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To hold in a single thought

May 10, 2013

From W.B. Yeats’s Introduction to A Vision:

Some will ask if I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon. Those that include, now all recorded time in one circuit, now what Blake called ‘the pulsation of an artery’, are plainly symbolical, but what of those that fixed, like a butterfly upon a pin, to our central date, the first day of our Era, divide actual history into periods of equal length? To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.

But how can art hold in a single thought reality and justice? A related problem: how can it hold in a single thought beauty and truth? How to yoke together the polaroids of Andrei Tarkovsky and Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics?

Andrei Tarkovsky polaroid

If I say ‘I wonder at the existence of the world’ I am misusing language. Let me explain this: It has a perfectly good and clear sense to say that I wonder at something being the case, we all understand what it means to say that I wonder at the size of a dog which is bigger than any one I have ever seen before or at any thing which, in the common sense of the word, is extraordinary. In every such case I wonder at something being the case which I could conceive not to be the case. I wonder at the size of this dog because I could conceive of a dog of another, namely the ordinary size, at which I should not wonder. To say ‘I wonder at such and such being the case’ has only sense if I can imagine it not to be the case.

In this sense one can wonder at the existence of, say, a house when one sees it and has not visited it for a long time and has imagined that it had been pulled down in the meantime. But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing.

I could of course wonder at the world round me being as it is. If for instance I had this experience while looking into the blue sky, I could wonder at the sky being blue as opposed to the case when it’s clouded. But that’s not what I mean. I am wondering at the sky being whatever it is. One might be tempted to say that what I am wondering at is a tautology, namely at the sky being blue or not blue. But then it’s just nonsense to say that one is wondering at a tautology.

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