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Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It seems a different world on the 13th floor of the library. But it isn’t.

In the southeast corner, before the window, behind the pillar, at the desk, on the last day of the semester, I find myself staring at the graffiti left by generations. I run my fingers over the letters etched into the wood, grasping to comprehend what drove them to this.

The authors seem not to have known whether they were having a heated argument or an existential crisis: “Limitations exist only within the human mind,” insists one; “Man has failed to become what God meant him to be,” responds another; “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” concludes a third. There is a desperation to all of it, as though they felt that here, where they were closest to God, there was more at stake – that what they etched into the wood would have to be worthy of endurance into distant ages.

Their inscriptions are insights of a sort ­- ­revelations into the nature of things, into the machinery of reality at the heart of the world. But it is difficult to scratch the surface of mere appearance, difficult to the point of tragedy, and I cannot shake the feeling that, even given their desperation, the insights that the generations have etched into the wood are shallow – and that those generations etched deeply because, deep down, they knew this.

But what they did not realize, perhaps, is that the table is itself graffiti, as is the library in which it stands: both are just the products of their builders trying to come to terms with an indifferent world. And they themselves, like all of us, are in this sense graffiti as well, since we are just the products of the previous generation trying to come to terms with the world – a generation that passed back into that world in time.

We know this, deep down – that we are mortal, and therefore with limit. That we in turn will pass back into the world, just as our parents did, revealing that we were part of it all along – that the distinction we draw between ourselves and the world is, ultimately, something of a falsification. That there is a kind of unity to things, even if this is difficult to admit. That it seems a different world on the 13th floor of the library, but it isn’t.

Whether this insight is trivial or not, I do not know. Perhaps every insight is trivial when compared with some other – even this one. Perhaps, when we scratch the surface of mere appearance, we reveal only deeper appearance. Perhaps underneath the surface of the wood is only more wood. And perhaps my race to understand the world is thus a pursuit that cannot end – for after every answer, there is another question. Truth runs ever ahead, alluring and elusive. And I will die before I catch it.

If any insight is nontrivial, it is this one. Wittgenstein wrote that “The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions” – even questions as silly as that of asking what graffiti can tell me about myself, about the world and my place in it. For this question, like all questions, is itself graffiti: it is my desperate attempt to come to terms with a world that cares little for whether I ever understand it, for whether I learn at last how to live in peace as a part of it. The irony is that I can achieve this kind of understanding only when I learn to stop my relentless pursuit of it: the last insight, perhaps, is into just how little insight can achieve.

But to see clearly, to accept the world for what it is, is easier said than done. We are born running after understanding and, like our parents, we will in time bear children who do the same. Generations run after truth and, save for a few sages and saints, they meet their end before they learn to stand still. They etch their desperate marks into the world because they see this end: trapped by the limitations of the human mind, they fail to become what God meant them to be and rage, rage against the dying of the light. The generations see their end, and they fear it. And I myself am no less afraid.

It is therefore difficult to deal with the ends of things – with riding the elevator as high as it goes, for instance. Or trying to come to terms with what a semester has meant, imposing a narrative even onto a table among the clouds.

Let this be my graffiti.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu. Listen to his radio show every Sunday at 3:00 p.m. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.