Thinking of being without heaviness or depth

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By Richard Mather

Part 1: Being and heaviness

People who suffer from depression often complain of a feeling of heaviness; not just in the emotional or mental sense, but as something physical  — a visceral sensation pressing on the chest or wrapping itself around the body and the legs. Some sufferers say it is like having lead weights on their legs.

Among the DSM-IV criteria for atypical depression is: “Leaden paralysis (i.e. heavy, leaden feelings in arms or legs).”

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René Descartes proposes that we think of the action of mind on body as we think of heaviness impelling a body towards the earth. Before Descartes, the scholastics believed that there was a thing called heaviness that caused objects to fall to the ground.  As Daniel Garber (in his book Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics) explains:

“Heaviness, as conceived by the scholastics, is thus mentalistic in a number of ways. It is imagined to be diffused throughout a body, yet capable of acting on a single point, just like the Cartesian soul, which is somehow thought to be diffused throughout the human body while, at the same time, it is especially connected to the pineal gland.

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The prophet Isaiah refers to “the spirit of heaviness” as a mental/emotional affliction that separates men from God. Isaiah, who is blessed with a different spirit (i.e. the spirit of the Eternal Elohim), proclaims that his mission is to spread joyful thanksgiving as a means to offloading the burden of heaviness. The Eternal One has done this, Isaiah says, in order to:

“…appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the mantle of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called terebinths of righteousness, the planting of the Eternal One, wherein He might glory.” (Isaiah 61:3; my italics)

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John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a story that focuses on a man named Christian who is weighed down by “a great burden upon his back” — the knowledge of his sin. The heaviness is so unbearable that he leaves his family and sets out into the world to seek deliverance, which comes in the form of an encounter with the Cross. In real life, however, there is no Cross and no divine aid — and yet the burden is real enough.

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What a relief. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. There is no human nature, no weight of human nature. And consciousness is a void, a nothingness, making holes in being-in-itself.

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There’s a lot to be said for surfaces, for the depthless, for fleetness of foot, of flying through the void where atoms fall and swerve, where composites split apart, reform.

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The homonym “light” (as in not dark and not heavy) shares the same Old English etymological root. Light as in “not heavy, having little actual weight” comes from the Old English leoht (West Saxon) or leht (Anglian). Likewise, light as in “not dark” comes from Old English leoht (West Saxon) and leht (Anglian).

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Ilam (pronounced i-la-am) is the Akkadian word for “shining,” a divine power. It is linked to the Akkadian word ellu (which is related to the biblical concept of Elohim or god/s), meaning cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity. It is a literal shining, a literal cleanliness (not just a metaphor for perfection). “Cleanliness is next to godliness”: This proverb (which is popularly credited to a sermon by John Wesley in 1778) is an echo of similar assertions in the Talmud and some Babylonian texts. Surfaces are there to be seen, which is hard to do when you are distracted by dirt.

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Whatever is to be seen must be seen at the surface level. If it is to exist at all, it must first exist as surface. Depth is the simulacrum of surface and not the other way round as is usually thought.

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On the subject of weight, the neo-Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter (1887 – 1910) makes some remarkable remarks in his doctoral thesis known as Persuasion and Rhetoric. Socrates, says Michelstaedter, “resented being subject to the law of gravity. And he thought the good lay in independence from gravity, because it is this, he thought, that prevents us from rising to the sun. Being independent from gravity means not having weight, and Socrates did not allow himself rest until he had eliminated all his weight. But having consumed together the hope of freedom and slavery, the independent spirit and gravity, the necessity of the earth and the will for the sun, he neither flew to the sun nor remained on earth; he was neither independent nor a slave, neither happy nor wretched.”

Plato, says Michelstaedter, was disquieted by this state of affairs for he had the same great love of liberty, though “he was not of so desperate a devotion.” So Plato concentrated on meditating, according to Michelstaedter: “He had to find … a ‘mechanism,’ to raise himself to the sun, but, deceiving gravity, without losing weight, body, life. He meditated for a long time, and then invented the macrocosm.” [Michelstaedter’s italics].

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Contra Nietzsche, the novelist Milan Kundera posits the “unbearable lightness of being.” Assuming that Nietzsche is wrong about the possibility of eternal return, Kundera believes we would experience an “absolute absence of burden,” and that a lack of weight of meaning would make us “lighter than air.”

A life “which does not return” is “without weight.” Whether life is horrible or beautiful ultimately “means nothing.” Individual life lacks significance. Our decisions do not matter precisely because they are light, without weight.

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The grandfather of Western philosophy, Parmenides, sees the world divided into opposite pairs: light/darkness, warmth/cold, being/non-being etc. One half of the opposition he characterizes as positive (light, warmth, being), the other as negative (darkness, cold, non-being). But which one is positive, weight or lightness? What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? Kundera asks. Parmenides responds that lightness is positive, weight negative.  

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The Italian writer Italo Calvino explores lightness in the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. After forty years of writing fiction, Calvino decides that the time has come for him to look for “an overall definition of my work.” He goes on to suggest that his working method “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight”:

“I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

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Calvino again:

“Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future…”

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” opens with him navigating the emotional trauma over the death of his son. But is he talking about heaviness or depth?

“There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. […] I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. […] Nothing is left us now but death. We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, there at least is reality that will not dodge us.”

Next time: Being-without-depth

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