With carte blanche access to the stupendous breadth of our English vocabulary, I still struggle for the right words to express myself. In this case, I find that I must step outside of English entirely and reach for the German word “Zwischenraum” which means “the space inbetween things” — and this refers not simply to physical space, but to the pauses in our lives, those moments of stillness when we reflect and come to clarity.
After a long and somewhat unintentional career as a software engineer, I returned to school in the Fall of 2010 to yet again pursue two of my first loves — mathematics and poetry — with the intent of doing research, authoring books, and teaching.
I am currently a junior in the Honors College of the University of Houston — and pursuing a major in the mathematics department with minors in Latin and molecular biology, the last of which my turn into yet another major. Such are the joys of returning to school as an older student, seeing everything again but with fresh eyes — ah, there’s irony afoot here!
Poetry, according to Harold Bloom in his The Anxiety of Influence, a word from the Greek ‘poiesis’/ποίησις [poieo/ποιέω], that means to make, form, or create — is, Bloom argues, not restricted to words but extends rather into the realm of ideas. Therefore, Bloom has it that Einstein and Freud are two of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, because both formed or created new words that contain fundamental ideas that allow us to think new thoughts, words such as ‘relativity’ and ‘ego’ and ‘subconscious’ that did not exist with their current meanings before Einstein and Freud.
Therefore, if we allow poetry to dwell in this vastly expanded space of meaning, it then takes on a very different character, and we begin to see Shakespeare not merely as a literary genius but also as a coiner of new containers for thinking. If we allow that Shakespeare coined over 1,700 basic words such as gossip, arouse, bet, hint, bump, critic, elbow, gust, lonely, luggage, rant, secure, unreal, cheap, zany, undress, go-between, addiction, dawn, countless, outbreak, circumstantial, cold-blooded, impartial, dwindle, epileptic, blanket, birthplace, amazement, vulnerable, and unearthly — and then to think that these words did not exist and might never have existed without Shakespeare — the sheer genius of that achievement should leave us breathless. And exhausted.
That is a rather fundamental thing to be doing then — poetry — creating new ways in which to think by extending the capability of language itself — creating words that, like a scaffolding, extend ideas out beyond the edge of the known into the darkness of terra incognito, allowing us to step onto new land. But an idea, like a tool, may have two or more uses, and hence edges on which we may fall and harm ourselves.
Therefore, we may wish to look at this power — of our own minds — from a more pragmatic and cautious perspective by joining Owen Barfield, a somewhat obscure professor of English, when he says in his 1951 preface to his book Poetic diction: a Study in Meaning that:
“The possibility of man’s avoiding self-destruction depends on his realizing before it is too late that what he let loose over Hiroshima, after fiddling with its exterior for three centuries like a mechanical toy, was the forces of his own unconscious mind.”
You may wish to read Barfield’s words again. When I first read them, I was shocked. He is saying that, literally, our subconscious minds created the nuclear bomb. In other words, we are in kindergarten when it comes to science, and next comes first grade — and we barely survived kindergarten. What we dream we make real, so that the veil between dreams and reality is very thin, barely there at all, so related are the two like flip sides of a coin, yet here we are, children shouting at each other as we create ever better ways to destroy ourselves with tools that could do so much good in the hands of a less violent species than man.
Barfield is not so much just chiding us as begging us to wake up, to shake off this sleep we are in, and become aware that we have a god-like power in us — to be almost anything we dream — if only we can contain ourselves, our dreams, long enough to grow up and know what we are doing.
And I am very afraid that Barefield is completely right, even literately right. If so, we humans have little time on this planet, compared to other species, if we do not first figure ourselves out. We ourselves may be the fundamental problem. And our optimism in the future may be misplaced, as if someone tomorrow will absolve us of the messes we create today.
But what if tomorrow fails? Who will there be to blame then? Dinosaurs may have vanished, but at least they had a several hundred million year reign.
So, please bear with me in this blog, as I take rather in-depth looks at key pieces of mathematics that occupy my mind, along with poetry and molecular biology and other tangential topics that I find to be of creative interest or else otherwise oddly connected in my brain to each other in some tenuous but persistent, and therefore, for me at least, (out of breath) valid way.
At the very least, I hope to share new ways of thinking about the world with you. That should make your reading here worthwhile. I certainly do not intend to heap more useless crap onto anyone. That’s what television is for — or so we have chosen, like any tool we control, to mostly hurl crap with it — right into peoples minds. Sad, isn’t it, that such a powerful tool is and knowingly continues to be so poorly wielded?
Image how television, in the hands of a more enlightened species, might have been broadcasting hundreds of educational channels day and night teaching people every subject under the sun as well as how to cope with stress and personal problems so that our whole society might be more functional and creative. Instead, day and night, we sell each other things we do not need, fixes for problems we do not have, and entertainment for time we should be spending to make ourselves better or just being with those we love. It is a sad almost inhuman and inhumane waste of a technology.
I believe that the past is prologue — meaning that many questions are answered by simply looking at history — because so many things come in cycles, and so contain kind of sink down only to bubble back up, a kind of knowable repetition — if one looks closely enough. Therefore, we should perhaps not abandon our relentless forward looking behavior so over-evident today but rather temper that by incorporating and so reclaiming what we can from the past, by peering deeply into the depths behind us. For if the past is truly prologue, then most of our questions regarding our future have already been answered, if only we take the time to look.
Now, on an everyday basis, perhaps a simple respect for those who have come before us is what is most missing from our culture today, and is what needs to be restored. Ancient peoples most often revered their elderly, their sages, their warriors who had all been there and come back with fire and survived to tell the tales that taught others how to get there and hopefully come back as well. And we have such a dearth, a poverty of heroes that children have little in the way of real people to aspire to than actors and hoopmen. I want to know more shaman, and dance with them in the moonlight when I dream so that they may show me a tomorrow forged from the best of the past.
Perhaps we simply need to slowdown, in order to better see where it is that we are going, or even want to be going, for that matter. Therefore, I say ‘festina lente’ — make haste slowly. Or better yet, we must always try to find the right pace that best gets things done. For whatever works is what we must have now — with our world in such dire need of solutions, and understanding, and love.
written: Friday 13 January 2012
fine-tuned: Monday 6 January 2014
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