Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Some Notes on Certainty

Notes on Certainty

                        There’s only three things that’s for sure
                        Taxes, death, and trouble.
                        This I know, baby.
                                    --Marvin Gaye, Trouble Man

                            There are an enormous number of general propositions that count as                             certain for us.  One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not                             grow again.
                                    --Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 273, 274

I remember once talking with my friend the eco-critic Scott Slovic about academic writing.  “Academic writing,” he said, and he shuddered, an involuntary physical reaction to the idea, adding, “all that certainty.”

Jn just about every paragraph, no, every sentence, of the last chapter of Walden is a kind of jewel.
“In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is . . . Any truth is better than make-believe.  Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say.  ‘Tell the tailors,” said he, ‘remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch.’  His companion’s prayer is forgotten.”

Here’s a truth I learned last weekend from Betty Crocker: “ Grease the bottoms of loaf pan for fruit or nut breads.  The ungreased sides allow the batter to cling while rising during baking, which helps for a gently rounded top.” 
Of course, the consequences of not doing so are minimal: a flat-topped bread.  The horror!

And here’s a “certainty” with potentially more serious consequences when ignored:
“Here it is crucial to stay right (away from Temple Crag) or you will either a) end up in a dangerous snow gully, or b) end up on a loose and dangerous sandy slope.”
                        --From the description of the descent from Temple Crag, from High                                         Sierra Climbing by McNamara and Long.

The new edition of Laphams’s Quarterly takes Death as its subject.  A chart of odds begins with death itself, giving the chances at 1:1, confirming Marvin Gaye’s observation in Trouble Man.  Often, we live as if this were not the case, and most of the time we probably ought to do so.  Marvin himself met his death way too early—45 scant years old-- at the hands of his own father.  He left us the sublime What’s Going On, a work of musical genius and a wake-up call to the culture.

My father met his death in 2011.  I was only a little surprised that he left almost no personal material possessions.  I have his rosary and a belt buckle that he bought from a street vendor when we visited Tijuana together in the early 1980s.  He also left no writing whatsoever that I know of.
Last summer we were helping my mother clean out the garage at the cottage on Blue Lake. There against the wall, in my father’s unmistakable script was the note that begins this posting:
                                                            SMALL BOAT
                                                            4 GAL TANK
                                                            W/ HOSEs
                                                            1 QT--OIL
                                                            4 GAL—GAS
                                                            16—1 RATIO

I think Thoreau would have appreciated that; I know I do.