Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska... 'Make it new'
It happened in a moment - an epiphany. Yet, but for the fiction, the question would not have been asked. Nietzsche thought the same of Christic-Judaism. Not to have bought the fiction would have meant unquestioning acceptance. As it was, the question had to be asked.
What am I?
I had greedily devoured the words of the prophet Marx who preached that matter comes before mind. Understood in this sweet simplicity, we could all start afresh, on an equal footing, because we are all the same blank slates. The slates could be wiped clean. All the other learning was now just chalk on a damp cloth.
I am the sum total of the influences upon me, I thought then. Where else can ideas and imagination come from? The gods? How could anyone ever have thought that? Prophet Marx knew why - for succour in a life of struggle, oppression and adversity. In short, we need opium.
But science wipes the slate clean. We were infants, but now we know better; we being the Marxists. And now we are all Marxists.
Yet but for the starkness of the science, the unforgiving and intolerant clarity, the question would never have been asked. Nietzsche was right on this point. In that moment of epiphany, the question arose.
What am I?
Answer me Locke. Answer me Marx. Am I merely that slate to be scribbled upon? Am I just an empty vessel, a shell, to be filled with the junk into which I accidentally collide? If so, what is asking the question? The slate? Are the contents of the vessel asking the question?
The slate or, to use a better analogy, the sponge, is wholly passive, inert. In other words is dead, null and void, nothing. It cannot be a thinking me. And the contents of the vessel are certainly not me.
Where does this leave the thing called me? The product of genes and the environment, functions of complexes and familial trauma, inextricably dependent on external contingencies. That’s what Marx would say. That’s what Freud would say.
If I was thrust at birth as an empty vessel, a sponge, into a prefabricated world, then could there be a more cruel and stultifying fiction than feelings of selfhood.
Because wholly passive we are nothing. At best our responses to external stimuli are instinctive. At best we are beasts.
Except for the knee-jerk responses we are static. Culturally we are static. ‘Make it new’ instructed Pound. Clear away the old, planned Le Corbusier. Instead we repurpose the old. We dig up the past in an obsession with facts rather than new knowledge. Facts from history, facts from nature, facts about lives. Biography, biography, all is biography. Association with the great is taken for being great and the mere collation of facts is mistaken for wisdom. The rise of the expert has marked the fall of knowledge.
© John Dunn.