01-09-2011 - Traces, n. 8



Certainty can be problematic, as can its absence. The “certainty” of the terrorist leads to the chaos and confusion of the terrified, as though certainty is an energy that changes form, moves from person to person, growing in one heart even as it is diminished in the other, always cancelling itself out. But there are, as we discovered at the Meeting of Rimini last month, different kinds of certainty: the certainty of the immovable view, and the certainty of the step along a path that is paved with reason. The Twin Towers in Manhattan were for three decades the most potent symbols of American certainty in the world. A lazy mind, operating with the luxury of hindsight, might decide that they represented not one but two towers of Babel. But, in truth, they were magnificent, the product of human desire, imagination, and energy, exercised in pursuit of an intuition of great possibility.
They bore witness to the certainty that great things can be achieved by the pursuit of human desire, foresight, and reason, a certainty that has all through human history been affirmed and given impetus by the order to be discovered in reality.But one form of certainty can
come to represent a provocation to others.
It seems that the West, in its pursuit of happiness through the medium of materialistic progress, has represented just such a provocation for those who hold to more austere values.
Indeed, I remember thinking, in the wake of 9/11, that my fear of heights might not be so irrational after all. The vertigo I feel in going upwards, especially in a manmade structure, seemed all of a sudden to explain itself: an inbuilt suspicion of Towers of Babel. This may seem like superstition, but it was also the voice of something true speaking from the depths of my being: a warning of the limits of my capacity to execute my desires.
Such fears are mocked by what is in modern culture called reason, but the deeper kind of reason forged by experience tells a different story. One of the things we learned on 9/11 is that our deepest fears have a solid basis in reality.
Even while we admire the ambition of tall buildings, we have to admit that there is something at once absurd about them. In their defiance of gravity, they can seem over-anxious to assert some quality of omnipotence. In a way, what happened ten years ago in New York represented a symbolic moment of collision between two kinds of certainty, each problematic in its own way. It was, you might say, the encounter of the unstoppable force of Western progress and the immovable object of a misinterpreted piety. The “certainty” of the West, grounded in a growing belief that science and technological progress are moving man inexorably toward “the” answers to all questions, was stopped up short by the “certainty” of a primitive understanding of what faith means. There is a strange irony in the fact that the inertia of traditionalism was played out by moving airplanes, whereas the sweep of human progress was represented by the apparently indestructible towers, which crumbled when their intrinsic weaknesses were accessed by a cunning onslaught.
It was strange to observe how, as in other moments of pain and confusion, the West’s first response was to fall to its knees in prayer. This thought resonates with that striking image invoked by Fabrice Hadjadj in his talk at this year’s Meeting: “The Inevitable Certainty: A Reflection on Modernity.” In what might easily have been dismissed as piety, Hadjadj spoke of the incongruity by which an iPhone (which might be taken for a symbol of human progress) requires to be represented in its most upto- date form–a 4, not a 3; then a 5 not a 4–or it courts obsolescence, whereas a crucifix or a rosary retains its potency through time. Beneath the ostensible moralism of this observation, there is a hard and compelling truth: man remains a beggar, and experiences his greatest certainties on his knees.