03 December, 2006

The Unknown Object: suite et fin

These are the natures which have false opinion; for when they see or hear or think of anything, they are slow in assigning the right objects to the right impressions—in their stupidity they confuse them, and are apt to see and hear and think amiss—and such men are said to be deceived in their knowledge of objects, and ignorant.
The unknown object is one of the central problems of Plato's Theaetetus, a late dialogue. It takes many forms: rational and sensory objects, elements and compounds, unmet and unrecalled. The dialogue was not an early favourite, like the Symposium, or the Timaeus; its concerns were not really reawakened until Descartes, who made the unknown object one of the criteria of doubt in his first Meditation. Since that time, the knowing and unknowing of things—now called epistemology—has replaced metaphysics at the heart of philosophical discourse. And to the philosophers the world has grown increasingly unknown, hazier and hazier behind a gauze of language. They are less likely to claim knowledge of the liknon, concealed and mythical not only as fan, but as van, corb, basket, creel and shaul, to mention only its English names.

Jane Harrison was still a primitive. We might study her mind now as something lucid, limpid, uncluttered with scepticism, a mind, as I have said, in love with the objects and truths of the past, straining to reconstruct an ancient world. Now we struggle even to reconstruct the present world. Do you see the same object as me? How might we even discover the answer? Odysseus to us is wily, panourgios—he is a beggar, and nobody—oudeis, but also me tis, wisdom—and we cast about as if blinded with a stake.

The fan was an easy problem to solve, if indeed it has been solved. And we were all delighted to discover a problem with such a ready and satisfying solution—and one which exposed so great a wealth of nerves and networks through our shared cultural history. Let this, then, be our final irony—that the fan, far from being an unknown object, is the most known of objects. We return to the land, from where we came, and no pleasure seems so rapturous as to know something whole. The land, for which yearn the Harrisons and Marxes among us, and within us, this is where things are known, clearly, without pomp or pretense. There is no need for obscurist philology when you have in your hand a winnowing-fan.

At these times I cannot help but feel that it is not only the processes of man and nature that have been kept from me, in my city, and in my urbanity—it is also the truth, and the sense of its possession. What vanity, we! I dare confess that I have succumbed, after all, to that naïve lament of the civilised, so seductive. But perhaps you will not begrudge my eyes a little mist, just a little.

No comments: