The Zero-Gravity World

Thirty years ago, men who coveted a reputation for deep thinking were wont to discuss Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was such a man and I remember such a discussion, sitting on the roof of a Boston apartment building late one night, in the company of an unemployed actor, who was connected to the sister of a woman with whom I was connected.   As is so often the case with rooftop conversations, I remember the circumstances better than the substance. I clearly remember the John Hancock Tower rising up before us, against a backdrop of phosphorescent clouds; I clearly remember people below us, spilling onto the sidewalk before the Berklee College of Music; I clearly remember the roar of traffic on the Mass Pike and the earnest and sonorous voice of the unemployed actor.   My memory of what the actor said is not so clear, but I believe it was in an existentialist vein, and that he laid considerable weight on such things as the “authentic life,” the “deliberate act,” and “the deed.” My memory of what I said is no clearer, which is just as well, given the sorts of things I said thirty years ago.

A memory of that night in Boston was conjured up by some comments on my previous post on Unclean Food. Thomas Bertonneau, Bruce Charlton and Dr. Bill each noted the fundamental unseriousness of the menorah that was raised in the main plaza of my university, and how this was emblematic of the unseriousness that runs through so much postmodern religion, indeed so much of postmodern civilization. I think unseriousness is what Kundera meant by “the unbearable lightness of being,” although I haven’t confirmed this, perhaps because I am not altogether serious.

If it is what he meant, I know what he means. And I knew it thirty years ago, however vaguely, sitting on the roof of that Boston apartment building, listening to that unemployed actor and watching people spill out from the Berklee College of Music.

There is no gravity in a secular world, and there can be no gravity, because nothing ultimately matters in a world without eternity. Absent eternity, all that remains is what the old theologians called this “perishing world,” and it is in the very nature of a perishing world to perish. As Issac Watts put it: “what are all the treasures of this perishing world? How short is their duration, and how short is thy possession of them!” And on the other side of the ledger: “Our maladies and sorrows here on earth . . . they are not eternal . . . There is some period to finish them.” In the perishing world, everything comes to nothing in the end.

To see this is to feel the lightness of being. It is to live in the zero-gravity world.   Nihilism is the fancy name for this perception that, at the end of everything, there is nothing at all. If this appalls you, lightness of being is unbearable. If it delights you, you will be born aloft (until, of course, you perish).

Gravity of being exists in the religious world. It exists here because here is eternity, and with eternity, some things ultimately do matter.

Gravity of being can also be unbearable, as when religion teaches that everything matters, and that hardly anyone is good at everything.   The unbearable gravity of being arises when a pharisaical and precisian religion paints life as an unspeakably dire affair, with standards of judgment that are exacting, unsparing and minute. Latitudinarianism attempts to alleviate this burden by reducing the number of things that ultimately matter. It states that many practices and doctrines are “indifferent,” meaning they do not ultimately matter, one way or the other. Liberal religion takes the next step and says that all practices and doctrines are “indifferent,” every man wandering to heaven by his own way.

Liberal religion doesn’t take one all the way to the zero-gravity world, but one can see it from there.

Most men feel nausea when being is unbearably light; most feel terror when it is unbearably grave. The first man sickens because, at the end of all things, he sees nothing but Nothing. The second man sickens because, at the end of all things, he sees nothing but Hell.

Between these poles lies a Goldilocks world in which being is neither too light nor too grave, but instead just right. This Goldilocks world is awful. It is not awful in the vulgar sense of “atrocious,” but in the proper sense of “conducive to awe.” And what is awe? Edmund Burke defined it as “tranquility shadowed with horror,” which I take to mean lightness of being tethered to gravity of being. For Burke, awe is the afterclap of terror, the transient state of a man’s mind “upon escaping some imminent danger.” Awe is fear subsiding into peace, which is why Burke likened it to “the tossing of the sea . . . after a storm” (2).

A driver who has just narrowly avoided a fatal collision sits on the roadside in a state of awe. Likewise a hiker who has just clawed his way back from the shelving lip of a cliff, or a swimmer who is crawling onto the beach, having narrowly fought free of the undertow.   Everyone knows the transient gravity of an awful brush with death. This is one reason there are so many daredevils in our zero-gravity world. Hanging from a cliff, jumping from an airplane, leaping through flames on a motorbike: these are attempts to tether being grown unbearably light. That unemployed actor in Boston—no daredevil—was attempting to do much the same thing with his “authentic life,” his “deliberate acts,” his “deeds.”

You have heard, no doubt, that “God is Awesome,” or at the very least read it on a bumper sticker. No doubt this is true; but it is also an unserious, zero-gravity way to think about God, because it suggests that God is not serious. If we wish to be serious, we should say, “God is Awful.” (We could print this on bumper stickers and get toots of approval from sub-literate atheists.) God is properly awful because, meditating on God, the Christian should feel “tranquility shadowed with horror.” True and lasting gravity of being comes, not from an awful brush with death, but from an awful brush with damnation.

Here is Issac Watts, again, on this sort of salutary terror. We should reflect from time to time, he writes, that in no time at all “we shall be swept off the stage of this visible state into an unseen and eternal world,” and then as the shock of this terrible thought subsides, we should “stand still here, and consider . . . what awful and important thoughts are contained in this sentence . . .” (3).

Sitting on that Boston rooftop thirty years ago, I was unacquainted with these awful and important thoughts.  I knew what the zero-gravity world felt like, but I had no idea what these feelings meant, or how they might be cured. Perhaps the last remedy I would have imagined is the “fear and trembling” that St. Paul recommended to the Philippians, but this turned out to be the antidote.

The Christian should hope, even as he fears and trembles, but he should fear and tremble nonetheless. If his religion and its symbols do not give rise to “tranquility shadowed with horror,” it is not a religion and they are not religious symbols. They are just babbling and baubles in the zero-gravity world.

(1) Isaac Watts, The World to Come (Bungay: T. Kinnersley, 1813), p. 395

(2) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, fifth edition (London” J. Dodsley, 1767), pp. 49-50.

(3) Watts, World to Come, p. 2

12 thoughts on “The Zero-Gravity World

  1. Pingback: The Zero-Gravity World | Neoreactive

  2. Indeed the end of a Godless world is oblivion. And for those who believe that Divinity is non-existent they look down or with pity upon those who think that Being does not end in oblivion, people who in their view are too weak and deluded to be able to gaze upon the Abyss, to see a universe ultimately indifferent to their existence and the void that awaits all at the end of life.

    • That statement is fondly repeated by Christians and treated as self-evident. I don’t think so. If you cannot imagine a universe of meaning outside of a man-like creator, having existed before everything and judging all, then you aren’t very imaginative. I believe this arises from the common alternatives to religion (Christian religion) being mostly nihilistic science types who worship randomness rather than order. False dichotomies are everywhere.

      • Of course there have been alternative sources of meaning in the past. Christians generally deny that they remain viable in the aftermath of ethical monotheism. Christianity killed the old gods and they cannot be resurrected, so that we are now in an either/or predicament. Of course a new kid might turn up on the block. What do you have in mind?

      • What death will be like will depend on the manner of death. Being dead, if one is indeed dead, won’t be like anything at all. If what you mean is the afterlife, I don’t have detailed ideas. I think there is an afterlife on philosophic grounds, I think it will be agreeable or disagreeable on religious grounds.

        I do not believe that the universe itself, taken as a whole, is alive in the way that Stoics or pantheists say it is alive. Maybe there is another way. Indifferent? In one way yes (the pathetic fallacy) and in one way no (natural selection).

  3. As I recall from Kundera’s novel, the protagonist’s superior in the hospital has submitted unconditionally to the Brezhnevite re-imposition of hardcore Communist rule after the crushing of the Prague Spring. He wants the protagonist to sign a document, which is, in essence, an agreement that the Brezhnevite re-imposition of hardcore Communist rule is a good thing and that the signatory intends to go along with it fully and enthusiastically. But the boss-man’s argument is that it doesn’t really mean anything. And that signing it therefore doesn’t really mean anything. Because nothing really means anything. So why not sign it? But the protagonist refuses to sign it. He loses his job and retires to countryside to scratch out a living.

    I, too, have a memory of the Hancock Building – from the early 1970s when I flew to Boston to visit a friend who was attending MIT. There it stood, a Babylonian tower, but a design flaw had brought it about that two thirds of the windows had popped out in a windstorm and they had been temporarily boarded up. The thing was barely inaugurated and it already looked like a derelict.

  4. Pingback: The Zero-Gravity World | Reaction Times

  5. Recordare Iesu Pie
    Quod sum causa Tuae viae
    Ne me perdas illa die.

    The entirety of the Dies Irae admirably expresses the two thoughts – tranquility bolstered by hope, yet not without dread at the horror pressing in on all sides.

  6. A fine essay – and I suspect one of those which I will remember.

    As a young atheist/ agnostic I too felt the Lightness of Being, but also that Kundera’s novel un-seriously (but instead, pretentiously) exploited this profundity and made this feeling itself ‘Light’ – but I did not get through to finish the novel or the film supposedly based upon it.

    Vaclav Havel – Kundera’s Czech contemporary and sparring partner – I found later, in the mid 1990s (having ignored Tom Stoppard’s references to Havel from nearly twenty years earlier!) – and Havel I found, and still find, an altogether deeper, more substantial, wiser (and, mercifully, far less pretentious!) writer and man.

    As one who, like yourself, also works in the Brezhnevian atmosphere of a large university – I too have been asked to sign a document on the basis that: I *must* sign it because it was important that I sign it; but it didn’t mean anything – so I might as well sign it anyway.

    To sign is to make a formal contract – usually including a staetement of belief – people don’t seem to realize that. They also don’t realize that (legally) nobody can be ‘made’ to sign anything, the assumption is that all signature are volunary agreements. (If this is denied, then it is up to the signer to prove he was coerced.) People don’t seem to wonder why totalitarian regimes are so keen to get their opponents to sign documents, and to speak confessions and their submissions to authority. If they are *so* keen and expend such effort on this that they do – then it must surely be important and necessary to them – and surely it must disadvantage the signers?

    So, refusal to sign and/or confess must surely be a *significant* act, even in an overwhelming totalitarian institution?

    Anyway, Kundera was seemingly an non-religious man when he wrote TILoB – but from that first generation of secularism which carried a residue of Christianity, and a seriousness (and was yet capable of ‘great’ writing). Like Nietzsche, Kundera was alive before God was Dead, and remembered the difference God made.

    Our later generations in the West are in a different state, never having known anything but emotivist ethics and an explicitly relativisitc/ plastic/ incoherent/ nihilistic metaphysics – and spending extremely little time thinking, contemplating, meditating compared with any previous human beings (because of their addiction to the pervasive mass media/ personal computers/ mobile phones etc).

    Therefore they don’t suffer as much – or, at least, are barely aware of their own suffering and can escape it (into distraction, or intoxocation) without much difficulty.

    I get the feeling that discussions of the Lightness – or Heaviness – of Being would now be simply incomprehensible. I don’t suppose young intellectuals would now speak that way – even on rooftops! – because they have experienced nothing with which to contrast them, not even from childhood.

    (I may be worng – it may be that books such as Harry Potter, or Tolkien’s or Lewis’s fantasies now provide, for millions, that childhood experience which public secular reality so utterly lacks. I certainly hope so.)

    • This happens all the way across the spectrum. While not an academic myself, I have been asked (or “told”) to sign documents (in the plural) that “really mean nothing,” and have refused on every occasion. Most recently this past summer, in which case I wrote several revisions to the original document and insisted they be included before I would sign. My point has always been, “if it doesn’t mean anything, then why the attempt to coerce my signature under threat of fines, and/or, imprisonment?” The imprisonment part seems pretty unlikely given the nature of the thing(s) in question, but the threat is there nevertheless.

    • Thanks for the encouraging commendation. I would not swear under oath that I finished reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I long ago lost or discarded my paperback copy, which would have betrayed the truth by the creases in its spine (paperbacks are tattle tales in that way). I take it that I mentioned the story of the attempt at a forced signature in a comment somewhere. It has happened more than once. In no case was there an attempt at outrageous fraud. Every case was a variety of keeping up appearances—making it appear that an award was competitive when it wasn’t, or that formal procedures were being followed when they weren’t. They were the sorts of things one could use to illustrate an argument for the banality of evil, or the low-grade alienation and despair infects functionaries in bureaucracies.

      I generally agree with your assessment of the first fully post-Christian generation. They can be ardent and ruthless, but they are not serious. Then again, I read enough old authors to know that I am, by their standards, a fairly frivolous guy, so people have been floating towards frivolity for a long time. There are always been silly people in this world (and you opened my eyes to the silly as a sociological type), but “sillys” are raised to role models only in advanced stages of cultural decay. I’m thinking of the character Holly Golightly in the novel and movie Breakfast at Tffany’s.

      I think you are right about Tolkien and Lewis. One reason they have not been submerged by their many imitators is that the masters did not fall into the morass of the phantasmagoric. Romanticism is a natural reaction against the sterility of a secular world, but it seems always to decay into the macabre, occult, perverted and insane. Tolkien and Lewis wrote romances that avoided this, in part because they were Christians, and in part because they knew that the Middle Ages were not “gothic.”

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