The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis

In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts… (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1873-1877)

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of the universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history”, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet it still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. (Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense‘, 1873)  

The researches carried out by modern man have forced him to look back along the corridor of time at prospects which lengthen on the sight, until they exceed the range of his possible imagination. Our civilization dates from Greece and Rome, but we have learned that it was not the first upon the earth. The record of urbanized man, as revealed by the spade, goes back to at least the sixth millennium before Christ. To the Greek and Roman, for whom human history began with the fall of Troy, a previous span of four thousand years would scarcely have been comprehensible, unless it were the epoch when the gods walked the earth, and there were no men. And our own pious ancestors, who dated all Creation by the Book of Genesis, would have been in no better case.

No sooner has the mind accustomed itself to the antiquity of civilized culture, than it must multiply the backward prospect by tens of thousands of years, to envisage the slow evolution of the human race from the ape. And yet that whole incredible story becomes only a day in the history of the earth. We tap and scratch the surface of the rock on which we stand and find that it is indeed the rock of ages, printed with the map of a violent and illimitable history. Surveying it, our imagination abdicates and our comprehension of time breaks down. In place of the generations and centuries which mark our own frontiers, we substitute the trackless waste of geological aeons, and so drift back to the formless lava of a primeval furnace. In that day our human race was not, and was not thought of. In those temperatures it had no conceivable place. Such is the conclusion we draw, mechanically and meaninglessly. The reality is kept from us by our self-consciousness. Perhaps if we could put God there, he could make of geological time a furnished room for us once more, for us to inhabit, even though the only voice we heard was the voice of consuming fire.

Yet even in geological time, could we imagine it, the mind finds no arrest nor any mansion that abides. The astronomer of our epoch, living beyond Copernicus and Newton, strives to fling our thought out into a universe of light-years, where it is wholly and totally alone and alien. Our own rocks that once boiled like the sun, and later saw the dinosaurs wallowing in the swamp, shrivel to a speck of dust, a passing incident. We strive to make this familiar and intelligible by the skill of multiplication, which accumulates numerals to the nth power, by the skill of words, which reduces the infinity of time to the terminology of years traveled by light. But our own species, in our own eyes, has now become so temporary that it can scarcely be said to exist; it has dwindled to so small a span that we can scarcely be said to be perceptible. We find ourselves utterly alone and naked like worms cast into a field. Then how shall we cover this nakedness, which science has at last, and so fully, exposed?

In the eyes of the self-conscious man, the intelligent, the proud, the hopeful, the skillful, the masterful, and the moral man, the simplicity of the exposure becomes unbearable, and therefore almost unthinkable. For it seems to destroy those truisms which the nature of our consciousness demands shall stay true. ’Who dare say that justice is any more eternal in the heavens? It is a name, a sound of approval, voiced by an ephemeral species to indicate some crawling pattern of preference, on a speck of dust, in the vast halls of space and time. Who dare say that man any more keeps company with angels, in those trackless wastes beyond the sun and moon? Who dare say his intelligence, so long mastered by illusion, so long convinced that it stood at the point of judgment in a measurable and estimable environment, a cosmos organized by a permanent and stable providence — who dare say that intelligence has any health in it, any metaphysic, any revelation above the energy of the blind groping of a worm? (Eric Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, Chapter 1: ‘The Bitter Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge’, 1951)

The general argument [of The Strategy of Culture, 1952] has been powerfully developed (…) by E. A. Havelock in The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man (Boston, 1951). Intellectual man of the nineteenth century was the first to estimate absolute nullity in time. The present — real, insistent, complex, and treated as an independent system, the foreshortening of practical pre-vision in the field of human action — has penetrated the most vulnerable areas of public policy. War has become the result, and a cause, of the limitations placed on the forethinker [Pro-metheus]. Power and its assistant force, the natural enemies of intelligence, have become more serious since “the mental processes activated in the pursuit and and consolidating of power are essentially short range”. (Harold Innis, The Strategy of Culture, ‘Preface’, 1952, citing Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 991)

  1. Havelock: “Those mental processes which are activated in the pursuit and the consolidation of power are essentially short range.” Innis’ Strategy of Culture was immediately republished in his Changing Concepts of Time (also 1952) and its ‘Preface’ incorporated in the ‘Preface’ of the new title.