‘How did the world begin?’ asks the child. That is the very first question of all, liquid and innocent. The words themselves begin a world, putting history to a stop and breaking time’s arrow. Therein, creation stirs anew, and the mind and the world. The child is eternal in us, and its question too. When we lose it, we lose ourselves, which we do all the time. Thinking to tell the truth when we answer, we also lose ourselves. For the question is the hand cupped around an ear expectant for a new story. Let us not disappoint the child and confuse fact with a metaphor. What I mean to say is let us not replace, as Plato warns, things in themselves with our literal version. Otherwise, we will cease to exercise a memory of ourselves. Besides, truth, which is ancient and wizened as a crone, wishes to be known as beautiful, which she is not. The story beings with love and is always about love and love is how the world always begins.
The question of the world’s beginning tumbles free of us, a brook bubbling from an underground source. Before the words, which begin the world anew for the eternal child, there was one less element. There was the hardness of the ground, the infinity of the sky, and the fire of feeling. Now the fourth emerges and changes everything. Water softens earth to muck, makes a close fog of heaven, and slakes the inner inferno. It heals all and moves on, a life itself, quickening, dynamic, repeating itself, filling all cavities. It challenges form, despises unevenness, and begs us to mirror it as it does us. The quest for the origin of things is in imitation of water. I ask, as does the child, because I have thirst and need to drink. Water imitates the shape of its container. The story imitates the delight it causes. And thirst imitates the cool, spring draught that rushes over the granite, by the forget-me-nots and horsetail, and into the cup of my hand. To drink from these waters is opposite from those of Lethe, the river transmigrating souls drink from who forget their past lives. For these waters trickle up from the undying core of meaning, and to drink them again (like a cure) is to remember the delight of well-being. Please you drink.
The annunciation of that meaning I am less sure about, but no less sure that my thirst will be slaked when my lips first touch the icy liquid close to its artesian well. A combination of exigency and faith steers the process. These correspond to the body’s receptivity to the sound of water. I am only sure that language articulates itself from a source in the body, in a natural intelligence or onomatopoeia intended to slake a deep human need. Words, well-formed and well-meant, upwell from the body’s life as much as does breathing and pulse. They are images or signatures, and as the medieval doctors knew, have to be deciphered for their secret cures. For such language, which is audible intelligence, serves to rebalance the organism by acting directly on the tympanic nerves in the inner ear. It may be true that the circuit is rarely completed since it requires our cooperation; an effort to participate in the body’s speaking. And since we are mostly taken up with appropriating things with our literal mind, we are forgetful. Here the fall of water, over meadow rock and pebbles worn round by the millennia, cures since it remembers the archaic tongue and satisfies the ear’s parched condition like no other.
Where meaning pours forth from the ever-fertile ground — anywhere I strike with my pen — there a story waits. A direct correlation exists, Spinoza tells, between such intelligence and the condition of the body. He might have spoken of an organic geometry, an atlas of corporeal places, each of which keeps an image sacred. Visit the place and you experience devout presence. Meaning is the practice of devotion, the hand quickly lifting itself, palms open, toward heaven. When we touch what patiently waits us inside the body, a story bursts out. No literal, appropriate meaning can ever serve the gods of these shrines, but all religions praise them, in hymn, prayer, and liturgy. It is hardly an original idea, but it is an original one, that religion is the keeper of stories. In the memory of religion lie tools for commemorating the origin of things, which hardly quells the child’s question but fills the child’s body with wonder and awe. That appetite I crave, even as I feel the stirring of a story in me.
Thales, a legend lying asleep under stars at the birth of thought, said all things come from water. His words brought forth a flood of images, from a likeness of a lowly flea to the divine and godly archetype of creation — a perfect sphere–that make up a dream, which is the body perceiving its own condition for its own enjoyment; the primitive’s story. Thales held that stars were actually luminous bodies of liquid, like the moon staring down on the surface of the beaver pond in full spring. Is the pond’s moon an illusion? To think so is not to feel the secret longing the moon and pond share, like the heliotrope’s for the sun.. Bodies of liquid light swaying on a black aqueous nebula, the eyes of a great god, seemed proof of his theory. The stars need to see us as much as we need to beheld by them under a cloudless April canopy of dark. We are words the stars listen to. They speak of us in their constellations. One night, so intent was Thales on the object of this thought that he fell into a well. His cries awakened a beautiful young shepherdess from a dream in which she swam in a pellucid pool carved out of white marble. When she awoke to save the drowning philosopher, love was waiting, and so first philosophy found that water begets stories just as stars, dreams, and that thought is love when night clouds over. We might do well to remember the momentous discovery lest our horizons shrink to the likeness of a flea.
The swift stream of images, water bubbling from its meadow source, and Thales’ thought are ringed around me in a serendipitous moment. Perhaps what we call serendipity is just when speech returns to the primitive. The heavy onlooker of reflection holds us by the feet. When he lets go, a little joy takes to the air and rises to the stars. Thales’ amazement was like that when the young woman taught him the correspondence of the stellar and the aqueous. His body immersed in the cold bath, he looked heavenward. From a depth of a couple of fathoms, the stars are clearly visible in the middle of the day. In a flash, he saw what the ancient Egyptians had known all the time: the Milky Way is the great river over which souls cross in forgetfulness. He did not drink of that water. By the time he had dried himself, he saw the identity of depth and height, and that the door to the netherworld opens to beyond the sun. This may remind us of a philosopher who came later from Ephesus, where Saint John also worked. Heraclitus, said enigmatically that the way up and the way down are the same. Falling, Thales found water flows down from the source up to the sky.
Water makes for a quickness of the tongue. An image, unlike a concept, is evanescent. Like water, it cannot be grasped and must be quickly imbibed. Yet the philosophy of water has an unmistakable taste, original like that of amniotic fluid; pre-natal. School philosophy, which has occupied so much of our mind, builds syllogisms over the earth and has a secret obsession with architecture. Edifice, wall, and tower are its temples, and fine ones. Yet the foundation, as Descartes found, is obscure. Obscurity breeds anxiety in the pit of the belly from which follows a dark river of words. But an earlier approach is irenic and serene. Enter a dream and the jumble of image stirs thought and awakens a gustatory sense that reminds us quickly that our ethereal or astral bodies are bathed in water. Water is the element of dreaming. The resident god of dreaming, Hynpos, is cousined to the spirit of water, Hydros. Dreams speak to us in the astral, aqueous language that conscious minds, the cogito, cannot follow because of the ponderous march of thinking. It is this speech I am trying to heed in order to find my way back to an earlier threshold, before the human will left the garden where it wandered in an original knowledge of the taste of pure water on a dry summer day. Such is the taste of fruit from the other tree, the tree of life. The way is not known beforehand, though by accounts it is guarded by twin angels with flaming swords. Their names are various but I recognize them as Courage and Compassion. One must have a heart compassionate enough to embrace fear without crushing it if one is to enter the gate.
The earlier philosophy must have been known by Odysseus during his journey to Hades, the invisible. That is another garden in which the animal nature of Cerebus presides over a realm where image passes fluidly over image like a peaceful flutter of moth wings. Living soul as he was, Odysseus’ presence quickens the departed souls as a flame does the moth to madness. That kind of lucidity rarely happens in a dream, but it is exactly this experience that is represented by Homer’s scene. The fall into a consciousness innocent of guile — into the well’s cold water — has the makings of a baptism, though the profane does not thereby vanish. Being alive and wakeful to the tribes of images, we know words without laying claim to the headwaters that gush from the fountain at the center. I cannot draw a figure of those words but the body perceives the same through a particular sensation it has in crossing a threshold. It may be reality is layered and comprised of levels whose transitions we know through our corporeality. It may be the epiphenomenon of reflection enters the doorway only as an afterthought, in real time long after the body has slaked its thirst for the source waters. In any event, I consider the event of a threshold well worth study and will thread my thought through a needle’s eye in an effort to stitch this new fabric into a beautiful fashion, for a lover. That much Odysseus teaches, for he braved the placid, lusterless imagery of hell in order to come home to his beloved Penelope, the one who weaves and waits. Dante of the poem later follows his example.
Mist rising from the dew-stained grasses, a myriad species: how the world begins must be like how the underworld is. For it is a more liquid, less coagulated form of this world. Great beauty in vague form, indistinct contour, interpenetrating shapes, and movement within movement. It is awe, Socrates tells us, that gives birth to meaning. Awe makes us be still enough so the quicksilver bird of signification does not fly away, which is to say, shows pride and thereby informs the heart of flesh. Lacking the deft sensation, we turn to rote and mechanism. The despairing part of ourselves relies on a past of old stone. But I have been to the graveyard at dusk, when rock yields to a soft dark, and am full of hope. It is the same with prayer, ritual, and celebration, all of which concentrate ourselves and keep us quiet. Perhaps the master was up to that when he repeatedly used the whip of irony to sting his thick pupils into quiescence. Then they would have the sensation of the doorway, the stream of image from a fieldstone source, the high polar stars in winter, or the shock of the rock well into which Socrates’ humble predecessor fell. It did not matter which, so long as it freed them of their schooling, which was to bear down hard with chisel on stone. How faintly the image presses on the body. Or put it the other way around: what sensitivity the body shows in responding to the address of an image. Perhaps, as teachers once thought, gymnastics helps prepare for the exercise of subtle speech. In this case, I make use of the posture the body assumes when going over a threshold.
There are other things to track that leave prints in a first speech. We may call them signs. I have alluded to how the beginning lies further back than the cogito can stretch, which accounts for the anxiety over existence. Thought’s dis-ease is a real thing. Desire is in essence an incompleteness, a running sore, and we have that to surrender before we can hear the pure, fresh spring. There are tests to ascertain whether the submission to providence is real. Psyche was given three before she was reunited with her beloved Eros. Our souls, knowing the kiss of early love, may have to pass many more than that before innocence is reclaimed. Whether we are empty enough of ourselves to cross into our native land where the springs are pure and purely delicious is the child’s question. ‘How does the world begin?’ One hears there is fool’s gold because many fools are searching for truth. I count myself among the idiots and know just enough to know the gods do not share their hoard. Why should they? This is the case because they do not have it; they are it. Lacking desire, there is nothing left over in their completeness to give us or any other creature a portion. This leaves us no choice other than to become as gods, which is what the stories, legends, and tales preach. The heresy of our divine nature, which Aristotle admits, may take us as far afield from recognized religion as babble does from logic. But I know no other way of taking out my heart of stone and replacing it with one of flesh.
Today I have unusual confidence that all things are made of water. This very day scientists report a new finding: liquid water in a meteorite. The arrival at our local cosmic address of such an augury against terrestrial provincialism seems most auspicious. A lightning flash in an empty sky: that is how heavenly meaning surprises our settled ways. When eyes toward upward, perception ceases to be only animal, but becomes natural again, which is to say, partly angelic. Then, knowledge knows no limits since a limit supposes an element still beyond knowing and such knowing has not yet attained the infinite dilution of water in water. I have it on good authority that love works also in this way and that the limitless body of knowledge is in reality one with the carnal body, which is the perceptive organ of love. The bonding of water with water is one of the miracles of the universe. Because of it, water remains heavier than ice. Without this arrangement, most odd in nature, there would be no life, thought, image, hope, or prayer.