Grave Concerns

11th May 2017

Middle-aged existential worries.

“Perhaps the men of genius are the only true men. In all the history of the race there have been only a few thousand real men. And the rest of us – what are we? Teachable animals. Without the help of the real man, we should have found out almost nothing at all.”Aldous Huxley


‘True men’ have, perhaps, always interested me. I am fascinated by their fascination. What drives them to work at a cause ‘beyond themselves’? What rare insights did they have that allowed new doors to open up to the rest of us? What of their mind? Their intellect? Their habits and worldview? Ultimately, what motivates them? Now that I have started reading a few ideas in middle age, the more I have realised the less I know. About anything.


I have perhaps, a surface awareness of many things, a broad shallow knowledge, yet no intuitive understanding of any particular thing in depth. I suppose there is that danger that I see the world as a kind of jigsaw puzzle that needs to be solved, where all the various bits and pieces need to fall into place into some overarching model. (Not necessarily a geometric one; though perhaps a schematic one.) I am sure as children we would be very much drawn to that notion of everything falling neatly into place. It would appeal to our naïve desire for reward!


When we are children, we think we have done something really clever; really new. We are so impressed with ourselves. Our relative importance ‘in the world’ (our own little world) is high. When we get older and start reading more extensively, we realise our ideas are not very novel, our conclusions are all rather naïve, and our ‘great insights’ and clever questions have, in fact, been around and debated and addressed in a far more meticulous manner by ancient people who lived thousands of years ago! Hmph.

And this process is recursive.

As time travels on, I suspect I will feel even stupider. My relative importance in relation to the overall scheme of things will decrease.


Knowledge is a strange liquid. When you consume some, it doesn’t sate you or fill you up: it leaves you with a strange and bitter taste, a thirst for more. When I don’t know the answer to something, I instinctively want to find it out. I’m unhappy with my own patent ignorance about so many facets of life. In a way it is what drives me to start a new day. Alarm rings. “Great!! What can I find out about today??!”


But then that curiosity takes me along a corridor towards a junction with five new doors at the end of it. So I open each of them and have a look in each, where a new corridor rolls out in front of me to who knows where. Within each new corridor, would you believe it? there are five new doors each opening into another corridor in a different direction,…and so on…and so on…

Fractal geometry. My life grows outwards from a centre more like an expanding snowflake crystal rather than progressing along a straight or wavy line. And so I am chasing something that can have no end.

I get worried that my inbuilt curiosity outstrips my potential time left on this planet, and it sets me in a bit of a panic.


And yet, paradoxically, I often inwardly wonder why I am imbued with such a keen sense of curiosity if I am yet so dense and, as we have predicted, my sense of importance in the world will decrease as time marches on. What is the point of it? Some people give the appearance that they know, or have arrived, at least temporarily, at their place or purpose in the world, yet mine remains utterly elusive. It is a mystery. Or, if we want to be less pessimistic, certainly it is a work-in-progress. So, my self-knowledge is not great, either. I am a bumbling tail-chasing animal who does what he does ‘because he does’, without understanding why.


As a scientist I am probably inclined to think quite often about the notion of scale: and in different magnitudes of scale, both physical and hierarchical. I would say this is how my brain usually works. Dipping in and out of varying orders of magnitude is how I naturally think: from the microscopic (physics, chemistry), to the human scale of connections (humanities, society) to the macrocosmic and universal (maths and astrophysics and the metaphysical) – in the same way that you would wander from room to room in a library or museum. But that brings me no relief either, because I am now not an expert in any of them! How does one become an expert in anything? – Unwavering devotion and intellectual fidelity, I suppose. My mind, on the other hand, appears to be a fickle tart! Can you be taken at all seriously if you are not an expert in anything, these days? Hmm, who knows.


(In a similar vein, this is how I collect and read books: I start about fifty of them simultaneously and leave them on my bedside table, all with bookmarks in them around about the second chapter. My buying enthusiasm vastly outstrips the time it takes me to finish one. Eventually I will get there!)


A while back I realised that I had better stop collecting facts and ‘mere information’. That is not the answer to a better understanding. The more I read and explore ideas, the more I find I am less interested in answers, and the more I am intrigued by paradoxes and dichotomies. Apparent contradictions. Strange results. Patterns where there are patterns, certainly; but also where there are grey areas. Mind-games. Thought experiments. Back-forward-back-forward; how do we know which is right?


I follow a few prominent scientists and thinkers out of general interest, and I am frequently surprised by how they can appear to be so certain, and also by how quickly they can become quite dogmatic in their views. Particularly if their specialised field is ‘xyz’ and then they enter into a different topic of discussion – say, politics. Do they know some shortcut at arriving at the truth which I am as yet unaware of? So, at least I know I would not make a good politician, at all. I am slow to arrive at any particular conclusion.


A few years ago I decided to give myself a “List of Questions To Answer in My Lifetime” (for what more can a man do!). These range from the superficial to the profound; from the personal and psychological, the physical, scientific and technological, to the political and sociological, economics, morals, ethics, to the philosophical, and the universal. (As a mother I would like here to add in the phrase, “from episiotomy to epistemology” – just for fun; surely they must be quite close to one another in the dictionary, if nowhere else.) These questions are essentially about who I am and what I think. I have found it to be a useful exercise, (now away from university where you might have to do this kind of thing), because sometimes it is only when we challenge our own thoughts and assumptions that we truly get to the nub of the matter. And this is a work in process.


My questions, I have since found, are not unique or original, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to be able to provide some channel, some focus, to my analytical and critical mind. I have a document sitting right here on my desktop that contains these questions, jotting new ones down as and when I think of them, and revisiting them as and when I decide to add to their possible answers. I fully predict that some won’t ever have satisfactory answers, but they help to focus on careful consideration and rigorous thought-process. They might even fuel my reading and study in later years of my life. Maybe in reality, that is all we can hope to achieve in our lifetime: to set about answering those fundamental questions about ourselves and our universe.

“The unconsidered life is not one worth living” and all that. (Socrates)


One of these questions is, obviously, “What is the best use of our time? – what is the best work we can do in our lifetime?”

I toy quite a lot in my own head with the relative merits of human discovery versus creation; put another way, of science and the universal versus a more imaginative approach, the creation of the original and the unique. I wrestle with which is better, in a state of permanent flux between the two; forcing perhaps a false dichotomy of existence when we know that human beings are capable of achieving both. Which is better use for a mind? – seeking truths about natural knowledge (reality), or using the power of man’s imagination (the imaginary)? Of course, the imagined can become reality (design, technology, engineering, to name but a few). We live in hope.


In the history of mankind, and of our heroes, they talk of ‘a beautiful mind’ – and that could apply to any ‘great man’ or genius, whose work was either making some scientific breakthrough or creating some new visionary work of art. Is one inherently better than the other? – or is that a poor question? What is the nature of that mind, I wonder? As I read more about some of these discoveries and inventions, I realise I am standing on the periphery looking in voraciously and a little enviously and understanding only the very edges of such a person. Imagine what it must actually be like to be one of these beautiful minds, though. [One of my questions in my list is simply: “Bach. WHAT was actually going on in his brain??!”]


In a state of stasis the best we can do is keep our ears and eyes open.


The other night on the radio I heard part of an essay, ‘The Work of Local Culture’, about a bucket of soil growing and decaying, by American poet and farmer Wendell Berry. In the essay, he talks about ‘growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world.’

The descriptiveness of it, its precision, this focusing in on one small detail of life, of time passing via the metaphor of an organic process, observed by a calm, casual observer, seemed to talk of the profound. I thought: It is alright to be a farmer and a poet, when you stop and observe the nature of things; that is fine. He is aware of time, he is aware of questions. That constitutes a ‘good’ use of our time.


The desire to make, to create, to be original, to take something we’ve observed and to weave it into something new, unique, and ‘of ourselves’, is so fundamental to our human condition that I don’t think we can or should ignore it. Tools are made, crafts are made, decorative arts are made, literature is made. But my worries as a middle-aged person continue. Originality relies upon some degree of excellence and skill, surely; and so far my efforts are entirely amateur and unrefined. I know this because whenever I put pen or pencil to paper I am generally displeased with the results. Inventiveness surely takes some huge prior amount of practice and level of dexterity with one’s chosen medium that feels intuitive and ‘second nature’.

Have I got what it takes? Will I run out of time?


And even if I did – I think one of the hardest things about being very passionate and dedicated about your chosen field or lifetime’s work must be accepting that no matter how much you read, how much you study and know, how much you research, how much you practise at your art, you may just not have that final ‘edge of inspiration’ that sets you apart from your peers. Hmm. So we can just look and wonder. We will be consigned to the title-referencing ‘anonymous grave’.


One of my favourite works of fiction is Ulysses, not because it’s a ‘difficult, literary book’, or necessarily a great storyline, (famous parody review: “Man goes for a walk. Nothing happens.”) but because to me it’s almost this intellectual exercise in working through various strands of accrued knowledge, a brain unable to give up. It’s highly inventive in language and structure, teasing, playful almost, with its linguistic dexterity and broad-ranging reference material; and it pays a high attention to detail. Somebody who couldn’t stop describing things… I can identify with that. It’s almost a riddle and a mystery, a puzzle. But no; I am far, far outside that league.


A month or so ago I wrote down this quick thought:

“Invention. That is what we need, no – we MUST do. It is this which makes us creative and fundamentally social human beings. It is what we want, it is what society is looking for, it is what brings the most social change, it is what we most value.


It is all good and well studying and memorising a lot of facts and poring over books, out of interest in a subject matter, merely looking and exploring – indeed we must and should, to know we must understand – but what is MORE interesting is thereafter determining what valid output we are going to create with that knowledge.


It is the way the natural world has always been, and is the way it steadfastly continues to be. Society rewards the most creative individuals in its ranks, because they have the ability within them to bring about the most change or improvement for the greatest number of people.


To our work, then; what is it? What is our purpose? To explore ideas, to solve problems, to turn an idea or a sketch into a practical reality. Once you realise that this fundamental exploratory activity lies at the heart of every truly great human being, whose thought manifestations we now revere, you start to slowly realise that every other possible way of spending your short time on planet Earth is at best, second-rate, and at worst, a total irrelevance; a complete waste of your time and brainpower.


We rarely decide how fortune is going to treat us. It is not for us to know whether a career success shall be made by our mere thought processes. Should we not then be inventive anyway?


Inventions are no more than successful dabbles in the unknown; experiments. Experiments undertaken for fun or out of our natural sense of curiosity are rarely paid for upfront. The question is not, then, ‘What should I create or invent?’ – but rather, ‘How am I going to support myself while I work on my creation and my invention?’

So go ahead. Invent something that allows people to spend more time in bed! Make something that allows people to free up more quality time! Invent.”


Perhaps there is so much uncertainty in anything that all we can do is try.


Do what you will with this.



Annie Copland

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