My second birth was on an island, far away in the distant sea. A whiff of salty sea air grazes my nostrils in a brief moment of nostalgia. I hear the echoing caws of the herons floating in the wind and see the islet that jutted from the depth of the sea and appeared always as a speck in the horizon. I’m standing in the doorway of the pink house, watching the clouds drift in as a hurricane approached. It was September, the time for hurricanes; for boarded up houses, and stocked up shelves, and emergency evacuations.
Still, in Billy Budd Melville anticipates Jean-Paul Sartre’s recognition that consciousness and moral responsibility are synonymous with an incessant, unalleviated encounter with nothingness. This is to say that the “for-itself” (i.e., perception defined by the awareness of not being what it perceives) sustains itself exclusively as a negation of the “in-itself” (i.e., the plenitude of mere matter or things.) In short, consciousness is negation: “[T]he pure event by which human reality rises as a presence in the world is apprehended by itself as its own lack. In coming into existence human reality grasps itself as an incomplete being. From this, Sartre deduces that consciousness is the incessant anguish of confronting possibilities, themselves contingent upon the mind’s perception of itself in antithesis to the definitive plenitude that would otherwise relieve consciousness of both its precarious lack and its freedom; indeed, “freedom in its foundation coincides with the nothingness which is at the heart of man…Thus freedom is not a being it is the being of man– i.e., his nothingness of being.”
“a long Habit of not thinking a Thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of Custom. But the Tumult soon subsides. Time makes more Converts than Reason.”
Ch. 1 – On the Origin and Design of Government
“Society is produced by our wants, , and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively, by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by controlling our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”
Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium. In general it is thought that the interestingness and novelty of the time-content are what “make the time pass”; that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness check and restrain its flow. This is only true with reservations. Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large timeunits, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all. And conversely, a full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone. Thus what we call tedium is rather an abnormal shortening of the time consequent upon monotony. Great spaces of time passed in unbroken uniformity tend to shrink together in a way to make the heart stop beating for fear; when one day is like all the others, then they are all like one; complete uniformity would make the longest life seem short, and as though it had stolen away from us unawares. Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, flow, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one “gets used to the place,” a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully—but only the first few, for one adjusts oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or—and this is a sign of low vitality—it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.
Technical progress, he said, gradually subjugated nature, by developing roads and telegraphs, minimizing climatic differences; and by the means of communication which it created proved itself the most reliable agent in the task of drawing together the peoples of the earth, of making them acquainted with each other, of building bridges to compromise, of destroying prejudice; of, actually, bringing about the universal brotherhood of man. Humanity had sprung from the depths of fear, darkness, and hatred; but it was emerging, it was moving onward and upward, toward a goal of fellow-feeling and enlightenment, of goodness and joyousness; and upon this path, he said, the industrial arts were the vehicle conducive to the greatest progress.
“There you have it, gentlemen, there you have it!” Settembrini cried with ardour, and enlarged upon the cult of the “word,” the art of eloquence, which he called the triumph of the human genius. For the word was the glory of mankind, it alone imparted dignity to life. Not only was humanism bound up with the word, and with literature, but so also was humanity itself, man’s ancient dignity and manly self respect (“You heard, didn’t you,” Hans Castorp said later to his cousin, “you heard him say that literature is a question of beautiful words? I spotted it directly”), from which it followed that politics too is bound up with the word. Or, rather, it followed directly from the union, the unity that subsisted between humanity and literature, for the beautiful word begets the beautiful deed.
For writing well was almost the same as thinking well, and thinking well was the next thing to acting well. All moral discipline, all moral perfection derived from the soul of literature, from the soul of human dignity, which was the moving spirit of both humanity and politics. Yes, they were all one, one and the same force, one and the same idea, and all of them could be comprehended in one single word. This word? Ah, it was already familiar to their ears; yet he would wager the cousins had never before rightly grasped its meaning and its majesty: the word was—civilization!
“Keep quiet! I’m very clear-headed to-day. Well, then, what is time?” asked Hans Castorp, and bent the tip of his nose so far round that it became white and bloodless. “Can you answer me that? Space we perceive with our organs, with our senses of sight and touch. Good. But which is our organ of time—tell me that if you can. You see, that’s where you stick. But how can we possibly measure anything about which we actually know nothing, not even a single one of its properties? We say of time that it passes. Very good, let it pass. But to be able to measure it—wait a minute: to be susceptible of being measured, time must flow evenly, but who ever said it did that? As far as our consciousness is concerned it doesn’t, we only assume that it does, for the sake of convenience; and our units of measurement are purely arbitrary, sheer conventions—”
“In this world,” said Arcade, “in this world, which we call a cosmos, though it is but a microcosm, no thinking being can imagine that he is able to destroy even one atom. At the utmost, all we can hope for is that we shall succeed in modifying here and there, the rhythm of some group of atoms and the arrangement of certain cells. That, when one thinks of it, must be the limit of our great enterprise….Zita, is the evil in the nature of things or in their arrangement? That is what we ought to know. Zita, I am profoundly troubled–”
“Arcade,” replied Zita, “if to act we had to know the secret of Nature, one would never act at all. And neither would one live – since to live is to act.”
“Moreover,” added Arcade, “I freely acknowledge that it is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”
“You see then, replied Maurice, “that religion is necessary.”
“Moral law,” replied the angel, “which is supposed to be revealed to us, is drawn from reality from the grossest empiricism. Custom alone regulates morals. What heaven prescribes is merely the consecration of ancient customs. The divine law, promulgated amid fireworks on some Mount Sinai, is never anything but the codification of human prejudice. And from this fact – namely, that morals change – religions which endure for a long time, such as Judeo-Christianity, vary their moral law.”
“A book. Naturally, at first it would only be a troublesome, tiring work, it wouldn’t stop me from existing or feeling that I exist. But a time would come when the book would be written, when it would be behind me, and I think that a little of its clarity might fall over my past. Then, perhaps, because of it, I could remember my life without repugnance. Perhaps one day, thinking precisely of this hour, of this gloomy hour in which I wait, stooping, for it to be time to get on the train, perhaps I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself: “That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started.” And I might succeed —in the past, nothing but the past—in accepting myself.”