Ancient philosophy presents this difficulty: How to speak about “being?” How to preserve the grandeur of the word? The way it wraps together the universe, the meaning of our lives, what we perceive, and how we know?
Also, how not to let that grandeur slip out of control? Someone has done the work, become more learned, just, and reflective. If they can’t navigate metaphysical rhetoric about what is and isn’t real—if they don’t understand things like the “proper sensibles” or “secondary qualities”—they don’t get to speak about what’s right and wrong? That sounds crazy, but it seems to have been Western Europe in the 15th century. And before I dare posit that we’re better, I should list how many serious voices we’ve rejected because of credentialism.
Alfarabi, Machiavelli, and Descartes might say all of medieval thought is simply a radical extension of ancient thought. Despite the amount I’ve learned from Plato and Xenophon, I’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise. Some things cast too long a shadow.
Perhaps Robert Creeley can make “being” convincing in just the right way. “Bless / something small / but infinite / and quiet,” he prays, and I believe in the humility of his verse. “Bless / Something small… and quiet” stands out, implying a tender, preserving gesture.
A Prayer (from Poetry) Robert Creeley Bless something small but infinite and quiet. There are senses make an object in their simple feeling for one.
“Something small… and quiet.” Like this poem, or the voice with which one speaks the poem. The tone we’d use when trying not to disturb a wild animal. Or interrupt a small ritual, like sipping tea.
“Something small / but infinite / and quiet.” Still hushed tones. We’re scared of waking the baby. Not a baptism—no loud proclamation of cleansing, no public presentation of the achievement. But a blessing nonetheless, with the sensed presence of the infinite.
I still struggle with the fact that there are parents who don’t—who can’t—believe in their kids. I don’t know that anything “small / but infinite / and quiet” can be had with some attitudes.
I do believe this. The “infinite” can lie in our approach to the event, person, and object. Yeats’ “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors” rings apt here:
Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors William Butler Yeats What they undertook to do They brought to pass; All things hang like a drop of dew Upon a blade of grass.
“Unknown Instructors” have changed everything by believing in the potential of their charges. Perhaps in that of every waking moment. “All things hang like a drop of dew / Upon a blade of grass:” the small, the quiet, speaks the infinite. Growth sometimes has a limit when we consider a proper and beautiful form. But growth, especially when conceived as a concept, can have no limit.
Are there things which are “small,” “infinite,” and “quiet” which we will never notice? Are they blessings independent of our ignorance?
These are tricky questions to navigate, because they remind of a certain attitude. Some always believe they are a wallflower or overlooked. I can distinctly remember a few times where a person claiming to be a wallflower loudly asserted this.
“Being,” in its older significance, can be helpful here. Instead of a self crying for attention—or more relevant, a self which feels it must cry for attention, or else risks losing everything—one might substitute an inquiry.
“There are senses / make an object / in their simple / feeling for one.” The first stanza implies a most tender gesture. “Bless,” “small,” and “quiet” help establish the appropriate climate. This stanza features the gesture. Our “senses” are there; they “make an object” in “their simple / feeling for one.”
This resembles the rhetoric of a metaphysics from centuries before, but condensed. Not the more technical “unity of apperception,” whereby the formal structure of the mind makes noumena into phenomena, and consciousness/experience comes about. But instead the simple fact that we have senses and rely on them. And that our senses, not as part of our minds but as part of this world, try to give us unities. Not just an individual note, but the melody; not just a flute and a player and a room, but a sonata echoing throughout a cathedral.
I tend to think nowadays that blessings occur by means of treating things like blessings. But I believe this because I’ve seen a lot of abuse and neglect. And I refuse to hold that the “small,” “infinite,” and “quiet” aren’t in some way already sacred, independent of us. Maybe it does make sense to speak of senses which are pulled to an object. Of objects and senses which do not take the world for granted, even as our worries and fears are tempted to reduce or reject it all.