Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Here Be Dragons

According to Jose Ortiz, my old anthropology professor, the Tewa Indians inhabit a rectangular sacred universe bounded by four mountain peaks. The finitude of their world, however, does not preclude them from dealing with outsiders; and Indian truck drivers routinely drive their rigs to Chicago and other nonplaces without being particularly impressed with the feat. Evidently a “world,” though perhaps emotively and cognitively more, is also something less, and worlds come into being not by some miraculous positive act but by a drastic truncation of experience.

The rabbis often spoke of creation in this negative way. God made the world by limiting his own omnipotence, by shrinking back and thus leaving room for lesser beings. That’s the sense of the “let” in “let there be light.” Whether this is an adequate explanation of the presence of things, it works very well as an explanation of the origin of Judaism and other religions. The canonical Jewish Bible, for example, is the result of a wholesale massacre of pre-existing texts, the domestication and emasculation of the remnant by arbitrary editing, and the policing of the pacified book by orthodox methods of interpretation. The parts of scripture are vastly greater than the whole, but they don’t add up to the foundations of a faith, which is to say they don’t subtract up.

A technical note: in the unread wastelands of the third part of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant attempted to define the concept of God. Leaving out the details, Kant’s account makes God the set of all sets, a being we conceptualize through the infinite disjunction “A or B or C or…” Kant’s notion is not untraditional, despite the terminological unfamiliarity. After all, the ancients engraved on the statute of the Goddess Isis, “I am all that is, or was, or will be; and no one has lifted my veil.” Same idea. And Kant’s God concept works very well in the context of Jewish thinking about creation as shrinking or even the Tewa view of the metaphysical status of Chicago. The only problem with this approach is that the set of all sets in a non-thing that cannot be. You can find the proof of this fact in any treatise on set theory—I recommend Na├»ve Set Theory by Paul Halmos, if you’re interested. Of course the mere fact that a thing cannot exist doesn’t prevent us from giving it a name or even from calling it the Name, ha Shem in Hebrew.

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