In this, rather morbid essay, regular contributor John Kubinski returns on top form with his thoughts on the "ruthless brutality" of the universe, reacting to an accident that hospitalised him.
Following an accident in which my face free-fell to asphalt, I came to the following realization: The universe is our worst enemy. Using ruthless brutality and indiscriminate violence, it will maim and kill all of us. These are the brute facts, and they constitute premises from which no additional reasoning can be done. The destructive tyranny of the physical world is immutable and totalizing. One dreams of revolution, but there is no doubt that we are forever condemned as slaves to the indifferent order.
We use the word “accident” as though human misery is a mistake. From the physical perspective, there are no accidents. The universe, with frightening efficiency, systematically inflicts harm and loss on each and everyone of us. Every modicum of pain, every weakening of our powers, every disappearance of greatness and beauty - it’s all staged beforehand. The situation is worse than being written in stone; these hellish facts provide the stone tablet that constrains whatever it is may be written. We have access to one medium. It's crude, violent, and only permits the telling of one story: gruelling oppression. Torture and death are guaranteed in advance.
There is no greater feeling of helplessness then to realize that one has a body. (I should in fact say that one is a body.) It is to understand that we subsist on a purely material basis as a mere collection of “stuff.” Unprivileged stuff. Like the wood or metal that makes up the objects around us, we can be cut, bent, crushed, shredded, torn, sliced, shaved, ripped, broken, incinerated, frozen, or disintegrated. We find ourselves inhabiting a universe where objects move at dangerous speeds, where temperatures have been known to rise beyond the point which we can tolerate, and where magnitudes of force that our bodies cannot withstand are encountered with regularity. And if the terrain were not treacherous enough, there are other assemblages of organic matter out there who will destroy us upon contact - some small, some large, some who are just like us. (It’s amazing that in a world already as harsh as ours, people are willing to kill each other.) Don’t forget, if the impossible circumstance arises in which external threats fail to end us, there is always the certain internal degradation of our own vessel to keep us from having any hope. We are thrown into this world enchained to a carbon-based time bomb. And if you don’t hear it ticking then you’re simply not listening.
Recovery from my “accident” will not qualify as a victory. Quite to the contrary I face a very real loss. I emerge with parts of my teeth removed, and my skin irrevocably blemished. “But you’re ok, aren’t you?” For now. We are always dodging bullets; I have just been grazed by one, and more shots will be fired. Another chink accumulates in my armour. So it goes until the executioner stops fooling around.
Vulnerable. This was the word I kept coming back to. I am vulnerable with no hope of safety. The conditions which enable me to enjoy life are physical conditions, and physical conditions can always change. In the hospital I was placed next to an old man who was clearly suffering from neurodegeneration. He had trouble remembering what season it was. I could see a human being dissolving. He mentioned that he had lost his sense of smell as a result of a motorbike accident. A whole mode of experience had been seized from him. All the pleasures of olfaction were forevermore prohibited. Reality had revoked his permission to smell. It was pure violence. The joys of existence can literally be beaten out of you. A blow to the skull might rob you of sight or hearing, of memories or lucidity, of your passions and relationships. I suffered no such losses, but this was a matter of luck. I can still run and jump. I can still read and write. I can still learn and think. I can still love. This will all change.
I cannot believe I’ve gone through a fair portion of my life doubting whether there was really such a thing as “good” or “bad.” There is certainly bad, I’ve just met it. With a painfully strong hand-shake and a dismissive attitude the first thing it tells you, in a tone of bold assurance, is that you cannot win. Your rage is naturally inspired by the opponent, but with the rules of engagement so heavily biased, the urge to fight yields more frustration than progress. You get kicked in the face, you can't fight back; welcome to the universe. The narrative of course depends on an additional character in order to be compelling: good. Life only ends up being so bad precisely on account of how good it is. Our subjectivities are as rich and wondrous as the existentialists, poets, and artists have told us. Nietzsche wrote: “…in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind — something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine.” This quote first struck me as a reasonable proposition, but now I see it to be on the order of maxim. Good things really do spring from the human well. I no longer have to wonder what good is. I am convinced that my whole life I have been touching it with my own hands and seeing it with my own eyes; and not only have I encountered it, but I’ve taken part in its creation. I’ve performed it, written it, thought it. Like the air I breathe, there’s so much of it that I’ve failed to detect that it was there at all. If my suffering is real, then so must be the good things of which suffering deprives me. I now understand why Camus says a happy man is a tragedy.
I should add, words cannot truly capture the terror of reality. It must be felt and confronted in the midst of experience. The elegance of language obscures the fundamental ugliness of the world. I’ve mouthed many of the words in this essay before, but usually only as an abstract intellectual exercise. That I’m part of the system, and not merely an observer, has come as quite a shock. When you lose one thing, you realize you can, and will, lose everything. The universe is really as hostile as it seems.
To distill my conclusions:
Reality is ugly, life is beautiful.