What is real…and what isn’t? It seems at times that this question defines the entire project of our lives. As very young children, we accept everything as real. When my five year old granddaughter builds a model car out of Playdough, she wants to know “how come it doesn’t start?” She hasn’t yet developed an ontological hierarchy, at least not a rigid one!
But from about the time we learn the truth about Santa Claus (sorry, Virginia), we begin ‘reality testing’ every idea or experience that comes our way. At first, we think we can label everything with an “R” (for real) or a “U” (for unreal); but as we mature, if we’re lucky, we realize that the distinction is not quite that sharp.
Even so, unless we are willing to risk incarceration, we cannot go too far down the path of ontological relativism. After all, sanity in our culture is pretty much defined as having a consistent dossier of things we believe to be real…and an even larger dossier of things we don’t.
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. “What is real…and what isn’t” is the subject of the first extant work of philosophy in the Western world. 2500 years ago the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides, divided his ontological poem, On Nature, into two sections: “The Way of Truth” and “The Way of Seeming”.
Ever since, students of philosophy have wondered what relationship Parmenides intended between these two “ways”; and each new generation of philosophers has posed Parmenides’ fundamental question anew for its own age. In fact, we sometimes classify philosophers (idealists, empiricist, pragmatists, realists, materialists, etc.) simply by how they answer that fundamental question, “What is real?”
But Parmenides was really a late comer to this party. Long before, Asian philosophers had been exploring the concept of Maya. In fact, it was during a discussion of Maya that a close friend recently posed the question, “Are illusions real?”
Are they? Of course, in one sense they certainly are real. They come in all sizes and shapes: optical illusions, magician’s illusions, (dis)illusions about people we know…and love, dream images, fantasies, white lies, damned lies, even statistics. We all experience ‘illusions’ in one form or another over and over again. So they must be real, right?
Not so fast! By its very definition, ‘illusion’ is the antonym of ‘reality’. So we are faced with a bit of a paradox: the unreal (illusion) is actually a subset of the set of things that are real. Unreality then is at once both un-real and real. Not-R is a subset of R.
Going further, we see that the set of all things real (R) is actually the union of two subsets: the set of things that are not real (U) and the set of things that are not not-real (not-U). So instead of defining illusion in contrast to reality, we find that we actually have to define reality in terms of illusion. Illusion is the more general, substructural concept; reality is the epiphenomenon. What we call ‘reality’ is a ‘special case’ (some would even say a ‘degenerative case’) of what we call ‘illusion’.
My 5 year old is right after all! Build a model car out of Playdough and assume it will start; if it doesn’t, ask why not.
The 20th century is often thought of as the “democratic century”. On a political level, there is at least some justification for this label. After all, the 20th century did witness the defeat (or at least the marginalization) of fascism, communism, apartheid, Jim Crow and other forms of totalitarianism. In their place, a system of one-man-one-vote electoral democracy (“atomistic democracy”) has taken root and spread.
But developments in art, literature and philosophy made the 20th century a century of ‘ontological democracy’ long before it became the century of ‘political democracy’. As is often the case, cultural developments preceded developments in ‘the real world’. (See Yellow Submarine in this collection of essays.)
From the insights of Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead to the excesses of deconstruction and post-modernism, 20th century philosophy broke down the ontological barriers that were long presumed to separate the individual from the group, the human from the non-human, the animate from the inanimate.
In the visual arts, Kandinsky (see Kandinsky in this collection of essays), Klee and Miro created new, alternative universes on their canvasses and populated those universes with novel entities and geometries. In a mirror image, Dada elevated the detritus of modern culture to the status of an art form. Jean Arp and others made color and shape subjects in their own right while Jackson Pollack overcame the distinction between process and stasis.
Finally in the literary arena, building on the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Alain Robbe-Grillet and others broke down the barrier between the objective and the subjective. There is no longer interior life and exterior life; now there is just life.
But the ultimate break through in ontological democracy must be attributed jointly to Joyce (above) and to Ezra Pound (ironic because his politics were not always considered so ‘democratic’). Both authors were ‘ontological democrats’ in both a horizontal and a vertical sense. They treated every detail from every ontological category as equally ‘real’; but they also treated every level of reality, from the quantum to the cosmic, as equal.
Joyce broke down the barrier separating the mythological (‘illusion’) from the historical (‘real’) by mapping the details of daily life onto the great archetypes of the human psyche. He irrefutably demonstrated that the mundane recapitulates the mythological.
Before anyone had heard of Mandelbrot, Joyce proposed a fractal model of reality. But unlike ordinary fractal theory, Joyce’s model demonstrated a fractal-like relationship, not just across different scales but across ostensibly distinct ontological categories. Patterns found in Homer’s Odyssey and in Roman Catholic liturgy reappear in the events of an ordinary day in Dublin and in the consciousness of ordinary Dubliners. For Joyce, supposed ontological categories are merely alternative modes for the manifestation of a common overarching reality. The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, might have been referring to something similar when he wrote, “(The Tao) contains within Itself a Form.”
Pound takes a different approach to the same project. Rather than creating a map linking ontological categories, Pound samples material from all ontological categories and juxtaposes that material to create a meta-category, the category of the whole. Joyce draws a map, Pound builds a territory.
In Pound’s magnum opus, Cantos, snippets of real time experience sit side by side with personal memories, historical documents and events, archeological artifacts, economic and political theories, mythological figures and tales, fictional characters from literature, lines of verse, ideograms, philosophical and theological concepts, etc… In Pound there is never the slightest hint that any of these elements is “more real” than any other.
My 5 year old gets it. Her Playdough model car is just as real as anything GM ever built. My 8 year old grandson gets it too. In a discussion of Edward Lear’s 1871 poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, it is pointed out that there is no such thing as a ‘runcible spoon’; “Of course, there is; he wrote it!” (Jack understands that writing something doesn’t make it so; his point is that once written it becomes ‘real’.) Jack and Helen are ontological democrats…just like Joyce and Pound.
In the final canonical canto (CXX), Pound defines his own project retrospectively, “I have tried to write Paradise.” Pound tried to write Paradise; but according to his ontology, it is up to each and every one of us to build it!
Joyce’s model of ontological democracy is formal and somewhat passive; Pound’s model is organic and supremely proactive. Joyce’s ‘democracy’ is reminiscent of the orderly political theory underpinning the American Revolution; Pound’s is more like the chaotic praxis of the French Revolution.
Cantos is modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Dante, Pound includes elements of ‘inferno’, ‘purgatorio’ and ‘paradiso’ in his epic. But unlike Dante, Pound mixes these elements throughout his work. While Dante describes a systematic, linear (actually spiroid) progression through three levels of reality, Pound views all three levels as aspects, building blocks, of Paradise. For Pound, redemption is not a progression but an unfolding.
In another essay in this collection, Ecbatan, we saw that Dante imagined that the motion of the spheres was modeled after the pattern of Paradise while Pound imagines that Paradise is patterned after an ancient city in the Middle East (Ecbatana).
Joyce’s Paradise (like Dante’s) is pre-existent; Pound’s is a work in progress. Like the two halves of Christian eschatology, Joyce presents the ‘kingdom already’ while Pound presents the ‘kingdom not yet’. While Joyce recognizes the mythical in the mundane, Pound recognizes the mundane in the mythical. While in Joyce’s Ulysses, the smallest part manifests the whole, in Pound’s Cantos, the whole manifests the smallest part. “Do not move/Let the wind speak/that is paradise.” (Canto CXX)
Like colossi, these two giants, democrats both, stand at opposite ends of the ontological abyss. Together, they change the way we understand ‘reality’.