Finding Peace in the Eye of the Storm

Thursday August 7, 2008

Tornado

A few weeks ago, just before I left Birmingham, a friend of mine asked if she could interview me for a soundscape project she is working on with artist Marc Silver (see the link here). The project is called Eye of the Storm and will be based on around one hundred interviews with various folks on the subject of their experiences of peace and chaos in the contemporary world. So over a pint of Guinness in the Rainbow pub in Digbeth, Birmingham, the microphone running, we chatted about peace and chaos.

We are accustomed to being told that the greater framework in which we live is that of chaos and disorder, that it is all uproar and hubbub and unrest, and that if we are to find anything in the way of peace, it is against this backdrop; and to some extent, it seemed as if the initial questions for this project reflected this assumption. We all know, because we have been repeatedly told, that we live in dangerous times. We are surrounded by horror, misery and distress. The world is not a kind place. This is not only the story that is fed into our homes every single day by the news media, but it is also one that can seem to be demanded by the most tough-minded and reasonable views of the world. Take Richard Dawkins, for example, in peculiarly Schopenhauerian mode:

The amount of suffering in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to say this, millions of animals are running for their lives, whimpering with fear. Thousands are dying from starvation or disease or feeling a parasite rasping away from within. For most animals the reality is struggling, suffering and death

But I wonder. How much is this Schopenhauerian vision a conclusion that is demanded by the evidence, and how much is it a cultural view of the world? It always seems as if it is much more tough-minded and grown-up to see the world as struggling, suffering and death, but this is more a literary trope than anything else, even if it is a particularly persistent one: the trope of the heroic individual who looks boldly into the screaming pit of horror that is existence, and who does not flinch or take refuge in easy consolation.

In the face of the prevalence of this picture of the world, any alternative view can seem to be a species of the kind of absurd optimism parodied by Voltaire in his Candide. At the end of Voltaire’s book, the ever-optimistic Pangloss explains why – after endless horror, captivity, the loss of his nose through syphilis and other such miseries, he still maintains that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire rightly satirises this Panglossian view as one that is unsustainable in the face of the world’s miseries. But this alone is no reason to assume the Schopenhauerian position. To see everything as suffering and misery seems to me to be as much an error (an error to which certain kinds of Buddhists are also prone) as its opposite.

There is a middle way to be struck. The world is a place of both horror and delight. And peace, where it exists, is not to be found beyond the world (because the world, as far as we know, is all we have) but within the world. It is not then a matter of escape, but of cultivation. And so Candide’s decidedly Epicurean answer to Pangloss at the end of Voltaire’s book could equally well be an answer to those who claim that the world is nothing but chaos and horror:

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

That such cultivation is possible, that we can (and sometimes with very little effort) open up spaces of peace in the world, suggest that the Schopenhauerian view is in need of some modification.

Image: Early photograph of a tornado. Wikimedia Commons

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