18 March 2011

Where Do We Find Ourselves?

Emerson asks, in 1844, in his essay "Experience", "Where do we find ourselves?"
In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.

Here! I at least am here! But "here" says nothing, really, does it Bob?

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

It was dark a long time ago, Bob. We are lost even while our machine-age magicians profess we are on the road to truth. Sophocles, in 422 B.C.E. (and this is the "chorus" of Antigone compressed a bit by Amelie Rorty), is most assuredly expressing an already ancient wisdom:

In the meshes of his woven nets, cunning of mind, ingenious man...
He snares the lighthearted birds and the tribes of savage beasts,
and the creatures of the deep seas...
He puts the halter round the horse's neck
And rings the nostrils of the angry bull.
He has devised himself a shelter
against the rigors of frost and the pelting rains.
Speech and science he has taught himself,
and artfully formed laws for harmonious civic life...
Only against death he fights in vain.

Brilliantly portrayed here as a double-trap, what, in the face of the most particular of particularities, keeps us in these "woven nets" by which we expect one day to escape the truth of death while dreaming within the limits of human mind?


  1. Thanks for sharing the Sophocles, and I agree that he is expressing an ancient wisdom, one most of us are very far way from in our existences.

    What's interesting to me about this excerpt is the image of man's rise over animals. We conquer and snare beasts with our woven nets, only to share their fate in the end. Our devices of power, speech and science do nothing to make us a higher creatures against death.

  2. very true. The net of fate is always concerned with some kind of tragic idea--you'll kill your father, marry your mother, blind yourself, etc.--but the truth is that while the fates weave the tapestry of your life's events, they also snip the final thread.

    using this to indicate the more "natural" role of death here we might say that while man believes he is at the top of the food chain, I suppose, in truth, the worms are.