Study of two pears - or how to be a metaphysical hitchhiker

Dedicated to Carol-Leigh and Robert Salles (hitchhikers who fell in love) and their two daughters, Claire-Louise and Chloe.

When I last met with you I was exploring some aspects of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy; in particular his conclusion that "What can be shown, cannot be said" (TLP 4.1212).

Many people found this a very puzzling statement because Wittgenstein seemed to spend a lifetime doing precisely the opposite, namely, saying rather than showing. But a closer inspection of his philosophy reveals that this was not the case. What makes his work almost unique in the Western philosophical canon is that it tries to get itself out of the way and to let the world speak to us in the particular local situation and context we find it. In short, Wittgenstein desired that showing should take precedence over saying.

Wittgenstein's specific desire in doing this was to free humanity from the many distorting philosophical and religious systems that have held it in thrall from time immemorial and he summed his work up by saying that he wished to "To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle."

The primary method Wittgenstein adopted to achieve this aim was to assemble what he called "reminders" (PI 127) of the world as we encounter it (this includes our use of language) and he felt it was in this task that the philosopher's true work consists.

A perfect illustration of what such an assembling of reminders is like can be found in Wallace Stevens' poem Study of Two Pears published in his 1942 collection Parts of a World. The opening two Latin words mean "a little work that teaches."

I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

(Wallace Stevens, Study of Two Pears from The Collected Poems, London 2000, Faber and Faber)


In this poem Stevens succeeds in assembling for us a powerful reminder of the world as it presents itself to us and, although he appears to conclude by saying that "pears are not seen as the observer wills", in truth the preceding twenty-two lines have already done the work of showing this to be the case. The power and truth of the final lines are born out of the preceding showing and have nothing to do with the final apparent saying. Nothing is argued for and no metaphysical position is put forward; all that is shown are pears on a green cloth.

The reason for looking at this poem, one which shows rather than says, is because it helps us, firstly, to identify a fundamental problem that lies at the heart of most modern thinking about the world and, secondly, to propose a practical, alternative way of thinking.

The fundamental problem revealed is how much modern human cultures privilege the ideal over the given. They encourage their constituencies, not to look at the world and to encounter her living diverse modes as they actually present themselves, but to imagine, and then to try to actualise, alternative realities. To remain with pears for a moment, modern cultures have become interested, not in harvesting them as they flourish naturally (with all their delightful varietal idiosyncrasies - including their seasonal nature) but with the creation and distribution of ideal pears; pears available all the year round which have been aggressively and industrially modified for properties such as cold resistance, ripening time, skin colouration, and grafting compatibility. To achieve this end the earth is regularly poisoned with chemicals designed to kill all varieties of insects and fungi that cause pears to be less than ideal, invasive genetic modification is carried out and then millions of gallons of fossil fuel are expended in refrigerating and distributing them around the world with all the carbon emissions that follow from such an endeavour.

This obsession with the ideal over the given - of seeing the pear as the observer wills - is precisely what has led to the current ecological, economic, political and religious crises we are currently facing. It is a view of the world that must, therefore, be challenged.

However, anyone wishing effectively to challenge this view needs to adopt an unusual approach - an approach offered up in part by Wittgenstein and Stevens. For the current modern human view of Nature can only truly be challenged by the first place by accepting that it, too, is a given. To seek, in one grand revolutionary gesture, to replace wholesale the old world-view with a new would simply perpetuate the already deeply problematic human tendency to privilege the ideal over the given. Instead, what is required is to find an effective way of always working collaboratively with what is actually in front of us. Of working with pears and human-beings as we actually encounter them in the world.

The only place to begin is by consciously and unsentimentaly assembling reminders of the world as she is. Although this list will include many things that bring us great pleasure such as good and kind people, pears, apples, lilies of the field, birds of the air, fine wine and excellent bitters it must also include all that we might in an ideal world wish to see excluded such as death, famine, drought, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, bugs and viruses that cause illness and sometimes death and also the fact that humanity remains capable of almost unimaginable violence and brutality. Humanity's sentimental and ultimately destructive desire for the ideal needs gently to be replace with a deep, passionate, erotic desire for the world as she is with both her light and dark sides. So ideas of God, heaven, perfect religions, philosophies and societies of any stripe have to be let go in favour of the world that is in front of us here and now. This is what poetry like Stevens' can help humanity achieve.

But accepting the world as she is is not where it stops - it is but a first difficult step along the way. For once we have begun to give up the dangerous obsession with abstract ideals it becomes possible to engage in real dialogue with the world. We begin to converse with it, work with its inner rhythms and limitations in our own local environments. So this is not a version of quietism but a subtly different way of being proactive.

The philosopher Freya Mathews offers the following illustration:

The modes of proactivity in question are those that work with, rather than against, the grain of the given. By this I mean there are forms of energetic flow and communicative influence already at play in the world. An agent [potentially you and me] in this mode is a kind of metaphysical hitchhiker, catching a ride in a vehicle that is already bound for her destination. Or, more usually, via the hitchhiker's communicative engagement with the driver of the vehicle, both the hitchhiker's own plans and those of those of the driver are changed. The vehicle heads for a destination that neither the hitchhiker nor the driver had previously entertained, but which now seems more in accordance with their true will than either of their previous destinations (Freya Mathews: Reinhabiting Reality - Towards a Recovery of Culture, 2005, SUNY Press, NY, p. 39).

In short, the metaphysical hitchhiker allows the world to be as it is, she lets things be, by not seeking to turn back processes and the inner unfolding dynamics already under way. However, as she does this, she is proactive in seeking her own fulfilment through engagement with already existing unfoldings (ibid. p. 39).

Anyone gently adopting this way of being commingled in the world (and notice it is not an abstract belief about the world but a way of being in the world) begins to find that meaning and value in life is derived from an ongoing encounter with the world as she is and that there is no longer a requirement for any ideal, universal transcendent realities at all. The practical business of a fulfilled spiritual, political, and economic life becomes, in the twinkling of an eye, not religion, politics or economics but simply a daily ongoing encounter with the world. Finally, one understands what Layman P’ang (740-808) was going on about back in eighth-century China when he assembles his own reminder - his own opusculum paedagogum:

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

(Quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989)

So next time you really notice the world as she is and not as you want it to be why not try to hitch a ride and see where you end up? In so doing you, too, will begin to encounter Life's miraculous power and spiritual activity.
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