Living: The Essay¶
“There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints which, without art, we can’t receive." — Saul Bellow
I have read many books in my life, searching for this ‘other reality’ scribbled out by various authors. I sought the secret everywhere and did the most silly things in my attempt to discover a way in. Until one day I stopped.
Five years ago, I wrote a very boring thesis on sincerity, singularity, and the ability we have to design the ways in which we read and write. In it, I argued that “self-conscious de-sign” gives us the chance to break with the frame of representation which binds all linguistic effort. Basically, language is only a representation of a representation of the thing itself – it is always, at best, two steps removed from that which is. Music is a direct representation of that which is, hence all art aspires to the condition of music.
However, if you use language in a self-conscious way, where the design of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it is inherently self-reflexive, you can de-sign the self; you can shift signification from the self-who-is-speaking to some larger and shared truth. Though this sounds complicated, there are historical examples. The Qur’an is the best and most direct: it changed the way Arabs living around the year 632 could describe and relate to their being-in-the-world, primarily through the inspired shifting of pronouns between speaker and God, i.e. self-conscious de-sign. It is a language-event – a linguistic singularity – in that it offers people the chance to encounter reality in a way previously unimaginable. The Qur’an, read sincerely, is a step function in that nebulous thing we like to call consciousness.
To me, the Qur’an is the ultimate step function, because it is encoded in language and so is infinitely dynamic while always containing a core meaning. It really is The Book of Truth. However, this does not mean that there have not been other singularities. I tried to show that singularity is not some specific point (i.e. when AGI surpasses human intelligence) after which nothing is the same: singularities occur regularly. The development of the printing press, for instance, was a mechanistic singularity. For the first time in modern Western history, the “Word of God” could be distributed widely to common people, in a language they could understand. This change in the hardware of civilisation gave people direct access to divine authority without needing the priest class to mediate.
What happened in South Africa in 1994, when the oppressed collectively decided to forgive their oppressors – rather than following the route taken in Rwanda that same year – was a political singularity, led by a few great men and women who came out of prison with their ability to love somehow enhanced, and based on a shared philosophy we call ubuntu. It allowed us to encounter otherness, and live with it, in ways we’re still trying to figure out. It is the reason I can write this today.
The appearance of Bitcoin in 2009 represents a technological and financial singularity. It created consensus in distributed communications and so gives ordinary people the ability to decide between themselves what is valuable, and how that value can move, without needing bankers or governments to mediate. In fact, given that it has to do not with the vertical relationship of humanity to divinity, but with horizontal relationships between human beings – i.e. it is transactional, rather than mythological – it is set to have a bigger historical impact in this world than purely linguistic singularities. It is both a network and a language, both hardware and software, and we are only beginning to see the impact of executable language run on shared and ownerless public infrastructure; Ethereum being the current leader.
A Grand Design¶
Let's take a step back: singularity is one thing, but truth and design must still be defined. These terms played into my obsession with the opening line of Rian Malan’s “My Traitor’s Heart”. It reads:
“I’m burned out and starving to death, so I’m just going to lay this all upon you and trust that you’re a visionary reader, because the grand design, such as it is, is going to be hard for you to see.”
Wow. What is this ‘grand design’? Why is it so hard to see? Why does it require a visionary reader? I kept asking these questions as I read more and dived deeper into the knots of myself. Reading with inner vision – with the heart’s eye – rather than academic division, requires sincerity. It is only if we take him at his word that we can recognise how Malan at once acknowledges that he can never tell the truth, yet his desire to have these bitter words heard as containing a truth which cannot be said is his ultimate truth.
This is the grand design. This is the truth, and you can experience it. But as soon as I say it, truth disappears in the representation of a representation to which language is always limited. Unless you drop cynicism for a moment and read sincerely what is being written here.
Salman Rushdie called Malan’s work “a triumphant instance of defeated love” and this – for me – is the whole thing in one phrase. We will always be defeated by this temporal and limited world. It is what we come here to learn: how to submit and let go of that which does not belong to us. It is in this act of final and utter submission that we can, by grace, find the endless love which links it all together. That is the definition of eucatastrophe. As Rushdie wrote elsewhere:
“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth . . . that they are, despite everything, acts of love.”
The Blue Book¶
I stopped reading all these books written by others and set out to live the truth of my own existence. It is no small task to experience the utter insignificance of your short time here, and how infinitely precious you really are. Here’s my truth, sincerely.
Sometimes I am arrogant, sometimes I am humble; sometimes I am misleading, sometimes inspired. More often than not I feel like I’m fumbling in the dark; just occasionally there is so much light I cannot see. Like Antjie Krog, the music of this broke-open life has become utterly haunting:
“And I wonder: God. Does he hear us? Does He know what our hearts are yearning for? That we all just want to be human – some with more colour, some with less, but all with air and sun. And I wade into song – in a language that is not mine, in a tongue I do not know. It is fragrant inside the song, and among the keynotes of sorrow and suffering there are soft silences where we who belong to this landscape, all of us, can come to rest.
Sometimes the times we live in overflow with light.”
Having stopped reading such books, in a twist of irony – perhaps as a result of the romantic evenings of self when I go salsa dancing with my own confusion – I turned around and built one. The Blue Book is proof of the love I have experienced, as honestly and directly as I could express it. It is the defeated love of language, translated into digital form. You can read it in many media. Watch it expand through your browser to multiple sites of meaning as it promulgates the pattern of mind books have always carried across generations, while now also literally shifting your own search algorithms in “real time”.
I specifically did not add any analytics to the The Blue Book site, so I have no idea how many people have read it. I don’t imagine the number is very high. Which is expected: I did not write it for an audience. I wrote it as an act of devotion.
I realise now that I also wrote it as a way of teaching myself what I really think it means to live a “good” life. Though many greater minds have tried, I do not think what a “good” life means can be condensed into some pithy phrase: it is about an iterative process; a living practice.
I have found that the more I write what I have experienced in the form of honest poetry, the more my experience honestly becomes poetic. We design our world, and our world acts back to de-sign us. The two are in one continuous dialogue. “Waking up” is nothing other than learning how to tune in to that which is already being said between soul and self, Word and wor(l)d, way and wanderer.
Looking back at The Blue Book now, I can see the obsession I had with the notion of a “grand design” and the way it could be used to construct a “proof”. I both love and laugh at the part of me that (still) believes this. The book is almost baroque in its structure. Though the symphony is there if you know where to look, you really have to look and I am actually a great fan of simplicity. This is at odds with the challenge of fourteen cantos, followed by some Buddhist blues, a haiku harmony, and two final fugues. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”
So I returned to a different, but equally important question in my thesis: what is it that actually gives value to human life, simply put? This ties into my ‘professional’ work on cryptocurrencies where the question of what generates value is endlessly debated. The answer most appropriate in the context of my own practice/life was there the whole time: love, trust, faith, and responsibility.
As a means of wandering the middle way between Word and wor(l)d I began again, writing poems based on my experiences and then figuring out which of these four categories to slot them into. There is a natural progression from one to the other, you see. The first and most difficult step is to love. To love genuinely everything that is presented to you and take into your heart whatever is in front of you. To love completely the world you know, as if it were yourself (which it is, in one sense).
Of course, this is easy to say and nearly impossible to do. Which is why we require trust. In order to love whatever is presented to you, you need to trust in the pattern of experience which has placed you in any given situation, be it blissful or barbaric. You need to trust that you are where you are meant to be; not because there’s some Big Guy up there pulling all the strings, but simply because where you are is where you stand to learn the most about what ‘love’ actually means.
Once again, when in blissful, poetic situations, this is easy to do. When faced with suffering and trauma and sadness, it is nearly impossible. So we require faith. This does not mean faith in something external to us – it is faith in the sense that Anthony Hopkins talks about it; a deep kind of knowing that we know nothing, that what we are is insignificant and passing, yet beneath it is something unchanging and miraculous. When your trust is truly tested, it is this kind of faith that withstands the forge of experience.
Finally, having seen that everything emanates from One and will return to that same origin, with love as the unifying force between – and trust in the faith formed through all our experiences as that which gives us to see unity clearly – you need responsibility. The responsibility of not pushing your own truth onto others, but simply living it to its fullest and letting what overflows overflow, all the while acknowledging that it is not from you. You do not exist, after all. Here is the root of true, humble responsibility.
As this project progressed, I realised that the poems were, indeed, overflowing and that I needed some other categories to hold them. My thesis is five years old, and I have hopefully grown some since writing it. So, I looked at what I was experiencing as a result of waking up each day with the conscious awareness that I would try and live the highest ideals of what I had written (what had been written for me), and slowly two other categories emerged: joy and peace.
Joy must be handled with care. It is not ecstasy or bliss, but the song of one who knows that the whole thing – all the universe – is constantly in worship whether a specific part acknowledges it or not. It is the joy of never being able to change that, but accepting the option to sing along. The joy of adding our voice to the timeless chorus we have been given the possibility of hearing, if only we would learn to wait well enough in the wake of God’s endless silence. It is not the soaring of your heart; it is its quiet beat within the body’s boundaries; pointing always at that which is boundless.
At last, peace: the gateway to true knowledge of what is. This peace passes all understanding.
Living The Blue Book presents my experience of what it is that really gives value to human life. It is, for now, “the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life” as I have known it, in my limited and flawed ways.
It is my attempt to express this truth relatably, using more accessible categories and without trying to force it on anyone (it’s just a subdomain, after all). Like its predecessor, it will live quietly online; in git; and on IPFS, waiting for true readers to find it and decode all its many dimensions (from the commit trail, to the time-encoding links, to the poetry itself and all its many traces). Unlike its predecessor, it uses YouTube’s API to pass social information in addition to time, so now you’ll find specific comments highlighted for some video traces. As someone else says:
“The comment section is where I can find people with the same vibes. Love and peace to all. Enjoy the life trip.”
This is really just an extension of an idea central to The Blue Book: that I can only get close to saying what I really mean through using other’s distinct voices. If it’s not just me saying it, then such works become ours. And it is this obviously fictional our which is the lie that can hopefully reveal to you the truth of what you are, where you come from, and what we are here to do.
If we really do come from One, then telling the whole truth will require every human voice. I trust that, one day, I will participate in that with you.