Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought
by George Steiner
Schelling: Ueber das Wesen der Menschlichen Freiheit (1809)
"Dies ist die allem endlichen Leben anklebende Traurigkeit, die aber nie zur Wirklichkeit kommt, sondern nur zur ewigen Freude der Ueberwindung dient. Daher der Schleier der Schwermut, der ber die ganze Natur ausgebreitet ist, die tiefe unzerstrliche Melancholic alles Lebens."
"Nur in derPersnlichkeit ist Leben; und allePersnlichkeit ruht auf einem dunkeln Grunde, der allerdings auch Grund der Erkenntnis Sein mu."
("This is the sadness which adheres to all mortal life, a sadness, however, which never attains reality, but only serves the everlasting joy of overcoming. Whence the veil of depression, of heavy-heartedness which is spread out across the whole of nature, hence the profound, indestructible melancholy of all life."
"Only in personality is there life; and all personality rests on a dark ground, which, however, must also be the ground of cognition.")
Schelling, among others, attaches to human existence a fundamental, inescapable sadness. More particularly, this sadness provides the sombre ground on which consciousness and cognition are founded. This sombre ground must, indeed, be the basis of all perception, of every mental process. Thought is strictly inseparable from a "profound, indestructible melancholy." Current cosmology provides an analogy to Schelling's belief. It is that of "background noise," of the elusive but inescapable cosmic wave-lengths which are the vestiges of the "Big Bang," of the coming of being into being. In all thought, according to Schelling, this primal radiation and "dark matter" entail a sadness, a heaviness of heart (Schwermut) which is also creative. Human existence, the life of the intellect, signifies an experience of this melancholy and the vital capacity to overcome it. We are, as it were, created "saddened." In this notion there is, almost undoubtedly, the "background noise" of the Biblical, of the causal relations between the illicit acquisition of knowledge, of analytic discrimination and the banishment of the human species from innocent felicity. A veil of sadness (tristitia) is cast over the passage, however positive, from homo to homo sapiens. Thought carries within itself a legacy of guilt.
The notes which follow are an attempt, wholly provisional, to understand these propositions, to grasp, tentatively, some of their implications. They are necessarily inadequate because of the spiral whereby any attempt to think about thinking is itself enmeshed in the process of thought, in its self-reference. The celebrated "I think, therefore I am" is finally an open-ended tautology. No one can stand outside it.
We do not really know (in Wirklichkeif) what "thought" is, what "thinking" consists of. When we try to think about thinking, the object of our inquiry is internalized and disseminated in the process. It is always both immediate and out of reach. Not even in the logic or delirium of dreams can we reach a vantage point outside thought, an Archimedean pivot from which to circumscribe or weigh its substance. Nothing, not the deepest probes of epistemology or neurophysiology, has taken us beyond Parmenides' identification of thought with being. This axiom remains at once the wellspring and boundary of western philosophy.
We have evidence that processes of thought, of conceptual imaging, persist even during sleep. Some modes of thinking are totally resistant to any interruption whatever, as is breathing. We can, for short spells, hold our breath. It is by no means clear that we can be thoughtless. There are those who have labored to achieve this condition. Certain mystics, certain adepts of meditation have aimed at vacancy, at an entirely receptive because void state of awareness. They have aspired to inhabit nothingness. But such nothingness is itself a concept, charged with philosophical paradox and, where it is achieved by directed meditation and spiritual exercises, as in Loyola, emotionally replete. St. John of the Cross characterizes the suspension of mundane thought as brimful of the presence of God. A true cessation of the pulse-beat of thought, exactly like the cessation of our physiological pulse-beat, is death. For a time, a dead person's hair and nails continue to grow. To the best of our understanding, there is no prolongation of thought however brief. Hence the suggestion, in part gnostic, that only God can detach Himself from His own thinking in a hiatus essential to the act of creation.
To revert to Schelling and the assertion that a necessary sadness, a veil of melancholy attaches to the very process of thought, to cognitive perception. Can we try and clarify some of the reasons? Are we entitled to ask why human thought should not be joy?
So far as we are aware, so far as we can "think thinking"-I will come back to that awkward phrase-thought is limitless. We can think of and about anything. What lies outside or beyond thought is strictly unthinkable. This possibility, itself a mental demarcation, lies outside human existence. We have no evidence for it either way. It persists as a hidden category of religious and mystical conjecture. But it can also figure in scientific, cosmological speculations, in the concession that a "theory of everything" lies outside and beyond human understanding. Thus we can think/say: "this problem, this topic surpasses our cerebral potentialities either at present or for ever." But within these ill-defined, always fluid and perhaps contingent confines, thought is without end, without any organic or formally prescriptive stopping point. It can suppose, i magine, assemble, play with (there is nothing more serious and, in certain regards enigmatic, than play) anything without knowing whether there is, whether there could be anything else. Thought can construe a multiplicity of universes with scientific laws and parameters wholly different from our own. Science-fiction generates such "alternatives." A well-known logical conundrum postulates that our own universe is only a nanosecond old and that the sum of our memories is incised in the cortex at the moment of birth. Thought can theorize that time has a beginning or none (there is a despotic sophism in the ruling that it makes no sense to ask about the moment before the Big Bang). It can produce models of space-time as bounded or infinite, as expanding or contracting. The class of counterfactuals-of which "if clauses, optatives and subjunctives are the grammatical encoding-is incommensurable. We can deny, transmute, "unsay" the most obvious, the most solidly established. The scholastic doctrine whereby the one and only limitation on divine omnipotence is God's inability to change the past is unconvincing. We can readily both think and say such change. Human memory performs the trick daily. Thought-experiments, of which poetry and scientific hypotheses are eminently representative, know no boundaries. That humble monosyllable "let" which precedes conjectures and demonstrations in pure mathematics, in formal logic, stands for the arbitrary license and unboundedness of thought, of though manipulating symbols as language manipulates words and syntax.
Human thought reflects on our own existence. We suspect, though we do not know for certain, that animals cannot do this, even where primates share some ninety percent of our genome. We can model, we can devise mathematical expressions for, the "heat-death" of our universe by virtue of the thermodynamics of entropy. Or, on the contrary, we can advance arguments for eternal life, forresurrection- an appalling thought-or cyclical mechanisms of "eternal return" (as in Nietzsche). Not only innumerable ordinary men and women, but the begetters of religions, metaphysicians such as Plato, and certain psychologists, such as Jung, have rejected the axiom of finality, of psychic zero after corporeal demise. Thought can roam at liberty across the entire gamut of possibilities. It can, even prior to Pythagoras, wager on the transmigrations of the human soul. There is, there can be no verifiable evidence either way.
The infinity of thought is a crucial marker, perhaps the crucial marker of human eminence, of the dignitas of men and women as Pascal memorably declared ("thinking reeds"). It distinguishes what is signally human in the human animal. It enables the grammars of our speech to articulate remembrance and futurity, though we pause only rarely to take in the logical fragility of the future tense. Thought entails man's mastery over nature and, within certain restrictions such as infirmity and mental affliction, over his own being. It underwrites the radical freedom of suicide, of bringing thought to a voluntary, freely-timed halt. So why the inescapable sadness?
The infinity of thought is also an "incomplete infinity." It is subject to an internal contradiction for which there can be no resolution. We shall never know how far thought reaches in respect of the sum of reality. We do not know whether what seems open-ended is not, in fact, absurdly narrow and beside the point. Who can tell us whether much of our rationality, analysis and organized perception are not made up of puerile fictions? For how long, to how many millions, was the earth flat? We are indeed able to cogitate and phrase "ultimate questions"-"how did the cosmos come into being;is there any purpose to our Ii ves; does God exist?" This impulse to questioning engenders human civilization, its sciences, its arts, its religions. But nothing identifies Marx more closely with enlightenment innocence than his affirmation that mankind only poses those questions to itself for which there will be an answer. It is the opposite which comes closer to the truth. It is "jesting Pilate." On absolutely decisive fronts we arrive at no satisfactory, let alone conclusive answers however inspired, however consequent the process of thought, either individual or collective, either philosophical or scientific. This internal contradiction (aporia), this destined ambiguity is inherent in all acts of thought, in all conceptualizations and intuitions. Listen closely to the rush of thought and you will hear, at its inviolate centre, doubt and frustration.
This is a first motive for Scliwennut, for heaviness of heart.
Thought is uncontrolled. Also during sleep and, presumably, unconsciousness the current flows. Only very rarely are we in control. The pulse of thought looks to be manifold and many- layered. It can originate at somatic and psycho-somatic depths far beyond the reach of introspection (thoughts can rise out of deep- buried pain or pleasure). It is, very possibly, a prelinguistic phenomenon, a thrust of psychic energies prior to any executive articulation. But trapped in the great prison-house of language we arrive at no plausible, let alone "translatable" notion of what unspoken, unspeakable thinking could be like (does the deaf-mute come any closer?). It is just conceivable that the unspoken meaningfulness of music, so obviously somatic in some of its key components, provides some analogy. The levels which depth- psychology, such as psychoanalysis or hypnosis, identify as sub- conscious, let alone unconscious, are, so far as they surface in words, images, dreams or symbolic representations, superficial. They fall far short of the crust in the geophysics of the human psyche. And even at the surface, there is only intermittent control.
At each and every moment, acts of thought are subject to intrusion. A limitless congeries of external and internal elements will interrupt, deflect, alter, muddle any linear deployment of thought (Dante's moto spirituelle). The stream is incessantly muddied, dammed and diverted. A sudden sight or sound, however marginal, any tactile experience, a wisp of tiredness or boredom, the wedge of sudden desire, will appropriate a thought-response. Sensory phenomenality (Sinnlichkeii) in its incommensurable aggregate and confusion, can master and re-direct thinking at virtually every moment in our lives ("it slipped my mind"). Day- dreaming, pathological misprisions-to be "out of one's mind," a precisely meaningless proposition-are merely accented, identifiable forms of perpetual discontinuities, of inherent drift. Soliloquies of concealed or unwanted thought go their anarchic ways underneath articulate, cognitively apprehended speech. Though it may be that the creative artist or visionary can sometimes dip into these deep and turbulent eddies. By far the greater volume of recall and forgetting lies at the blurred edges of willed thinking. The winds of thought-an ancient simile-their sources beyond recapture, blow through us as through innumerable cracks. Kafka heard "great winds from under the earth."
Is it, in fact, possible to "think straight"? Can thought be made laser-like? Only at the price of trained, disciplined concentration and abstention from diversion. A number of activities depend on this narrowing and "monotone." The mathematician at his analysis and proof seems able to shut off and out the world, sometimes for hours on end. As does the chess master at his board or the formal logician at his lemmas. At crucial stages at his work-table, the watch-maker behind his magnifying glass, the surgeon operating, suspend all inattention. We knit our brows, the virtuoso musician closes his eyes. Contemplatives, masters of meditation and their acolytes testify to spells, sometimes of astounding length, of absolute compaction, of an in-gathering of the psyche so exclusive of any dispersal that it allows a single, total intentionality. It may be that Bach's solo partitas translate such "singularities"; but so does the suspension of breath of the marksman waiting to kill.
Such purities, such shafts of unwavering thought are accessible only to the relatively few, and their normal span is brief. They can occur at the summits of human excellence, as in what we know of Spinoza's methods, or at trivial levels, as in the circus-arts of the memory acrobats capable of learning by heart and regurgitating extended series of random numbers or names. There is evidence, though fitful, that the implicit powers of ultimate concentration can burn out at a fairly young age. First order pure mathematics and theoretical physics are the prerogative of the young. Which does suggest that the generative means involved are in some vital regard neuro-physiological, indeed "muscular." There is documentation, although too often anecdotal, to suggest that totalities of concentration comport not only temporary exhaustion but long-range mental collapse (notably in chess-masters and pure mathematicians or mathematical logicians). Prodigies in mnemonics rarely mature.
This allows the hypothesis whereby the involuntary, polymorphic wash of common thought is a safe-guard. It acts as a conservation of mental reserves in what may be virtually a neurological sphere. It enables us to respond more or less adequately to the spontaneous, often shapeless demands and stimuli of the everyday. The bursts of concentration in undeflected thinking, the coercion of absolute focus, may carry the risk of subsequent mental exhaustion or impairment. There is monomania in certain intensities of thought (lasers can burn). It is, none the less, a monomania without which many peaks of human understanding and accomplishment would not be feasible. Archimedes did not desist from his analysis of conic sections, though that focus meant death. Far, far more often than not, however, ordinary thinking is a messy, amateurish enterprise.
A second cause of "unzerstrliche Melancholie"(of "indestructible melancholy").
Thinking makes us present to ourselves. Physical sensations, notably pain, are instrumental. But to think of ourselves is the main constituent of personal identity. I cannot think that I am not except in a fantasized, merely verbal game. The cessation of thought, even where madness is active, is simultaneously, tautologically that of the ego.
No one, nothing can verifiably penetrate my thoughts. To have one's thoughts "read" by another human being is nothing more than a figure of speech. I can altogether conceal my thoughts. I can mask and falsify their outward expression as I can that of my mien or body language. Hired mourners howl with grief over the remains of clients unknown to them. Even torture cannot elicit beyond doubt my inmost thoughts. No other human being can think my thoughts for me. This is the determinant reason, the ontological crux why no other man or woman can "die for me" in any literal sense. No one else can assume my death. I can die with, but never "for," the other, however inalienable our bonds, our kinship. The blind, the deaf-mute, the immobilized victim of paralysis or motor-neuron disease can harbor, formalize and expound thoughts which reach to the edge of our universe. Thoughts are our sole assured possession. They make up our essence, our at-homeness or estrangement from the self. Their inwoven pressure is such that we may at times labor to hide them from our awareness, to silence them internally by means which psychology qualifies as amnesia or repression. It is doubtful that they remain irretrievable. I breathe therefore I think.
There follows a consequence whose enormity-in the proper sense of that word-is taken strangely for granted. No closeness, be it biological (identical or Siamese twins may represent a limit-case), emotional, sexual, ideological, be it that of a life-time of shared domestic or professional co-existence, will enable us to decipher beyond uncertainty the thoughts of another. The quest for telepathic communications and simultaneities is an attempt, almost certainly futile, to overcome this often maddening or tragic inhibition. As is the resort to truth-drugs in various obscenities of interrogation. The beloved lies in our arms, the treasured child in our embrace, the best friend clasps our hand. Yet we have no indubitable proof as to the thoughts being generated, registered inwardly at the relevant moment. So frequently in erotic union the current of thought, of the intensely imagined, pulses elsewhere. We make inner love to another. Under the adoring smile of the child, of the intimate friend, there can be the truth of boredom, indifference or even repulsion. The ability to lie, to conceive of and enact fictions is organic to our humanity. The arts, social conduct, language itself would be impossible without it. As Jonathan Swift so astutely allegorizes it, perfect truthfulness, perfect transparency of thought belongs to the animal kingdom. Men and women endure by virtue of recurrent disguise. But the mask is worn underneath the skin.
Yet observe the paradox. This inaccessible core of our singularity, this most inward, private, impenetrable of possessions is also a billionfold commonplace. Although expressed, voiced or unvoiced, in different lexical, grammatical and semantic forms, our thoughts are, to an overwhelming degree, a human universal, a common property. They have been thought, they are being thought, they will be thought millions and millions of times by others. They are endlessly banal and shop-worn. Used goods. The components of thinking in even the most private, personalized acts and moments in our existence-in sex, for examp\le-are clichs, interminably repeated. They enlist, most saliently in an age of mass-media or in one of restricted literacy, identical words and images. Our performative ecstasies, our taboo scenarios or approved rhetoric of sentimentality are shared, synchronically, with numberless other men and women. They are a mass-market merchandise labeled by the endlessly reiterative commonplaces of our language, our culture, our time and milieu. The phrase "sexual commerce" has a palpable connotation in our current structures of mass-consumption and public explicitness.
All this is an inescapable consequence of language. We are born into a linguistic matrix which is historically inherited and communally shared. The words, the sentences we use to convey our thinking, either internally or externally, belong to a common currency. They render intimacy democratic. In embryo, as it were, the dictionary inventories the near-totality of both actual and potential thought. Which, in turn, is made up of combinatorial assemblages of and selections from pre-fabricated counters. It may be that the grammatical rules and precedents on offer (the pieces in the Lego kit) pre-determine, place constraints on, the vast majority of our acts of thought and articulations of consciousness. The potentialities of construction are manifold, but also repetitive and bounded.
In consequence, true originality of thought, the thinking of a thought for the first time (and how would we know?) is exceedingly rare. As Alexander Pope famously observed, it is the verbal form not the content which gives an impression of novelty. Language and diverse symbolic codes may indeed articulate a thought, an idea, a conceptual image with unprecedented force, completeness or economy. The performative shock may be intense. But there is absolutely no way of knowing, let alone proving, that that very thought has never been emitted before, albeit in a less adequate, even defective or almost "mumbling" guise. It may have occurred to sub- or illiterate men and women, to the deaf-mute or the cerebrally impaired who very simply took no notice of it. It may be that in the pure and applied sciences, in technology, cumulative and collective development, the exchange of conjectures and refutations, generates a novum organum Yet even here much is re-discovered or arrived at simultaneously by different individuals and teams. The theory of natural selection, of calculus, of DNA provide well known instances. With his genius for awe, Einstein professed that he had had only two genuine ideas in his entire life.
In the "humanities," taking that word in its widest circumference, in philosophy, the arts, literature, political and social theory, what we call "originality" is almost always a variant or innovation in form, in executive means, in the available media (bronze, oil paints, electric guitars). Such innovations and enabling discoveries are of immense significance and prodigality. They shape much of our civilization. But how many are "original" in any rigorous sense? How many are an authentic mutation? A new thought-act, an imagining without discernible precedent, is the ambition, acknowledged or not, of writers, painters, composers, thinkers. It can be realized outside dreams only where the relevant idiom is itself made new. Where there is some re-orientation of the available deluge of ordinary language and shared formal conventions. Poets have indeed striven to create new languages, as in Dada and certain experiments in futurism. The products have been more or less incomprehensible trivialities. Where verbal modes are new, who is to understand them? In what sense have metaphors been invented and by whom? The inventory of myths, of the "great stories" on which western literature feeds is that of a structure of themes and variations. Quantum leaps are (magnificently) rare. It may be that Sophocles "thought up" the Antigone-legend, though there were actual political-military precedents to suggest it. So far as we know, the Don Juan motif was a "find," datable in time and place, with almost immediate and ubiquitous echo. But these inceptions are infrequent.
Such thinkers and begetters of argument as Plato, Aristotle, Paul of Tarsus, St. Augustine may have developed the linguistic and conceptual instruments with which to formulate and make widely accessible thoughts, images, metaphors of radical originality. This, however, is by no means certain. We may be stunned by the apposition in Sartre's "le sale espoir" and find no previous public utterance of this irony. But it is exceedingly doubtful that his was the first intellect or sensibility to experience this notion and communicate it to himself. When Giordano Bruno characterizes as new the concept of an unbounded, multiple cosmos, when Saint-Just proclaims "happiness to be a new idea in Europe," they are being eloquently rhetorical. Neither proposition was without precedent, some of it millennially ancient. Was romantic love truly invented in Provence during the twelfth century?
Thinking is supremely ours; buried in the uttermost privacy of our being. It is also the most common, shopworn, repetitive of acts. The contradiction cannot be resolved. A third reason for an anklebende Traurigkeit (for a "sorrow which adheres to us").
We have seen that there can be no final verification for the truth or error of subjective thought, for its sincerity or falsehood. What of public, systematic thinking, of that pursuit of objective truths which, since Parmenides, has been held to be the excellence of man in the west?
The values, logically formal or existential, diffuse or rigorous, which attach to the word "truth" are enmeshed in historical, ideological, psychological co-ordinates often arbitrary ("truth on one side of the Pyrenees" as Pascal put it). Even the experimentally demonstrable and empirically applicable truths of the sciences are underwritten by theoretical, philosophical pre-suppositions, by fluctuating "paradigms" always susceptible of revision or discard. Where it addresses, where it invokes "truth," thought relativizes this criterion in the moment in which it adverts to it. There is no escape from this dialectical circularity. As a result, the history of truth, a concept which itself negates any absolute status-the absolute has no history-ranges from the most dogmatic, "revealed" fables to the most extreme skepticism and the modernist move, already implicit in classical skepticism, "anything goes." However consequent, however scrupulous in its self-examination, a thought- act can postulate its attainment of truth solely where the process is tautological, where the result is a formal equivalence, as in mathematics or symbolic logic. All other statements of truths, doctrinal, philosophic, historical or scientific are subject to error, falsifiability, revision and erasure. Like those "superstrings" in today's cosmology, "truths" vibrate in manifold dimensions inaccessible to any final proof (indeed, there is no clear view as to what such a "proof" could be). Existential thinking, the proceedings of thought in intellectual and daily life, cannot "break through" to any self-evident, incontrovertible, everlasting realm of truth. Yet it is just this realm which revealed creeds, which metaphysics as in Plato, Plotinus or Spinoza, promise and labor to attain. Thus there is in abstract thought, in epistemological methods a latent ground bass of nostalgia, an edenic myth of lost certitudes (we hear it, with poignant integrity, in a thinker such as Husserl). To think is to fall short, to arrive somewhere "beside the point." At very best, thought breeds what Wallace Stevens called "supreme fictions." Einstein would have it otherwise: "The creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality as the ancients dreamed" (where "dreamed" may be a more than Freudian lapse). To which one of the most authoritative of today's cosmologists replies: "even within the basic domain of the basic equations of physics our knowledge will always be incomplete."
The more fierce the pressure of thought, the more resistant the language in which it is encased. Language, as it were, is inimical to the monochrome ideal of truth. It is saturated with ambiguity, with polyphonic simultaneities. It delights in fantastication, in constructs of hope and futurity for which there is no proof. Perhaps this is why the great apes have hesitated to develop it. Human beings could not endure without what Ibsen called "life-lies." Thought limited to logical propositions, best expressed non- verbally, or demonstrable factualities, would be madness. Human creativity, the life-giving capacity to negate the dictates of the organic, to say "No" even to death, depend integrally on thinking, on imagining counter-factually. We invent alternative modes of being, other worlds-Utopian or hellish. We re-invent the past and "dream forward." But indispensable, magnificently dynamic as these thought-experiments are, they remain fictions. They nourish religions and ideologies, the libido is brimful of them (Shakespeare's "lunatics, lovers and poets"). Language constantly seeks to enforce dominion over thought. In the stream of thought it generates whirlpools, which we call "mental disorders" and those log- jams known as obsessions. Yet the interference, the incessant "muddying of the waters" are also those of creativity. In this tidal surge, the act of pure concentration, the attempt to purge consciousness of its vital fictions, of the open-eyed hallucinations of desire, intent or fear, are, as we noted, exceedingly rare. They exact a discipline profoundly contrary to natural language, though available to mathematics and symbolic logic. When Einstein appeals to "pure thought," it is precisely these he has in mind. Certain eminent philosophers have, in turn, attempted to make their linguist\ic articulations as "mathematical" as possible, as immune as possible from the mutinous joy of natural speech. But how many Spinozas, how many Freges or Wittgensteins are there, and to what degree have even these ascetics of truth prevailed? At twilight, Socrates sang.
This fundamental antinomy between the claims of language to be autonomous, to be liberated from the despotism of reference and reason-claims which are crucial to modernism and deconstruction-on the one hand, and the disinterested pursuit of truth on the other, is a fourth motive for sorrow (Unzerstrliche Melancholic).
Thinking is almost incredibly wasteful. Conspicuous consumption at its worst. Neuro-physiological investigations have sought to localize and evaluate numerically "brain-waves" emitted by the cortex. They have tried to identify the quanta of energy, the rhythm of electromagnetic pulses associated with moments and clusters of concentrated thought. It does seem plausible that there are in what we call "thinking" components of neuro-chemical and electromagnetic energy, that the synapses in the human brain have their measurable output (the study of cerebral lesions provides evidence). But so far much remains conjectural and mappings are approximate. Intuitively, impressionistically, we do experience some analogy to muscular fatigue after sustained spells of sequential thought, of reflection under pressure. Problem-solvers in the exact and applied sciences, mathematicians, formal logicians, computer programmers, chess- players, simultaneous translators report phenomena of exhaustion, of "burn-out." War-time cryptologists at their de-coding were among the first to register mental strain of extreme, "physical" intensity. Again, however, our understanding of such stress and of the mechanisms involved is rudimentary.
The point is this: thought processes, be they conscious or subconscious, the thought-stream within us articulate or unvoiced, during waking hours or sleep-those rapid eye movements much studied in recent decades-are, in overwhelming proportion, diffuse, aimless, dispersed, scattered and unaccounted for. They are, quite literally, "all over the place," which makes the idiom "scatter-brained" entirely valid. The economics are those of an almost monstrous waste and deficit. There may be no other human activity more extravagant. We do not think about our thinking except in brief spells of epistemological or psychological focus. Very nearly the incessant aggregate and totality of thinking flits by unnoticed, formless and without use. It saturates consciousness and presumably the sub- conscious, but drains off like a thin sheet of water on baked earth. Even the notion of "forgetting" is too substantive. That of which we may have been thinking an hour ago may have left no trace whatever owing to contingent circumstances or the interference-effects of some task in hand. At best, it may have been arrested in writing or encoded in some other modes of semiotic markers. Japanese globe- trotters are said to employ specialists who identify for them the locale of their own photographs. But by far the iceberg mass of human thought vanishes unperceived, unrecorded in the trash-bin of oblivion. "Alms for oblivion.""What was I thinking when I said this or did that?" Or consider the banal disappointment when one awakes convinced of having dreamt a major insight, an elusive solution, of having composed significant poetry or music only to find recollection helpless and the bed-side pad covered with meaningless scribbling. Which frustration and embarrassment does not prove that the effaced, lost thought or imagining was not of signal merit and importance. It is simply out of reach, erased as are millions and millions of other thoughts tiding through us in unfathomable waste.
This suggests the science-fiction model of a society in which thinking is rationed. In which it is licensed only for certain hours or days and where such rations are distributed according to individual mental capacities and powers of concentration. A waste of thought would be regarded as vandalism or worse. Food, fuel can be rationed in war-time. The currency can be put under strict control. Why not regulate the infinitely valuable supply of thought, preserving it from waste and inflation? Science-fiction, to be sure. Yet are attempts in that direction not the core of totalitarian systems, of despotic ideologies be they religious or political? Efforts to ration thinking, to constrict it within permitted, circumscribed channels are at the very heart of tyranny. Anarchic, playful, wasteful thought is that which totalitarian regimes fear most. It is the Utopia of censorship to read not only the text, but the thoughts which underlie it or which it conceals. Hence the Orwellian trope of a "thought-police."
Though they contain hyperboles of proud modesty, Einstein's claim to have had only "two ideas" in his entire life, and Heidegger's maxim that all major thinkers have only one thought which they expound and reiterate throughout their works, may point to a vital truth. The significant thinker in the humanities or the sciences would be one who perceives and exploits a decisive insight or concept, who fixes on one crucial discovery or connection. It is he or she who invests almost avariciously in a seminal thought-act or observation, exploiting its full potential. Darwin seems to represent an exemplary instance. Whereas the numberless plurality of human beings, even if brushed as it were in transit by first-class thoughts, by radical notice, pays no especial heed, does not "grab a hold" or press on to performative realization. How many recognitions go to waste in the indifferent deluge of unattended-to thinking, in the un- or overheard soliloquy of everyday and "everynight" cerebral emission? Why are we unable to encapsulate, put in ordered storage and potentiality-as does an electric battery-the possibly fruitful voltage generated by the sleepless arcs and synapses of our mental being? It is, precisely, this infinitely spendthrift, ruinous generation which we cannot, as yet, account for. But the deficit is beyond reckoning.
A fifth reason for frustration, for that "dark ground" (dunkler Grund).
Thought is immediate only to itself. It makes nothing happen directly, outside itself. Fragile, disputed experiments in telekinesis have sought to show that thinking can produce minute material phenomena, effects of vibration or minimal displacement. Quantum physics, itself so enigmatic, has it that the act of observation alters the objective configuration of that which is being observed (Einstein found this supposition little short of monstrous). Here almost everything remains conjecture. Thinking has incommensurable consequences, but the inference of a direct continuum is, as Hume taught, inferential. It cannot be shown to be directly causal. The vast majority of habitual acts and gestures are "thoughtless." They are performed instinctively or via acquired reflexes. Famously, the millipede would come to a suicidal halt if it thought about its next step. A chilling reflection if ever there was one. Automatism is decayed thought. But even where an action is most carefully and consciously "thought out," where it follows on some internalized blueprint or an outward and articulate proposition, the sequence can only be inferred. Only God, so the theologians, experiences no hiatus between thought and consequence. That which He thinks is. That there is a connection between thought and existential, pragmatic consequence is a rational postulate without which we could not conduct our lives. So far, however, we possess no working model of the chain of generative phenomena, of the presumably immensely complex translation of the conceptual need or desideratum into neuro-physiological and muscular accomplishment. The neurochemistry which relates intention to effect can only be traced at rudimentary levels. In so many cases, it is as if cause comes after effect. Thought-acts seem to follow on unpremeditated, spontaneous enactments which thought then interprets and "figures" to itself in the past tense. (I wonder whether the spellbinding experience of dj-vu does not relate to this reversal.) Far more often, there is obliteration: "I have no idea of why I did so and so. My mind is a total blank."
Interpositions between thought and act are as manifold, as diverse as is life itself. The shadows which fall between thinking and doing can never be exhaustively inventoried let alone classified. There are, in the most exacting of engineering or architectural constructs, minute deviations from design, from precise calibration. No painter, however skilled, can fully realize the transfer on to his canvas of his internal vision or of that which he believes he sees before him. Even in the strictest of forms, music embodies only partially the complex of feelings, ideas, abstract relations inward to its composer. The distance between felt pressures on sensibility, between the imagined and its linguistic utterance, is a mournful clich, a commonplace of never-ending defeat since the inception not only of literature but of the most urgent and intimate of human exchanges. "I cannot put it into words," says the lover, say the griefstricken; but also the poet and the philosopher. The intimation of barriers, of interference effects or "white noise" is disturbingly physical. Sentiment, intuition, intellectual or psychological illumination, crowd at the inner edge of language but cannot "break through" to complete articulation (though the great writer somehow works closer to that edge and to the pulses of the pre-linguistic than do less privileged minds). Energies of recognition, metaphoric lightning flashes and momentary comprehension vibrate just out of reach. Eurydice recedes tantalizingly into darkness. Within the turbulent, polysemic magma of conscious and sub-conscious processes,incessant thought or its wholly mysterious antecedents, nocturnal as well as diurnal, are only fragmentarily recuperable. Coming to the lit surface via the simplifying constraints of language, of coercive logic, this generative force is always inhibited and deflected. Hence the doomed labors of the Surrealists in quest of "automatic" writing or virgin modes of speech. The aleatory is already conditioned by imperatives.
Thinking does not, cannot make it so. Even the most prudentially gauged and focused motion of thought is "bodied forth" (Shakespeare's penetrating idiom) only imperfectly, only in part. The work of art, however sovereign, the political or military project, the material edification, the legal code or theological- metaphysical summa compromise with the ideal, with the necessary fiction of the absolute. A speck of chromatic impurity, all but imperceptible, remains in the black tulip, in the crystal symmetries of private or collective political, social design. The concept of perfection is an unfulfilled dream of thought, a conceptual abstraction, as is infinity. It is in the paradox of the existence within us of these two unattainable ideals that classical theology, in Anselm as in Descartes, locates its proof of the existence of God. Though in extremis, Wittgenstein spoke for every creative consciousness when he declared that the part of the Tractatus which mattered was that which remained unwritten.
Ineluctably, therefore, the totality of our futurities, of our projections, anticipations, plans-be they routine or utopian- carries within it a potential of disappointment, of prophylactic self-deception. A virus of unfulfilment inhabits hope. The grammars of optatives, of subjunctives, of every nuance of future tenses- these grammars being the irresponsible glory and morning light of the human mind-can never be guarantors. They do not entail and underwrite untainted fact. The odds may be overwhelmingly in our favor, induction may seem almost contractual and fool-proof, but to expect, to await, to hope for is a gamble. Whose only certainty is death. The consequences of our expectations, of that impatience which we call "hope," fall short. Often they abort altogether (though there are dispensations in which they surpass our imaginings). Customarily, the anticipation, the projection, the fantasy and image exceed realization. If we hail experiences as "beyond our wildest dreams," these dreams have been cautionary and threadbare. A revealing emptiness, a sadness of satiety follows on fulfilled desires (Goethe and Proust are the unsparing explorers of this accidia). The celebrated gloom post coitum, the longedfor cigarette after orgasm, are precisely those which measure the void between anticipation and substance, between the fabled image and the empirical happening. Human eros is close kin to a sadness unto death. If our thought-processes were less urgent, less graphic, less hypnotic (as in the gusts of masturbation and day-dreaming), our constant disappointments, the gray lump of nausea at the heart of being, would be less disabling. Mental break-downs, pathological evasions into unreality, the inertia of the brain-sick may, in essence, be tactics against disappointment, against the acid of frustrated hope. Such are the failed correlations between thought and realization, between the conceived and the actualities of experience, that we can neither live without hope-Coleridge's "Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And hope without an object cannot live"-nor overcome the bereavement, the mockery which failed hopes comport. "Hope against hope" is a powerful, but ultimately damning phrasing of the blight which thought casts on consequence.
A sixth Ursache or font for tristitia.
There are, we saw, two processes which human beings cannot bring to a halt so long as they are alive: breathing and thinking. In fact, we are capable of holding our breath for longer periods than we are able to abstain from thought (if that is possible at all). On reflection, this incapacity to arrest thought, to take a break from thinking, is a terrifying constraint. It imposes a servitude of peculiar despotism and weight. At every single instant in our lives, waking or sleeping, we inhabit the world via thought. The philosophic-epistemological systems which seek to explain and analyze this habitation fall into two perennial categories. The first characterizes our consciousness and awareness of the world as being that of perception through a window. This model, founded somewhat naively on an analogy with ocular vision, underlies every paradigm of realism, of sensory empiricism. It authorizes a belief, however complex or attenuated, in an objective world, in an "out there" whose ideal and material elements are conveyed to us by conscious or sub-conscious input and the placement of this input by intuitive, intellectual and experimental means. The other epistemology is that of the mirror. It postulates a totality of experience whose only verifiable source is that of thinking itself. It is our minds, our neuro-physiology which project what we take to be the forms and substance of "reality." Per se this is the irrefutable Kantian axiom: "reality," whatever it may consist of, is inaccessible. It eludes any demonstrable, assured grasp. It may amount to a collective hallucination, a common dream. Extreme, playfully grave versions of this solipsism suggest that we are ourselves "such stuff as dreams are made on," perhaps dreamt by a Demiurge or indeed, as Descartes speculates, by a demon. All thought about the world, all observation and understanding would be reflection, mappings in a mirror.
On one capital point these two opposed systems concur: the glass, be it window or mirror, is never immaculate. There are scratches on it, blind spots, curvatures. Neither vision through it nor reflection from it can ever be perfectly translucid. There are impurities and distortions. This is the crux: there is interposition between ourselves and the world we inhabit. Conceptualizations, observations (as in the "uncertainty principle") are acts of thought. There are no innocent immediacies of reception, however spontaneous, however unthinking they seem. Theories of cognition, whether Descartes's, Kant's or Husserl's struggle heroically to situate a point of unpremeditated immediacy, a point at which the self meets with the world without any presuppositions, without any interference by psychological, corporeal, cultural or dogmatic presumptions. Such "phenomenologists" strive to "see things as they are," to make out the truth of the world's presence and "thereness" either via the window or the mirror. But, as Gertrude Stein knew, there is no unwavering, re-insuring "there there." No Archimedian point or tabula rasa has ever been con vincingly located. The identity of the "thinking reed," the obscuring ubiquity of thought- processes acts as a screen. Experience, where it would be naked and Adamic, is filtered and essentially compromised. The expulsion from Eden is a "fall into thought." Thus there is no element in existence which is not "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."
In consequence, even the most inventive, capacious, orderly of human intellects and imaginations operates within indirections and limitations which it cannot truly define, let alone measure. Everywhere the masterlight of the mind abuts on obscurity. Are there neuro-physiological, evolutionary limits to our conceptualizations and analyses of the world? Are there categorical bounds to human reason? Which are the inherent constraints-whether perceived or not- that pre-determine the reach and clarity of our boldest conjectures (conjectures which may, in fact, be entirely inadequate to or even out of touch with the actualities of the cosmos)? What proof have we, what proof could we have, that the progress of empirical investigation and theoretical construction is limitless, that the speculative intellect will continue on its seemingly open-ended journey through "seas of thought." The most powerful of electron microscopes now appear to be nearing the limit of possible observation as, in haunting symmetry, are the most probing of radio telescopes. It is not that the light from remote galaxies does not reach us; it will never reach us in allegory of our solitude. How much of our proud science is also science-fiction, a model whose only demonstrable veritas is that of mathematics, of mathematics playing its own entranced games?
There has always been ground for suspicion in regard to the seemingly incontrovertible axioms of logic and the syntax in which they are so despotically incised. Do these axioms, do the sacrosanct rules which govern contradiction, do no more than externalize the local particularities of hominid cerebration, the architecture of our cortex? Just as vision may be held to enact the anatomy and physiology of the human eye. Each and every one of us has experienced frustrations of awareness, barriers to understanding. We "run up," often viscerally, against impalpable but unyielding walls of language. The poet, the thinker, the masters of metaphor make scratches on that wall. Yet the world both inside and outside us murmurs words which we cannot make out. "Unheard tunes" are proclaimed to be the sweetest. Cezanne testifies in modest anger at the inability of his eye to penetrate in depth the landscape before him. Pure mathematics knows of the insoluble though there is no assured grasp of the source of such insolubility. The most inspired thinking is impotent in respect of death, an impotence which has generated our metaphysical and religious scenarios. (I will come back to this.) Thought veils as much as, probably far more, than it reveals.
A seventh reason for that Schleier der Schwermut ("veil of heaviness" of heart).
This opacity makes it impossible to know beyond doubt what any other human being is thinking. As I note\d, we possess no indubitable insight into anyone else's thoughts. Again, we pay too little attention to this enormity. It should strike terror. No familiarity, no analytic cunning can ensure or verify "mind- reading." Neither hypnosis nor psychiatric techniques nor "truth- drugs" can extract in any verifiable way the thoughts of the other. His or her most vehement avowals, oral and written testimony under oath, naked confessions can deliver no fundamental, insured content. They may or may not express the most candid intent, the most purposed revelation. They may or may not disclose partial truths, fragments as it were of utmost sincerity and self-disclosure. They may or may not conceal felt meaning whether in toto or in part. Motions of disguise can range from the outright lie professed consciously to every shading of untruth and self-deception. The nuances of mendacity are inexhaustible. No laser of inquisitorial attention, no ear however acute, no cross-examination can elicit certitude. The mere question "what are you thinking, what have you in mind?" solicits answers which are themselves manylayered, which have, however unnoticed, passed through complex filters.
Hence the unsettled relations between thought and love. Hence the likelihood that love between thinking beings is a somewhat miraculous grace. Every man and every woman, every adult and every child uses what linguists call an "idiolect," this is to say a personalized selection out of available language with private, singular, perhaps untranslatable counters, connotations and references which the recipient in dialogue cannot wholly or with certitude interpret. We try to translate to each other. We so frequently get it slightly or grossly wrong. But even this partial or flawed intelligibility of all communication lies only at the surface. The idiolects of thought, the privacies of the unspoken are of a much deeper and intractable order.
Even in moments and acts of extreme intimacy-perhaps most acutely at such moments-the lover cannot embrace the thoughts of the beloved. "What are you thinking, what am I thinking as we make love?" This exclusion makes the vaunted fusion of orgasm and its rhetoric of unison arguably trivial. As Goethe liked to point out, numberless men and women have clasped in the arms of thought lovers, remembered, wished-for, fantasized other than those they are making love to. This cognitive interposition, this mental reservation, involuntary or deliberate, blurred or graphic, can chime like a derisive echo beneath the cries and whispers of ecstasy. We shall never know what deep-lying inattention, absence, repulsion or alternative imagery deconstruct the manifest text of the erotic. The closest, most honest of human beings remain strangers, more or less partial, more or less undeclared to each other. The act of love is also that of an actor. Ambiguity is native to the word.
Thought is most legible, least covert during bursts of unchained, compacted energy. As in fear and in hatred. These dynamics, particularly on the instant, are difficult to fake, though virtuosos of duplicity and of self-control can attain greater or lesser concealment. The animals we deal with show us that our fears emit a distinctive scent. Perhaps there is a smell to hatred. Enlisting all levels of cerebral and instinctive thrust, hatred may be the most vivid, charged of mental gestures. It is stronger, more cohesive than love (as Blake intuited). It is so often nearer than is any other revelation of the self to truth. The other class of thought- experience in which the veil is torn apart is that of spontaneous laughter. At the instant in which we "get" the joke or chance on the comical sight, mentality is laid bare. Momentarily, there are no "second thoughts." But this aperture to the world and to others lasts only very briefly and has the dynamics of the involuntary. In this regard, smiles are almost the antithesis to laughter. Shakespeare was much concerned with the smiling of villains.
Overall the scandal remains. No final light, no empathy in love, discloses the labyrinth of another human being's inwardness. (Are identical twins, with their private language, truly an exception?) At the last, thinking can make us strangers to one another. The most intense love, perhaps weaker than hatred, is a negotiation, never conclusive, between solitudes.
An eighth reason for sorrow.
Bodily functions and thinking are common to the species. Arrogantly, homo sapiens so defines himself. Strictly considered, each and every living man, woman and child is a thinker. This is as true of the cretin as it is of Newton, of the virtually speechless moron as it is of Plato. As I noted, seminal, inventive, life- enhancing thoughts may, at any time and in any place, have been thought by the sub-literate, the infirm, even the mentally handicapped. They have gone lost because they were not articulated or attended to even by the one who has done the thinking ("mute, inglorious Mutons" in a sense which extends far beyond literature). Like minute spores, thoughts are disseminated inward and outward a millionfold. Only a minute fraction survive and bear fruit. Hence the incommensurable waste which I have cited previously. But the confusion may reside elsewhere.
Our taxonomy, notably in the current political-social ambience, tends towards the egalitarian. Does this not disguise and falsify an obvious, but scarcely or uncomfortably noticed hierarchy? Vaguely, rhetorically we attach to certain acts of spirit and what we assume to be their consequences-the scientific insight, the work of art, the philosophic system, the historical deed-the label "great." We refer to "great" thoughts or ideas, to products of intellectual, artistic or political genius. No less vaguely, we adduce "profound" as distinct from trivial or superficial thoughts. Spinoza descends into the mine-shaft; the man in the street customarily skates at the banal surface of himself or the world. Can these polarities, together with the innumerable gradations between them, be lumped together under one indistinct rubric? Can the mind's flotsam and inchoate babble be covered by the same sloppy definition as the solution to Fermat's last theorem or the Shakespearean begetting of enduring metaphor or mutations of sensibility? What factitiousness- picked up from the outset by caricaturists and vulgarians-inhabits Rodin's "Thinker"?
All of us conduct our lives within an incessant tide and magma of thought acts, but only a very restricted portion of the species provides evidence of knowing how to think. Heidegger bleakly professed that mankind as a whole had not yet emerged from the pre- history of thought. The cerebrally literate-we lack an adequate term- are, in proportion to the mass of humanity, few. The capacity to harbor thoughts or their rudiments is universal and may well be attached to neuro-physiological and evolutionary constants. But the capacity to think thoughts worth thinking, let alone expressing and worth preserving is comparatively rare. Not very many of us know how to think to any demanding, let alone original purpose. Even fewer of us are able to marshall the full energies and potential of thought and of directing these energies towards what is called "concentration" or intentional insight. An identical label obscures the light-years of difference between the background noise and banalties of rumination common to all human existence (as it is perhaps also to that of primates) and the miraculous complexity and strengths of first-class thinking. Just beneath this eminent level there are the many modes of partial understanding, of approximation, of involuntary or acquired error (the physicist Wolfgang Pauli's devastating phrase about false theorems: "they aren't even wrong").
A culture, a "common pursuit" of mental literacy, can be defined by the extent to which this secondary order of reception, of the subsequent incorporation of first-order thought into communal values and practices, is or is not widespread. Does seminal thought enter schooling and the general climate of recognition? Is it picked up by the inner ear, even if this process of audition is often stubbornly slow and fraught with vulgarization? Or are authentic thinking and its receptive valuation impeded, even destroyed (Socrates in the city of man, the theory of evolution among fundamentalists) by "unthinking" political, dogmatic and ideological denial? What murky but understandable mechanism of atavistic panic, of sub-conscious envy fuels the "revolt of the masses" and, today, the philistine brutality of the media which have made the very word "intellectual" derisive? Truth, taught the Baal Shem, is perpetually in exile. Perhaps it should be. Where it becomes too visible, where it cannot shelter behind specialization and hermetic encoding, intellectual passion and its manifestations provoke hatred and mockery (these impulses intertwine with the history of anti-semitism; Jews have often thought too loudly).
Can top-gear thinking be learned? Can it be taught? Drill and exercise can strengthen memory. Mental focus, spells of inwardness and concentration can be deepened by techniques of meditation. In certain Oriental and mystical traditions, in Buddhism for example, this discipline can attain almost unbelievable degrees of abstraction and intensity. Analytic methods, stringent formal consequentiality can be imparted and refined in the training of mathematicians, of logicians, of computer programmers and chess- masters. To prevent children from learning by heart is to lame, perhaps permanently, the muscles of the mind. Thus there is much in cerebral skills, in developed receptivity and interpretation which can be heightened and enriched by teaching and practice.
But so far as we know, there is no pedagogic key to the creative. Innovative, transformative thought, in the arts as in the sciences, in philosophy as in political t\heory, seems to originate in "collisions," in quantum leaps at the interface between the subconscious and the conscious, between the formal and the organic in a play and "electric" art of psychosomatic agencies largely inaccessible both to our will and our comprehension. The empowering media can be taught-musical notation, syntax and metrics, mathematical symbolism and conventions, the mixing of pigments. But the metamorphic use of these means towards novel configurations of meaning and mappings of human possibility, towards a vita nuova of belief and feeling, can neither be predicted nor institutionalized. There is no democracy to genius, only a terrible injustice and lifethreatening burden. There are the few, as Hlderlin said, who are compelled to catch lightning in their bare hands.
This imbalance, along with its consequences, the maladjustment of great thought and creativity to ideals of social justice, is a ninth source of melancholy (Melancholie).
French and German grammar help. They allow us to elide the preposition between the verb "to think" and its object. We are not constrained to think "about" this or that. We can "think it" immediately, without interposition. Das Leben denken ("to think life"); penser le destin ("to think destiny"). The force of this idiom is seductive. But it posits, inescapably, the epistemological uncertainty or duality which I referred to previously. Does the grammatical immediacy point to some mode of solipsism, to the supposition that the objects of thought are the dependent product of the act of thinking (as in Kant)? Or does the elision of any intermediate term authorize the belief that the object of thought has autonomy, that at certain levels of unimpeded focus human thought-acts do penetrate, do fully grasp that which they conceive or conceive of-the difference between these two marking precisely the alternative paths which philosophy has taken in the west? French and German grammatical fusions leave the issue of idealism as against realism open. Characteristically, English usage enforces a choice. It internalizes a fundamental, robust empiricism. The world is "thought about," not "thought" in some mirroring motion of transcendental autism. Everyday French and German do communicate this common-sense option. Je pense , ich denke an. But philosophic and poetic discourse, notably from Master Eckhardt to Heidegger, enlists the possibility of symbiosis. This, perhaps, is the differentiation between philosophic-linguistic mentalities, between conventions of perception on either side of the Channel or between the European continent and North America (Emerson being an eminent exception). Here also is the locus of certain elemental untranslatabilities.
The "prime numbers" which thought addresses are constants, circumscribing our humanity. They are or ought to be supremely obvious. What is it "to be" and is it not, as Heidegger urges, the essential task of thought "to think (about) being"? To discriminate between multiple phenomenal existentiality and the facticity of things on the one hand and the concealed core of the essence of being (Seyn) itself. Why is there not nothing-Leibniz's resounding challenge-should be the concern of thought-acts as primordial, as original, i.e. arising out of our origins, as is human life itself. Can we, contra Parmenides, think, conceptualize nothingness? It may be that every attempt to "think death"-a lamentably awkward phrasing in English-to think consequently about death, is a variant on this enigma of nullity. Innumerable creeds, mythologies, fantasies of transcendence are elaborations of thought-experiments which bear on death. Zero, our being made a vacuum, is to most of us "unthinkable" in both the emotional and logical sense of the word. From this stems the manifold architecture of myth and metaphor (many metaphors are concentrates of myth). Itself in perpetual motion and activity, human thought seems to abhor emptiness. It generates archetypally more or less consoling fictions of survival. Like a frightened child whistling, shouting in the dark we labor to avoid the black hole of nothingness. We do so even when the resulting scenarios are insultingly puerile and mere kitsch (those Elysian pastures and celestial choirs, those seventy-two virgins awaiting the martyrs for Islam).
Both spheres of thought, that of being and that of death, have been interpreted as sub-species of the never-ending efforts of the human intellect, of mortal consciousness, to think about, to "think" God. To attach to that monosyllable credible intelligibility. Plausibly, homo became sapiens, and cerebral processes evolved beyond reflex and bare instinct when the God-question arose. When linguistic means allowed the formulation of that question. It is conceivable that higher forms of animal life skirt the realization, the mystery of their own deaths. The matter of God looks to be specific and singular to the human species. We are the creature empowered to affirm or deny the existence of God. We had our spiritual beginnings "in the Word." The fervent believer and the categorical atheist share an understanding of the issue. The hovering agnostic does not deny the question. The simple claim "I have never heard of God" would be felt to be absurd. Existence and death, as these pertain to "God", are the perennial objects of human thought where that thought is not indifferent to the enigma of human identity, to our presence in some kind of world. We are-the famous ergo sum-in so far as we endeavor to "think being,""non-being" (death) and the relation of these polarities to the presence or absence, to the anthropomorphically phrased life or death of God. The partial recession of this concern from public and private affairs in the developed technocracies of the west, a recession antagonistic to the angry tides of fundamentalism, pervades our current political and ideological situation. A tolerant agnosticism demands ironic maturities, "negative capabilities" as Keats called them, difficult to muster. The savage simplifications... [ incomplete ]
This selection is, unfortunately, incomplete. You can purchase access to the piece online. There is a nice summary by Philip Lopate (discovered via The Untold Want) in To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction: [format edited]
George Steiner wrote an essay that he entitled "Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought."
The first reason he gave was that "thought is infinite," though because it is subject to doubt or (to use Steiner's words) "internal contradiction for which there can be no resolution," it is an "incomplete infinity."
His second was that thought is uncontrolled, involuntary, and disorganized.
The third is that thought isolates us: no one can read our minds or think our thoughts for us. (Notice, by the way, that each of the reasons Steiner offers for why thought makes us sad could just as easily be cause for celebration.) At the same time, he says, as thought cuts the individual off from others, almost everything an individual thinks is banal, unoriginal, hence, the worst of both worlds.
Steiner’s fourth reason is that there is an inherent collision between rational demands for thought to have one truthful, verifiable meaning and the tendency of language to suggest ambiguous, evasive, multiple meanings.
The fifth reason is that thought is incredibly wasteful; even Einstein claimed he had only two ideas in his entire life and the rest was dross.
The sixth reason thought makes us sad is that it causes us to have fantasies and unrealistic expectations which are then frustrated or disappointed by reality.
Seventh reason: we cannot arrest thought, it keeps going incessantly, like our heartbeat, veiling as much as it reveals.
Eighth reason; thinking keeps us strangers from one another, prevents empathy. (l believe Steiner has started to repeat himself at this point.)
Ninth reason; the enormous disparity between clever people and dull-wittcd ones, and the near impossibility of teaching skills of original thinking, leads to elitism and profound social injustice.
And the tenth reason, as David Letterman might say: the capacity for thought shows its limits as soon as one tries to brood over the most important questions, such as Being, Death, or God, and leads us into a glib agnosticism or a dangerous religious fundamentalism.