The Road to Aletheia

By Maria Amir

Heidegger defined the Greek word for ‘truth’ as ‘unhidden-ness’, ‘un-concealment’ and ‘that which is no longer lost’.

Artwork by Emaan Mahmud

I have lost count the number of times that I have encountered the expression ‘finding oneself’. The term is liberally thrown about by those who think the process specifically entails adorning floor length skirts, a cluster of beads and chanting inside a makeshift candlelit shrine. Having been born with the natural inclination to gravitate towards beads and colourful skirts, I recently found myself being told that the answer to all my problems lay in a ‘prophet’s circle’.

This imaginary sphere involves visualising oneself in the centre of a prayer circle surrounded by different prophets on the periphery. One is asked to envision the sages of varying theologies ensconced in beams of coloured light that somehow correspond with paranormal pressure points set along ones’ spine, known as ‘chakras’. Having always been inherently averse to confrontation, I pretended to go along with my “guru’s” advice. To keep myself from collapsing in a fit of cackles, I took great liberties with the exercise.

If Maya, the Vedic notation for illusion, must be exhumed by the mind and spirit, then mine lies amid the pillars of inquiry and philosophy. If there is a multiplicity that conceals true meaning and the world of our experience does not really exist, then so be it. I would rather spend my time in search for Archimedes’ utopian fixed point…and I can boast no desire to move the earth only to seek Kant’s noumenon: that one ephemeral thing-in-itself that makes all the other nothings worthwhile.

All my quests, metaphysical and otherwise, began when I was seven. And so, this particular odyssey had a seven-year-old me thrust in a maze of metaphysical black holes, in search for the titans of thought. A mad little girl alternating the alleys of her mind carrying her daimon with her at every turn, as a tedious woman dressed in monk orange robes yammered on about the complex ‘science’ of inhaling and exhaling metaphorical tendrils of rainbow smoke.

Landing in a typically uncomfortable spotlight, I was greeted with a warning. Pyrrho with his pointy beard and spindle spine started me off with words of caution: “Remember the importance of opposing claims. No yes’s and no nays…suspended judgment at all corners, child. That will keep you safe.” And so I had my map, my course acatalepsia and my ability to withhold opinion in favour of intonation. The ataraxic unknown was liberating and if I concentrated hard enough, I could even make out the faint strains of Bob Marley’s ‘Don’t worry, be…” in the background of the nothing I was stepping into.

My journey began at the beginning with an ugly old man walking up to me with eyes full of questions. It appeared that Socrates always knew he would be condemned to death for his curiosity, but his compulsion seemed to outweigh all sense of self preservation. He stood right in front of me and he was tall, which meant that the warts on his face were all the more vivid as he bent down to ask me our first question. “Are you sure you want to do this child? You know that once you start asking you will never stop,” he said with the rapscallion self-satisfaction of a man who already knew the answer, but wanted to luxuriate in the magnanimity that came with offering a victim a choice. There was no choice, as we walked through his ghastly utopia, criss-crossing between the broken streets where he had pestered his lesser contemporaries about everything he could think of. Our daimons in hand, we easily skipped along on the yellow brick road of ‘knowing we knew nothing’. He was the most beautiful ugly man I ever saw and I could see why Nietzsche, in his moment of petty jealousy had tried to reduce him to a mere ‘monstrous face and monstrous soul’. We shook hands outside the doors of a dusty old library, where I told him that his pupil Plato didn’t do him justice in his recollections. “Yes, well. He was never quite as comfortable with self-doubt. He could never put the question above quintessence. Can you?” And so I left, with another question tucked carefully in the back pocket of my dirty jeans.

The library was an ancient, crumbling structure. It was really more of a study than anything else. Certainly not Borges’ maze or the Agora but I could place him immediately. Bent over his desk, with a magnifying glass fixed on a set of scrolls, he beckoned me over with a hasty wave of his left hand. Feuerbach’s long beard was interfering with his untidy notations and he handed me the quill making me write down random observations on scraps of paper. “What exactly are we doing?” I looked at him directly, perched uncomfortably on a set of papers scattered at the corner of his desk. “Why I’d have thought that was obvious. We are looking for the essence of religion and God by inflection. I know you’re interested in all that stuff,” he said, without looking up. “You can find that out from a book?” I suddenly felt I had wasted far too many years looking in the wrong places when I should have lived in a library. “Not exactly, you can find the first part in a book, the religion part…you just need to keep going back further. Anthropology 101…soon enough you’ll find where god makes an appearance and almost every time you can tell who made him up,” he said with an ironic laugh. “God is Us. We make him every day and we project on to him what we wished we could be,” he said in his professorial monotone. “Yes, but what about the real God, the one that doesn’t make an appearance in the books,” I asked. “Oh that one…well that one you have to look for somewhere else.” He started talking about how I needed to battle my chimaeras’ on this quest before I could even begin to ask the questions I needed.

Pyrrho with his pointy beard and spindle spine started me off with words of caution: “Remember the importance of opposing claims. No yes’s and no nays…suspended judgment at all corners, child. That will keep you safe.”

I walked out of the library in a daze only to realise two steps later that I had landed in a gallery. An endless hallway of thought—idle and otherwise. The books I had read; how and where I could find a bathroom here; whether or not it was better to be happy, smart or successful and whether getting answers was a better goal than asking questions. Descartes stood in front of a foggy mirror, staring at his all-too-elegant reflection. He was a tall man, intelligence oozing from every pore along with a detachment he seemed to have earned after decades of effort. “How do you like Cartesian alleys?” he inquired of me with a smirk. “It’s a tad self-indulgent don’t you think?” I responded, completely out of turn. If he was offended he didn’t show it, we both were there simply because we were still thinking about things. “Does it still bother you that they misquoted you? I mean you never meant for there to be any inference. It wasn’t meant as a syllogism was it? There was no major premise to be had and the ‘therefore’ killed it,” I whispered. “Thank you for that and no there wasn’t. They never really apologised for it either. I didn’t want any dependence, just ‘I think, I am’ but that seemed hard for them to live with,” he muttered bitterly.

The gallery cut a razor sharp corner as Ockham merely stood at the fringes watching me stumble onward. There were no words of wisdom, no condemnations and no warnings from the sly, Moorish man. This was the person who chased after the root of all things: the ‘blueness’ that made the sky blue, the ‘taste’ that made tasting possible. He was too busy peering at me out of the corner of his eye and perceiving to comment on my failings, and I was grateful for being let go with mere oblong glances. After all, he had already deemed god to be unnecessary merely because the world could be explained without him. I didn’t need telling that the world would be better off without me.

I tripped over a huddled mass crouched beneath a tree. The mass turned out to be a hermit, an agoraphobe who shrieked and yelled at my having invaded his ‘personal space’. So he carved a circle in the grass around himself, a nucleus of protection that would keep everyone at a safe distance. I sat cross-legged outside of it as Spinoza refused to look at me. “Why are you here?” he asked, his chin pinned to his chest. “I am on a quest,” I told him, bursting over with false bravado. “No you’re not. You have no say in these matters. You didn’t choose any quest. So don’t adorn it like a mantle! You were thrown into this and are trying to smile your way out to the other side,” he replied, shivering. “Is that a bad thing?” I wanted to know. He didn’t answer me and only warned that I must always look at the infinite and unalterable whole rather than trying to divide it into parts that I found easier to cope with. “Does it help? I mean, you said knowing our emotions would help us master them but you obviously feel lonely. Is that because you didn’t know it or because you couldn’t master it?” He didn’t answer me this time either but I could tell it was a bit of both as he turned around to look the other way.

The next stop was Night. A lit up city, ugly and neon, trying far too hard to construct the flicker of a lost dream. There was a gambling den with poker tables lined up to infinity as scores of lost souls placed bets on their conscience. I walked my too short, too self-conscious seven-year-old self to the head table to place my wager as the dealer spread the cards. Pascal had the eyes of a slut and the smile of a cheat, but everyone knew him and everyone laughed at all his jokes. Absolutely everyone took him up on his bets. He laid out the odds, stating clearly and curtly, “Fate is a prison and an empty abyss. Reason does not have the answers and we are lost. So bet on a cosmic ‘what if’ and leap because the truth is ugly and the lie might not be.” It was a cheap hand.

I met Kant standing beside a merry-go-round. He was childlike in his brilliance and spoke to me about space and time, about predicates in analytical and synthetic statements and about how everything was uncertain and empty. “Then why bother?” I asked, and he smiled the smile of a man who was comfortable ‘just looking and never buying’. “It gives us something to do,” he murmured bashfully, embarrassed that he didn’t have any real answers and far too many surreal ones. He told me to act the way I wanted everyone around me to and that was when I stopped laughing with him. Why would anyone, ever want to act like everyone else?

The gallery cut a razor sharp corner as Ockham merely stood at the fringes watching me stumble onward. There were no words of wisdom, no condemnations and no warnings from the sly, Moorish man.
I was pushed into a dark alley of despair. Ugly self-loathing and silicone layers of pessimism coated the brick walls of Schopenhauer’s dead-end metaphysics. The man himself comprised of a bag of bones woven together by a network of bulging navy blue veins spread out on grey, ashen skin. No child should ever have had to meet him. His vision was far too easy to buy into. “We all depend on something that depends on nothing. Doesn’t that scare you, child?” he looked at me in earnest. It did scare me. I knew that I needed to tune him out, but he began shouting at the top of his flailing lungs over the music, “no one cares, no god, no soul, no free will. We are stripped of all consolation prizes,” and I began to sob just looking at him. Freud had ripped off every one of his ideas and sold them off as a cutting edge foray into the mind he called psychoanalysis, but while Freud’s treatise remained laughable, this old man was terrifying in his truth. “There is only one inborn error: and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy,” he said as the accordion rose to a crescendo. I ran from him screaming, tears pouring unchecked from my eyes and I could make out the faint strains of Wagner wafting through the air.

I sprinted straight into the arms of a saviour, a hero. The kind one finds in books where dreams are endless, because there are no dead ends and every sentence carries on forever with a colossal ellipsis. The kind one waits for to make an appearance at the beginning of every novel and hates saying goodbye to by the end. Kierkegaard patted my back and stroked my hair as I cried out onto his freshly penned pages. He told me not to dwell on the past, or the future, or the present. He painted a world beyond all ‘isms’ and we sat imagining ourselves as pirates in one story and pan in another. “You do know that they call you the father of existentialism now,” I sniffed and he scoffed. “They are idiots and can’t possibly know me or even themselves. Remember child, there is no I. It’s a letter that couldn’t possibly fathom or describe us. Isn’t that what you’ve always said too?” he looked at me and smiled. He was right about one thing: faith is born at the lowest of pitfalls, where paradox meets reason.

I was tangibly nervous as I knocked on the tall brass doors that would lead me into the vortex. I could hear the manic ravings of a lunatic from within. A beautifully tainted and broken mad man – a nihilist and narcissist that I loved to hate (or was it hated to love). Nietzsche was smashing dishes into the wall as his Zarathustra stood behind his shoulder and smirked knowingly. He didn’t seem at all upset and asked me to join him. “You see what we are doing here?” he smashed an antique Chinese teacup into the wall. “Not really,” I said. “And I thought you were smart. We are dethroning the despots; breaking their pedestals from under their sickening selves. God is dead. No one will save Him after I’m done with Him,” he cackled. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he seemed the one in need of saving because I knew his despair sustained him. It made his exits much more poignant and my heart cracked for the fact that I could not own him or even return him to himself. He was right though— no one could have contained him – not the socialists who tried to adopt him or the anarchists who tried to embody him. They would only ever see the half they could observe and destroy.

I carried my broken heart in my other pocket past the Austrian kindergarten classroom where a precocious Wittgenstein sat at his desk perpetually outwitting Hitler; past the Nominalists interlocking their Humean principles on rocks and beyond the verbal pyrotechnics of Locke, the ascetic, preaching to anyone who would listen to tales of a tabula rasa that offered up second chances. I saw a Neoplatonist arcana being carved into a wall by Epictetus as he asked me to affirm my amor fati to myself and the world but I politely declined. I purposely avoided Hobbes standing beneath a podium and kissing the feet of all the kings he could find. I stopped just outside Plato’s cave so that I didn’t lose the sun of my passions only to be shackled in the shadows of empty power.

By the time the crazy guru’s chanting came to an end, I saw myself being led back to the beginning. The overwhelming perfume of scented candles began to permeate my nostrils and the flickering light danced outside my eyelids, but I held on a moment longer. I sensed that I was walking in a giant’s shadow. The shade stretched across for miles and it was twilight. Just before I opened my eyes, I turned around and Aristotle gave me my first and only answer.

“Eudaimonia,” he said.

I was happy to stick with the questions after that.

The writer is a features editor for the magazine.