James Cowan: What is Life?

When a relaxed spirit meditates and dreams, immensity seems
to expect images of immensity.

                                           Gaston Bachelard

For life is beyond, in the life that wakes.

                                           Edmond Jabes

Jim-Winbaraku.LR-1I have often been disconcerted by the way we bandy around the word ’life’, as if by doing so we knew what it meant. It is such a precious and effervescent thing, so bountiful and extravagant, possessed as it is by all in nature, and yet subject to abuse and willful cessation in the name of furthering the hopes and expectations of humankind. We do not think of life as anything more than an intrinsic vitality, an élan vital, the animator of being itself. But is it more than that? Does it not have an inner life of its own? We may extinguish it, trample upon it and abuse it in the course of our everyday actions because of hatred or indifference, but still it continues to manifest itself unabated in the world at large.

Life is more than simple florescence, however; it is a powerful impetus towards the enlargement of the cosmos. The cosmos thrives upon life’s capacity to provide it with palpability, with form as well as so-called élan vital. Life therefore eliminates absence, and to a certain extent even memory. It brings into being what is not. Without life, the cosmos contracts. It withers.

Life is not only about bodily function. It pervades everything, even the conduct of stones. They have a geological existence of course, which is invested with a long, geomorphic memory, the very substance of their being. Stones live because they are able to hold onto their primary geological premise; they are destroyed only when this is reduced to matter, as we are too when we die. At this point life removes itself from us, as it does from stones. Because of trauma in the form of age or decomposition, life no longer wishes to be in residence in us, or in stones. That life chooses to leave us is firmly linked to the passage of time. Life is time-oriented. It is constrained by time when it is fully active in matter, converting it as it does into being; but free when it releases itself from being. When it leaves us, we once more fall into the realm of matter in the same way as stones do when they are crushed into powder. The eleventh century Spanish-Jewish philosopher, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, put it succinctly when he wrote in his Fountain of Life: ‘Matter has no reality apart from its form… and therefore matter moves towards its form. There it is released from the sorrow of absence to the pleasure of existence.’[1]

There is a polarity to life. A tension exists in it between the forces of annihilation and nihilation, between fragmentation and oneness. To be in a state of nihilation is to be in a state of oneness. Saints and mystics achieve this condition in themselves, whatever their spiritual discipline, only to freely allow life to pass from them as a voluntary act. We often hear them state that they are ‘dead to the world’ or they are ‘ready to die’, which is their way of saying that they are no longer at the mercy of their innate selves. Mystics make a compact with life that allows them to partake of its plenitude, and its fullness, without recourse to its embodiment as a materiality. What is fullness but another aspect of nihilation, of oneness?[2]

Nihil means ‘nothing’ in Latin. But in meaning nothing it signals its allegiance to an absence of ‘something’. This again suggests a condition of oneness, of plenitude. ‘Something’ implies the presence of objectness, and so of a condition of multiplicity. Multi-plicity however is derived from the word ‘plico’ (L), from which the word ‘plicitus’ or ‘plicity’ is derived. The word is rooted in the idea of folding or layering, which is a sign of many things present, and thus an absence of oneness or unity. In contrast, one could say that life is an act of uni-plicity, existing prior to the multiplicity of being, as it makes possible an enfoldment, a removal or unification of layers.

Science may well believe that it is within its power to create life. But what it can only do is generate the right conditions for life to emerge. Cloning, for example, is not an act of creating life; it is merely an activity generated by life. Life still eludes the methodology of the scientist, even as he believes that he is close to fashioning it. This is because he or she has not understood the exact wording that causes life to exist. Life, per se, is the product of language, not some amniotic dispensation. This is why poets and sages the world over place so much emphasis upon the ‘creativity of the word’ to bring life into existence as a ‘form of life’ (Wittgenstein). The philosopher made the observation that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the question of life remains completely untouched.[3] He further suggested that since some things cannot be put into words (life, for example, except as a concept), they then remain within the preserve of the mystical.[4] He argued, too, that the modern conception of the world (viz. through scientific observation) is founded upon an illusion that the so-called ‘laws of nature’ are the explanations of natural phenomena. A mystic would shake his head in disbelief if this was put to him as a basis for life. He knows that life cannot be explained, nor be subject a so-called to a body of ‘laws’.

It is poets who designate (de-sign-ate) life as a word image only. They bring it into being as a concept as well as through metaphor, which takes it out of the realm of mere existence (L. ex-sistere, or coming into being). In the act of being named by the poet, life takes on meaning and value. Once life is viewed as both an animator and a value, then it finally enters the preserve of ethos (Gr.), nature or disposition, as a condition of being itself. The poet gives life a value-in-being as an issuing forth into being. For the poet, then, life is not so much the animator of being as it is the issuing forth into being. Such an activity is less an impetus than it is an act of proclamation of being. Matter is therefore transformed into being (life) by announcement.[5] An early Christian Syriac text of the first century AD refers to the Creative Word (life) underpinning the work of creation: ‘It is the word that has made the broad earth/and settled the waters in the sea.’[6]

Hence the strong link between the word, matter, and life. This is borne out in many sacred writings across all religious disciplines.[7] For a scientist to unthinkingly dismantle the nexus between ‘word’ and ‘life’, and in doing so reduce it to no more than an equational value, is to propound the illusion that Wittgenstein alluded to – that life is purely a chemical process which can eventually be isolated or brought into being in a laboratory. Thus do we play havoc with our understanding of life. We forget that it is derived from language, not matter. A scientist may indeed be able to identify life’s external characteristics, but he will not be able to identify its internal properties.

This is the role of the poet, the sage, and the mystic. Even the scientist’s belief in the materiality of the atom comes under threat when he cannot agree as to whether it is a wave, photon, solid or liquid, or simply a vibration of energy. The irresistible tendency to set up a material universe that is discontinuous and composed of clearly defined outlines, which change their place in relation to one another, is part of the artificial paradigm of science itself. The role of life is to place before us what Bergson called a ‘moving continuity.’[8] Life does not exist in distinct material zones as science would have us believe. It cannot be created, as not a material reality at all. Thus science will never be able to do more than create the conditions for life, as it has already been stated. At death the world does not come to an end, simply because life has a way of never making itself redundant.

This means that life partakes of abundance, of excessivity. Which is strange, because we always view life as a single entity, not as something plural. We speak of course of ‘lives’ but this is in relationship to the collective, to people or things living their individual lives. They partake of life, but they live lives. In this sense, ‘lives’ is an action, not a metaphysical or material condition. Many of us live many lives; but this in no way signifies the sheer abundance of life itself. Life’s abundance is not a manifestation of the material, but is, rather, a qualitative value. Life transcends matter; it imposes upon matter inherent life-aspect by giving it substance. Sub-stance is derived from the Latin word sub stare, which means ‘that which stands beneath.’ Life is therefore a bestower of substance, and stands beneath all its manifestations as form in matter. Life makes it possible for undistinguished matter to attain to ‘intelligible substance’ (Gr. eidos), and so journey into that unique place where differentiation comes into being. Hindus speak of nama (form) being generated out of rupa (matter). The categories of life therefore, speaking metaphysically not materially, foregather in the courtyard of distinctive being.[9] It is the home of life.

One therefore has to distinguish between matter as a material reality, and materia as a derivation of the word mater. Matter in this sense is wedded to the Feminine (hence the Motherland, La France etc). It would suggest, therefore, that the role of life is to inseminate matter, and so bring about differentiated being in the form of creatures and objects that live, each in their own way. Matter is also linked to the Sanskrit word matra, which in turn is linked to the idea of ‘measure’. This is in no way derived from the physicist’s idea of measurement; but rather, to the possibilities inherent in Atma as it is reflected in Hindu tradition. The introduction of life into matter is therefore a way of creating order through manifestation. Chaos is symbolically eliminated through ‘illumination’ (Fiat Lux) by the principle of life as an act of conception. We now see life acting in a more purposive fashion, and not purely as a gesture of excessivity or abundance. It has become a substantial and ecstatic power.

We also see that life has both a quantitative and qualitative aspect. On the one hand it is profuse, enabling the realization of abundance; on the other it is able to instill excellence into that of singular being – such as a perfect rose. It deals in singularity as much as it is drawn towards quantitative expression. Moreover, we find that life moves back and forth, from the one to the many, without recourse to the idea of dichotomy. This concurs with Bergson’s earlier remark about ‘moving continuity’ as being intrinsic to the principle of life. We have discovered, too, that life eludes the idea of number, of numerical valuation. It ‘measures’ things, of course – that is, it creates order in the universe as a metrical response, as in music, to the enormity of existence – even as it dispenses with number altogether. This can only be described as a mystical engagement with reality that is numberless and yet filled with quantitative relations. To paraphrase Wittgenstein once more: to view the world as a limited whole – this can only be understood mystically.[10] One is reminded of Maria Rainer Rilke’s epitaph, which read:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel
Lidern. Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight 
of being no one’s sleep under so 
many lids.

Here we are confronted by the contradiction that life presents to us. The word in German for eyelid, Lidern, also means ‘song’. So the poet is alerting us to the beauty of life as it is embodied in words belonging to no one, and yet remaining, paradoxically, the possession of so many lids (people). Again language comes to the rescue of life as a condition of beauty, and as something possessed by all.

Indeed, there are certain poets, in particular Dante, who regard language as synonymous with life. He argued in his book De vulgari eloquentia, quoting Genesis, that though God spoke to create the world (and thus life),[11] it was Adam who named creatures, thereby affirming the relationship between language and intelligible substance, none other than Wittgenstein’s ‘form of life.’ In creating the first soul, Dante maintains, God also created a certam formum locutionis, a determined form of language. In other words, language was a particular gift of God, along with life.[12]

One should be careful, however, not to confuse the idea of language with pure grammatical expression as it is known in all humanly devised languages. Language is much more than verbal structures. If language is an expression of life, then it must have infinite ways to communicate given the profusion of life in the universe. Everything speaks. Land, earth, the sea, air, these address us in their own language. As Thomas Merton remarked: ‘As long as the rain talks, I am going to listen.’ He was speaking about the pitter patter of rain on his cabin roof. Merleau-Ponty reinforces this view when he wrote: ‘Language is life and the life of things…’[13] He further added: ‘It is being that speaks within us, and not we who speak to being’ (our italics). Language is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.[14] We are once alerted to the idea that it is not we who speak about nature or about life, but nature and life that speaks to us. So our linguistic relationship to life is predicated upon our deeper awareness of the actual prose of nature itself. We must listen to the voices of life, however they chooses to address us. It may not be with words at all, but through gesture, dance, music, ritual and the weather, as well as our own intuition. As the poet Gary Snyder remarked: ‘Lifting a brush, a burin, a pen, or a stylus, is like releasing a bite or lifting a claw.’ Nature, as well as life, are grounded in an ecology of the word.[15]

Nature speaks. This is clear when we consider how illiterate tribespeople converse with the world that they inhabit. Their view of how nature converses is far more sophisticated than our own. We begin to understand nature only when we isolate its properties; whereas a tribesman has a more holistic understanding. However, we must be careful to recognize which nature is conversing with us. As Novalis remarks, ‘it is bombast to speak of one nature, and all striving after truth in discourse about nature only removes us further from the natural.’[16] He further suggests that it is important to be attentive to subtle signs and traits, and to possess a poetic nature, if one is to truly ‘understand’ nature. Poetry, he maintains, is the only true friend of nature, as the spirit of nature shines most radiantly in poems. He suggests that in poetry we hear ‘nature’s inner reason’ reaching us through our own language. This is the first time, perhaps, that we have heard of nature’s ‘inner reason’ as a hallmark of life. Logos, or the principle of reason, has now entered our purview.

Yet what is nature? Marsilio Ficino tells us that it is an art that gives form from within. It is an art lodged within things. ‘All that is alive is intelligent’ wrote Epicharmus, which brings us back to reason as a governing force within life. Nature acts as a wise craftsman who, according to Aristotle, proceeds in a rational way, wastes nothing, knows how to avoid the too-much and the not-enough.[17] The secrets of nature can thus be considered invisible parts which escape observation, but which have an influence on visible phenomena anyway. Invisible things, of course, can become visible, and therefore affirm their existence in reality. A comet suddenly appearing to us in the night sky is an example of the invisible object becoming visible. As Epicurus remarked: ‘What appears makes visible what is hidden (opsis adelon ta phainomena).[18] Nature may indeed offer us a perception of itself as a voluntary act (viz. a comet in the sky), but it might also be forced to reveal its secrets ‘under the torture of experimentation,’ according to Francis Bacon. It is the latter approach that reflects the work of modern science as it attempts to force nature into revealing its secrets.

The only way that nature (and therefore life) can hold onto its secrets is through the aegis of myth. Myths contain a hidden teaching on the subject of nature. For the Greeks, physiologia – that, is nature’s discourse was wrapped in myths often disguised as enigmas or hidden meanings. It can only be ‘unraveled’ by way of ceremony, ritual, and through the expression of the myth itself. Hadot speaks of this as a form of ‘poetic theology’, which ran parallel with conventional material explanations of physical phenomena.[19] Modern science might believe that it can force nature to reveal its secrets, but this can only be a superficial view. Science can only access what its systems allows it to. Whether it is through mathematics or molecular biology, nature will only show that side of it which it considers acceptable to the scientist by way of his methodological approach, no more. Essential nature, which can only be truly accessed through the paradigm of myth, uses a more far-reaching metaphysical language to convey its mystery. This language, unfortunately, is not understood by science because its power of definition is deliberately limited. Myth is lighthearted, liquid, and fugitive in its engagement with our intellects, whereas science is forced to cut into the inner structure of things by seeking out the relation between its members. In the process, of course, science cannot access meaning, because meaning lies concealed within the plenitude of nature itself.

Life is imbedded in more than just itself, however. As we have seen it reaches into language, etymology, myth, and poetry. It is not simply an undetectable function of physiology as might have been assumed, either. It has a far more noble heritage than that realized as a result of a synthesis of amino acids. Nor is it value-free as modern science would have us believe. It is clear that life cannot be defined in terms of categories, be they scientific, medical, sociological or indeed mythical. This is because life lies at the origin of thought; it frames thought even as it defies the parameters that thought offers to define it. There is no word to define this paradoxical notion: that life prefigures all our attempts to allow it to possess a formal substance of its own. Unlike an amino acid or a mythic entity, life eludes whatever modes or categories we might like to surround it with. So we are forced to address it in a variety of names. Light, flame, genetic opportunity, biochemical process, the very stuff of life, the terms we devise to describe life are endless. We resort to words because these appear to be the only tools at our disposal.

But are they? Are we so dependent upon language to give expression to life? Even if we acknowledge its metaphysical content as being a condition that is inexpressible, does this mean that life will forever elude us? It is a question that I suspect most of us have asked ourselves at one time or another. The most primary condition that determines our existence defies our bid to analyze it. It seems a nonsense, a riddle that we have yet to solve. Since all our systems of thought are grounded in language, and these we acknowledge as value-laden, surely there is some way that life can be enunciated as a condition that goes beyond physiognomy or metaphysics. Yet this is where we find ourselves: on the brink of unknowing, except when we try to clarify what life is by way of apophasis – that is, by exploring what life is not, in the hope that we might find a way to intimate what it is.

Firstly, death is definitely not life, though it frames life as darkness does light. Death is a material condition in that it manifests itself at once by announcing an absence of life. Absence, we know, characterizes life in that it is never ‘there’ as a material reality. It may be present in the body, but it does not occupy physiological space. Death on the other hand implies a collapse of form as it exists in a body, a tree, or an insect, when these begin to decompose, and start their journey back to a condition of ordinary matter. Death signals a return to matter, to formlessness, to unintelligible substance; in contrast to life, which always embodies form.[20] In fact, it makes form possible.

Death is a process of redemption because the form that matter takes when it is enlivened slowly dissipates. Matter’s timely form, when it is engaged in life, lasts as long as life chooses to participate in that form. The moment life is no longer, the idea of formless matter once more re-asserts itself. It seems that matter needs to redeem itself as matter before it can again participate in the act of life. But once disposed towards life it is temporarily transformed into a functional form, complete with its own genetic imprint. An ant, a bird or flower, each enters being when life asserts itself. The act of redemption, however, is key to matter’s ongoing participation in life. It must be released by life into its inchoate being. That is, matter must engage in its own imperfection for a period of time, before it can re-emerge once more as a form in life. Redempto (L), a paying back, and inchoatus, that of an imperfect state, these conditions are implicit in matter’s modus. It thrives on lack, yet it also needs the perfection that life offers, if only temporally.

Australian Aborigines speak of a palpable life force, which they call kurunba, that inhabits matter when it is invested with mythic form. It animates certain topographic landforms, which in turn become more than themselves. It is both an act and a potency. Not only does the landscape become metaphysically alive through the aegis of myth, but it also represents a transcendent form, known as a Dreaming (tjukuurpa or ‘time of the ancestors’). A Dreaming is more important to an Aborigine because of its transcendent form than life itself. A Dreaming transcends life. It stands outside the limitations of life. Kurunba, the telluric power in landform (or rock, tree, waterhole etc.), is regarded as ‘intrinsic life’ in that it participates in what is eternal. Ordinary matter is invested with a quality that does not need to be redeemed because it has entered into a condition of eternality when it becomes a part of a Dreaming site. One is reminded of Dionysius the Aeropagite’s remark in his Divine Names when he says ‘intellectual substance has unfailing life, being free from all corruption, death, matter, generation.’[21] It is myth that enables such an intellectual substance or life-force (kurunba) to remain ever manifest in the world. So long as myth is acknowledged as a stable force within the land, then matter is able to participate in eternal being.

Memory sustains it in its state of eternality. While Aborigines continue to recall the song-cycles associated with a Dreaming site, as well as perform the rituals and dances relative to its ongoing existence, the story of this landform is maintained and renewed. Kurunba as a telluric power is re-invigorated. Matter is invested with a life embodied in story. It does not have to change itself into a recognizable form to sustain its material existence, either. Unlike matter when it enters into the physiological state, it is able to live a far longer life because it is nourished by myth. Myth not only has the power to give life to matter in the form of landscape; it can remove it from temporality altogether. This is the reason why life in the form of mythos adds to our understanding of its mysterious properties. Undeniably life as story shows us the way to re-invent what life is, rather than what it is not.

Aboriginal conception beliefs offer us another insight into what constitutes life. For them, the totemic ancestors left a trail of ‘life’ throughout the landscape, thus imbuing it with power (kurunba). Life, though not palpable, nonetheless exists in the land as a telluric energy (or intellectual substance), which in turn may be made manifest at the conception of a child in that landscape. Some part of this ‘life’ enters into the body of a woman who happens to cross one of these trails. Thus a new foetus is enlivened in the womb prior to sexual contact with a man. Aranda Aborigines also hold to a belief in the idea of a person possessing two souls. One is a personal soul, which passes away at death. The second soul, however, is part of the life of one of the immortal ancestors. It is this ‘soul’ that enters into the foetus at conception, thus ensuring that the child partakes of the eternal aspect of the Dreaming.[22] Life is thus derived from a movement across the land, drawing from it a part of its ‘Dreaming substance,’ not as a deliberate act that arises through sexual contact.[23]

The concept of ‘two souls’ is important to an Aborigine’s understanding of life. Like us, he cannot conceptualize it except through a body of beliefs and a familiarity with certain time-honored images. These provide him with a way into engaging with life. His understanding is no different to that of the ancient Egyptian’s belief in twin souls that manifest themselves as Ba and Ka birds. One denotes the individual soul, the other as eternal soul. Both make it possible for life to partake of temporality and immortality in the one instant. The fluidity of life thus affirms its praxis as an un-embodied force able to hold matter to its operation as both ‘primary matter’ and as ‘potential form’ when it takes on the garb of life. This duality of soul enables life to soften the influence of polarities, being and not-being; it breaks free, floats, and so manifests itself in all existence as an enlivening power.

We have now entered an entirely new understanding of what constitutes life. It has become an intellectual substance rather than a biological impetus towards creaturely existence. It partakes of both mutability and immutability. When it is mutable, it is invested with change, and so proximate with death.[24] This is because life is co-created in time, and so is contingent. But when it partakes of immutability it is by its nature eternal, ‘not by nature but by favour,’ as suggested by John of Damascene.[25] For the Aborigines ‘favour’ is bestowed as immutable substance upon matter (landscape) by the act of Dreaming heroes. They see their tribal environment as consumed with life, given that it lives as a totemic landscape as well as that of a biological one. Such a concept harks back to the duality of souls that inhabit geographic space in a way that renders it both a multiplicity and a unity. Life shows itself on the land in the form of creaturely and botanical existence, of course; but it also lives in the land in terms of mythos and power (kurunba). The double nature of the soul is thus perfectly aligned to perpetuating that fullness (plenitude) which is so essential to the overall conduct of existence.

One of the most pervasive elements that imbues the world with difference is sonority, or sound. The idea that sound might be the basis of life is, of course, hard to fathom. Sound conducts itself as a vibration, not as a material element – or indeed, as an intellectual principle. It lies outside the domain of valuation yet it pervades all living things, not only in the context of their utterance but also as the basis of their construction. Hans Jenny, a Swiss scientist and founder of ‘cymatics’ (the study of sound vibrations), found a way to visualize sound vibrations on a metal plate and in fluid through the use of different wave frequencies. This lead him to assert that sound lay at the heart of all life, and the forms in which it resides. In other words, he argued that different vibrations and frequencies were responsible for the creation of different forms from matter. Sound, none other than the Word acknowledges as origin in St John’s Gospel, had found its advocate in the guise of a modern researcher. Far from a disordered chaos existing throughout the universe, he regarded the presence of sound as the principle that provided order and pattern in matter. Like Fibonacci’s number system and its association with the Golden Mean or Ratio, which is the basis of frequency and form in nature, he argued that sound is a way into life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the binary system underpinning our computers today finds it origin in ancient Sanskrit prosody created by Pingala in the Vedic period (c.200 BC). The vocals in poetry of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ syllables acting in balance in an epic text such as the Mahabharata, which in turn are derived from the Golden Mean of number, lend credence to the idea that life is intimately linked to sound and the ‘construction’ of myth itself.

Moreover, human language is the most perfect expression of that sound. It alone gives structure to sound as something spoken, not systemized solely as vibration. Language becomes the determinant of consciousness, calibrating the whimsy of thought. Whimsy, one might ask? Even though language has limits (Wittgenstein), it does not mean that nonsense has no meaning. According to the philosopher there are such things as ‘super-facts’, which enable us to straddle the line that separates ordinary facts from transcendent realities. The mystery that lies at the heart of all religious disciplines can only be ‘understood’ outside ontological norms. The word itself is derived from mu, which is derived from the root muein in Greek, meaning “to keep silent” (a closed mouth). That which is inexpressible in straightforward factual language is precisely what is ineffable. Running up against the barrier of language is therefore an essential action in the delineation (understanding) of life. It is to imagine language as a form of life.[26] It is to indulge in the whimsy of thought, and this is one of the essentials of life.

In this essay I have tried to separate the idea of what constitutes life from its essence. I am not sure whether I have succeeded. The life force that Aborigines speak of in sacred land, the remarkable ratio of numbers that lie at the heart of many life-forms in nature, the importance of mythos as a symbolic language in the context of world-creation, the significance of etymology as a way of digging deeper into the soil of meaning, all of these fall into the category of quiddity, or whatness. Life possesses a quiddity in that it is also a radiance. It shines, even as it does not manifest light. But at least we have been able to detach life from its biological previsions. It no longer merely vivifies to the point where some things live and others simply exist. The difference between an insect, say, and a rock is no longer so robust as a relation. Being and non-being do not seem so much in contrast as they once did. World and awareness are now more interpenetrated by what the Greeks call endeixis – that is, the coded language of life. It is this language that offers up a parapetasma, or symbolic ‘screen’, which simultaneously reveals and conceals (cf. ‘nature likes to hide’). Life causes the One to become manifest.[27] And it is the One that has no dimension except when it engages in manifestation.

Life, we know, is derived from bits of matter that are inorganic, which in turn compose themselves in time and space in order to fashion a living organism. What this implies is an ascent from matter to form, from the lower to the higher, by way of a ‘peculiar kind of activity’ or process belonging to a body made up of parts, which, taken in themselves, enjoy an activity that is indefinable.[28] Thought, on the other hands, is a peculiar kind of activity arising in living organisms, using life as its substratum or material. It stands above life, and yet is a product of it. Moreover, it is qualitatively different from any activity pertaining to the material that makes up an organic body. We therefore find ourselves moving away from the constituency of life into that of thought. Life is there to produce thought. Thought is the ultimate expression of life. Without life there is no thought. It is reasonable to assume, then, that the cosmos, for all its claim upon infinite space to bolster it materially, has been created solely to celebrate the emergence of thought. Ultimately life has but one reason to exist: to bestow upon all of nature its purest gift, that of consciousness itself.

To embrace life, fully, one must be acutely aware of its ramifications. It is no longer simply a function of existence. It is a multifaceted reality that participates in, and yet transcends all categories. One cannot argue its existence solely by resorting to the aid of geology, biology, chemistry, particle physics, genetic or astronomical science, myth, poetry, theology or comparative religion. Though of course its configuration can readily be identified by all these disciplines in one way or another. And yet it is not completely a part of any of them! This leads one to consider whether its principal characteristics reside in metaphysics rather than any branch of the sciences, whether these be practical or humanistic. To paraphrase Wittgenstein again, if the question of what life is cannot be framed, then it is not possible to answer it. Life therefore transcends our capacity to begin to understand it. It has no ontological basis, and yet it is real nonetheless. Until we devise some new language to define its qualities, or acquire some new apophatic insight into it, then we must accept that it will continue to reside in the domain of mystery.

Life is a mysterious thing. If this is so – if mystery is the primary property of life, then it is incumbent upon us to find a way to acknowledge mystery as some sort of ‘fifth dimension,’ and not simply an unresolved issue of dialectics. If the theologian cannot explain it (nor the philosopher), and we know the scientist cannot, the concept of life emanating from another dimension than the one it has hitherto occupied (as a part of the soul or the cell, for example, or as an energy), then it must be viewed from another perspective altogether. Should we not begin to see life as an un-formed space that we inhabit for a brief duration? We ‘enter’ life, do we not? We participate ‘in’ it. Sometimes we actually plunge into it in a bid to exploit it beyond its limits. We often think that life is ‘limitless’, that it goes on forever. In the same moment, however, we acknowledge the danger of pursuing life to the limit. We know that to do so brings us in contact with hubris, or excessive self-love.

The space of life. The poet Paul Eluard reminds us of what he calls the ‘solemn geographies of human limits’ in which we sometimes become lost. We lose ourselves in the space of our own vertigo. The fall of Icarus alerts us to the consequences of attempting to fly too high, beyond our capacities to formally enact ourselves. This is a property of endangered life, a life that we are fully prepared to risk. What provokes us to want to risk our lives? Honour? Courage? Exaggerated self-esteem? All of these, more than likely. Together they form a pantheon of risk, none other than that space we devote to the potential obliteration of life. We want to test life’s attachment to us! We are saying: do your worst, destroy us, allow us to be released from your grasp. We have coined two words to describe such a condition: dare devil. We dare life as a way of counteracting our understanding of evil. This is the modus of people who do not respond to the question of limits because they see limitation as evil. They suffer from what I call the Icarus syndrome.

The fifth dimension is vulnerable to attack. Life is a precarious thing. Science has commandeered it as yet another physical dimension comparable with space and time.[29] The real fifth dimension, however, should be regarded as one that is metaphysical, not of one aligned to gravitational fields. Life demands more of us. A sense that we can indeed ‘see through a glass darkly’, and view what is truly extra-dimensional. Why not? There is an assumption in our scientific age that sense-perception and ratio are the only ways to measure phenomena. The mystics and the poets or the custodians of myth are discounted as empiricists because their methods of encounter with extra-dimensional reality do not conform to the accepted arrangement of materiality. In other words, Dreaming trails are definitely not electronic impulses.

And yet, does not life expect more of us? Is it not an imperative that drives all of matter towards an apotheosis? This is not an atomist’s plea but of someone who regards dimensionality as a trap. The subtle energy which is life, whose origin is everywhere and nowhere, requires its mystery to be honoured. We are therefore obliged to find new ways to express the mythos of life. Dreaming trails will remain, as will Einstein’s theory of relativity. Protean in its drive towards renewal, life stands outside human constructs. It refuses to be poured into a mold, or frozen into some recognizable form. It is no accident that we often associate life with the dance, and expect some transient form to emerge whenever we observe it. Protogonos of Lucian said that dancing came into being at the beginning of things. Eros was seen as the primeval dancer that clearly set forth the ‘choral’ dance of the constellations (ie. the ‘music of the spheres’). The interweaving of the planets and fixed stars was seen as an orderly harmony. Dance, in other words, is a cosmic activity.

This fact is borne out by Shiva, Lord of the Dance, in Hindu mythology. According to Unmai Vilakkam (V.32) ‘the supreme intelligence dances in the soul… By these means, our Father scatters the darkness of illusion (maya).’ Thus the perpetual dance is his play, his intellectual play. Play is the essence of the dance, and therefore of life. The first dance is that of matter, and it is danced into being by Kali, the god of Time and Change. The second dance is performed by Shiva (‘the one who is eternally pure’) who wills it. The interpretation of the latter’s dance is threefold. Firstly, it is the image of his rhythmic play as the source of all movement in the cosmos. Secondly, the purpose of his dance is to release the countless souls from the snare of illusion. Finally, the place of the dance is the centre of the universe, which lies within the heart. Dance, the Dance of Life, is thus a metaphor for enlightenment.[30] According to Hinduism, the final achievement of thought is to recognize the identity of spirit and matter, subject and object. This is Sahaja, the spontaneous erasure of polarities whereby everything that partakes of life does so with the knowledge that it inhabits the purity of the void. Life, even though it creates polarities, is of itself a unity, possessing no relations whatsoever.

Life as a concept had now entered the realm of pure metaphysics. It has finally left the domain of matter, of forms in life, and of protean escape into being. It has attached itself to the outer reaches of thought, of intellection. This means that it contributes to the entity and perfection of the knowledge that it causes. Its capacity for embodying the infinite, beyond any determinate measure, is well attested. Strangely enough, life is incommensurably greater than the excellence of any possible finite entities that it is responsible for creating. How so, one might ask? Because life is perfect in itself. While it condones imperfection in the form of temporality and cessation, it nonetheless finds itself always in a state of plenitude, unable to lessen itself through its participation in causality.

This is how life holds onto its essence. It is a formative, simple, and immediate activity, irreducible in all its aspects. It is totally present all at once, within itself; a Form which forms itself; an immediate knowledge that effortlessly attains perfection.[31] The relationship between language and life lies in the fact that the word allows us to see and hear any object or creature; while the object shares its presence with the word. This oscillation is conterminous with life: it fluctuates, it dances between what it enlivens, and its determination to exist in the scheme of things. In other words, some forms of life are more important, while others engage in active, if humble support to these. Life is not democratic, we should be aware of that. It has its own agenda. Nor does it support the concept of ‘my life’, an act of possession that no stone or bird would begin to contemplate. Life is not property, or indeed related to the possessive pronoun in any way, able to be exploited in the name of our solitary selves.

In reality life has no value; it is devoid of valuation. We might place value upon it, but this is merely an attempt on our part to engage in an act of intersubjectivity with it. Life does not grant us this privilege, in spite of our wish for it to do so. It is free. Like a flame, it occupies insubstantial space in a way that preserves its integrity as a metaphor for light (as light is a metaphor for light). We observe it, knowing that what we see is largely a product of our thought. Life cannot be visualized. It is no shadow puppet. Life gives us joy as it does sadness when we invoke the tragedy of its loss. But that is our sadness and joy, not life’s. Life experiences no emotion, even as it generates the same in us. It is this capacity not to contain anything but itself which sets life apart. It is empty and yet it is full. Life is a fecund emptiness. It provokes ecstasy as a plenitude in the void, and provokes frisson which convulses into nothingness. When it invades our being it does so as absolute emptiness.

Life’s principal attribute, when it manifests itself in us, is ecstasy. Its overriding desire is for us to overcome our creaturely condition. In order to do so, life has provided us with the happiness of a slow dissolution. It has made death into a seed, what Erugena calls the ‘infinite, multiple power of the seed’ with itself as it root. Can there be any remedy against this germinating death, this life of death? The ecstasy that I speak of is as a result of a truly lived life settling itself into our inner space. There it germinates, there it grows into the nothingness that we crave. This aridity of consciousness is what we long for. It is the psychic equivalent of the desert. The ecstasy of dissolution and the inactuality of life are the conditions for the actualization of a perfect state. We are alive when we live by the skin of our teeth. When, after much suffering, we have devoured the world, then does life in the form of death appear from behind a veil of Nothingness and present itself to us as our last temptation. The inner flame of life refines our physical resistance to such an extent that there is nothing left of our bodies, except the immateriality of ecstasy. In forgetting our bodies, which are sustained by life, we begin to rediscover our true understanding of life.

In the end, we must accept that life as we know it is a reality long experienced but little understood. Coming to terms with what it represents requires us to distance ourselves from the scientific world view, which is limited by its methodologies, and so delivers little more than a bio-chemical explanation. A metaphysical world view, however, is equally vague in its intention. Cleary there is built into life an urge towards completion. A seed becomes a flower, a sapling a tree, a cub a lion, a stream a river. Wherever we look we see life as a phenomenon of growth. It is not static, even when it remains inchoate in a stone. This urge towards completion, towards plenitude, is unique to life, even though life plays no active role in growth save as a presence. Genera and species possess their own built-in programme towards realization. Cellular structure is not arbitrary, but consistent with the form that it inhabits. Forms in life are preserved and protected by their individual genus.

Still, for all the distance that separates us from understanding the true nature of life, we are not altogether aloof from its essence. We feel it in our bones. We are grateful for its presence all around us. It permeates our being as it does the universe. Its consistency as a platitude (‘life begins at forty;’ ‘life is as good as it gets’ etc.) does not in any way diminish its worth. We are in life as life is in us. A marvelous correlation of being, is it not? We should be grateful, therefore, that some indefinable force, some cosmic energy, some quiddity has bestowed its gift upon us. We are no less for receiving it. It was said of Francis of Assisi that he went blind at the end of his life because he cried too much. It begs the question: was his blindness less the result of his suffering, of his tears, than it was of his constant engagement with bliss? Thinking about life is perhaps more important than living it, it would seem. Bliss is but its outcome.

Finally, I am reminded of what John Scotus Erugena wrote about the mystery of life, speaking of the origin of this quiddity, which he saw as the presence of God in the universe:

As a whole it is life, intellect, reason, sense and memory; as a whole, it endows body with life, nourishes it, holds it together and causes it to grow; as a whole, with all the senses, it perceives the appearance of sensible things; as a whole, beyond any corporeal sense, it treats, it discerns, joins and distinguishes nature and reason of all things; as a whole, outside and above all creation and itself, it revolves around its creator in an intelligible and eternal motion…[32]

Life, according to the philosopher, finds its impetus outside itself, in what Bergson referred to earlier as ‘a moving continuity,’ – or, as Erugena suggests, in an ‘intelligible and eternal motion.’ However we wish to address the mystery of life, it is important to realize that many great minds in the past have attempted to define it for us. Even though each explanation is only provisional, we are more than beholden to the integrity of their observations. Like Wittgenstein, they have run up against the limits of language, those ‘unspeakable words’ (Arcanum verbi), but nonetheless found a way to alert us to the existence of what Bamford calls the ‘eagle’ in ourselves. Is this not yet another aspect of life?


~James Cowan, Australian-born world traveler and student of spiritual traditions around the globe, advocate of Australian Aboriginal traditions, novelist and poet.

Copyright © 2015 Excellence Reporter


[1] Ibn Gabirol, Solomon. Fons Vitae. Tr. Harry Wedeck. Part V. According to the philosopher this is the origin of love. Matter moving towards its form is a demonstration of desire and love.

[2] Moreover, the nothingness or nihil per excellentiam is the ground of all being, its primal substance, unknown, and unthinkable. And yet, in this nothingness, which is a perpetual fountain, rests an immanent power of distinction. In this nothingness lies the power of something.

[3] Wittgenstein. Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. 6.52

[4] Ibid. 6.522

[5] Cf. John 1.1. ‘In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God.’

[6] Davidson, John. The Odes of Solomon. Ode 16.

[7] Cf. John Scotus Erugena, Homily XVIII: ‘For, just as in the case of one who speaks, when he stops speaking, his voice ceases and disappears, so also with the heavenly father, should he stop speaking his heavenly Word, the effect of his Word – the created universe – would cease to subsist.’

Or Ibn Gabirol: Fons Vitae: One can compare creation to the word, which man utters with his mouth… Meaning is substantiated in matter, and matter preserves that meaning.’ (V.43)

[8] Bergson, Henry. Matter and Memory.

[9] See Rene Guenon. The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. Ch. 2.

[10] Ibid. 6.45.

[11] Genesis 1.20. ‘And God said, let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that that life.’

[12] See Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language for further elucidation.

[13] Merleau-Ponty. The Visible and the Invisible.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Or as Maurice Blanchot wrote: ‘Language is a thing, it is a written thing, a bit of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clay in which the reality of the earth continues to exist.’

[16] Novalis. The Novices of Sais. Transl. Ralph Manheim.

[17] Aristotle. Generation of Animals, II. 6.

[18] Cf. Heraclitus: ‘Nature likes to hide.’

[19] Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis.

[20] This would concur with Augustine’s observation in his Confessions XII, 7, where he informs us that primary matter ‘is its own power’ and is made ’nigh unto nothing.’ That is to say, it lacks form.

[21] Dionysius, the Aeropagite. The Divine Names, Section 1, PG, 3, 693. One is also reminded of Thomas Aquinas in this respect, when he quotes Gregory (Moral. XVI): ‘all things tend towards nothing, unless the hand of the Almighty [or myth] preserves them.’

[22] At death the second soul, after a period of lingering on earth, finally returns to the reservoir of soul or spirit that makes up the Dreaming.

[23] See T.G.H. Strehlow’s Central Australian Religion for a more detailed explanation.

[24] Cf. Augustine, Contra Maximus. ‘Every change is a kind of death.’ (bk II, ch.12)

[25] Migne, J.P. Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Also Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 50, article 5.

[26] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophic Investigations, 19.

[27] Uzdavinys, Algis. Philosophy and Theurgy.

[28] Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of Nature.

[29] ‘The extra-dimensional picture may actually contain an inflation mechanism which, under favorable circumstances, would produce observable gravitational waves, the details of which may give away some features of their extra-dimensional origin’ (Randall-Sundrum theory).

[30] Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Dance of Shiva.

[31] Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision.

[32] Erugena, John Scotus. The Voice of the Eagle. Transl. Christopher Bamford.

Categories: Awakening, Poetry

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