25 January 2011

Clausewitzian Uncertainty

Carl von Clausewitz, picture from here
I’ve been trying to finish this entry for over a week now, but the words just haven’t been flowing. I was initially inspired, but simply ran out of time. Then, when I attempted to return to the half-finished musing, I was unable to think of anything to add. Now, since I have about a half hour to muse and write and pretend I know what I’m talking about, I thought I’d give it one final shot before discarding the idea entirely and blogging about more nothingness. Thus, here’s the original thing that inspired me last week:
“Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating. It prefers to day-dream in the realms of chance and luck rather than accompany the intellect on its narrow and tortuous path of philosophical enquiry and logical deduction only to arrive—hardly knowing how—in unfamiliar surroundings where all the usual landmarks seem to have disappeared. Unconfined by narrow necessity, it can revel in a wealth of possibilities; which inspire courage to take wing and dive into the element of daring and danger like a fearless swimmer into the current.” ~ Carl von Clausewitz, On War

I came across this passage while reading for one of my classes, and from the very first clause, it drew me in. Now, I am not normally a proponent of taking quotes out of context, but the above paragraph—although it refers to human nature as it relates to the conducting of war—is applicable in other contexts as well, and so I don’t feel guilty about applying it that way. The fascinating uncertainty spoke to me of Faerie, of the Otherworld, of Elysium. In Clausewitz’ imagery of the “fearless swimmer” diving into the unknown and uncharted, I saw myself trudging toward an ever more uncertain future. All the tarot readings in the world can’t tell me what, precisely, I will face. Only time will tell. My intellect may strive always for the logical conclusion, the knowing, the “clarity and certainty,” but my heart will keep pushing me further despite, and perhaps because of, my inevitable ignorance.

The trend Clausewitz speaks of, namely, the longing for order and reason on an intellectual level, but still craving and even thriving in uncertainty, triggered one of those “uh huh” moments for me. An author I once had the privilege of working with spoke at length about the “uh huh” moment as the point when the reader recognizes what the writer is describing as something real. Reaching the “uh huh” moment in one’s own writing is a product of the author knowing their topic inside and out. Although I admit I don’t always care whether or not my audience has a clue about the validity of my information, I am constantly conscious of the “uh huh” and do, in fact, hope that my labors in researching memory, myth, history, science, everything I can get my hands on won’t go entirely unappreciated. I write what I know. I try to make the difference clear between when I know something and when I’m merely guessing (and, whenever possible, I prefer to make educated guesses).

We all search for reason, for logic, for purpose, and yet these qualities are elusive by nature. Philosophy can present us with a valid argument that is entirely incorrect, or worse—impossible to prove one way or the other. For example, perfectly valid arguments can be given to both confirm and disprove the existence of God (or, more appropriately for me, the gods). If life is a war, and each day a battle, then to thrive in the “uncertainty” which “our nature often finds […] fascinating” is the best we can hope for. No amount of divination, or even educated guessing, can reveal the exact path set out before someone, and so the grip of logic and reason can never illuminate what lies beneath the dark waters. As I’ve heard often quoted, change is the only constant. Therefore, I would argue that the unknown is the only known, uncertainty is the only certain thing…and that’s just fine.

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