Icarus Dancing in the Heart of the Sun by A.W. Greene
AT FIRST GLANCE, THIS TITLE may appear pretentious to the point of vanity. Do people know Icarus, son of Daedalus, who flew to heights unimaginable, and was consequently cast down to depths beyond compare? What is it to the reader that Icarus dances? What does it matter to the author? The same might be asked of this mythical “heart of the sun”. There is much to this title that requires some act of the imagination to put these words into context. For there is more at play here than what meets the mind’s eye. More importantly, from where I, your humble author, sit, there is far more at stake. I do intend to elucidate the meaning of my title, but all in due time.
You see, reader, to title something at all, to place a line of symbols, both letter and punctuation, at the top of a greater set of symbols, is a tremendous act of pretension, a rather absurd act, in fact. Take the text before you. Take it not as a mere text, but as a whole – as the page in its entirety. Ignore the desire to place it in the apparent context of a “text”, but frame it as an object. Strip away all that is immediate to the mind when reading and actually view the page. All at once, you will find that the black marks on white paper make as much sense as the static on the screen of a television, or on the radio. You may be getting lost within this metaphor, deranged and confused by this act of abstraction, so I’ll get right to the point: Human activity is a complex network of projections. More specifically, it is the extension of our capacity to imagine – to not only imagine that objects are before us, as objects, but to place them in relationships to ourselves, to others, and to other objects. This is the ultimate pretension.
I will do you a service and ground my words in the words of others. In the book of Genesis, man is given dominion over the Earth and the power to name all of “God’s” creations (Genesis 2). Martin Heidegger, who was no stranger to this work of theological fiction, drew out a similar thought from Greek tradition. In his essay, The Question Concerning Technology, he suggested that techne, the root word of technology, is not merely a hammer, nor is it a great complex of computers, or planes or trains or automobiles. Technology is any activity that suits the needs of mankind. To unpack this a bit further, take at look at what activities you perform. Ask if and how they serve some as a means to the end – Life. If you are astute, then you will see that even language, or more primitively, guttural harmonics and physical gesticulations, can be understood as a form of technology.
I am not one to assume the implication suggested both by the bible and Dr. Heidegger – that mankind is entitled to dominion, nor that human life and activity are sanctioned or justified. I am a Nihilist, and proudly so, but I do not think one should see me, your guide through this wild journey of thought, as a negative individual. No, think of me as a kind and loving Nihilist, given over to the sensations in my body that beg for life, that beg for meaning and intent, who laughs at the absurdity of our activities and goes along with it just because. It makes me a proud hypocrite, one who sees death with the same loving eyes as he observes the long procession of life. Yet I am reserved in championing all that our species has accomplished, as I do not think that what we call progress is progress at all, and like Heidegger, I want to issue something of a cautionary utterance…
Just so you may understand my cautionary remarks, we need to do a bit of explication. Let us return to language and the first formal example of its use, Name. The Name is a dangerous thing. When placed by a leap of the imagination into a network of relations, whether or not this process is understood, the result is profound. Perhaps you may see it as I do – a bit sublime. Let me try and perform this act on you. This is where my discourse gets “meta”. I do not refer to the reader’s ironic pokes, but instead to metalinguistics – the very limit of true metaphysics. Consider a cup – any cup – as an object. Maybe a cup is on your desk, conceivably in your kitchen, or perhaps in that coffee shop nearby. At the very least, the cup, or the name and notion, is in your mind already. What is a cup? It is an object, yes, but it is not a formal object until it has a name. It is not an object until the walls of the cup are imbued with some sort of distinction from what is both inside and outside of it. Conceptually, what the cup does is imply negativity, absence, and the imminent possibility of filling the basin with a liquid or substance. In negativity, the human mind conditions positivity. The cup, or the idea of the cup, by highlighting what is not there, implies whatever else could be.
In the act of naming the cup, the network of relationships that it necessitates is brought into view. The same establishment of positivity brought about by negation occurs when you take on a name, when you become you, I, or me. This moment, if I may, is often forgotten. This is something that strikes me as somewhat absurd. When reflecting on the activity of naming, I find it to be no more than a game, which in its constitution sets up a reality and the rules that govern its play. It is a closed system. Yet you may rightly rebut this impression by saying that this is all that we have to work with. In building our world, in setting up human life, the act of naming and setting up such a field of play has proven indispensable.
You are correct, but the danger of which I speak is in playing such a game without critical reflection. I often reflect on the great human game and how it is that we continue to play it without asking, Why? To what end? The whole practice of language reminds me of youth soccer games – little children running amok on the field, being berated by their parents from the sidelines. The children’s confusion and their parents’ veracity is barbaric to the point of comedy.
Instead of this mad dash to play the game of life, I think it far more appropriate to channel Aristotle when calling for moderation in all things, and Socrates when suggesting the examination of life, for life as I have tried to paint it is not a given thing. I would go so far as to say that the life of Homo sapiens who live outside of language, with no relationship to the act of naming, are not human. Once again, to cite Aristotle, man is by definition a social creature. To live as human is to recognize yourself in relation to negativity, to be other than an other. The act of projection is the very foundation of language – our first distinct function. Naming is the foundation of all that surrounds you. To put it a bit cynically, human life is no more than the recalcitrant buildup of linguistic performance, a denial of the meaningless vacuum that is existence. Sometimes I hear the exclamations of my fellow humans like the manic growling of caged animals and I laugh with thunder. For after all, it is we who built the cage.
Reader, I am sure that you are wondering where I am going with all this, and how we got so far from the question of the Title of this work. I hope that I’m stirring something in you, my reader. I hope the tension is building in your mind, that in some way you’re being challenged by these long-winded passages. I assure you, firstly, that my goal is almost reached, and that I will soon explain the title. I should clarify that Human exceptionalism is what I am attempting to decry. All other organic life goes on without the vanity displayed by our bombastic attempts to make meaning or chart some absurd notion of progress. Life is Chaos, yet only human beings presume order, or assume movement.
You might want to ask me how I can be so childishly hypocritical as to write this piece, to share in communication and in an act of language, if I so violently denounce it. Well, the answer is simple, and yet very complex…I’ll frame the problem with a rather familiar thought project. Friedrich Nietzsche put it this way:
“The greatest weight. — What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine’? If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.” (GS 341)
What would you do? Is it not a terrible thing to think that all the world’s suffering could return again? All your sufferings? Or does it release you from the burden of care? That all is ultimately for naught, and so all licentiousness is yours? I would hope that in the face of such a problem, you would stop and ask yourself these questions.
For me, it is a call to arms. I feel that the sensation of life precedes human language. There is a feeling within us that is of pure energy. I understand it as the fear, the longing, the joy of merely being. I am then compelled to see the play of human beings with new vision – critical and heavy. The game of language sustains our being. Language facilitates the continued possibility of these feelings, but also threatens us at every turn. Much is said of change, growth, and progress. Our lives are inundated with self-help books, political discourse, and ideological propagation, as if this sea of mindless information will inform our lives. We are asked if things are getting better, and if life has improved. I think most would desire to answer yes. This, however, is folly. There is much that has not changed. There is much that is dark and brooding in the world of language. There are traps that would deny you your freedom to play in the field of language. These traps lie within. Many turn away in the face of such darkness, happy to dance in the sun.
And there it is, the aim of my title, the brunt of my analogy. Language is much like the wings that carried Icarus and Daedalus from their prison in Crete. Language allows us to flee from the void that is nature – the frightful chaos of life. I do not believe that we’ve learned the lesson carried forth on the wings of Icarus and Daedalus. We have flown too high, and now with vanity, we dance wildly in the heart of the sun. Blinded by its rays, and burned numb, humans writhe with Dionysian ecstasy. Our blood boils in the heat, our skin flees our body into the ether of nuclear fires. The madness in our eyes gazes down and measures our worth by the “heights” we have achieved, but not the distance we have flown. This is the vanity of mankind.
I find life to be a thing of beauty; it inspires feelings in me that speak back to the majesty of breath itself. I am struck by the chaos that surrounds us and I marvel at the sublime waves that wash over my senses. I am grateful for the capacity to speak of it, to share it with you, but I am also afraid. I am afraid that we have lost sight of this overwhelming void, and have instead turned to our mechanisms for coping with it. Language and the name, the wings that carry us from the prisons of utter chaos, must be understood and reflected upon. We must question our wings and determine their purpose in order to use them well. After all, what is in a name?
As I conclude, allow me to bring these abstractions and metaphors into the material world, to relate them to our experience, both personal and cultural. We benefit from turning inward and asking what our names mean, what they imply, and the structure of the “game and play” of language. Such an act allows us to establish a why to effectively posit meaning where there is none. This is power. Within our political and social world, a person who questions in this manner can reflect on bias, on our meanness to others, and can then ask what our assumptions – our names – imply in terms of action. Racism, ideology, political factions, and fads are all thought structures that rest on unquestioned language. They represent a calcification of fear and the desire to control, and as the language of these structures goes unchecked, we witness the violence of Name. We name those who are different – those who disagree – and we associate them with a negativity or an absence. They no longer appear to us as humans, and we are consequently corrupted by ignorance. We thus perform the same act as we did on the cup – we objectify, and in so doing, we become objects ourselves.
Oh Reader! The violence of it all! I worry that in all our madness to build our world and play in it, we have missed something vital. I am laughing at us all from my armchair. The human world is the world of language. It is made up of the first name and the first title. We have made objects of ourselves, of things, and of the very air we breathe. In making the world our object, filling it with things and the connections of things, all madly brought together in haste, we have built wings without considering how to use them. The result of our first technology, language, has allowed for the creation of so many wonderful means of escape. We fly towards media, towards gadgets, towards the sun and our glory, and are consequently incinerated by our hubris. Such decadence is unbecoming for a creature of such strange and magical powers. It behooves me to laugh with bitter irony as I watch the world burn up in the sun. If, however, you wish to raise humanity up to the lofty notions of “dignity” and “progress”, you must consider more deeply the impact of language, its own mechanizations, and the conditions created by its use. To proclaim “progress” as the aim of life, ask first what the nature of progress truly is. Ask how you can inform yourself regarding your judgments and perceptions. It is far too easy to be distracted by the sunlight that fills our all-too-human world.
I will admit that the bliss of ignorance is comfortable – as comfortable as flesh seared beyond sensation. If you claim that such a flight into the rays of the sun is wise, then burn on, my friend. I shall fill the valleys and mountains with my convulsions in the meantime. Should you see the danger in the Icarian flight of language, and wish to dwell with me in my hypocrisy and criticism of the world we have built, I welcome you to my depths, and ask you to dine on the honey of chaos.
Enjoy more heady diatribes in your own copy of SN5: Groundhog Day – available on Amazon!