By the Grace of Odds Go I

By the Grace of Odds Go I (a certain chance, a chance certainty)

            The seer’s skill, the ability to discern the future, has always been of great inherent value. But since we humans cannot truly know of such things, an equally great deal of theatre has been created and developed to convince the buyer that the seller is, by way of some unheard-of faculty, authentically in the know. The astrologist’s great year, the haruspex’s steaming entrails, the counselor’s tea leaves, and the visions of the prophets all attest to the diversity of such charades. The key problem they all share is the challenge of communication of ostensible vision. William James famously notes that while the vision has absolute authority over the one who experiences it, it has absolutely none over anyone else. So, the most successful translators of the ‘beyond’ would have to be those whose communication tactics were of the most perfect quality. They were there, but we were not. How then, does the former convince the latter that not only could the vision have occurred to anyone, that even though it did not, it is still of the same import to all those who are merely hearing about it second-hand?

            The sense that existence has a design about it is a function of having to work with the seasons. Time’s cycle, a wheel within a wheel, made such an impression upon our distant ancestors that they at once invented science and religion to account for its presence, and specifically, its presence in their lives. Science addresses the first, more abstract question: why does the cosmos exist simply as it is, without reference to humans. Religion responds to the second question: why are humans within that ambit of an otherwise anonymous cosmos? In short, what does it mean that the cosmos appears to us to have a human interest? Though our early observations were the seeds of the much later science as we understand it today, our methods were almost purely religious. In the Roman period, the haruspex read off the disjecta membra of the sacrificed animal, and during the same time and yet earlier, the priestess of the temple acted as a glossalalic vehicle for the Logos of the Gods. The Logos was a pure form, unsullied by human interpretation and requiring, in and of itself, none such thing. Mythos was developed, perhaps ironically, as a response to the difficult work of translation. If the cosmos in itself wanted nothing of us, its resident Gods in fact did. But what, exactly, did the Gods want?

            This is the same question, posed in a slightly different context, as ‘what does the future hold in store for us?’ To answer either meant to tap into the oversoul of existence, to touch upon the essence of things, their ‘nature’ as it were, and not the mere passing character of mortal existence. Such a process demanded a special role player. The shaman is likely the earliest version of this liminal figure, giving way to the prophet and thence the priest. Even in our own time we have technicians of various sorts who skirt the edge of essence, using probability theory to take them within earshot of its forbidding boundary. The meteorologist, the doctor, even the lawyer or yet the mechanic and others, make a living from their ability to prognosticate given current events and affairs. Predictive statistics are the most highly valued numbers in politics and economics, as they give the appearance of second sight. Descriptive statistics are the bread and butter of much social science over the past 70 years or so, but these numbers are about the past, what has been the case, and only through an effort of extrapolation can they serve the more profound cause of seeing the future.

            It is unlikely, however, that even the most highly regarded prophet or haruspex, visionary or seer, shaman or priestess, was held to have the absolute truth of certainty within their skill each and every time. People knew that even these impressive figures could be fallible, just as we know today the weather report is not a Mosaic tablet. In extreme cases, the seer might suffer execution for simply being off, but generally, all dealings with the otherworld came with a caveat; here is what I see, take it or leave it. The anxiety concerning our shared human finitude prompts us to search out all possible means by which we might be able to predict the outcomes of this or that. We are, quite naturally, disappointed when our hopes are dashed by the way of the world, our dreams sobered simply by waking life. Therefore, we cast an anchor out to windward as against the errata of the seer, whomever she may be in this time or this place. We might seek a second opinion, we might try to descry the thing ourselves, or we might change our plans, sometimes abruptly, when we are finally able to read the proverbial writing on the wall. Nothing is certain, we tell ourselves, and even mine ownmost death, while certain in the abstract, retains as its essence the element of chance. If life has a certain chance about it, then death is at base a chance certainty.

            And in that death, the theatre is not abated, though it now must be carried on by the others who yet live. In the Himalayas, the Buddhist inspired ‘sky burial’ proceeds along these lines: the corpse is minced with spices and other delicacies so that the vultures will descend from their mountainous arcs and pick the bones clean, carrying the entire spirit of the person upwards with them afterwards. Then friends and family take the bones and carve them into delicate scrimshaws, wearing them as pendants and other ornaments, thereby honoring their late but still beloved companion. Even if this might strike a Westerner as macabre, it is not unheard of as a practice. In the Norwegian ‘black metal’ scene, one band-member’s suicide was honored in the same way, as his musical mates took some of his remains and carved them, or wore them as accessories, keeping his memory alive. Decades ago, when I was recataloguing the human skeleton collection at the BC provincial museum, as it was known at the time, I wore a wreath of vertebrae from one such tree burial round my neck for a few minutes, partly as a jape upon my colleague, but more seriously, out of the respect for the genius loci of the task at hand. Was there insight imparted to me through this act, or did Raven cast me a narrow look of annoyance? That all these remains and associated artifacts have now been repatriated is a source of modest pride for myself, as our team were the ones to make certain of the original provenience of the items, so that they could belatedly find their way back to their ancestral homes and hearths.

            The poet W.H. Auden said this of all such relationships: ‘Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.’ And there is art present, even as we understand it today, in the arts of prediction, and in the artisanship of communicating a vision. Yes, it is a construction, even a contrivance, but its effect is kindred to that of an aesthetic object, or better, an aesthetic abject, since we are often so desperate for answers either way. Caught between the certain chanciness of living on and the chance certainty of that ongoingness coming to an abrupt halt, we humans attempt an artful mitigation of all such prospects. This is the ultimate ‘need to know’ basis: that we, as Gadamer has declared, ‘only have a future insofar as we remain unknowing that we have no future.’ Put less well, we can be said to live on in the face of death and yet in spite of this, life itself carries on. Our own personal existence is supernumerary to the general swing of things, and it is this that is our grace, if you will. By such probabilities I go forth; by the grace of the odds, I continue to live on. The lesson here may well be that there are some odds that are at their best when most uncertain, least susceptible to prediction and thus as well predication. This is no doubt why the seer could, at the end of the day, be taken with a pinch of salt, the very thing that preserved against certain corruption. For in proclaiming that one knows the truth of things, one is immediately at risk not so much of being wrong, but of being wrongfully used. Thus it is that the unknown country of the future is very preservative of life itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 57 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.