8 June 2008

Chapter II: Letter 2.1

Chapter II
Digging In, Digging Out

Godawaya, January 1968

…The ripples of the sand form lines of light and dark beneath a half moon, running uncertainly into the sea, which itself is lined, dark and jet black. These jet black lines move stealthily inwards, suddenly catching fire as cold green sparkles like a fluorescent tube, broken, reveals the wave in a glimmer of phosphorus an instant before whitecaps break looming towards shore, humming deeply, and break on the beach; the suds covered water seeps into the pale sand with a hiss as the water rolls back. The moon is not merely half a circle: it is, clearly, a quarter of a globe. The brightest stars twinkle in a flux of color, never static: white, blue, green, red, orange, yellow…

I sit on the beach at night, a strong wind pulling at my robes, the stump of a coconut leaf stem stuck in the sand as a back rest.

By day I stay, mostly, in my hut, which is made of woven coconut leaves, open from belt to roof on three sides exposing the luxurious tame growth that provides the peacefulness of this primeval garden. Monkeys, large, black-faced, with silver-grey fur, peer from the cactus trees; a chorus of birds. Cows and water buffalo wander about freely. I am on an estate of about 100 acres on what is almost an island; about 80 acres are rice and the other 20 are undeveloped. On this island Ñānasumāna, myself, and an elderly American (late 60's) live. (The latter has been in Ceylon about 2 years and is practicing the teaching as an upāsaka -- a layman -- having built his own kuti here, at Godawaya, about 6 miles from Hambantota.) With mutual interests and outlooks, we get along well and don't bother one another. There is a coconut estate nearby where one can walk, as well as much open land; my grass hut, though, is quite comfortable. I sit outside soaking on sun, meditating, reading, resting by day, and go to the beach by night. The place is so idyllic and peaceful that there is a great tendency to forget that there is any world outside, and hence I have neglected, out off, and procrastinated writing for many days. The situation is not perfect for there is a constant attack by aerial creatures: gnats, flies, mosquitos; all have their prescribed times to plague one. I have learned the best way of avoiding them - the best places to frequent - and find this aspect tolerable. Attempts have been made to provide a net, so far unsuccessful - the servants too, I suppose, feel this resistance to doing anything involving the outside world. Ñānāsumāna and I are guests, though, and here for limited stays.

You wrote once that the Heidegger quotation I sent you was incomprehensible, and, therefore, bad writing. You may recall that in the same letter I sent Kummer's Quartic Surface. This, I presume, was not more comprehensible to you than the Heidegger, yet you did not say that it was also bad. The reason. of course, is that the latter is mathematics, which is a language in which you have slight knowledge, while the former was in English, which you do -- you suppose -- understand. But you do understand some of the mathematician's language: arithmetic, algebra, etc. You recognize that that language is hierarchically structured, and that some concepts can best be expressed on one level of this structure, other concepts on another level. Thus, 2+2=4 is on the arithmetic level. It could also be expressed algebraically (X+X= 2X -- where X=2), but this, you recognize, is not so efficient as the arithmetical level of expression.

What is generally not recognized -- or, at any rate, not made use of -- is the fact that English, too, is hierarchically structured, though much more complexly than mathematics. Some of the levels of this structure have names: dialects, colloquialisms, 'business talk', 'shop talk', 'scientific jargon', regionalisms, formal, informal, and technical; and we have all learned a great many of these connected levels, which we can switch between without difficulty and often without awareness that we are doing so. But suppose we are faced with an unfamiliar level might we understand the words -- or most of them -- and still miss the sense? If we hear a rural black from the deep South talking we might find that, even understanding all the words, we still might not see what he is getting at, and of course he would not see what we were getting at when we spoke to him.

Within our lives we recognize this, and use language on the appropriate level. (The 3 major levels are formal, informal, and technical.) Some levels are more appropriate for communications of one type; other levels are best suited to other types. Heidegger, it seems, has something to communicate which is not an ordinary communication (he speaks of the nature of our being, and its consequences), and we could hardly expect him to be best able to communicate an unordinary -– extraordinary -- message using ordinary language. He was obliged, for the sake of accuracy of thought -- indeed, for the sake of the possibility of communication -- to write on a generally unfamiliar (but not totally unfamiliar) level of language, and if we wish to understand him, our first task is to learn his language. We have had to learn all the other levels we know -- usually though this learning has been done in childhood, school, university, business, etc., and not independently, and it is the fact that the level of language is unfamiliar to you that makes him, naturally, incomprehensible. Yet how much of real estate would you understand if you didn't have a business-language for it? (If you are not aware of this language, I can only suggest you listen to yourself sometime when you 'talk business' -- notice the phrase -- and recognize what would be not understood by one who had no knowledge of business.) In brief: an extraordinary message requires an extraordinary use of language in order for it to be possible to communicate it.

Last night, since the full moon is approaching, the sea turtles crawl up on the beach to lay their eggs. These are the giant turtles who live for a few centuries or so and lay their eggs every night for a week or so around full moon time. They are really giants -- one can get atop them (they're pacifists) and ride them. Their shells rise 3 to 4 feet, and they nuke a track like an amphibious vehicle. The natives wait and steal the eggs after they (the eggs, not the natives) are buried. Since they come in great hordes (the natives as well as the eggs) there will soon -- within a few centuries -- be no more giant sea turtles. Some of the turtles are killed, but the eggs, apparently, bring more monthly money at market than the meat, so the practice is, fortunately, not widespread.

I bathe in a river near a rock on which usually basks a very large and rather peculiar-looking iguana -- about 8 feet long, but rather scaley. I have just learned that the reason it is so peculiar-looking is that it's not an iguana but a crocodile. It has caused no trouble at all -- and we have been quite close together -- even when I startled it in its sunbath and it slipped into the river where I was swimming and itself swam away. There is a gorgeous white bird, body about 6 inches, with a tail about 15 inches long trailing behind it like a cape, which often perches unharmed on the crocodile. I'm not the only one to bathe here also, and no one is bothered -- maybe this is the Garden of Eden. Not quite: I have now learned there were once many crocodiles in this river; one ate a man a few years ago and it was shot; the other crocodiles have, it seems, taken the lesson to heart. A mosquito net has also been procured; it's pink and has given me both protection and a much rosier outlook on things.

As to what I learned on the walk, it might be put another way: Experience is existence. Does that help? And best ignore all the ill-will which was contained within the long account of the journey -- an account longer, perhaps, than the journey itself.

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