The Burning Questions

I’ve had an interest in philosophy since my teen years, and I had my first panic attack about the impossibility of infinity before I was ten, so I’m no stranger to the burning desire for knowledge that has consumed so much of my life and so much of the world throughout history. I’ve often found myself asking what we can learn by studying the past, from science and religion, from the universe itself, and from looking toward a transhuman, post-singularity future.

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It wasn’t until I reached college that I first encountered a physical manifestation of what I call these burning questions. In an art history class at JMU, the professor showed us slides of a painting called Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin. In my search for meaning I’ve so often struggled just to find the questions, let alone the answers. But when I saw the painting, those three questions became the primary mantra in my search for meaning in my life and in the universe itself.

The search for knowledge is maddening. Why are the answers to the questions which seem so vital to our very existence so impossibly elusive? The closer we get to the truth, the blurrier it becomes. If only we had a massive pair of communal reading glasses.

In thinking about the past, the “Where Do We Come From?”, I wonder if we have Adam and Eve to blame for devouring any knowledge fit for humanity, digesting it, and turning it into excrement. If there was a tree of knowledge growing in my garden, I wouldn’t think twice about rebelling against the powers that be for a taste of what’s behind the veil. Rules are meant to be broken, right? Maybe I’d be struck by a divine bolt for my insubordination, but why go to the trouble of planting a knowledge tree if its fruits aren’t meant to do anything more than fall to the ground and rot?

I’ve always been an avid reader and looked to books for my primary source of answers. At the same time, I have an understanding that those answers aren’t in any book, because there most likely aren’t any answers. But recently the maddening thirst for knowledge has hit me with full force, regardless of how much or little I think I understand about the way the world turns. This summer I’ve been devouring books at an alarming rate, usually at least a couple a week, searching the pages for answers, and then, without pause, tearing into the next book, desperately hoping to get a little closer to some universal truth.

Obviously I haven’t come across the meaning of life. I promise I’d share it with you if I had. And if you have, please let me know so I can go back to reading at a leisurely pace. Just leave your insight in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to note your insight and shelve the books so I can go back (as if I was ever there) to sanity.

I’ve also been reading a lot about immortality and transhumanism, thinking about the Where are We Going? question. I haven’t really been seeking these books out, they’ve been finding me.

I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know the answer to any of the burning questions. But I still ask them. I still madly scour the pages of book after book, Untitledlooking, I guess, not for answers, but for reassurance that it is okay not to have the answers. That not knowing is fine. That it is good. That it is the way the universe is designed and maybe the meaning is wrapped up in that unknown, a wrapping paper tessellated with question marks. I mean, what’s the point of existing in the first place if everything’s already figured out? Why go through the motions?

But I digress. In all the reading I’ve been doing this summer, one passage in particular jumped out and smacked me across the face, leaving my ears ringing with the sound of one hand clapping. So while I may not have any answers, I’m stabilizing again as I’m reminded that the human concept of meaning might just be the greatest barrier between us and understanding our place in the universe.

Here’s the passage, which is from Another Roadside Attraction:

“But seriously, if life has no meaning—”

“To say it has no meaning is not to say it has no value.”

“But to say it’s all meaningless. Isn’t that a cop-out?”

“Maybe. But it seems to me that the real cop-out is to say that the universe has meaning but that we ‘mere mortals’ are incapable of ever knowing that meaning. Mystery is part of nature’s style, that’s all. It’s the Infinite Goof. It’s meaning that is of no meaning. That paradox is the key to the meaning of meaning. To look for meaning—or the lack of it—in things is a game played by beings of limited consciousness. Behind everything in life is a process that is beyond meaning. Not beyond understanding, mind you, but beyond meaning.” – Tom Robbins

 

 

 

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Re-reading

I recently started re-reading my favourite book, as I do every few years. This is my fourth time, the first being when I bought my well-loved hardback copy of the original 1984 print at a used bookstore in Urbana-Champaign while visiting my sister in 2003.

A lot has happened since I last read this book and I was worried I’d changed so much I would no longer recognize what my past selves loved so much about it. This same fear read over my shoulder on my third read too, but it proved to be unfounded, both last time, and again now. I can confidently say that Jitterbug Perfume is still my favourite book.

Since the last time I read this book, I’ve moved to a different country and pushed myself through the square hole of an MFA program where I learned a lot about the craft of writing and how to be irrationally critical. As a result, I (surprise!) found myself being much more critical than I was on my first or even third reads, especially at the beginning of the book. But as I neared the end I continued to re-discover what I loved so much about this book, and also to find new things to love about it. More about that here.

Jitterbug_PerfumeSo why do I keep coming back to this book?

Is it the fantastical element of mortals becoming immortal, gods on the verge of death? Is it the humour, or the bizarre characters and plot? I love the bizarre, enlightening humour of all of Tom Robbins’ books, the way they invigorate me with a curiosity of the world around me and a passion for life, the way they open my mind while making me laugh, and venture into dark territory without ever dragging down that joie de vivre.

But here, in Jitterbug Perfume, all of these elements combine perfectly to create my favourite book four times over (and counting). As I look at the other books on my shelf (the ones that I’ve read and loved a couple times, the ones I’ve studied for class, and the ones I’ve read instead of the ones I was supposed to be reading for class), they all have wonderful elements and ideas that excite me, but none are as full-bodied and satisfying as Jitterbug Perfume, a book which both satiates my desire for fun, for knowledge, for imagination, and for magic, yet still leaves me hungry for more.

Happy Fourth

I realized today that this is the fourth 4th I’ve spent outside the US. The first was when I was in Ireland for the summer of 2007, and the other three are the last few years which I’ve spent in Canada. Earlier this week was Canada Day (July 1) which is like the Fourth of July but with only red and white and no blue.

I have mixed feelings about the US as I do about most things (I’m an overthinker). It is a country that I’ve watched turn away my friends and loved ones while others cross the border illegally every day. But it is my homeland, and I am grateful to the US for all of its great qualities: its diverse landscapes and peoplescapes, its refusal to be anything but itself.

I am also grateful to Canada for the opposite reason. It is content to be another country in the world without having to claim it is the only country in the world. It cohabits the continent and the world like a friendly neighbor who offers you a cup of sugar before you have to ask. On the other hand, the US wants to build fences along its borders to keep the neighbors the hell off its lawn while it continues to invade other neighborhoods (usually with good intention) – it is a statement that says “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine as well.”

Sometimes this concerns me, like when I see the buzzfeed lists of why America is the greatest country ever. I know its a joke, but I also know it isn’t. And I saw a similar post about why Canada is better than the US this Canada Day and that concerned me too. As Canada grows and matures, is it hitting the adolescent arrogance of the US?

With age and time comes perspective. I sometimes miss not living at the center stage of the world, the focus of the universe, having access to all the stores and websites and getting everything first. (Those of you reading this in the US–you wouldn’t believe the reputation of coveted things like “American Netflix” which has access to more and better shows and movies than its lesser versions around the world.) But I’ve never really liked being at the center of attention, which is why I write my words more often than I speak them.

There is something to be said for the grandness that is America. While anyone or anything claiming to be the greatest in the world makes me wary at best, today is a day to put those feelings aside and remember what a great country the US truly is. It birthed most of the wonderful people I know and love. I must remind myself that that adolescent arrogance has lessons to teach me about pride and confidence and taking ownership myself and what I hold dear.

So today I put my overthinking and my mixed feelings aside, and I say, “Happy Fourth of July!”