Sunday, December 03, 2006

Explanation by Existence

A surprising amount of people arrive here following a Google search for, e.g. "trial by existence meaning." Surprising, because I didn't expect anybody to actually know the obscure Frost poem I named my blog after. I only happened upon it myself while reading randomly through my Frost anthology.

I don't know if you're researching English papers or what, but here's what it means.

Nozick described his state of nature theory thus:

State-of-nature explanations of the political realm are fundamental . . . even if incorrect. We learn much by seeing how the state could have arisen, even if it didn't arise that way. If it didn't arise that way, we also would learn much by determining why it didn't; by trying to explain why the particular bit of the real world that diverges from the state-of-nature model is as it is.


If a state arises differently than the state of nature tale, our current state is "process-deficient."

EVEN the bravest that are slain
Shall not dissemble their surprise
On waking to find valor reign,
Even as on earth, in paradise;
And where they sought without the sword
Wide fields of asphodel fore’er,
To find that the utmost reward
Of daring should be still to dare.


Well, Frost's poem about angels returning to earth, is, in the same fashion, a fundamental explanation of life. It may not be true, and it may not have really happened, but it could have. The trial by existence is a process-deficient explanation of life. Things may not have happened that way--in all likelihood we did not choose the life we currently live while in heaven, and God did not lovingly send us here--but, if it had happened that way, it would have made sense. And that Frost provided an explanation for the universe that makes sense is important in itself.

Why does it make sense?

I wondered what Heaven was like. When very young, it was a childish place, with clouds and winged folk wandering about. Over time I took the idea of Heaven as perfection more seriously. Heaven would have to be a very individual thing, full of experiences tailored to the particular soul.

The angel hosts with freshness go,
And seek with laughter what to brave;—
And binding all is the hushed snow
Of the far-distant breaking wave.


My view of Heaven grew more amorphous as it grew more personal. For me, friends were there--adventures were there. Everything good. That lasted for a time, but, thought I, wouldn't complete bliss get boring? Boredom hardly sounds like a pleasing way to spend eternity--if Heaven's all it's cracked up to be, maybe we'd need some sadness to keep things from devolving into boredom.

But if a little sadness is good, why restrict it to that? Pain is good after a fashion--obstacles are good too: they feel good to overcome. Challenges are good. Complete misery can even be desirable--it makes us more real, marks important events, makes happiness brighter in comparison. And risk--what makes life exciting is the risk of pain and defeat and death.

The tale of earth’s unhonored things
Sounds nobler there than ’neath the sun;


If Heaven's perfect, it's going to have all these things in some ratio.

Of course, by now, our view of Heaven looks a lot like Earth. Life is Heaven. And if life is Heaven, then what's left for Heaven itself? Maybe a pit stop, a place where we enjoy omnipotence--but only for a while. We will need our challenges and risks.

The only way for risks to be meaningful is to give up our omnipotence. The only way to live is to give that up.

And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.


Once we get to Heaven, in time, there's nothing to do but go back.

But if we arrived on Earth knowing that perfection was waiting for us, we'd realize the risk was illusionary. If we knew this was all a passing dream, we wouldn't care for the outcome in the deep way that mortality makes us care. To live, we'd need to be ignorant of what was to come, of the truth. Life depends on not being omnipotent, not being omniscient, not being God.

But always God speaks at the end:
’One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have by for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.’


So we come back, forever and forever, forgetting perfection, because the ignorance is, quite simply, life. So here we are, caught in a perpetual maelstrom between perfection and imperfection, made tolerable, made beautiful, by our faulty memories.


‘Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.

2 comments:

Scoplaw said...

*Great* reading, Scott.

I thought I'd refer you to this poem as well, "The Afterlife" by Billy Collins. Everyone is right, as it turns out.


While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,
while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

Shan said...

It is interesting how the way you described the discovery of your blog is exactly how I stumbled on to this page :) thanks for your input on the poem!