On the Large and the Small

I love a one called Re. As of this writing I have spent only a few dozen hours, in my life, with Re. Yet a life’s worth of meaning is wrapped up in my memories of those few dozen hours. The more I recollect them the more vivid they become.

Even if I never saw Re again, I suspect that Re would not die in my heart, but would only grow stronger and stronger. Re is inexhaustibly strong in my heart, and yet Re is a little person with whom I rarely talk, who is terribly frail and a bit naive. Casually and accidentally, and yet quite intentionally and with the greatest of seriousness, Re lit this fire in me that grows without limit.

Most memories fade over time. But if a memory is strong enough, instead it can grow stronger over time. After recalling it enough, the recollections become part of the memory, so that finally more and more is recalled every time. Five minutes can wind itself out into five years of meaning as the recollection winds deeper and deeper into itself, so that finally the recollection of the moment means far more than what the moment meant to begin with.

I have a similar story about Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein wrote a book of several thousand words. I read a few dozen of those words and they instantly laid bare to me the meaning of all I had been struggling with philosophically for months. Overnight I had to change my mind about everything, and I did not go back. I did not need to read those words again, and if I read them again it would not have made a difference. Most of that book I still haven’t read.

Two years later I read another book by Wittgenstein. I opened up the first page, and something bright and glistening leapt up off of it. It involved the word “blue,” and something about how it was used gave me a moment of shattering insight in the wake of which all my philosophy crashed and dissolved and was melted away in the soft morning glow of reality. I had a whole system of thought instantly transmitted to me, a whole paradigm of vast scope xand staggering beauty and tautological obviousness, so perfect it rendered every other philosophy meaningless. Recalling that moment’s realization gives me truer philosophical food than anything I can read in any book I know of.

If I go back to that same book, I don’t at all grasp what point Wittgenstein is trying to make in those pages. They feel like a tedious and pointless, and often flatly wrong, series of logical machinations. I get the general impression that there isn’t any point. I feel that I learned everything he was really trying to say in that one moment, reading the word “blue” on the first page, and all the rest of the book is line noise. The book is useless to me, but my recollection of that single moment of realization is inexhaustibly useful. I do feel that Wittgenstein taught me in that moment, and taught me more truly than any other philosopher was able to do.

Passion Pit wrote a song called “Little Secrets.” That song has brought me joy again and again and again over time, more times than I can count. How many dances, how many intimate moments, were undergirded and buoyed up by the melody of that song! I know that that song gave voice to some exalted moment of ecstasy which the composer felt; and his ecstasy has been beamed across space and time and come to live in me, to repeat itself again and again and again, perpetually renewing itself.

The pattern I have been painting is this. It seems that something of immense value can come out of something very small. A tiny thing can stretch itself into something huge and inexhaustible. The universe exploding out of the head of a pin.

And, on the other hand, how many times has something enormous been of terribly little worth? How many gigantic projects get undertaken, how many trillions of dollars and hundreds of man-years are expended, that end up not meaning anything to anybody? Analogously, how little do the millions of light years of empty space mean, compared to that little space called planet Earth, on which humanity lives and suffers! How puny are those cosmic balls of gas, compared to the single-person mattress on which I lay with Re! The distinction between the large and the small starts to waver, when something so small can be so huge, and something so huge can be so insignificant.

What could my puny existence mean? I could be the king of the world, and my puny existence might mean nothing. But I could be a peasant who never spoke to anybody, and my existence could mean the whole universe. It could mean the whole universe, and never end up in the history books. It could be an event of Earth shaking importance, even if nobody ever knew, even if nobody ever recognized, the profound worth of what I was living!

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