by Aubergine de Marche
|To imagine that our birth marks
our beginning is nothing but a pretty piece of folly. Everyone is born into
the midst of someone else’s life and is made of stuff he never owned and cannot
keep. The more we think about where we begin and where we end, the harder
it is to say that we ever begin or end at all. |
—Chapter 1, “In Media Res”
|I have been asked how I came to know the great scholar and philosopher
Taylor Frazota. I first came under his tutelage when I was eleven years
old. He taught my sister and me for just a year before the War came; in
1914 he became one of thousands of Canadian pilots to be recruited by Britain's
Royal Flying Corps, and he served in Europe for the duration. Afterward
he did not resume his post as a private tutor but joined the faculty of an obscure
private school in Maine near the New Brunswick border. My father remained
in contact with him and arranged for me to study with him for another two years
before I went on to university. That was the end of my formal schooling
with him; but he continued to teach me. Indeed, he taught me without ceasing
from the day we met, and he teaches me still, though he has been gone from life
these twenty-five years. |
—Chapter 1, “In Media Res”
|In fact, that is one of those ideas that I find I must ponder for a long
while. I put it on to cook, and it simmers away on its own, sometimes for
years. Every so often I lift the lid, give it a stir, maybe taste the broth.
Perhaps I add a little seasoning or drop in another chunk of potato or carrot.
I would not be flattering you unduly if I said that the question you have just
posed to me is a parsnip of respectable proportions. |
—From a letter to Ashtoreth Wallace, excerpted in Chapter 5, “A Long Way from Soup”
|“O blessed Weed,” I thought.
For in that moment I had come to a way of seeing that was at once full of wonder
and also, to my mind, stout and hardy in its realism. I was gazing upon
a blade of common crabgrass, one of many, alas, to sprout where I was envisioning
my future garden, and what I saw was the process of its embodiment. The
grass had literally given itself a body made of soil and sun and water, transforming
them by its nature to its nature, in utter fidelity to the botanical
truth of its seed. Thus did I comprehend its dharma, to the extent
that my dharma allowed. |
Upon that recognition followed the certitude that the grass, blade and stalk and root, could not be other than what it was, and that what it was had no dependency upon my perception. And so, full of admiration for this honest eruption of vegetable life, I mentally addressed it thus: “O blessed Weed.”
In the next instant, as I savored this fragrant thought, I caught the sour whiff of self-congratulation. It came to me then that my notion of the weed’s faithfulness to the nature of its seed depended upon my assumption that I knew the nature of its seed. And what did I know of its seed? Why, only the plant at my feet. I had not examined the seed, and if I had, not being a scientist, I would not have been qualified to predict from its appearance what character it would have in its mature growth.
Given that I had inferred the prior existence of a crabgrass seed from the presence of the crabgrass, it no longer seemed such a miracle to find them in perfect accord with one another. In fact, for all that I knew of the matter, I might have been looking at the product of a hyacinth seed or a skunk cabbage seed or a hemlock seed that had been perverted or reconstituted by circumstance or force of will. What do we know of the true natures of things? Presumption of the constancy of botanical principle might be solidly founded in the world of recorded observation, but for me as a layman, my relationship to that principle is a matter not of knowledge but of faith: I have taken the word of those who claimed to know, as taught to me by those who have been entrusted by our societal structures with the responsibility of indoctrinating the young, and have no more examined it for myself and subjected it to proving tests than I have done with assertions about the nature of the universe or the acts of a god.
For practical purposes, in order to add to and profit from the store of useful understanding and not require of everyone the rediscovery of all phenomena and the abstractions appertaining thereto, we must transmit conclusions and not just empirical data; but we must then also understand that what we commonly call knowledge is, to all but the few, actually received wisdom taken on faith.
What I knew then was that this increasingly less delightful blade of crabgrass had—not by its own deed but by the activity of my mind (which I believed could be removed from proximity to the blade of grass without altering the grass—yet another matter of belief and not a proved effect)—simply raised a mirror to me. In it I had seen and thrilled to see the image of my own profundity. What it showed me now was vanity and more than a little vernal sentimentality brought on by a softening of the air. And these too were products of my mind: I had not yet seen the grass.
As to the question of whether the blessed weed persisted in the absence of my perception, one smart yank took care of that.
—Chapter 11, “Mirrors and Windows”
|The ideal is present in the real in the same way that a pencil stroke
evokes a straight line or a candle remembers its parent the sun. Of all
the things that might have their home in this wicked world, there is only one
that feels perpetually ill at ease, a perennial visitor with no known residence,
and that is perfection. In the material world we cannot speak of it except metaphorically.
When we appeal to an ideal of perfection, then, are we positing another world? No. We are simply exercising our capacity for abstraction. Plato’s realm of ideals has existence only within the human mind; like everything else we can conceive, knowable or unknowable, it depicts one thing and one thing only: ourselves.
—Chapter 16, “Visine for the Third Eye”
|I showed them their freedom, and they, being human, chose servility.
—Chapter 22, “The Shadow of Ozymandias”
|In the end all human endeavor, without exception, will come to grief.
The formulation is mine, but the teaching was his. What he meant by this was that anything man-made, whether physical structure or social institution or human bond, anything conceived and forged by a human being will ultimately meet its end. Just as human beings do. Just as all things do.
Many have read this as a statement of pessimism, an assertion that all we do is doomed to failure. Not so, no more than to say that the collapse of a precipice to the valley floor is a failure of the mountain, no more than to say that the end of a spring shower is a failure of the rain or the fading of a blossom is a failure of the rose bush. It is simply that nothing we do will last forever. Neither will anything else. Its form changes beyond the point where it can bear the same name, and we—that is, human beings with human perceptions, biases, and habits of thought—see that loss of name as the end of an existence. It is the act of labeling a thing that gives rise to the notion that the thing is gone when it can no longer sustain the label.
Like many of his other teachings, this one seems to state the obvious. But Frazota literally meant for us to think, “This building will crumble. This complex human system will one day be dismantled or will atrophy. This roadway will one day be overgrown with weeds. This relationship will end.” And so it will. Who is there who can say otherwise? He was asking us to remember impermanence and take heart from it: we are thus in harmony with all existences.
Of my own accord I would add that if there is anything of man that seems to approach immortality, it would be that part of his creation that is of least substance, as transitory as breath: that is to say, his words.
—Chapter 22, “The Shadow of Ozymandias”
L'Essentiel Invisible [The Essential Invisible], by Aubergine de
Marche; Transl. Aubergine de Marche.
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