“Forgetfulness of being”—perhaps we could also call it “forgetfulness of givenness”—underlies most of the problems that we face. To forget being means to forget how astonishing it is that anything exists at all…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Glenn Arbery, as he ponders the wonder of existence itself. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

Final exams (of blessed memory at this point) are always a way of getting students to pull together what they’ve read and thought about during the semester, but the best exams take that knowledge and guide it in a slightly different direction. Some of my best teachers wrote exams, especially essay questions, that led to moments of new recognition and large coherence. Whether my own exams succeed in this regard, I don’t know, but on the final my juniors in Humanities took earlier this month, I asked them a question that quoted the Czech-born novelist Milan Kundera in an essay called “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes.”

Kundera’s argument is that the novel, a modern form geared to a reading public instead of a listening one, offers a correction to the impersonal rationalism that characterizes much of modern thought. As he puts it,

Once elevated by Descartes to “master and proprietor of nature,” man has now become a mere thing to the forces (of technology, of politics, of history) that bypass him, surpass him, possess him. To those forces, man’s concrete being, his “world of life,” has neither value nor interest: it is eclipsed, forgotten from the start.

Kundera argues that the novel—Don Quixote is his great example—restores this concrete particularity and balances these anonymous forces. Just before we boarded the airplane this morning, a friend reminded me of the four forces of flight: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. He would agree that these forces explain what happens when the plane suddenly dropped ten feet or so, but not the “world of life” of the passengers—the seat-gripping, the gasp of alarm in unison.

I wanted the students in my course to think about what Kundera calls the “forgetting of being.” The phrase sounds impossibly arcane. How is it even vaguely possible to forget being? Quite possible, actually. Kundera is thinking about the way that modern thought since the Enlightenment has tended toward calculation that forgets what something actually is. Dickens has a character in Hard Times who “properly” defines a horse: “Quadruped.  Graminivorous.  Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.  Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too,” etc. But poor Bitzer misses, as any of our students could tell him, the living, stamping horseness of the horse.

The real point is that “forgetfulness of being”—perhaps we could also call it “forgetfulness of givenness”—underlies most of the problems that we face, especially in our relation to nature, to each other, to our own bodies. To forget being means to forget how astonishing it is that anything exists at all. A leaf, tree, dog, a stone, a paperclip—all of these have an “act of existence,” as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it. I remember first encountering the phrase in Joseph Pieper’s book Guide to Thomas Aquinas many years ago. Each thing is actively engaged in being what it is. This is true not only of animate beings, but also inanimate ones, and the great critique of modernity is that in understanding the great immanent forces, it has forgotten this occasion of wonder.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists were discovering that the universe was much larger and much older than had been previously thought. The discovery of “deep space” by the astronomer William Herschel, who recognized that stars and galaxies were not unchangeable, but were coming into being and passing away like things on earth, also revolutionized the idea of time. Suddenly the universe and the earth itself began to be conceived in terms of billions of years. Deep time and deep space boggle the mind, and they make our local existence seemed very local and very brief indeed. But they do not overcome the central mystery, which is being itself.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw this perspective most clearly, it seems to me, in the late 19th century—a great complement to the sometimes unwholesome perspective of particular novels that can forget what underlies the “world of life” of its characters. One of the poems that I asked students to consider on the final exam was Hopkins’ sonnet, “As kingfishers catch fire,” where the poet concentrates precisely on the act of existence:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

In this “selving” Hopkins finds the deepest evidence of God’s presence: “I Am.”

The real exam is not only whether we can remember existence itself as the fundamental marvel, but also whether we can hear in this givenness a moral call as well. Our relation to the given world is a matter of wonder, of poetry, of true philosophy.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in July 2017.

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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Crimean Coast In Moonlight” (1859) by Ivan Aivazovsky.

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