Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Feng Shui (Sweet Chariot?)

As near as I can remember, I encountered the very first idea I ever recognized as an idea in my sister’s paperback copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology book. Hamilton began by explaining that the Greeks didn’t think the Gods made the Universe, they believed the Universe made the Gods. That struck me as news and made a lasting impression. For most of my life, I’ve treated the belatedness of mind and form as an axiom, which is not to say I ever thought it was self-evident but simply that I chose to make it the foundation of my thinking. It was the bet I made. I look at things of special value—plants, animals, the human race, even divinities (as I understand them)—as instances, not of emergence from some pre-existing chamber of souls, but of a fortunate and unprecedented coming together. In this respect I am a pagan of sorts, though, contrary to Edith Hamilton, not even all the ancient pagans made the same wager and thinkers from other traditions adhere to an analogous (non) creation myth—I’m thinking of the sublimely prosaic Taoist notion of the Great Clod, a primal but homely entity traditionally symbolized by the won ton in the soup on Chinese New Year.

My view of life, or at least its Hellenic prototype, is sometimes dismissed as animism, but animism it is not if by animism you mean the belief that the surprising liveliness of the world is the result of the action of pre-existing spirits. Things may be full of Gods, as Thales remarked one fateful night at some Ionian bar; but such postulated entities—seminal reasons, divine sparks, entelechies, bacteria on meteorites—merely postpone the question of how one accounts for order. Indeed, like traditional theism, belief that life and sentience can only result from the actions of something already alive and sentient is just another way of saying that the important things are and will always be inexplicable. An explanation, after all, requires that something depend upon something different—you can’t properly explain why an object is green by pointing out that it is made of little green parts. Of course it may be that the appearance of intelligence in the world really is inexplicable. I certainly don’t know that it isn’t; and, in any case, I agree with Wittgenstein that explanations have to have an end, if only at the point where we lose interest. It seems to me, however, that for some centuries now the evidence has been piling up on my side of the issue.

I was reminded of these questions by a scholarly monograph on Greek Nymphs I recently found on a remainder table. The book reminded me on the aesthetic appeal of the old paganism, its sensitivity to the magical qualities of special places. Nymphs, associated with groves, mountains, caves, fountains, and other beguiling locations, figure numinous powers, neither immortal nor human, that arise from the accidents of land and water. The Greeks were exceedingly sensitive to such phenomena—Vincent Scully’s work on the relationship of Greek temples to their geographical settings is very revealing on this score—and so am I. I feel the lay of the land in my own body and in fact respond to certain places as to a beautiful woman, thus suffering or enjoying the peculiar inspiration the Greeks called nympholepsy. The supposedly disenchanted have their own piety.

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