At times it stretches like a deep canal, placid, open to navigation. At times, the flow of things grows to such speed and weight that I can barely hold my vessel together. In a matter of seconds, so I’ve learned, this feeling can dissipate any strength that I might have in the face of the world – firstly, my ability to grasp it as a mosaic of distinct objects. When panic makes its entrance, the world truly becomes whole, pan. But I know also that panic has a secret tendency to evocate its nemesis, as if opening itself to its own healing. Panic’s world is regularly raided by spasm of paranoia, sweeping as if they encountered no resistance, pushing to reinsert by force those distinctions that had been melted away. Stream and dam, panic and paranoia engage each other in endless battle, oscillating between flood and drought. I know by experience that in our present world (or perhaps in any world) the harshness of the weather manifests itself mostly at a psychic rather than at an environmental level. For what I’ve learned so far, much of the job of living consists in a double diplomatic mission at the opposing courts of fate and freedom, of determinism and chaos – always within shooting range of their armies of paranoia and panic. I’ve come to believe that the essence of a person’s talent, regardless of its practical manifestations, has to do with the way they engage in such acrobatics of existential diplomacy.
These views have touched me only recently – just another stepping stone in their millennial journey, under a plethora of different names. Sailing between the Charybdis of fate and the Scylla of freedom, humans have long carved a series of words, notions and figures like as many additional oars to their ship. Three in particular, I believe, have been crucial to this perilous journey: ‘destiny’, ‘talent’ and ‘fortune’. These three figures of thought have long permeated our imagination, and still do now. Regardless of time and place, common sense seems to have unfailingly retained a deep familiarity with them. Even today, our present cosmology is written on the parchment that originally hosted their story. These three figures, like a weird constellation, align as three marks on a segment between two poles: the pole of absolute determinism, and that of pure chaos. Other names also refer to these poles: eternity and becoming, necessity and freedom – paranoia and panic. One pulls towards an arctic heaven, where all things fall according to their inherent gravity towards their inevitable end. Determinism; soothing like a compulsive addiction, with the same mixture of punishment and reassurance. The other pole is the heady panorama of an expanse without a horizon. Chaos; a split flame rising obliquely, promising a benevolent annihilation in the form of a paralysis-by-speed, while suggesting the superiority of pure potential over any effective actualisation. Along the distance that separates these poles, we deploy our usual ways of dealing with the contending forces of their pulling.
‘Destiny’ is the name of the lens pointed towards the pole of necessity, magnetically drawing us in its direction. The notion of destiny addresses precisely this ‘directionality’ of the world, by detecting it as inherent to each existent. Although the figure of destiny has inspired countless literary achievements, it might also be possible to try to define it in modest, naked terms. We could say that the destiny of something – whether a material object or an immaterial situation – consists in having a direction that is innate to the specific form that that thing has (and to a certain extent, is) at a certain point in time. At any moment, the destiny of a person, of an object or of a relationship is the direction projected by the angles of its very form.
To be able to understand the destiny of something, it is necessary first to be able to see that each angle emanates a direction, and to follow the inner rhythm of each form. In this sense, the notion of destiny comes very close to the fields of dance and sculpture – yet it has been associated most often (and incorrectly) with the practice of future-telling. True, both destiny, futurology and predictive statistics see the rhythm innate in each existent, whether material or immaterial. They all see that each form has a direction of its own – but they part ways when it comes to the question of whether this bond develops through time. Is each existent necessarily bound to a specific direction, or a set of directions, for the duration of its existence? Is any existent ever bound to a specific form or set of forms? Future-telling and predictive statistics answer affirmatively, on the basis of their fundamental accord: in the vision of both, existence coincides with the whirlpool of manifest energies (however demonic) agitating in the cup of the universe, itself spinning in absolute nothingness. The contemporary scientist and the commercial magician share the same, closed ontology, where existence stretches like the smooth surface of a sphere – each point of which is on the same level as any other. Their belief in the potential of their practice is justified by the idea that this web of interactions exhausts the whole existence, and that it can be mapped, and possibly predicted, in its totality. Determinism inevitably follows, tinging with paranoia the work of future-tellers and predictive statisticians alike.
But the notion of ‘destiny’ emerges precisely as an antidote (and a homage) to the force of pure determinism. Unlike statistics or future-telling, the very origin of the notion of destiny consists in the awe-full acknowledgement of a factor, external to the world, that interferes with the inner variability of the world itself. Traditionally, the original act of God’s creation (or eternal re-creation) has symbolized such notion of an ‘external’ intervention in the world, capable of assigning a direction to its existence. The notion of destiny presents this intersection between the world and the otherworldy in the form of a slant, an inclination marking each existent. Any ‘thing’, any form that the world might take is bent in a particular direction – a direction that is connatural to that thing’s form at that point in time. As seen through the notion of destiny, existence resembles Siva, whose dance brings forth the world. Destiny has a vectorial ontology, in that it recognises a unique drive belonging to each form of existence. With its directionality, destiny anchors itself to the rock of ‘desire’. According to the perspective offered by this notion, desire is inherent to the world and to each ‘thing’ – manifesting itself as a slant, a direction of the form itself. In this world, desire and form, direction and composure share one ontological home, like Dionysus and Apollo at the sanctuary in Delphi during the winter months.
The world described by destiny is a stroboscopic palette of colours, emanating from a prism where an original existentiating light is refracted. Each ‘thing’, at a point in time, corresponds to one angled face among a myriad. The ‘phenomenon’ and the ‘noumenon’, the visible and the mystery are connected at fundamental level, differing only in the grade of their manifestation. The very fact of existence, impenetrable as it is to reason, cannot be dissociated from the catalogue of countless forms that existence takes – and vice versa. Through the figure of destiny, it is possible to hold this double recognition of the necessity that characterises each form, and of the freedom that belongs to existence. For existence, formless in itself, only temporarily embraces a certain destiny by taking on a specific form – in the same way as the souls seen by Er in the dream recounted by Plato. And each form, like any linguistic construct, is slave to its own closed grammar – to the point of wishing resentfully that existence itself be submitted to its same servitude. While linguistic forms allow existence to emerge, with the same movement they launch their assault on the entire ontological field: mystery, they chant, is a land waiting to be conquered. To their frustration, though, and despite their enthusiasm, such conquest is never to take place.
Mystery is not bound to any of its manifestations. No particular love exhausts love itself. The existentiating force travels between existents, each time becoming faithful to its new form just before abandoning it. Existence migrates through the forms of language like a stranger in and to the world – God’s archetypical symbol, the model of a saintly life. Any migrant knows that each particular place on the atlas or in history harbours its own destiny, broadcasting its own melody. Moving between these forms is precisely how existence, the fundamental migrant, performs its own dance. No practices has a closer relationship than migrating with a second figure of thought, that has been so instrumental to our existential sailing: ‘talent’. A talented migrant is able to integrate themselves into their new home to the point of vanishing, while at the same time remaining alien to any form of reduction to social norms, however novel, advanced or hospitable they may be. A talented migrant vanishes in order to remain a foreigner, since foreignness is the point of equilibrium between subjection and autonomy, necessity and freedom, paranoia and panic. But the task of remaining a foreigner requires constant and careful negotiation of the demands issued by a migrant’s new home and by their own uprootedness – a ‘great game’ of diplomacy between their armies of paranoia and panic. Here lies talent in its essence, in the ability to combine the two polar forces ruling over worldly enterprises: determinism and chaos. Talent is a manifestation of what is symbolically described as ‘grace’: the force capable of diverting the flow of existence (or its manifestation) away from one destiny, towards another destiny – and again.
This notion of talent can be read symbolically in an artist’s relationship between the abstract and the material aspects of their work – how an artist bridges the distance between idea and object. More generally, talent defines a certain way in which any of us can or does engage with the intricate diplomacy of ontological forces. Far from being measured by the meter of societal success or recognition, talent is tested by our ability to ride and pull the two steeds of determinism and chaos, as fierce as those that overpowered Phaeton. Like the sun’s journey through the day in the myth, subjectivity’s course along life is a rough ride along the edge of two catastrophes. The specific talents that a person shows in life – their ability to manage abstraction and matter, idea and tool, mind and body, and so on – are only instances of an essential ability to navigate the strait between these Symplegades.
Borrowing traditional theological parlance, it would be possible to assign an ‘angelic’ quality to talent. This figure of thought, this fundamental ability shares the same intermediary position as the angel in theology: its role is as a messenger (at once medium and content) between different provinces of the ontological spectrum. As it’s most explicitly the case in the mythology of traditional societies, where angelic figure of the ‘civilizing hero’ describes the demi-gods who first taught all arts to humanity.
Talent recognises the destiny inscribed in each form taken by existence. But its horizon doesn’t end on that side of the spectrum. Talent is equally aware of (that is, it also implies) a third figure of thought, placed between a single consciousness and pure chaos. Proceeding along the thread that, from unfathomable and terrifying determinism, traverses the lens of destiny and the angelic pause of talent, a new figure emerges like a gatekeeper on the way to unfathomable and terrifying chaos. Here ‘fortune’ can be found, the third dot on the segment between these two ends. Through the figure of ‘fortune’, the relationship between the forces of determinism and chaos manifests itself from a perspective closer to the latter. In the symbol of the ‘wheel of fortune’ all fixed identities crumble on themselves, carried to their catastrophe by the very motion of existence. A chaotic force traverses existence, and an existentiating force traverses chaos: the ‘world’ is the aura of sparks stretching between hub and wheel. While destiny embodies the archetypically paternal voice of necessity, fortune displays the archetypically feminine invitation for existence to take place in multiple forms. Political thinkers have often employed this feminine aspect of fortune (and similarly, of ‘nature’) in patriarchal terms, considering fortune as the archetype of the subject that has to be tamed, of the tree that has to be pruned. On the contrary, the notion of fortune – like that of destiny – suggests that between consciousness and chaos there is a caravanserai where foreigners can meet and even enemy armies can rest side by side. Like destiny, fortune is a place where consciousness can plant its tents, waiting, observing, meeting the forces that share and mould its world.
But fortune isn’t a solid village. It is a floating caravanserai sailing though a dark, teeming desert. Fortune is the forest summoned by Dionysus on the pirates’ ship. The archetype of the young woman. Like destiny, with the mix of comfort and pain offered by its orthopaedics, fortune harbours a treasure of irresistible promises and unbearable threats. Both destiny and fortune truthfully present the exact same existence that is given to us in the world, as if existence itself was endowed with both these incompatible qualities. As if, that is, existence was a ‘coincidence of opposites’ of determinism and chaos. But despite the coincidence of their ultimate object, the smoked-up lenses of ‘destiny’ and ‘fortune’ provide different angles for our consciousness to gaze towards the unfathomable mystery of existence. Equally, the smoked-up lens of talent stands as a third glass, archetypically androgynous and gendered at its will: a mirror in which consciousness can gaze at its own unfathomable mystery. This smokiness, the grotesque imprecision of notions such as ‘destiny’, ‘talent’ and ‘chaos’ makes for the gentleness of the world that they manifest. Compared to more current ontological notions like ‘fact’, ‘event’ and ‘probability’, those three ancient lenses seem to be uniquely able to regulate the intensity of pure existence so to allow our consciousness to remain aware both of the mystery of the territory and of the clarity of the map. Not a tempest or a still calm mid-ocean, but a Zephyr along the coast.
As seen in the triangulation of these notions, consciousness itself acquires a different, fluid quality. Rather than a vessel of wood and metal, consciousness takes on the consistence of a jellyfish, its oars turning into as many tentacles. Its livelihood depends on the sea, and its liquid shape is moulded by the forces of water. Consciousness, in this scenario, owes its own form to the tides flowing through the notions that it erects around itself. Each existential figure of thought, each myth, comes with its own voice. Cutting like a knife is the voice of destiny, which can be held only temporarily by consciousness’ adaptations and compromises. Towards destiny, consciousness is a hand pressing on a blade. The threat is worthy of a sacrifice: falling out of the destiny inscribed in the form that one inhabits can feel like falling out of existence itself. But no sacrifice ever appeases this threat. Hence the repetition of obsession, the constant struggle of paranoia.
Fortune seems milder at first, swapping threats with promises. By manifesting itself as fortune, chaos inserts within reality the very idea of ‘potentiality’ – that all things can virtually develop into one another. A terrifying promise, if accomplished: everything turning into everything, speed reaching the point where frenzy petrifies itself into paralysis. Panic, the accelerated nausea of absolute freedom.
Talent, for its part, moulds consciousness with a different movement. No threats or promises, but the angelic function of a model, an archetype. The notion that it is possible to carve a space of autonomy between overpowering forces. And that it is possible to do so only by engaging with them simultaneously, with the tools appropriate to each. Indeed, the opposing courts of determinism and chaos, destiny and fortune, paranoia and panic require two different approaches. They need to be understood differently. The etiquette of the former revolves around the idea of probability: the intuition of a certain inevitability of the events, that can barely be held from taking place through sacrifice. To this court, consciousness presents itself dressed as ‘knowledge’ and, eventually, as ‘work’. The code of conduct of the latter court, on the contrary, has the idea of possibility at its core: the vista of a frozen expanse of promised actualisations, a sleeping mind containing all dreams. To it, consciousness arrives dressed as ‘faith’ and, eventually, ‘love’. In the context of its perennial poverty – like Eros in the Symposium – consciousness deploys its approaches to pure existence as if by placing bets. Faith is an existential bet based on a possibility, knowledge is an existential bet based on a probability.
Talent, like a friendly croupier, signals to us where to place our bet each time. But its court too, however amicable, requires consciousness to speak its own language. During the Christian era, this language has often been symbolised by the figure of ‘hope’. Yet, it might be more accurate to twin it with the act of ‘forgiveness’. Even when hopeless in its own ability to negotiate with the forces that seem to overpower it, consciousness can still forgive itself of its own failures. And in so doing, it can give itself the ability to start anew once again. The cloak of forgiveness, however, is nowhere to be found in the wardrobe or consciousness. It is provided especially at the entrance to the court of talent, like the clothes of a novice. Being able to engage with ‘talent’ requires an initial act of forgiveness bestowed by consciousness onto itself. Through forgiveness, consciousness is able to take on a new form, or to clean its old form anew – yet, this is made possible only through an external help, through a borrowed cloak, Cinderella’s clothes. Grace and talent stand in close mythological relationship. As in Attar’s fable, where the birds, upon reaching Simurgh after a long initiatory voyage, realised that Simurgh was nothing but they themselves and their journey towards it – and yet never dared to claim any merit for their achievement.
But where does this initial and inexhaustible authorisation come from? Indeed, from the same place as the sad passions that we all recognise belong to existence. Like the fear instilled by destiny and the credulity elicited by fortune, also the fundamental authorisation granted by talent rightfully belongs to existence. Together, like angles in a geometrical figure, they draw a possible shape for existence in the world – a biased riddle, hinting to its own solution. Talent, the benevolent voice of existential authorisation, shines from the pinnacle of the triangle. Its suggestion to consciousness, as it encounters the mystery of existence – that fundamental migrant – is to treat it with forgiveness. With the same forgiveness that conscience has to administer to its own mystery – which is the same mystery, after all. A forgiveness that has to be prior to each engagement, as if abolishing the consequentiality of linear time. A pre-eternal forgiveness to existence, including one’s own, that each time allows existence to take place and consciousness to operate – each time anew, under a different destiny, chasing a different fortune.
Through the optical system composed by the figures of destiny, talent and fortune, the experience of living between panic and paranoia, between determinism and chaos, acquires a more hospitable character. Not because it’s necessarily made easier – the same acrobatics of existential diplomacy are required – but because the world that this optical system manifests is wide enough to allow for movement, and defined enough to temper the frenzy of absolute freedom. But, is it true? Not any or any less than the optical-existential systems that are most commonly employed today. For my part, I have only recently started to venture along its lines of perspective. I try to keep in mind that these lines are just projections, while trying to engage with them as if they were real. It certainly isn’t an impeccable philosophical system, but it does function as a something of a cure. And that’s enough for now.
Diagram by Karissa Jeannae, courtesy of the artist.