I started grad school in 1992 so cocksure. I knew things and was sure everyone else was an idiot, more or less. I read the books I read and assumed the ones I didn't read were not worth reading.

I liked this feeling. I didn't yet have all the turmoil of aging, of marriage, a child, working, divorce, working some more. San Francisco was dirt cheap and all I had to do was teach one composition class, read some books, write some papers. Life was glorious. I knew what was what.

I was all set to write my dissertation on Kierkegaard and the ironic life. I'd come to grad school obsessed with Kierkegaard and now, four years later, I still was. And then my mentor had me read Deleuze. Suddenly, I had no idea what was what. I didn't know anything and, worse, I couldn't understand anything.

There were about 10 of us in a seminar with this same said mentor (the ever-cool, wise Felipe Gutterriez). And, for the first time (more or less), I was silent. Not just silent: muted. Shut down. People were talking about lightning and repetition and I couldn't understand a goddamn word.

I went into a spiral.  What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I understand anything? I was foggy, disoriented, a little depressed (I thought I was a lot depressed but, in retrospect, it was only a little.) I couldn't write because I couldn't even understand what I didn't understand. But I knew that my Kierkegaard was of no use. Nothing I had was of any use. I was in new territory and I couldn't for the life of me find a foot hole. I was confused.

And then, about a year later, I had a revelation. I'd call it sudden but it was anything but sudden — I'd been reading and re-reading and thinking and mulling and digesting for more than a year. But the move from confusion to understanding is an infinite leap that happens at the speed of thought, even if it takes years of preparation. 

Over the next few weeks, the layout of this strange terrain began to take shape. I was by no means its master — nor did I want to be — but I was its inhabitant, roaming its undulating hills and plains, breathing its foreign and exhilarating air.  I ended up writing a very different dissertation.

This may seem obvious after the fact but it is a lesson I am constantly trying to teach myself: confusion is a requisite for learning. The movement from here to there means letting go of familiarity, of mastery, to become an apprentice all over again.

But I have to tell you: it was scary. I thought I'd simply reached the end of my intelligence or that something was wrong with me — all those drugs had caught up with me and I was now stupid. But, no, I was learning. And one thing I was learning is that being stupid is necessary — to life, to intelligence, to wisdom, to joy (although not necessarily happiness). 

Years later, when I was done with my degree and teaching undergraduates, I would begin every semester with the same shtick. You will be confused, I'd tell my students. If you're not, you're doing something wrong.

Of course, it's nice to feel in the know. To feel sure and certain, to know what to say yes and no to. But we are creatures of time and things change. Conditions change. Our bodies change. Our desires change. New things come our way. Sometimes, we seek these new things. Other times, they are thrust upon us more or less vigorously.

Some years ago, I found myself constantly sick with the same recurring ailment. Something was clearly awry. I didn't know what's happening: Is something deeply wrong with me? Am I sick? I didn't even know where to begin understanding. At a loss and feeling terrible, I went to a keen acupuncturist who told me point blank that the life I was leading was unsustainable.

It was confusing because I wasn't doing anything different than I'd always done. But I had changed — my body, my desires, my appetite, my will. I had to jettison my assumptions and learn how to live again. Which is even more confusing because I knew what I liked so well that I didn't even consider myself knowing it. It's just the way it was. But suddenly everything was up for grabs — my diet, my sleep, my time, my, uh, sexual expenditures, my very desires.

But wouldn't it be absurd for me to make sense of my present life with what I knew when I was 23, 29, 31 (I was then 38)? My body had changed. And so had the world. And yet I was doing things I'd been doing for the past 15-20 years, things that were no longer applicable to this body at this time.

And this body will continue to change as will the world around it. And so confusion looms, always, as I find myself not knowing what to do, what I want, what's best — for me, for her, for him, in the long run, the short run, for the world. Getting older hasn't resolved my confusion; it's amplified it. When I was young, I knew things. Now that I'm old(er), I reel. And it's not a good feeling.

But it is necessary and hence to be embraced, even while it is to be overcome. Confusion, alas, is constitutive of human being (or human becoming, as the case may be). We change and the way we make sense of the world collapses until we adjust the system.

Some people might resort to principles, things they will believe to be true even if they don't believe them to be true. That might help — even if it's insane — but I've found that principles change, too. Maybe that means they're not really principles or maybe it means that everything really is in flux. Maybe some people have these strange, fixed principles. But I've never been one of them. My only principle at this point is uncertainty.  

Perhaps there is another way to stave off confusion. You stay ahead of it, being so alive to yourself in the moment that you're always adjusting your appetite, your desire, your diet, your will. You will never know anything so will never be confused; you'll always be heeding what's best for the moment.

But besides being its own absurd ideal, I believe this becomes its own kind of conservatism. It's the same will as the one that sticks to principles, a will always to feel right and in the know.

I believe it's better, then, to embrace confusion, even to foster it. Because when the way you make sense of the world collapses and you begin to careen — to flounder and whine and drift and drool — a new way of making sense often appears, taking form before your eyes, a miracle. And it's beautiful.  


Lindsay Meisel said...

If there's a principle besides confusion, I'd say it's courage, since it's often required when leaving certainty for confusion, and no guarantee of any future certainty. Of course, sometimes there's no courage involved at all, and you're thrown into confusion against your will. But I still think it takes some courage to embrace the confusion.

Since you don't read the newspaper, you probably didn't see that article in the nyt a few weeks ago about how people tend to vastly underestimate how much they will change in the future. It seems relevant here. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/science/study-in-science-shows-end-of-history-illusion.html?_r=0

Daniel Coffeen said...

Courage, yes. Not sure it's a principle but a demand, a requisite. I find that I keep looking to what I know, retreating to my old ways rather than bearing the confusion to forge a new world, a new way of going. I am not brave, alas.

Good article. Mostly. Thanks.

αλήθεια said...

“My only principle at this point is uncertainty.”
This seems like a basis for one to live an ironic life! It’s like living a life where you welcome a position - or better still - multiple positions, and you embrace them without considering them to be your ultimate positions, because you already know that you might change with time and so you keep yourself open towards other ideas, positions, principles etc. It sounds a little Buddhistic, Stoic, or maybe Socratic, because by living in Irony (I think) one embraces ideas without necessarily accepting them or indulging in them, so one lives one’s life by restraining themselves from indulging in a thing too much.
Is this what you mean by uncertainty? If this is it, then this position sure is extremely anxiety ridden; At least it is to me, especially when I think about taking up this stance. It’s very hard to be ok with openness and uncertainty because it ends up making a person look like a actor acting in a play where the scenes are constantly changing and the actor has to be on his toes changing his role constantly in relation to the ever changing scenes.

Daniel Coffeen said...

These are truly excellent questions. When I first wrote that, I thought I was being clever in alluding to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. And there's something about raising it to a principle that I find alluring.

The more I think about it, the more I stick by it. But I'm not sure it means holding back. It just means not being an ideologue. That is, I can still commit absolutely to my feelings from the inside out — with the understanding that these feelings may change. But I stop short of demanding others to feel the same way as, well, what do I know?

I'm not sure acting and being real are opposed. I mean they can be but they don't need to be, not if you begin from a place beyond the real — or a place that is always necessarily real whether you're acting or not.

I believe this is what has intrigued me since I was a passionate but stoned teen: I love this AND that and then I love this and not that and and and and... I actually believe that this uncertainty principle breeds a certain passion in that it fosters a going with the flow of the world.

And: I need to keep thinking about it. Thanks, as always, for jumping in.

The Posture of Things

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