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Monday, 16 March 2009

Vistas of Limbo


Franz Albert Bischoff: Laguna Seascape

Physical science has helpfully informed us that not only are bodies scattered so few and far between through the universe--the most meagre bits being lost in a thin indiscriminate gruel-like stuff one might liken to a nineteenth-century workhouse child's dinner--as to amount to mere brief accidents of matter struggling unsuccessfully to exist more than a moment or two within the dense, necessary, prevailing and ever-increasing immaterium; but even the most apparently gross, tangible or corporeal of these same accidental bodies, should all its matter be crowded by force down into a perfect solidity, might be contained in a small, hard chunk no larger than an ice cube. In much the same sense, when one ponders the subject but a little, it might well appear that if all the truly productive employment of a lifetime were suddenly compressed, for the sake of experiment, into the time the mind actually took to devise it, then the maximum period required to contain it all would perhaps be days, more likely hours, even seconds or fractions of seconds.

The mind has been largely idle then; yet no one has ever been able to stop it from thinking, even for a little while. And of course this is dangerous. If one doesn't regulate one's thoughts they can easily be yanked by the ear and tugged off in practically any direction; particularly if there's any wishing involved. Maybe it's with this in mind that some thoughtless judges have thought it a crime to think, and declared it so. The nature of the thinking animal however being as it is, it will think anyway, and no matter what punishment be contrived for it in consequence. Vide the French Revolution, and the head of Charlotte Corday, which as those present remarked, retained a thoughtful expression even as it lay before the public, disconnected from its body.

Everybody understands that the business of everyday life calls for very little actual brainwork. So poorly matched are our physical to our mental capacities that one may quite easily come up in mere seconds with full-blown conceptions that may then take years or even longer to carry into action. Fresh thinking is very seldom needed. We're limited in prospect by the narrow routines of our bodies, our surroundings, our lives. We go along in a kind of continuous holding pattern. Changes are rare. Nothing's ever truly new. Yet though all this time one never actually needed to think, in fact one was never not thinking. The truth is that for a good part of our lives the only thing we can do is think. Our hands and feet may venture on as they will without our conscious consent, with the mind standing by a mere spectator unable to affect the execution it knows to be coming, if not already underway.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An afterthought, as to Charlotte's thoughtful expression: it seems to have meant all sorts of things to all sorts of people.

Perhaps she was still thinking about the thoughtful expression she had observed on the face of Marat, as, but a few hours earlier, she had, with one sure stroke, plunged a knife into his torso, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. Then again, perhaps she was thinking about the laundry she had left undone.

Her final moments, as recorded/invented by Carlyle:

"At the Place de la Révolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck; a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it when the executioner lifted the severed head, to show it to the public."

The witness Forster reported that the executioner lifted the decapitated yet apparently still thought-possessed head from its basket and struck Charlotte's dead face in an insulting way; and for this insult, was arrested and imprisoned for three months. This evidence was amended by other witnesses who said that that the slapper was not the executioner but a spectator named Legros. Testimony is in agreement at any rate that there came over Charlotte's countenance an expression of "unequivocal indignation" when her dead cheek was slapped.

It would seem however that for Charlotte, mercifully, the thinking ended there. For she was shortly subjected to the further indignity of an autopsy, performed at the directive of Jacobins in search of evidence that she was not a virgin. To their dismay she was discovered to be virgo intacta. And this then gave rise to a good deal of further thought, though, apparently, none of it was Charlotte's. The poor thing had obviously by then suffered quite enough. But as for the rest of us...