Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Digression on "fate" (2 of 2)

If the consequences of an “objective” view of fate lead to insignificance, then any meaningful consideration of the idea must be based somewhere else—for example, in experienced time. Not only does what we think of as objective time fail to match up with theories like that of spacetime; it’s also not something we truly experience. The common objective theory of time says, more or less, that only the present “exists,” and that time is a continuous replacement of one present by another; the past and future only “exist” in their relations to the present. What we experience, though, is never the present moment, but rather a movement in which the immediate future is always becoming the immediate past, with a threshold somewhere beyond which anticipation and memory undergo a qualitative change in relation to the more distant past and future. Continuities of various shapes, sizes and qualities structure our temporal experience.

That temporal experience is the relevant frame in The Fatalist is clear from its title; the book isn’t called Fate. I’d also suggest that the article in the title isn’t meant to specify a single character or person. As with her The Beginner, the point of Hejinian’s investigation is partly to ask, “what is it to be a fatalist? or what might that mean? what does the fatalist do?”—the way one might speak of “the habits of the midwestern chipmunk.”

(A brief tangential note: experience happens. This bugs some neurophilosophers who, having figured out to some extent the physical causes of experience, desperately want the phenomenal realm itself to vanish, to be resolved in practice into physics in the same way it is in theory. Too bad, folks. You don’t have to be a substance dualist—and I hope nobody is—to see experience as an effectively autonomous sphere, an ongoing occurrence whose world-forming activity is in some ways the whole point of those little electrical events in the brain, and which features its own kinds of events and relations).

Part of experience is not knowing what will happen. This is obvious. Even if one does think of the future as already, in a sense, existent, uncertainty and indeterminacy persist, since one never knows the future. (From here on out, I’d urge us to utterly drop the framework of the previous post, or the right sense of what’s said here, and in The Fatalist, will be lost). If fate is what will be the past, rather than what has been or what will be, then chance is built into fate; Hejinian explicitly equates them, in fact, just as she equates fate and indeterminacy. (Or chance is fate seen only in terms of the future). She’s making explicit a quite old connection between fate and chance that’s there at least as early as Sophocles; the absurdity of Oedipus’ fate, the fact that it doesn’t stem from an iron causal nexus but that it’s by pure chance that the man he kills is his father, etc., is essential to it being fate.

But being a fatalist is different from having ones life determined by the gods. It’s a chosen way of living in relation to time, one that’s structured by the future anterior tense, by the fact that fate is always beginning right now (see p.59). This temporal structure also makes choice and responsibility essential; the fatalist doesn’t resign herself by saying “whatever will be, will be.” If fate and chance are identical, then the fatalist is one who rejects closure in her life by opening it up to an ongoing dance with the unknown. Some angles on this:
1) To decide, “it’s going to be this way, no matter what happens” is a resolve based on the lust for closure—a final structure or meaning or role in one’s life. Since this dooms the inevitable to be a certain way (since what will become the unchangeable past will always do so in the same way, regardless of what might arise), the fatalist can’t accept it.
2) The only sense in which the past can be changed is by changing what it has turned out to lead up to. Openness to chance therefore means choice in interaction with chance, an ongoing composition with what comes into one’s purview. (This is kind of a Nietzschean idea, from the period of Zarathustra—the idea of “justifying” the entire past with one’s great new actions—though there are countless reasons not to simply map Nietzsche onto Hejinian).
3) Given point (2), one’s ongoing life is always becoming that with which posterity will have to deal (“leaving one’s life to posterity” is a theme of The Fatalist). What’s now becoming that-which-can’t-be-changed will be the basis on or against which future lives will have to develop. So one’s relation to the past, and to the becoming-past of the future, is one of enormous responsibility to whatever futures there will be.

The fatalist is in motion, on her toes, eyes open, in love with particulars, recontextualizing and being recontextualized by them. Concepts are changed by what comes under them. Not a composed person, not an improvisation but the center of activity of an ongoing composition whose material is what will always have been and what’s coming. A kind of cheer, a brand of serious lightness, is necessary. And an acceptance of risk, of danger, a sense of the absolute sufficiency of the undeniable fact that all this might not turn out well—that a positive relation to chance always means taking a chance.

In her Kelly Writer’s House talk, Hejinian says that the need for closure, trumping all else, is one of the great political disasters of our time. Given that the lust for revenge after 9/11/01 still utterly stultifies reason and ethical thought five years later, given that this desire for ultimate security, safety, “justice” and balance is not only utterly futile (e.g., literally impossible) but ravenous and globally destructive, I’d say she’s right. The ethics of her kind of “fatalism” are worth serious consideration, at the very least as an antidote to this terror. That careful thoughtfulness about one’s relation to time can lead to this says something about the persistent crucial nature of emphatic thinking.

Enough about fate for now. I’ll be back soon with more on the actual writing in Hejinian’s fantastic book.

P.S. For some other notes on fate, see Ian Keenan's blog.
P.P.S. I composed this post in MSWord. When I closed the document, it asked, "do you want to save changes to fate?"
P.P.S.S. Farewell to Syd Barrett.

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