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Concerning Wisdom—Old and New

“There is no such thing as ancient wisdom; it is always new.”
Thus Spake Aforista.

Count on the Postfuturist Sage Aforista to say something strident, hyperbolic, and even untrue. Of course there is such a thing as ancient wisdom, and of course we all need to be mindful of it in this speed-of-light age of rampant newness—what Douglas Rushkoff has dubbed Present Shock. As the authors of a recently published novel exploring Mayan culture of a millennium ago, Pat and I would seem to be active proponents of ancient wisdom.

And yet …

Is Mayan Interface really about ancient wisdom at all? There are certainly aspects of indigenous culture that Pat and I extol. In my post of February 13, I wrote about our fascination with Mayan storytelling techniques. A related excerpt written in authentic Mayan fashion may be found in the current issue of SOL: English Writing in Mexico. []

But readers looking for a quick and easy fixes based Mayan ancient wisdom will surely be disappointed by our book. Pakabtun’s fictional king Bohol Caan has no more of a grasp on certainty ca. 900 CE than epigrapher Lydia Rosenstrom does in 2012 CE. In our novels, Pat and I just don’t do certainty.

Just yesterday, Pat asked me if any of our novels even had “endings” to speak of. Could I think of just one that culminated in some final resolution, realization, or insight? No, I couldn’t. While I hope that all of our stories have satisfactory and satisfying denouements, Pat and I always leave our protagonists on the brink of fresh discoveries, as if another turn of the page will lead into an entirely new adventure. “And that’s essential,” Pat remarked.

One of my favorite twentieth-century plays is Bernard Shaw’s little-known The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles. In this 1934 extravaganza, an angel arrives, announcing that the Day of Judgment has come. This is not to be the noisy apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, the angel explains:

  • The Day of Judgment is not the end of the world, but the end of its childhood and the beginning of its responsibility.

According to the angel, there will be no reward or punishment, no heaven or hell—only the quiet vaporization of almost all of humanity:

  • The lives which have no use, no meaning, no purpose, will fade out. You will have to justify your existence or perish.

The play’s characters are understandably unsettled by this proclamation. How can anyone ever “justify” one’s existence? Whose life can assuredly be said to have use, meaning, and purpose? None of the characters can answer these questions, and one by one they vanish—accompanied, presumably, by most if not all of the human race.

Finally, only two people remain onstage: the priestess Prola and her husband, the priest Pra. Fully aware that their lives have been engaged in folly and futility, Prola and Pra expect to evaporate at any moment. But that moment never comes.

Flawed, failed, and seemingly useless as they are, Prola and Pra share the redemptive belief in the doctrine, “Let Life Come.” And this doctrine is, after all, merely a denial of all doctrines, of all beliefs.

Prola and Pra prevail through the Judgment, for together they grasp that “the future is to those who prefer surprise and wonder to security.” As Prola puts it,

  • Remember: we are in the Unexpected Isles; and in the Unexpected Isles all plans fail. So much the better: plans are only jigsaw puzzles: one gets tired of them long before one can piece them together. There are still a million lives beyond all the Utopias and the Millenniums and the rest of the jigsaw puzzles.… We are not here to fulfill prophecies and fit ourselves into puzzles, but to wrestle with life as to comes. And it never comes as we expect it to come.

So I suppose Aforista may be onto something after all. There are no endings in the world of Story. There is only wisdom’s perpetually unfolding newness.

3 Comment count
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Security vs. Freedom


If "the future is to those who prefer surprise and wonder to SECURITY", then those of us living in countries whose voting majorities  increasingly opt for "bread and circuses" only,  are well along on the path to the dustbin of history, wouldn't you agree?  Concerning the wisdom of this course, American founding father and sage Ben Franklin famously observed that those who give up freedom for security are destined to have neither.

That socialist-leaning Shaw wrote  a play with a main character  valuing surprise and wonder over security is itself  surprising and wondrous. No  doubt what he deemed appropriate values for the "artistic" life of elites like him do  not  apply to the unwashed masses.

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Thanks for your comment. My husband, Wim Coleman (wimcoleman@gmail.com), and I write collaboratively. This was his post and here's his reply:

Yes, it's interesting that Shaw would have written this celebration of uncertainty, because his thinking sometimes took an ugly totalitarian turn at this late stage in his career. In his biography of Shaw, Michael Holroyd suggests that the "Old Shaw" (bitter and authoritarian) and the "Young Shaw" (tolerant and humane) were in contention during this late period. In this play, the Young Shaw wins out.


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Pat and Wim, Greatly

Pat and Wim,

Greatly appreciative of your additional insights. Some past truths may seemingly change according to the mantra "This time it's different", only to manifest themselves anew in unexpected reincarnations.  From what I have read of history, the pattern of all past civilizations is one of rise and fall, with their decline typically accelerated by  decadence; i.e., corruption and/or abandonment of the core values that originally led to their successful  rise and vitality.   I see no reason why "we" would be an exception. That's NOT to say that all past ideas and/or practices deserve unquestioned allegiance or veneration through all ages because "evolution" is an equally applicable truth.