Sunday, October 08, 2006


Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.

I once attended a lecture given by Noam Chomsky, but he wasn't discussing the iniquities of U.S. foreign policy, he was talking instead about his main sphere of expertise, linguistics. He used words I was familiar with and discussed concepts I thought I understood (I had some grasp of the structure and development of language, or so I believed.) However it was impossible to follow what he was saying. My friend, Ian, attended the same lecture. Emerging from the auditorium into a bright Oxford afternoon that seemed to mock our own lack of brilliance we realised that we had shared an experience. We were unused to not getting it. It was too hard. Ian said "Every time I thought he was saying something I recognised and agreed with he would dismiss it as an example of inexact or idle thinking." It felt like we'd been reprimanded, but neither of us were sure what for. Ian completed his degree and is a partner in a firm of patent attorneys. I never fully recovered.

I click on Big Bang on the Wikipedia home page. I should explain - I used to take an interest in physics, in the wondrous massiveness of it. Astrophysics, cosmogony, the whole thing. My interest shifted to particle physics, practical physics, if you like, as I progressed through my twenties. There were enough external factors making me feel insignificant, I didn't need further reading to reinforce the idea that I was no more than a blip on a blip and that all my endeavours would disappear into the baseless fabric of this vision like footprints in wet sand. What's new, I wonder, in the world of extraordinarily clever men trying to figure out why and how the universe became, what gives?

It's a depressing exercise. I get halfway through a series of sentences but keep having to click on further links to ensure that I've understood the concept of the sentence from which I've linked. But the new article often contains ideas that are beyond me. It's like looking up an unusual word in a dictionary where the definitions employ still more obscure words. I descend, spiralling into an inescapable pit of unknowing. Philip Larkin, whose great facility was to communicate the panic and despair of the 20th century with a degree of calmness and well-concealed optimism comes to mind.

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed,
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,

Even to wear such knowledge - for our flesh
Surrounds us with its own decisions -
And yet spend all our life on imprecisions,
That when we start to die
Have no idea why.


Ian said...

Yes, but like Larkin I still don't have a fucking clue what's going on.

Tom Miles said...

Imagine that this blog is an episode of "Columbo" and the Special Guest Star, having just been revealed as the culprit, has turned to the camera and winked.

It would be only slightly cooler if Noam Chomsky himself commented.

Noam, you might want to take a look at this, I think I've got things covered.