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Riddles and revelation
Finding unity when twoness works against oneness all the way.
In that remarkable post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), we find Russell Hoban’s protagonist Riddley trying to come to terms with the difficulty of finding unity in existence. In Riddleyspeak, the decayed English that the book is written in, Ridley says this: “You try to make your self 1 with some thing or some body but try as you wil the 2ness of every thing is working agenst you all the way. You try to take holt of the 1ness and it comes in 2 in your hans.” What a brilliant, if devastating, articulation of the human experience that is! Our desire for harmony is, at every moment, interrupted by a sense that the world is broken; that the world may continue to split up further; that entropy is inevitable. Is it really? The ancient concern with the one and the many is as existential as metaphysical.
This seeking after unity in a broken world is symbolised in every aspect of Hoban’s novel. Even the language he uses reflects this search, and especially its treacherousness. “As much as possible,” Hoban writes on Riddelyspeak, “I tried for more than one meaning in the words. For example, when Riddley says, ‘I wer the loan of my name’ he means that he is the lone carrier of his name, [and that he is] living on borrowed time.” Another example, more poignant for what I want to discuss here, is the idea of the “1 Big 1” that shows up repeatedly throughout the story. It could refer to God, the One in whom all manyness is reconciled, but, more often in the story, it carries overtones of a nuclear holocaust, a happening in the past that sent everyone back into the stone age.
The opposite meanings echo the name Oppenheimer gave to the first test detonation of a nuclear weapon: Trinity. Perhaps the ‘1 Big 1’ refers to some future possibility, namely that of retrieving the power of a bomb all the better to rule ‘Inland’—the England of Riddley’s future time. In one phrase, that “1 Big 1,” the oneness of everything and the twoness working against the oneness come together. Being is both unified here and blown to smithereens. It is not a union of love but a rape.
There’s this moment in the novel when Riddley suddenly feels a deeper sense of the spiritual and material world lost to the destructive impulses of people. It’s so moving, and Riddely himself, just twelve years old in the story, feels immense sorrow on realising it. He weeps, “O what we ben! And what we come to!” Another character echoes the same sentiment: “Riddley we aint as good as them befor us. Weve come way way down from what they ben time back way back.” Even given that this is from an imagined future, I don’t think that the “time back way back” he is talking about is our time. We’re living in the aftermath of such a time. It’s especially tricky now to know how we’re supposed to piece together so many fragments when the entropic force of so many wrongheaded philosophies fills so many heads, often lurking in the defaults that we live with. Default entropy. It is no wonder hope is a virtue. It takes an awful lot of gumption to have a front-row seat to the disintegration of civilisation itself, at least that’s what it often feels like, and say, “ Trubba not,” or “No Trubba,” as they do in Riddley Walker.
Hoban hints very early on in that story that some sort of unity can be found, after all, perhaps not in the world itself, which is often a manifest array of discontinuities, but in ‘the idea’ of things. He waxes Platonic. In the idea of things, we can find some sort of wholeness even when brokenness is so painfully apparent. In the myth of Eusa, a corrupted retelling of the story of St. Eustace that people in Riddley’s world use as a kind of scripture, Eusa sees a vision of “the Littl Shynin Man,” a Christ-figure, who he accidentally rips in two. That mythical Eusa, his name a pun on the USA, he holds the little body of the Little Shynin Man and he has no clue how it was that he came apart in his hands with such ease. Later, however, that same Littl Shynin Man reappears to him in a vision but is somehow whole again:
“Thayr apeerd tu him then the Littl Shynin Man he wuz in 1 peace. Eusa sed, Wy arn you in 2 peaces? The Littl Man sed, Eusa I am in 2 peaces. It is onle the idear uv me that cum tu gether. Yu ar lukin at the idear uv me and I am it. Eusa sed, Wut is the idear uv yu? The Litt Man sed, It is wut it is. I aint the noing uv it Im jus onle the showing uv it.”
There’s a lot here to chew on. If you haven’t read the novel yet, bear in mind that it’s not the sort of novel you read but rather the sort of novel that reads you, if you’ll let it. But I want to home in on that idea—the showing of the idea is not the knowing of it. Appearing is, as phenomenologists say, usually a sign of a greater disappearing. What is manifest suggests a deeper, more profound hiddenness. And it is there in that hiddenness, in the mystery, that oneness in twoness is best grasped. Oneness is recovered in the invisible. It is there in that hiddenness that oneness grasps us; if we will let ourselves be grasped.
But it is this hiddenness that progressive modernity has long opposed. What cannot be directly perceived is taken to be as good as unreal. Love is not real to progressive moderns. Modernity itself took a step time back way back to break itself off from everything that would help to keep things together. The past became anathema. Everything needed to be new, now, and for always. The irony of the obsession with novelty is that the newness, by being so diabolically cut off from the old ways, ends up simply manifesting old demons. Tradition, after all, has always been an answer to problems that we have forgotten are problems. Modernity forgets tradition, and so forgets being along with it. It forgets the sacred. It forgets real meaning. Everything becomes a construct.
At some point in the not-too-distant past, nihilism became the default. What that meant, among other things, was that only things you could prove, only the tangible, the materialisable, the quantifiable, could be considered real. Beauty, truth, goodness—these enpatterned things were relegated to the realm of fiction. The invisible was conflated with the non-existent. It is not immediately obvious, mind you, that what is invisible is necessarily unreal. But the fact that this has been largely forgotten by modernity has opened the door to twoness and manyness against oneness. Progressive modernity says that reality is a dead thing and that what we do is to merely project our feelings and notions onto it. How thrilling this may seem to become like gods, making good and evil for ourselves. You can be whatever you want to be and the world can be whatever you make it to be. Start from scratch. Blank-slate your way through existence!
But this is the essence of the trouble. Progressive modernity has, on the whole, made various attempts to do away with mediation. Where exactly this started is not so easy to say. Arguably, as Aristotle suggests, change is always in process even if you happen to think you’ve identified the starting point. John Duns Scotus (1265ish to 1308) certainly helped speed this along by discarding the delicate balance between orders of being and reducing being to a univocal category; this, in turn, necessitated relegating God to the unintelligible category of infinite being. With divinity unknowable even by analogy, mediation itself was easily threatened. William of Ockham (1275-1347) made things worse by introducing voluntarism and nominalism against universals, doing away with the idea that perceptible realities were themselves mediations of higher realities.
The Protestant Reformation certainly played a part in entrenching the forgetting of mediation, especially in the notion of sola scriptura coined by Martin Luther (1483-1546). The idea that people can read scripture without the mediation of tradition is absurd but the fact that this way of thinking was adopted quite unquestioningly by so many people was probably owed to the fact that mediation is never very loud and showy. It’s easy to forget the quiet thing that grounds your existence when it’s not all that concerned with making a fuss. Priests no longer mediated between man and God either, and the sacramental order was turned into a realm of mere signs.
But, of course, we have various other modernist thought patterns to thank for furthering the cause against mediation. We have, for instance, the idea that the world itself doesn’t have to be there for us to think about it, a la Descartes (1596–1650) and, later, the American pragmatism of people like William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952), which doesn’t waste time on abstract notions and launches into just acting. Ha! Acting? How’s that for a paradigm shift? The absence of mediation produces so much action—so much activism—but also so much pretending. Slacktivism. Faketevism. You see, the twoness gets into the oneness without much ‘Trubba’.
No doubt, Nike’s Just Do It slogan is one consequence of this stupid pragmatism. Pragmatism makes some sense if the horizon we’re acting from is shared and coherent. Democracy itself could work if we had a shared horizon, I suppose. But with the horizon torn into myriad pieces and dished out to impoverished souls like so many scraps at a charity kitchen, pragmatism and democracy become manifestations of a loss of reality. Pragmatism becomes relativism. Democracy becomes demonocracy.
More generally, progressive modernity on the whole forgets formal and final causality in favour of a reductionist understanding of efficient causality—I’m thinking of Aristotle’s four causes here—and this is just one more of many other ways that mediation is forgotten. The quiet thing, the thing that’d help us to find unity, is forgotten. The point, of course, is not that mediation ever really goes away but that many people over a fairly lengthy historical span, while acting as if escaping mediation is possible, have fostered in culture precisely the sort of consciousness that would render a coherent worldview impossible.
Nowadays, I regard it as near-miraculous to find anyone whose worldview consists of more than a dying bouquet of knee-jerk reactions. Most of the students I teach, even those of some strong religious affiliation, have had their worldviews shattered into millions of pieces because they are no longer capable of fixing their attention on any sort of unity for long enough to let it put them back together. In 1916, GK Chesterton once joked that it does not matter if Homer’s Illiad or The Book of Job were written by many authors instead of one: “The Iliad may have been written by one man. It may have been written by a hundred men. But let us remember that there was more unity in those times in a hundred men than there is unity now in one man. Then a city was like one man. Now one man is like a city in civil war.” It was over a century ago that he said this. What a terrible thing it is to contemplate just how bad the civil war within people has gotten.
Not all modern philosophers have neglected mediation, of course. Hegel places mediation at the centre of his philosophy; at the centre of his dialectic. But in the end, he makes the same mistake as so many other moderns. He reduces mediation to self-mediation. He leaves it in the hands of the mere sad, measly self to generate some sense of coherence in the world. And no self is up to the task. Hegel ends up simply riding on the progressive modernity train. In this regard, Russell Hoban does a better job than Hegel does when paying attention to mediation. He gives his protagonist a title. He calls him a “connexion man.” I want to be a connexion man like Riddley Walker. His job is to be receptive to “blips,” “nindicaters,” “syns,” “tels,” and “reveals”. He must see how the “syns” can be “terpited” by remaining always “scanful” and attentive not only to the world but to the deep truths working through the world. His job is to be, at bare minimum, a Platonist.
Here’s a translation for those who need it. Be aware. Wake up. Notice that the world is a revelation. There are signs and indicators everywhere, and their immediate equivocity suggests, to anyone paying attention, a deeper unity than the one that is most obvious. The world is no dead thing. It speaks of a connectedness that no default nihilism can account for. But, crucially, some forms of mediation are better than others. Plato warned against mediations that are too far removed from reality to allow us genuine contact with what would put us back together. It should be no surprise to us that in a world of media, especially of mediations that excite the more degraded parts of ourselves, we distrust mediation. But the false mediations of sophists and screens and AI programmes carry with them a tragic forgetfulness of mediation. What they present is a seeming immediacy. Instant messaging. There’s no room for connexion men and connexion women in a world of absolute immediacy. There’s no pausing, praying, spacing out. We need leisure to be connexion people, as Josef Piper argues in Leisure: The Basis for Culture. But from Hoban’s Riddely Walker, we can learn to wait patiently. True mediation is in that Other-Power that calls us beyond ourselves into a unity that we can’t necessarily articulate but which we can, nevertheless, feel.
In connection with this idea, I think often of Hajime Tanabe’s profound philosophical work Philosophy as Metanoetics (1945). As Tanabe introduces that work, he discusses how he found himself in a state of desperate existential distress. It was owed, for one thing, to the sheer inability to get the right information as his government forced a certain narrative onto its people such that the truth of Japan’s dealings in the Second World War could not be ascertained. Then, as the shame of Japan’s role in the War became apparent, as loss and grief dawned on its people, there was, for Tanabe, a terrible sense that he, as a philosopher, was no good to anyone. What was he supposed to say when all of that had happened? He went mute. He didn’t know how to help anyone to make sense of the devastation. And then, he did something that all of us need to do. He gave up. Perhaps he was made to give up. Something beyond him told him to wait. “I, the Lord, will fight for you. You have only to do nothing” (Exodus 14:14).
This was no swallowing of some black pill. This was no mere resignation. This was a call to confession and repentance. This is the essence of metanoetics. This was a call to let the Other-Power speak. Self-Power had, after all, proven itself so weak and pathetic. Weakness can be a kind of strength, he discovered, when it learns to recognise the face of truth again. This was a call to return to mediation. Return to what moderns have forgotten.
We try, don’t we, to make all the connections ourselves? We are all moderns in one way or another, all possessed by certain modern illusions. We try to put the pieces together according to our own limited understanding. We end up, predictably, with a string of knee-jerk reactions and intuitions fairly haphazardly hurled together. Little coherence is possible when this is how we work in and with the world. But what Tanabe suggests, and what Hoban suggests after him, and what we find again and again in the metaxological philosophy of William Desmond, is something humbler. A patience with being. A willingness to wait. “In quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). Things may not make sense now. But sense will be made of things, even if not by you. In Gravity and Grace (1947), Simone Weil has this to say, which echoes the above: “Method for understanding images, symbols, etc. Not to try to interpret them, but to look at them till the light suddenly dawns.”
I realise how unpalatable this position is to well-indoctrinated moderns. This is no call for more information, more communication, more data, etc, etc. I realise, too, that the best I can say here is that unity is possible, even if I can offer no clear method for how to find it. I’ve suggested the word mediation, and I’ve indicated Tanabe’s way: confession and repentance. What this means, in practice, is, first, to let being mediate itself to you; second, to relinquish what isn’t true to being. Truth can only speak when we’ve given up on our precious illusions. This is not a call for science and the reign of quantity. Those are precisely the illusions. They offer nothing of love, and say nothing of beauty and goodness. We need to get our ontological ducks into a row better than all previous moderns have.
Here’s a starting point: default nihilism isn’t true to being, so repent of it. Let go of that which would insist on twoness when oneness is what you’re after. Weep for “what we ben” and “what we come to.” Grief may be more needed in a time of brokenness than we may tend to realise. As Miguel de Unamuno says, “I am convinced that we should solve many things if we all went out into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief, and joined together in beweeping them and crying aloud to the heavens and calling on God. … The chief sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common … It is not enough to cure a plague: we must learn to weep for it.” This is a very different approach from the common one: grievance airing, not grief. Anger, not weeping. Self-power, not Other-power. Crying aloud and calling upon the government instead of upon God. Perhaps it is no wonder “the 2ness of every thing is working agenst [us].” We have forgotten how to mourn.