Charles Boardman on Goodnight Moon and the Permanent Expansion of the Unknown
Lev Shestov deserves a fuller treatment than can be given presently, but we summon him all the same. The Russian thinker shares more than the angle of the light with Charles Boardman, whose investigations into the Nothing, which is also to say into the I and into the is, we would like you to consider.
Like Boardman, Shestov was dissatisfied with, or at any rate unconvinced by, the various escape modules we humans have crafted and refined over the millennia to pretend away error, avoid confusion, and otherwise narrow the varieties of life. It is not a righteous dissatisfaction, I don’t think, so much as an unsettled one: whatever consolations we might have recourse to, our mortality leaves us in an uncomfortable position, not only with regard to our own imminent disappearance from reality, but in contrast to the apparent endurance of that reality, with or without us. It will always be there; we will not.
Czeslaw Miłosz tells us he was introduced to Shestov by a young woman, a Rumanian emigrant in Paris named Sorana Gurian, who at the time was dying of cancer. He’d asked about the books on her night table, which she spoke about, Miłosz recalled, “with that reticent ardor we reserve for what is most precious to us.”2 They were works in French translation by Lev Shestov, whom she urged Miłosz to read—circumstances that would inevitably color his reading. For what, he wondered, makes an author precious to someone about to die? And what was it about Shestov in particular? The philosopher offers little in the way of spiritual solace, and for consolation in general he seems to have had only scorn, especially with regard to the various humanist-materialist variants. He rejected Spinoza’s essentially stoicist advice, that a wise man should neither laugh nor weep nor hate, but understand—not because he valued sentiment over rationality, but because he saw the pretension to understanding as a kind of denial of the thing to be understood, a way of disregarding the actual human, i.e. the laughing, weeping, hating creature, in favor of an idea. Such “wisdom,” in Shestov’s view, inevitably places the knowledge of life—however generously, mercifully, charitably, righteously—above life itself. The formula isn’t wrong, but its rightness is complicit with what makes it unacceptable. Death, for instance. How to be wise, after all, in the face of death, whose fundamental property is not to be understood?
Most of what is known to one person is unknown to everyone else, so that something in us rejoices when the edges overlap. Absent such convergence (that is, most of the rest of the time), we seek comfort in our common ignorance—Who knows?—and clever as we are we tend to find it. Comfort. Throw a stone and see where in the vast lowlands of human judgment it comes to rest: day or night, young or old, great or small, good or evil, look around you and it’s mostly stones, and really mostly the same stone, clicking underfoot, giving texture to the surrounding weeds.
Not that the world is drab or uniform, but our ideas about it usually are, and somehow this doesn’t change the fact that we have a hard time dispensing with ideas. There is, we sense, something vibrant within us, and we want to join this vibrant something to what is vibrant in the wider world. We want to express ourselves, and we want our expressions to reach their intended audience—easier said than done! Or, perhaps, easier done than said, if we could ever forego the intervening necessity, before doing something, of naming it. We long for the real, yet we reflexively, and then deliberately and urgently, put as much distance and as many obstacles as possible between it and ourselves. We call these obstacles our ideas, and through the course of our lives they are most of what we have.
Put another way: a human comes awake into a mind that desires, dreams, and fears. This same human then attempts to resolve its experience into language, a process describing less a spiritual or philosophical problem than a psychological and therefore practical one: how, given these conditions—given that the puzzle of life is bounded by an inaccessible, inconceivable beginning and a certain but at the same time unknowable end—how am I to maintain under such circumstances even a rough approximation of sanity and happiness?
Enter ideas—and leave aside for the time being whether one actually produces them or only loosely recapitulates their broader points, accumulated over the years sometimes consciously, sometimes not. The idea will specify all terms and conditions, and then agree to them, however grudgingly, for ease and immediacy of use. But what is an idea? It is one of an infinity of possible relationships between reality and its subsets, one whose power (though not necessarily its usefulness) depends entirely on the form through which it is communicated and received. This form may or may not store the idea, but it is a prerequisite to articulating and therefore to having the idea at all. Of course, an idea is not always an obstacle to reality—a good one may even clarify it—but it remains a kind of superfluity, and therefore also an excellent means of walking off quickly and purposefully in the wrong direction.
What good are ideas then? As intermediaries between what we have experienced and what we have yet to experience, between what we perceive and what we envision, ideas serve both organizational and narrative functions. They lead to taxonomies and hierarchies of every kind; we use them to define and evaluate events; to create histories and futures; to consolidate individual and group identities; to establish standards, goals, taboos, limits. They are the root and primogenitor of all representation, and they share with their offspring the ability to reach beyond the immediately perceivable—whether by imagination or scientific correlation, and with greater or lesser rigor and deliberateness—to bring a larger reality—even the whole of reality, it is often claimed—into a form that can be grasped at once by a single mind.
That ideas could be essential to the human condition and at the same time superfluous to reality, probably qualifies as an oxymoron—but one that belongs less to reality than to the human condition within it. Maybe there is sanity to be had, even happiness, but it isn’t clear these states ever attain anything on the order of the true, the real, or the definitive. Why should they? The experience of human life is fundamentally subjective and multiple, while reality is fundamentally objective and singular. Both, however, are dynamic, and it is this dynamism that accounts for every religious and scientific confusion. The problem of what is knowable simply cannot be conflated with the question of what really, concretely is, and so an individual’s relationship to reality will always be mediated, in however minor—or apparently minor—a capacity, by faith.
Faith?! No! Oh, but yes. And why not have faith? Why not, moving from one end of the pool to the other, and having long ago learned to swim, why not trust that your body will in fact arrive, not only in theory but in reality, at its destination? Or where are you, really? Where here and where now, are you? And where were you then, and where will you go? If there are answers (and few in the second decade of the 21st century will admit the possibility of answers), surely they lie somewhere in the before or after—not here, not now, but some place and some time else. Whatever the so-called truth value of this intuition, it leaves an ache in the gut, often slight enough to be forgotten, yes, but tap it and it’s there. The Stoics counseled drawing a parallel between the abyss before existence and the one that follows, but even if this is good advice, it’s small relief to the human in love with life, who is alive, who does not believe in eternal or even temporary salvation, and who therefore sees in death both the nullity of action and the dull inevitability of non-existence.
Which brings us back to Charles Boardman, and back to Shestov:
If… we can do nothing for our own salvation… are forced to go, arms dangling, to our ruin without even trying to fight, what [possible and actual human] interests can still be in question? All interests have vanished; it remains for us only to look straight before us, with heart frozen.3
It is arguable, certainly, whether humankind is in general better-served by frozen hearts than beating ones, but leave that question for another time. For Shestov, in any case, the “campaign against intellect” was a critical one, and required not only a certain inclination of the will but also, naturally, an extremely refined intelligence, and no small heart. For Boardman—we’ll let him speak for himself.
The following talk was given on June 22nd, 2015, at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, OR, as part of the Curiosity Club’s ongoing Chautauqua-style lecture series. From the event’s website:
Throughout life human beings are presented with de facto “truths” that are actually totally erroneous. These untrue “truths” may come from pervasive misunderstandings within culture, they may be handed down through institutional systems like education, government or religion, and sometime they come straight from a trusted authority figure like a parent. Big or small, they deserve to be questioned!
We’ve asked a power panel of Curiosity Club alumni to share some of the best and worst “facts” that they’ve ever come across. They will discuss the historical situations that led to these misconceptions, the proof that these “truths” are actually false, and their thoughts and feelings on living these lies.
Boardman’s response to this challenge was to offer a “deconstructionist” reading of that most beloved of American children’s books, Goodnight Moon. The presentation, “Unknown Unknowns, or What the Bears Saw,” sets out to prove that the story is actually “a post-human meditation on the enslavement of carnivores to an all-powerful herbivore master race,” a waggish premise that quickly makes room for more solemn and disquieting considerations. As Shestov wrote, “A very clever man insists on an enormous absurdity, so I am satisfied.”4
We trust you will be, too.
- Miłosz, Czeslaw. Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. 103-4 ↩
- Ibid. 99-100 ↩
- Shestov, Lev. Athens and Jerusalem. Translated by Bernard Martin. Ohio University Press, 1966. 110. ↩
- Shestov, Lev. All Things Are Possible. Translated by S. S. Koteliansky. New York: R.M. McBride &, 1920. 183. ↩