Most members of the EBF, I’d wager, have heard of Wittgenstein’s little fable of the fly in the milk bottle. Earlier this afternoon, while I exercised in an out room out back, an insect caught in the room futilely beat at a window, consternated, or so I projected into the fluttering little thing, it could not soar into the blue sky just beyond it. The sight reminded me of Wittgenstein’s fly. I captured the insect, opened the door, and as I freed it, I remembered my experience a score of years ago with the bees on the porch.
When I first got married, my wife and I had cat name Ric (he, a stray kitten that showed up one morning, was named by my nephew, a name I avuncularly accepted, for the wrestler Ric Flair), and like many male cats, Ric got around, often coming home only to get something to eat, perhaps sleep awhile, before venturing forth once more. Withal, though, he was a loveable cat, and from time to time he’d curl up in my lap, but his true loves were amour and fighting other males about amour. He had the scars of combat to prove his courage, if courage applies to cats. Since we never knew when Ric was going to show up, we always left food and water on the front porch, a huge screened porch which fronted our lovely old house, a charming “starter” home. With the porch door left partly open, Ric could enter, eat and drink, and then leave, his passion driving him forth once more, Ric impelled by some force as old as time itself. I still miss that capacious porch, its high ceiling, the hours I spent swaying back and forth in the swing.
It didn’t take me long to learn that bees and other winged creatures flew through the slight opening of the door and became trapped on the porch. (I won’t mention the time I found an opossum on the porch, poaching Ric’s food. I didn’t see the creature until I had almost stepped on him. He hissed at me, scared me, and I hurried inside the house. I watched, peeping from a window, while he finished eating, and I was relieved when he then waddled off the porch and back into the bright world.) I’d come home from work, early afternoons, and often find a bee or two trapped on the porch. Occasionally I’d find a bird, but then all I had to do was open the porch door completely and the bird would find his way out. The bees would see the blue sky beyond the screen, attempt to find it, but all they did was walk back and forth between the interstices of the screen, walk to one, then turn and walk to the other one, and back and forth they walked until of course they died. To save the bees I had a large plastic cup on the porch. If I got home from work, found a trapped bee, I’d take the cup, scoop up the bee, and then release it outside.
I used to tell my students that one of the purposes of education is to help us get off the porch, to find the door and subsequently the way out. It’s a simple tale, but perhaps a noble one or, for all I know, a specious and overly clever one; certainly, though, it suits the needs of pedagogy. Ignorance can kill us, but of course I was referring to a more subtle kind of knowledge. I have known men who have grown old and almost content, men who have never read a book, never heard of Becker or Rank, who, certainly, have never read a poem. I can’t prove it, surely not to this kind of man, but art is a way of getting off the porch (or is it merely the best illusion for us to think we are off the porch?). Nietzsche said that it is art that makes life endurable. True? I don’t know. A filled belly might be a better way to endure life. Besides, in my life I have found the big differences between people (my control group is perforce small) is never a matter of intelligence; it is usually a matter of temperament. But I really don’t know. As I grow older I find one of the maddening thing about the accruing of years is that a person senses he or she can be certain of nothing.
I do understand, however, that in some way we poor humans are forever trapped on the porch. We are, as Becker knows (some might say it’s Becker’s main point), irrevocably shackled by the human condition, the imperatives of life–mortality, suffering, misery, all of the woeful items in the box opened above our heads to fall pell mell upon us, beating down on us like hard hail. This is not to say, though, that the sky beyond is not blue and beckoning and beautiful. The problem, when I back it into the corner, is that there is no deus ex machina to remove us from our “porch,” unless it is the illusion of art or, to be blunt, oblivion, death, which, ineluctable as it might be, is of no great comfort, not with that beautiful blue sky—and all it connotes–just out of reach, just on the other side of the screen.