Many years ago I wrote a book (my dissertation, unpublished) called Journey Through Paradox: A Critical Interpretation of the Work of Nicholas Berdiaev, 1899-1914). Today I fell to wondering why I chose that title. It was fitting, I suppose, since much of Berdiaev’s early work came to exactly that, a sense of paradox. About everything – history, love, institutions, life as it is lived. But today I’m thinking about why that title so appealed to me. Early on in his writing career, while characterizing a paradoxical universe, Berdiaev used the word tragedy. I asserted in my thesis: “What Berdiaev called tragedy I should prefer to call irony, but what it meant was this: that every question that needed to be asked, every problem that needed to be solved, ultimately ran up against a barrier which he perceived as essentially, meaning by its very nature, incapable of resolution.” And further, “. . . each solution is fraught with dangerous probabilities of aggravating the very sores the medicine is designed to cure, or of exciting other, hitherto dormant diseases which are just as repugnant as those which are eliminated.”
All right. So I called it irony instead of either tragedy or paradox. But I clearly responded to his vision – that sense of paradox – and the reason can be partially traced to my boyhood. What was responsible for my eureka moment? A great teacher? A great book? Actually, it was tumbleweeds.
(Tumbleweeds, by the way, are sometimes known as “Russian thistle,” and the variety I encountered on the ranch of my youth was probably Salsola tragus. Which brings us back to the word “tragic!”)
Salsola tragus was ubiquitous where I grew up, in San Joaquin Valley (California) desert country. When the wind blew, the weeds tumbled, just as the song says. This vegetation was such a common, critical feature of the landscape, in fact, that my elementary school yearbook was named The Tumbleweed. (Just as my high school yearbook was named after a similarly notable feature of that environment, The Tule – commemorating what grew robustly near the one paltry river that ran through our piece of the desert.)
But I digress. What was it about tumbleweeds that imbued me with the concept of irony? Well, in a desert that humans were struggling to transform into farm country, the tumbleweed was the chief source of danger. Day after day it would tumble its pesky way into the miles-long ditches intended to ferry precious irrigation water to the fields, damming them up, causing water to burst the ditch banks and flow uselessly into the desert. But when it came to repairing those ruptures, what was your greatest ally? You guessed it! You slapped a weed into the gap, secured it with your booted foot, and shoveled earth onto it to fill the gaps among its skinny, tough branches. The tumbleweed gave you a skeleton to work with, a latticework, an infrastructure on which you could not only reconstruct the bank but make it even stronger. Hence a tumbleweed was the culprit up to the moment it became the savior of what it had destroyed. Call it irony, or call it paradox. I wouldn’t call it tragedy unless it’s regarded as tragedius interruptus.
So what’s triggered this particular (and, perhaps, peculiar) chain of thought? It’s probably due to dipping into one of my Christmas presents: a work of non-fiction called, The Black Swan. So far, what NassimTaleb is articulating in this book (about randomness and unpredictability, among other things) interestingly echoes some of my own, unarticulated intuitions over the years. Really! And since he traced the source of his ideas back to his childhood, I began to think about my own. (In his case, the source was the seventeen-year war in Lebanon, where he grew up, where everyone from cab drivers to cabinet members were perpetually predicting, with smug confidence, that the war would be over any minute.) Now, a seventeen-year war may or may not be a more acceptable source of inspiration than a tumbleweed, but hey, I take my light bulb moments where I find them.
And that wasn’t the only memory let loose in my brain by Taleb’s book. One of his sentences led me to recall the line of a poem I wrote thirty-plus years ago, in which I marshaled events and emotions toward this inexorable final judgment: We live to learn we do not live to learn.
You might ask, of course, “Well, if we don’t live to learn, then what do we live to do?” And my simple answer is, we live to experience what comes at us.
Let me finish this post with a sentiment that’s neither tragic, ironical, nor paradoxical:
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