Affirming Worth

Affirming Worth
March 27, 2018

An author can be conscious of what they’re doing, while at the same time not knowing what they’re creating or what it’s worth. Thus, nothing prevents them from creating something that is not worth knowing.

This means that what the author creates may remain unknown to them (perhaps for the duration of their life), without them ever ceasing to believe it may be worth knowing. The yearning to do something worthwhile may supersede the desire to know what is being done. The wish rushes ahead, leaving complete knowledge of what was done and what it was worth for future days. The process of knowing and valuing are not identical. They push each another to the limits of what can become clear about actions.

For the author’s coming to know what they’re doing is a long process, filled with insights and disappointments, miracles and dead-ends. This is compounded by the fact that they cannot always know beforehand if what they’ve undertaken is or will have been worth undertaking. This is amplified further the more the author writes in an abyss, without reader’s feedback, approval or admonition; and more importantly, if the subject matter remains elusive, if the object sought is characterized by some degree of unknowability. There may even be something dreaded in it by nature, or in the conclusions to which it leads. Nonetheless, the intuited worth of the pursuit will drive the author on, as they face and accept the prospect of not knowing what they are doing, thus in another sense risking the unforgivable.

The author of course goes through phases, differing tendencies, preferred modes of expression, shifting interlocutors and theoretical concerns. Consideration of ‘how’ can overshadow consideration of ‘what’ and vice versa. At times, one strives for clarity, which tends to simplify the issue or at least reduce it to its most readily intelligible dimensions. At other times, one refuses clarity, both about what one knows and in one’s use of language, such that other devices, situated at the limit of imagination’s power, come into play. Here one is liable to lose oneself in a labyrinth of experiments that are both heart-close, in greatest proximity to intimate experience, and yet of debatable worth, given that no extant standards could uncomplicatedly judge them. This includes the author’s own standards, though no doubt a tradition of similarly ‘strange’ poetic products and what is learned from it serve as a protection against accusations of inanity. But no one can persist in the realm of the unknowable forever. Such work is always broken up by episodes of reflection on results, and the deduction, if not of content, then of consequences, in the cardinal direction the experiments sketch out. Experiences arrayed in serial sequence call for unifying reviews, for contemplation of overall trajectories and trends. This need not produce synthetic judgments or self-exegetical texts, but it will make clear the ambition of the work, or rather, its kernel of worthwhileness, no matter how pathetic the shells.

For it is manifestly obvious that any endeavor which fails repeatedly to prove its worthwhileness, its appropriateness to our life, can only result in disillusionment and despair over lost time. This is a difficult psychological problem, since humans exhibit such a capacity to persevere through zones of meaninglessness, tepidity, and lack of hope. For one can be conscious of something being ‘inauthentic’ without knowing it in a way that is actionable. Even once known, a turn to the ‘authentic’ cannot precede knowledge of one’s ability to act on that judgment. Life is also not neatly arranged for decisions about worthwhileness to take place in a vacuum without friction. Outside pressures very often necessitate one assume a ‘holding pattern’ in the inauthentic. But even then, the process of knowledge, of readying oneself to make a change when the moment comes, need not come to a halt. Nor does one’s ability to alter course atrophy. For the question of worthwhileness doesn’t only touch upon the big elements in life — endeavors, relationships, commitments — but also the smallest — daily habit, thought patterns, manners of speech, respect of surroundings. None of these are excluded from the writer’s conscious economy, even if they have no place in the work. Meanwhile, the topic of authenticity comes up only sometimes, and often not at all. Life, unfailingly, can be the only guide, since at bottom worthwhileness comes down to the question: have you spent your time well and wisely? And failing a full affirmation: how have you or will you make right the time poorly and unwisely spent?

The affirmation ‘it was worthwhile’ is the expression of an intelligent and rational being capable of both knowing its reference object — in this case its time of life, what it did and created — and judging its value according to some immanent standard (whether this is fully known or not, invented or inherited). One escapes with difficulty the image of each life balanced on the scale, some moments wasted, others fulfilled, where the best one can hope for is a positive balance in the end. But recall that judgments require a standard. Standards can be changed and not all standards can be known. Furthermore, no mind but God’s is capable of synoptic view and perfect memory. So the data set for our judgment of worthwhileness is limited by conscious or unconscious selections among the mass. Much of our mood on these matters may well depend on how we select those sets and what we choose to forget. The selection process applies to data which is not always clear either. Moreover, the drive for what is worth doing can be frustrated at many levels. No good options may be at hand; one must simply push on through the inauthentic, in debt to oneself and time. This pressure is liable to make certain actions explode that we cannot, in the moment, understand or see the point in.

And so we confess a rather all-encompassing ignorance when it comes to the final meaning, purpose, or worth of what we do and value, whether it be this or that work or the lived datum of everything that has to do with us. And yet we judge and decide, know and act, stretching ourselves out in aspiration toward true and ultimate worthwhileness. For the latter is not an ideal we might quickly discard. Our life is promised its ultimatum: how can it be affirmed, down to its last grain?

Note at least the tenuous quality of judgments in the style, ‘it was worthwhile’: one must suspend both overly depressive and overly enthusiastic accounts, lest the inauthentic strike back or the responsibility to progress slacken. In spite of our ignorance, indeed because of it, one must judge oneself first, search one’s heart and examine one’s works to determine what is worth it. The question leads us to last judgments based on views impossible for any finite creature to have. Yet it is equally impossible to resist passing judgments on self and other, rightly so in some cases, misled in others. Nor is it easy to forgive self and other for time wasted in inauthenticity, on worthless endeavor. The temptation arises to decide out of hand that, for example, the universe is without intrinsic meaning or purpose, that all our efforts are relative to us and have no intrinsic worth outside the look we cast on them; or, conversely, that the universe has its source in a moral being who can see our works and intentions to fruition in eternity and in whom we ought to strive for authenticity, leaving the rest to faith. But here conceivable solutions abound. For Kafka, all our life in this world is a basis for the spiritual world, for our ‘eternal justification’. Faith is already present in the acknowledgement that ‘one cannot not live’: one experiences this even when one does not want to live and fails to see the worth in it. It is through the ‘one cannot not live’ that one seeks to know the standards for oneself and for one’s life that will or could lead to the affirmation, ‘it was worthwhile’.

The same dynamic can be observed in an author’s work, often in a more explicit way. ‘One cannot not write’ is the working principle that scrutinizes itself and its purposes in light of the personal and existential need to say, ‘it was worth writing’ (both the thing written and the doing of it). I have alluded to the fact that feedback from the broader community, that one’s words do have some significance and resonate, may help ward off the harsher difficulties of this process, but it can never solve them for good. Why? Because the standards are not general but intimate and singular. Even scientific endeavors require the decision, focused intention, and commitment that no knowledge could stimulate, no mere acknowledgment of worth could produce. The further away from the general the work tracks, the less any standard of judgment stands ready for application. Such standards — and they are required — must inevitably issue from the author’s own aesthetic and moral conscience. But it is precisely this which is only formed along the way, its knowledge of what it is doing and its decisions about what it should do never final. In these singular cases, one is as detached from humanity, only to meet back up with it at the end of an infinite trajectory, and even then only by way of parallels.

For no text or act exhausts the concerns of conscience such that they become transparent to the other, nor entirely to the self. An intentionality lies forever hidden, no matter how much one strains to articulate the relevant imperatives and the depths of the demand. Still, the author is not in the clear about these matters, as I have stressed. One’s secret is a secret to oneself. Ultimate standards, however clarified, retain the air of unknowability, or rather, of constant intensification. It is this that one must reckon with if, in the end which never comes, one is to say, ‘it was worth writing’.

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