Holding things together

November 28, 2017

Love is among the greatest mysteries. Its ability to hold together seemingly irreconcilable things has always inspired awe and reverence – to the point of being regarded by Empedocles as one of the founding principles of the whole cosmos. But even moving down the scale of intensity, the very fact that things can be kept together – that one same object, for example, can carry different and at times contradictory qualities or dimensions – can be counted among the most baffling aspects of our experience of the world. Indeed, two are the greatest mysteries of our reality: first, that there is something rather than nothing; secondly, that things can be held together by invisible bonds.


Let us think of a brick, for example. We can ascribe to it a number of different qualities: being red, being heavy, being rough, being porous, being made of a certain material, all the way to the basic quality of existing at all – if we can regard existence as a quality of sorts, that is. A number of metaphysical theories have tackled the issue of how it is possible to have one single object displaying so many incomparably different qualities. Some have regarded this as a basic and primitive fact, while often denying that there are in fact such things as ‘qualities’. Conversely, others insisted that an object is nothing but an aggregate of qualities, held together by an invisible bond lying beyond any possible further analysis. Again, others have suggested that each object must have something like a ‘substratum’, doing the job of possessing, displaying and holding together all the qualities that belong to that specific object. All these are, of course, legitimate ways to address this issue. Equally, none of them provides the final word or a fully plausible account on this mystery – which might be destined to remain a mystery after all. And in fact, precisely because this is an unbreakable, ineffable mystery, I believe that our attempts at approaching it should have less to do with the desire to penetrate it, and more with a circular motion around it. Instead of striving to find one final solution to this issue, I believe that we should focus on imagining myriad paths around it – like the infinite circumambulations around the Kaaba or a Stupa. It is a matter of crafting metaphors rather than solutions, symbols rather than hubristic formulae.


So, what if we were to tackle the question of how things are held together, starting from a feeling of sheer awe? This is how this question crept on me one day. I was working on the double dimension of each object – its being at once ineffably existing, and linguistically describable – when I realised that it was just as hard to account for an object’s ability to display both these dimensions, as it was to discuss the mystery of its ineffable existence. How can it be that each existent – from the tiniest speck of dust to an entire galaxy – can paradoxically hold together within itself two dimensions that are so diametrically opposed? The question seemed too daunting to tackle it directly, so I tried to move down a few notches. How can it be, I asked myself, that we can conceive of a single thing, holding together different parts? For example, how can we say that a number of elements distributed in space coalesce together to make up one single form? What makes of a number of different and irreconcilable elements, one single thing?


I always had a leaning towards the so-called ‘bundle theory’ about concrete particulars – that is, the aforementioned theory according to which things are in fact nothing but an aggregate of specific qualities. But at the same time, I always found it partly lacking. There must be something – even something beyond ‘thingness’ – to which the qualities of an object belong. Even when I say ‘I’, there must be something before that ‘I’ – call it Atman if you wish – that says of itself: ‘I’. But even postulating this further dimension didn’t solve the riddle. We can assume that every existent is composed of a linguistic dimension to which its names or qualities pertain, and of an ineffable dimension (sheer existence) to which these names belong. But how can we account for this process of ‘belonging’? What is it, that holds the names and the ineffable together?


In the metaphysics of 12th/13th century Sufi thinker Ibn Arabi, we can find a partial answer to this question. According to Ibn Arabi, the very existence of the entire universe is nothing but a determination of God’s own existence. Yet, this shouldn’t be taken as a cheap form of monism. Indeed, everything that exists, inasmuch as it exists, is a determination of God – since God is, after all, pure, ineffable and all-encompassing existence. But at the same time, we cannot reduce God to its determination. God decided to manifest Himself through His creation, and He did so by actualising His Divine Names –akin, in part, to Platonic forms or to archetypes. He did all this, as an act of mercy – both towards His own as-yet un-actualised Names, and towards Himself. Ultimately, the force that lead to the actualisation of the basic archetypes of God’s Divine Names, was primordial divine sadness: a desire to no longer be “a hidden treasure”, but to be finally revealed – even though it is ultimately revealed just to God Himself, as the only true existent. Thus, according to Ibn Arabi, the source of creation is this divine feeling of sadness, and the simultaneous response of divine mercy.


Drawing from Ibn Arabi, I wondered if we could imagine a similar account for the ability of each existent to hold together different and often seemingly incompatible qualities. What is it, that holds together the paradox that is our world – at once ineffable and linguistically determined, at once extended in time and in space, in the categories of heat and of colour, and so on? I started to think that we could imagine the layers of reality as extended threefold: on the one hand, we have the ineffable dimension of existence, accounting for the sheer fact that things ‘are’, that there is something rather than nothing. This layer of reality runs uninterrupted throughout the world, unifying all beings in a fundamental ontological solidarity. On the other hand, we have that dimension of the world which can be catalogued and grasped through the categories of descriptive language – what we can call the ‘names’ of the existent. In between them, we can imagine a multi-faceted ‘force’, holding together both these two seemingly irreconcilable dimensions (ineffability and language), and also the irreducibly different qualities that pertain to the field of the names of the world (heat, colour, mass, age, etc.). Ultimately, any individual ‘thing’, as we commonly understand it, is nothing but an instance of this intermediate ‘force’ - intermediate, because it lies ‘in between’ parts, qualities and dimensions, while being irreducible to any single one of them.


Within this perspective, a tree is just that particular ‘force’ which holds together all the names that belong to that specific tree and to its parts, as well as the two fundamental dimensions of ineffability and language that make up each thing. Likewise, a stone, a cloud, an idea, a moment in time, a person, and so on – each of them, as an individual ‘thing’ is fundamentally an instance of such a ‘force’. Each thing, as such, is ultimately a ‘force’ holding together qualities, parts and dimensions. Each particular ‘force’ is recognisable as that specific ‘thing’ (i.e. a concrete particular, material or immaterial that it may be) on the basis of the specific qualities, parts and dimensions that it is able to hold together. If we were to borrow the parlance of Empedocles or of Marsilio Ficino, we could as well say that any single thing is nothing but a specific ‘love’, whose singularity is determined by its particular ability to hold together certain parts, qualities and dimensions. Indeed, like love, we should think of this force as dynamic rather than static. The variations of its reach and of its intensity account for the variability of each existent throughout its life – yet, the fundamental process at its heart remains always fundamentally the same.


Following this metaphorical account – like all metaphysical accounts, this is simply a metaphor circling around an unbreakable mystery – I myself, as Federico, am ultimately just an intermediate ‘force’ holding together, not only my parts and qualities, but also and more radically the two aspects of ineffability and language that define me. This is what ‘I’ am, if I think of myself as a single yet complex entity. But what else can we say about this ‘force’, which is in fact the intermediate heart of each thing? Once again, we can only deepen our understanding of this metaphor through other metaphors. Let us think of a book, preferably a novel: its content is at the same time a linguistic sequence on the page, while also living outside of the page in the narrative world to which it refers. Both these dimensions, however, are held together by the physical body of the book itself – its binding and paper, if we think about the traditional way of publishing. The body of the book is the ‘force’ holding together its linguistic content and its ineffable source – much like I myself, as an embodied entity, or for that matter any existing thing (whose body might be material or immaterial), hold together my different parts, qualities, and both my linguistic and ineffable dimensions.


Is there anything more that we can say about this force? Perhaps it might be wiser, at this point, to listen rather than to speak. Let us listen to music, for example to one of Frederic Chopin’s most famous pieces, the 3rd Etude in E major from his Opus 10, commonly known as Tristesse. The four minutes and a few seconds that this piece usually occupies in time, the harmony that holds together its individual notes and the musical narrative that accompanies them in their progression, can be compared with such a ‘force’ as we have discussed it so far. Only, in the case of music, we are given an opportunity to witness this force unfolding as if in slow motion. Chopin’s piece is a single yet complex ‘thing’, and as such it is the combination of a number of parts, qualities and dimensions (namely, the linguistic and ineffable dimensions that fundamentally make up all of the existent). As we listen to a pianist playing it, we can experience the way in which the piece as such (that is, as a ‘thing’) is in fact nothing but a ‘force’ holding together all these disparate elements – precisely because it ‘holds them together’ without ever attempting to merge them into one monolithic unity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and as already understood at least since Pythagoras, music might indeed function as the best metaphor to glide around the mystery of how it is possible that irreconcilable elements can be held together – that is, around the mystery of an ontological gentleness, according to which it is possible to hold together the elements of the world as one would hold in their hand a family of delicate creatures. If we were to truly imagine a thing – anything – expanded in four dimensions, we couldn’t probably do better than to imagine it as a music. An entity that unfolds like an intermediate force, a harmony that has to do more with the fundamentals of metaphysical architecture than with the details of an aesthetic composition.


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