25 January 2007

Deep time

Glaring and bescarfed Adam Gopnik sure sounds kinder than he looks. I caught half of his CBC Ideas lecture last night while driving into town.

In it (podcast due Feb. 5) Gopnik expounded a question he recently asked his kids: Do you prefer theatres, where you can sit? Or museums, where you can talk?

His point is that context is everything. Our experience of art, say, is "impure" because it is inseparable from our experience of the museum as a place of courting, of flirting, of surveying. Religions are the same: we can't tease the sanctified part from the ululating and the slaying of neighbors.

It's still early in this blog, so I'll be spare with terms like 'startling erudition' and 'searingly urbane,' mostly because 'sear' should always be followed by something something in a balsamic reduction. But Gopnik's got it going on. He's in the running for a golden ticket and a tour of the factory.

Luckily, I obsessed over a Darwin piece of his from October; I could see where he was cribbing it in his lecture. He read my favorite part almost word for word.

Bookworld, who also thought that section "very fine," quotes the last four paragraphs, although, for me, this part, about Time's relationship to Meaning, is the nut:
"In Darwin's work, time moves at two speeds: there is the vast abyss of time in which generations change and animals mutate and evolve; and then there is the gnat's-breath, humming-bird-heart time of creaturely existence, where our children are born and grow and, sometimes, die before us.

"The space between the tiny but heartfelt time of human life and the limitless time of Nature became Darwin's implicit subject. Religion had always reconciled quick time and deep time by pretending that the one was in some way a prelude to the other—a prelude or a prologue or a trial or a treatment. Artists of the Romantic period, in an increasingly secularized age, thought that through some vague kind of transcendence they could bridge the gap. They couldn't. Nothing could. The tragedy of life is not that there is no God but that the generations through which it progresses are too tiny to count very much. There isn't a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but try telling that to the sparrows.

"The human challenge that Darwin felt, and that his work still presents, is to see both times truly—not to attempt to humanize deep time, or to dismiss quick time, but to make enough of both without overlooking either."
Brilliantly sly how, in the penultimate sentence of that second chunk, he buries the really earthshattering sentimentlife has no meaningin a slippery grammatical structure. By the time you get to the "it" you've nearly forgotten he means "everything."

Here are three big questions:
  • Are the things you love meaningful?
  • Does your loving them make them meaningful?
  • Would you love them if they were ultimately meaningless?

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