanted me to tell you something.”

“If you want to tell me,” the R. began.

“She asked me to tell you that she was once working with G.D., and it was worth it.” The R. does not say anything. “I was wondering why you’d want to preserve the idea of sacrifice—real, big, painful sacrifices—even at the cost of accepting fungibility, at the cost of diminishing the shared inner reality to love – the we-ness of it, at the cost of admitting its disinterestedness. Isn’t it the idea of sacrifice the thing that’s strange in the first place, which needs justification?”

The R., does not say anything. But eventually: “G.D., she said?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a relief, knowing that someone here knew G.D.”

“She didn’t say that what she wanted me to do would make you happy.”

“Well. She is right.”

“Who is G.D.?” We go off the I-22: exit 302. Something flits across the road. This road smells of Crinqua, dust, sweetness = decay, probably. Put through the sky like a ligature: long smear of moon, motions big enough to be invisible, body robbed of proprioception, A and E chunks obscuring most of Vola. Its light is brighter than I remember: I can see it in the road. “I suppose you can’t say.” We are going home: my home. How many things resist exaltation? This too, probably. In Torena, in Avstbeg, Forfex, Wattern, on the I-22, people bear it and move.

“I can give you my expression, if you like.”

“Okay.”

“I am sitting here, with you. I am looking out of the windscreen. My eyes are still. I am looking straight ahead. I am breathing. I can feel the warmth of my blood. I am bent like a human.”

this be the verse

Reuleaux says that a machine is a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that by their means the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work accompanied by certain determinate motion. By the forces of nature he means the only forces there are, all the heavings in the world, given purpose and sense and a new way of being and of arrangement.

Consider this therefore. The amphitheatre of the aorta. The unwavering furrow of the vena cava, the blood’s big tide traversing the million deep plumbings of the body. Channels upon channels writ into the metal flesh like a old panegyric recorded secretly into the marrow. The furnace of the brain and its stannic whirrings, machinations thrumming and vital. The pneumatic channels of the lungs, each globule pressing the air into a fuse, each strut pyritic and gleaming feeding pillars and pylons of muscle, the yawning plane of the diaphragm.  The buttress of the tibula quiet in its sheath. The heavy cradle of the pelvis, the great fortress of the ribs good to house a juggernaut. Consider this all. Consider the dark satanic mills of the heart. Consider their knotted agnostic thunder.

Look at the bald nerves and their petrified hissings, grown like a sempervirens out of naked rock. Look fearful upon the symmetry of this design and the impossibility of it. Parse and read it look a book. Crack its spine, unsheath the great cord. Where is the life in it? Chains and stanchions of hammering flesh. All the metabolic poundings grinding like the millstones of God in their sound and fury. Uncountable stochastic slottings and unslottings, carryings and lettings-go, weavings and unweavings, readings and unravellings, comings and goings, codings and decodings, parsings and unparsings, a ricercar of ductage and blood. Rotors and levers and splines and keys and seals. All signifying this being of which you speak and for which you have broken your promise. With what ore shall you fashion the eyrie of the imagination? Will it speak to you and call you names?

There is no life in this as there is no life in anything. Only a great constellation of movement. A hanging probe scribing into the air meanings yet misbegotten.

We are not brains in vats. We are haunted flesh. This be the verse.

Prophesy, or, and after it there will be nothing left

Suppose you are told of a catastrophe. It will come at a time, a time not far off, and after it there will be nothing left. It cannot be stopped. What do you do? It can be fought, but you know that no effort will put it off. Slow it, maybe. For an infinitesimal period it might be made to pause. But no more.

It will come soon. Between now and then all life is contained, a winking light in the darkness. No. That image is incorrect, somehow. What life is, what you now sense it is, is a small dark clot trying to hold itself together against a burning wash of brilliance.

What do you tell the people? You might begin with your companion. The ship has been left in the harbour too long. “You go first,” your companion says, “I’ll come later.” And so you rush out to spread the word in the street, to prophesy, putting your own shadow ahead of you like a vast barge of silence. People watch from the windows, and their hands go to their mouths, to their ears. You try to stir people to action. People bring out immaculate star charts, open holes in mountains from which metal is brought out. Silos are opened and from within them missiles look mutely to the sky. Menace moves through parking lots purpling in the evening. In a convenience store a voice says, “I’m sorry, bud, but there’s no fucking point anymore.”

You look on at this sense of great striving everywhere. Your companion stands with you at the window wondering where everyone has gone. “You know,” your companion says, “I feel that something has been lost in translation.” The sailors clamour and wonder why their vessel, untethered now, refuses to move. In the convenience store the cash register is open and ants pour out of it. The coolant in the refrigerator runs bright red. “I don’t know,” you say.

You both go down to have a sunset to yourselves all over again. In the sky there are big things to put off the catastrophe. You think of all the purpose your message has created, how everyone has been brought together, how much work has been done. The sun as it goes down cracks in two and spills its innards onto the flat of the horizon, like honey. Maybe something has gone wrong. The world split open on the skin of your thumb.  In distant hangars industrial robots waver uncertainly, their tasks still incomplete. Shadowplay. An oil tanker turns its prow to the sky and takes off like a V2 rocket. Many years ago your companion told you this is how the years would be overreached, and how you two would ultimately remain together.

Maybe you do not tell the people anything. The days must go on as before. After all this time maybe perfection has been reached and there is nothing to be gained from this knowledge. People sit defensively with their coffee, caught in Styrofoam realities too important, surely, to be shared. Cars come and go from the parking lot, steaming in indignance. Ships rust. The foundations are laid for new buildings. Maybe this is all there is to us, you think, and that is good. It is wrong, the idea that an animal is in some sense incomplete, and to be pitied. The nose touches the new grass. All of us before we are put out in the breezy fullness of being. This indistinctness is not to be solved. Plain water condenses on cans of beer left on the sidewalk for reasons as of yet unknown. The neighbour’s heating is not working. Planes parcel up the sky. A vehicle whose name you do not know moves down the street, laying new asphalt. Your companion kisses you on the cheek. The kiss smells of asphalt.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? This question is often asked as a way of illustrating, it seems, some type of irresolute paradox. The answer to this question is in fact to be found in its very description: one object cannot stop, and the other cannot move. So the moving one continues moving, and the one that cannot move stays still. They pass through each other. They do not interact. It is all in the very description. It follows without any gap. This is the fact of absoluteness, of power: it is only blindness to or ignorance of certain other facts, and most of all to other great powers. We do not acknowledge this. We ask of great powers that they move against each other. But their natures have no need or heed of our desire for spectacle. The spectacle is elsewhere or otherwise too small and too embedded in us to be seen.

The Theory of Names

“I have this thought that keeps coming back,” Ary said.

John looked at him. Then he went back to the scope. He looked into the breathing night. Ary could see even at night the light glinting off the metal ring.

“It’s this image,” Ary said. His voice was low and if they had not been so close together John would not have heard it. John did not look at him this time and was still.

At last he said, “What is it?” He could hear Ary breathing.

“You’ll think it’s very stupid.”

“Say it.” Sidelong, without moving his head.

Ary adjusted himself, raised himself up very slightly on his elbows.

“Something – someone has come, has arrived with a gift to give. A very small but very bright light. This person is looking for some creature to whom the gift may be passed and it has looked for a long time. But at last this person finds one creature, one out of many like it. It takes pity on this one creature because it is wounded, or maybe this creature is – well, maybe it is noble, or brave, contains something that might deserve to be enlarged. The creature does not understand why it has been picked. But now that the giver has chosen the creature it realises that it faces a problem and that problem appears insurmountable. This creature, its entire kind, has been living forever in the dark. In this place from which it comes nothing shines and it has long since lost its eyes. How does the giver explain to this creature the gift it carries? How does it communicate the meaning of this – this power, even, this honour, how important and valuable it is? How can it explain light to something blind? The creature is shut inside itself, inside a world where even blackness has no meaning. It can hear the giver’s voice and so it goes up toward it, toward the light, treading gingerly, but it cannot see the giver and the giver says again and again the word ‘light’ but the creature cannot begin to understand it. And then the giver realises that the gift it has been carrying so long, so long that it has become a part of it, is lost, and does not know what to do.”

Ary had not spoken so much in a long time. John was looking straight at Ary and Ary looked back and his voice faltered and stopped. Everything had come out all at once. Words long thought about but only spoken once.

John went back again to the scope. He moved his neck. Then he put a hand on his neck. He looked back.

“This gift,” he said. “Why do you want to give it away? What is this creature you have found?” He pushed himself up, taking out a portion of the sky, and rested his hand on top of the rifle.

“No,” Ary said. He moved backwards a little, as if something had threatened to strike him. “No, I think I am the creature.”

He sounded like he had not used his voice in a long time.

to speak even of such things

What sustained him. To speak even of such things. Coming out of the trench, covered in dust, on E–, the look of sudden familiarity. Light coming over the broken place. Wind coming like a prophet through the grass, like a prophet bringing rain. How many unaccountable accidents of history to make just this, here. What sustained him. It was a love that he knew like the memory of holiness, that made one hold the hands of the other even when only one of them would ever know or remember. Overwhelming. How to make yourself invulnerable then ultimately vulnerable to another. Water moving one way or another, not speaking of the places from which it was borrowed or will return. A circle of warmth on the bleating plain. One pool.  On A–, the inescapable mountains rising. Staggering how beautiful. Against the complete blackness something rising like a perfect white cut-out, a live space without feature. So many things standing against the word, so many things designed against it. Under language and out of grasp. Basic needs. Nothing for which any apology can be made. Overwhelming.