I got thinking as I sat on the loo (pardon the details, but that was how it was). Why are there 360 degrees in a full circle? Why not 400? Or 3600?
It probably has something to do with a base 12 numeral system. But someone, somewhen, must have decided that 360 were about the right number of degrees to cover the range needed. After all, if there’d only been 12 degrees in a circle, navigation would have been a tad haphazard.
Where am I going with this?
I’ve been thinking a little about questions and how we answer them. Some are mathematical or scientific or historical and with a little research a reasonably comprehensive answer can be found. I could probably “Ask Jeeves” or consult Wikipedia and find out the answer to my musings on degrees in a circle.
I suppose a pure mathematical question can be answered with a pure mathematical answer. But not all questions are so tidy – or so pure. Even this one probably leaves a few imponderables up in the air. Once you introduce science, you leave the realm of unsullied logic and get into the murkier territory of hypothesis and experiment – not to mention finance (“who gets the grant?”). Descend to history, and you’re soon in the ash cloud of human motivation and political struggle.
And when it comes to ethics or philosophy or (heavens!) theology? – Can there be such a thing as a pure answer, unsullied by human jockeying for power or money or even just the base desire for popularity.
Postmodernism says “no”. Every answer, every story (especially the big ones which claim to answer questions as they go along) is just about human power games.
As a result, everything’s fundamentally suspicious, and therefore uncertain. All that remains is the story you write for yourself – and that can change next week if you like. Because, actually, we shouldn’t even trust ourselves.
The “big answer” of modernism, Science, has been found wanting because the “big answer” of the Enlightenment, Reason, has been found wanting. The “big answer” of the Reformation, the Bible, has not so much been found wanting as not found because the Enlightenment threw it out. And as for the “big answer” of medievalism, Mother Church, she is now only fit to be the arch-villainess in children’s books by Philip “postmodern” Pullman.
We’re on our own folks under a cold sky. As Samuel Beckett expressed it, we’re sitting under a tree waiting for Godot – but he never turns up. “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”
The problem is that no-one I know can actually live in a world with no answers. (Friedrich Nietzsche tried it; he, at least, had the good grace to go mad.)
So lots of little answers flood in. Life now consists of a new pair of trainers. Because they are The Meaning of Life, they are given names like “Fire” or “Passion”. Life consists of the latest film in which someone triumphs against adversity while we sit watching them, cramming popcorn into our mouths before going home and putting the bins out. Life consists of the latest Playstation game. Or how many friends you have on Facebook to tell that your doing “nothin much” right now. Or – darker – life consists of anonymous sex via internet porn.
For the record, let me just say that I don’t think everything about postmodernism is wrong. Some big answers need to be treated with suspicion. Sometimes science needs its capital “s” confiscated. Sometimes relationships are more important than “getting it right”. Sometimes we do have to accept that we can’t know everything and make friends with mystery. Sometimes “being” is enough and “doing” needs to pipe down.
At its best postmodernism is humble because it recognises that modernism was about human pride. A movement that is “post pride” is not a bad thing – as long as it doesn’t become cynical and, ironically, take pride in not believing anything.
What if there is a story that’s true? Not just mathematically, purely, inhumanly true – but historically, messily, humanly true?
What if there’s a story that puts not knowledge, but love at the heart of everything? A story that starts in a garden and ends in a city because human life does have a direction and a destination?
A story which doesn’t try to hide the mess, the humanness, the sullied motivation and confusion of its protagonists?
A story in which one obscure family – just like everyone else only more so – is chosen, from whom one obscure family member turns out to be the storyteller himself.
What if that storyteller gathers all the wrong answers, warped motives and proud delusions in the whole story, brings them all to an end in a chapter called Death, and opens a new chapter called Resurrection?
What if Godot arrived? What if something happened, somebody came, and it was awesome?
What if the possibilities are endless? What if there’s everything to live for?
What if that story is still being written and we have the opportunity for a part in it?
Only questions. Just asking.