When I saw the word ‘bubbles’ my immediate thought went to the painting by John Millais of a child blowing bubbles that subsequently became part of the advertising campaign for Pears soap. Bubbles blown by children, as we all once did, last but a few seconds and lead on naturally to the theme of transience and constant change. Nothing lasts forever, even if human beings make attempts to impose permanence on the world.
A child’s disappointment at having a soap bubble burst represents a deep human desire for permanence which is the focus of this article.
Before the modern age, human life could be considered to be somewhat like a bubble in that it could be pricked at any time. This was especially the case with babies and young children who could be easily carried off. As Jeremy Taylor put it:
but if the bubble stands the shock of a bigger drop, and outlives the chances of a child, of a careless nurse, of drowning in a pail of water, of being overlaid by a sleepy servant, or such little accidents. (9)
More generally, human beings understood that there was nothing permanent about their existing circumstances and that the possibility of famine, disease and, even war was ever present.
Pax Romana, which is eulogised by Edward Gibbon as a felicitous time, did not suffer much in the way of war, famine, or epidemics but it was still a time when many Romans would have suffered from a range of diseases and not always have been well nourished. It was, however, a time of considerable security for most Romans who did not need to fear a band of marauders turning up on their doorstep. Disease and war would follow in the wake of climate change during the next century (Harper).
Pax Romana was a bubble of relative tranquillity in human history. For a short period of time, climatic conditions, economic circumstances and political stability coalesced to still the winds of time temporarily. But such bubbles were unusual in the European context, which was usually riven by war. Peace reigned, by and large, in the long nineteenth century and in the period following World War II, to which it is possible to attach the name ‘pax moderna’. In China, much longer bubbles have been the norm, but they were succeeded by terrible periods of famine, dislocation, and war. The Ming bubble burst in the seventeenth century amidst a time of cold, famine, and plague (Parker 115-151).
In such circumstances there was an appreciation of the precariousness of human existence. This had two major effects:
- A search for permanence in a world of change and uncertainty, a means of creating a bubble that can resist that change.
- When living in a time of relative stability, dealing with the fear that that stability will only last so long and that bad things may be just around the corner.
These two matters form the basis of this article.
Human beings create bubbles as they attempt to control change. They then become attached to their bubbles, even to the extent of believing that their bubbles are the real world. This has the effect of bubbles continuing to exist even if they harm human understanding of the world rather than enhancing it.
Impermanence is the great reality of human existence; as Heraclitus (Burnet 136) correctly stated, we cannot place our foot in the same river twice. The extraordinary thing is that human beings possess a plastic nature that allows them to adapt to that impermanence (Melleuish & Rizzo ‘Limits’). The plasticity of human beings, as expressed in their culture, can be seen most clearly in the way that human languages constantly change. This occurs both in terms of word usage and grammatical structure. English was once an inflected language but cases now only really survive in personal pronouns. Words constantly change their meanings, both over time and in different places.
Words appear to take on the appearance of permanence; they appear to form bubbles that are encased in lead, even when the reality is that words form multiple fragile bubbles that are constantly being burst and remade. The changing nature of the meaning of words only becomes known to a literate society, in particular a literate society that has a genuine sense of history. In an oral society words are free to change over time and there is little sense of those changes. Writing has the effect of fixing texts into a particular form; at the very least it makes creative reworking of texts much more difficult.
Of course, there are counter examples to such a claim, the most famous of which are the Vedas which, it is argued, remained unchanged despite centuries of oral transmission (Doniger104-7). This fixed nature could be achieved because of the strict mode of transmission, ensuring that the hymns did not change when transmitted. As the Vedas are linked to the performance of rituals this exactness was necessary for the rituals to be efficacious (Olivelle xli-xlv).
The transmission of words is not the same thing as the transmission of meaning. Nor does it mean that many words that today are used as seemingly universal ideas have always existed. Religion (Nongeri), state (Melleuish, ‘State’), civilisation, and culture (Melleuish, ‘Civilisation’) are all modern creations; ‘identity’ is only about sixty years old (Stokes 2). New words emerge to deal with new circumstances. For example, civilisation came into being partially because the old term ‘Christendom’ had become redundant; ‘identity’ replaced an earlier idea of national character.
Words, then, are bubbles that human beings cast out onto the world and that appear to create the appearance of permanence. These bubbles encase the real world giving the thing that they name ‘being’, even as that thing is in flux and a condition of becoming. For Parmenides (loc. 1355-1439), the true nature of the world is being. The solidity provided by ‘being’ is a comfort in a world that is constantly changing and in which there is a constant threat of change. Words and ideas do not form stable bubbles, they form a string of bubbles, with individuals constantly blowing out new versions of a word, but they appear as if they were just the one bubble.
One can argue, quite correctly, I believe, that this tendency to meld a string of bubbles into a single bubble is central to the human condition and actually helps human beings to come to terms with their existence in the world. ‘Bubble as being’ provides human beings with a considerable capacity to gain a degree of control over their world. Amongst other things, it allows for radical simplification. A.R. Luria (20-47), in his study of the impact of literacy on how human beings think, noted that illiterate Uzbeks classified colour in a complex way but that with the coming of literacy came to accept the quite simple colour classifications of the modern world. Interestingly, Uzbeks have no word for orange; the ‘being’ of colours is a human creation.
One would think that this desire for ‘being’, for a world that is composed of ‘constants’, is confined to the world of human culture, but that is not the case. Everyone learns at school that the speed of light is a constant. Rupert Sheldrake (92-3) decided to check the measurement of the speed of light and discovered that the empirical measurements taken of its speed actually varied. Constants give the universe a smooth regularity that it would otherwise lack.
However, there are a number of problems that emerge from a too strong attachment to these bubbles of being. One is that the word is mistaken for the thing; the power of the word, the logos, becomes so great that it comes to be assumed that all the objects described by a word must fit into a single model or type. This flies in the face of two realities. One is that every example of a named object is different. Hence, when one does something practically in the world, such as construct a building, one must adjust one’s activities according to local circumstances.
That the world is heterogeneous explains why human beings need plasticity. They need to adapt their practices as they encounter new and different circumstances. If they do not, it may be the case that they will die. The problem with the logos introduced by literacy, the bubble of being, is that it makes human beings less flexible in their dealings with the world.
The other reality is human plasticity itself. As word/bubbles are being constantly generated then each bubble will vary in its particular meaning, both at the community and, even, individual, level. Over time words will vary subtly in meaning in different places. There is no agreed common meaning to any word; being is an illusion. Of course, it is possible for governments and other institutions to lay down what the ‘real’ meaning of a word is, much in the same way as the various forms of measurement are defined by certain scientific criteria. This becomes dangerous in the case of abstract nouns. It is the source of ‘heresy’ which is often defined in terms of the meaning of particular words. Multiple, almost infinite, bubbles must be amalgamated into one big bubble. Attempts by logos professionals to impose a single meaning are often resisted by ordinary human beings who generally seem to be quite happy living with a range of bubbles (Tannous; Pegg).
One example of mutation of meaning is the word ‘liberal’, which means quite different things in America and Australia. To add to the confusion, there are occasions when liberal is used in Australia in its American sense. This simply illustrates the reality that liberal has no specific ‘being’, some universal idea of which individual liberals are particular manifestations. The problem becomes even worse when one moves between languages and cultures. To give but one example; the ancient Greek word πολις is translated as state but it can be argued that the Greek πολις was a stateless society (Berent).
There are good arguments for taking a pragmatic attitude to these matters and assuming that there is a vague general agreement regarding what words such as ‘democracy’ mean, and not to go down the rabbit hole into the wonderland of infinite bubbles. This works so long as individuals understand that bubbles of being are provisional in nature and are capable of being pricked. It is possible, however, for the bubbles to harden and to impose on us what is best described as the ‘tyranny of concepts’, whereby the idea or word obscures the reality. This can occur because some words, especially abstract nouns, have very vague meanings: they can be seen as a sort of cloudy bubble. Again, democracy is good example of a cloudy bubble whose meaning is very difficult to define. A cloudy bubble prevents us from analysing and criticising something too closely.
Bubbles exist because human beings desire permanence in a world of change and transience. In this sense, the propensity to create bubbles is as much an aspect of human nature as its capacity for plasticity. They are the product of a desire to ‘tame time’ and to create a feeling of security in a world of flux.
As discussed above, a measure of security has not been a common state of affairs for much of human history, which is why the Pax Romana was so idealised. If there is modern ‘bubble’ created by the Enlightenment it is the dream of Kantian perpetual peace, that it is possible to bring a world into being that is marked by permanent peace, in which all the earlier horrors of human existence, from famine to epidemics to war can be tamed and humanity live harmoniously and peacefully forever.
To achieve this goal, it was necessary to ‘tame’ history (Melleuish & Rizzo, ‘Philosophy’). This can be done through the idea of progress. History can be placed into a bubble of constant improvement whereby human beings are constantly getting better, not just materially but also intellectually and morally. Progress very easily turns into a utopian fantasy where people no longer suffer and can live forever. The horrors of the first half of the twentieth century did little to dent the power of this bubble. There is still an element of modern culture that dreams of such a world actually coming into being.
Human beings may try to convince themselves that the bubble of progress will not burst and that perpetual peace may well be perpetual, but underlying that hope there are deep anxieties born of the knowledge that ‘nothing lasts forever’. Since 1945, the West has lived through a period of peace and relative prosperity, a pax moderna; the European Union is very much a Kantian creation.
Underneath the surface, however, contemporary Western culture has a deep fear that the bubble can burst very easily and that the veneer of modern civilisation will be stripped away. This fear manifests itself in a number of ways. One can be seen in the regular articles that appear about the possibility of a comet or asteroid hitting the earth (Drake). Such a collision will eventually occur but it is sixty five million years since the dinosaurs became extinct. Another is the fear of solar storm that could destroy both electricity grids and electronic devices (Britt).
Another expression of this fear can be found in forms of artistic expression, including zombie, disaster, and apocalypse movies. These reveal something about the psyche of modernity, and modern democracy, in the same way that Athenian tragedy expressed the hopes and fears of fifth-century Athenian democracy through its elaboration of the great Greek myths.
Robert Musil remarks in The Man without Qualities (833) that if humanity dreamed collectively it would dream Moosbrugger, a serial murderer. Certainly, it appears to be the case that when the modern West dreams collectively it dreams of zombies, vampires, and a world in which civilised values have broken down and everyone lives in a Hobbesian state of nature, the war of all against all (Hobbes 86-100).
This theme of the bursting of the ‘civilised bubble’ is a significant theme in contemporary culture. In popular culture, two of the best examples of this bursting are the television shows Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. In Galactica, human beings fall prey to the vengeful artificial creatures that they have created and mistreated. In The Walking Dead, as in all post-apocalyptic Zombie creations, the great fear is that human beings will turn into zombies, creatures that have been granted a form of immortality but at the cost of the loss of their souls.
The fear of death is primal in all human beings, as is the fear of the loss of one’s humanity after death. This fear is expressed in the first surviving work of human literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh goes unsuccessfully in search of immortal life.
In perhaps the bleakest modern portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, we encounter the ultimate Hobbesian universe. This is a world that has undergone an apocalypse of unknown origin. There is only darkness and dust and ash; nothing grows any longer and the few survivors are left to scavenge for the food left behind in tins. Or they can eat each other. It is the ultimate war of all against all. The clipped language, the lack of identity of the inhabitants, leads us into something that is almost no longer human. There is little or no hope.
Reading The Road one is drawn back to the ‘House of Darkness’ described in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which describes the afterlife in terms of dust (“The Great Myths”):
He bound my arms like the wings of a bird,
to lead me captive to the house of darkness, seat of Irkalla:
to the house which none who enters ever leaves,
on the path that allows no journey back,
to the house whose residents are deprived of light,
where soil is itself their sustenance and clay their food,
where they are clad like birds in coats of feathers,
and see no light, but dwell in darkness.
The Road is a profoundly depressing work, and the movie is barely watchable. In bursting the bubble of immortality, it plays on human fears and anxieties that stretch back millennia. The really interesting question is why such fears should emerge at a time when people in countries like America are living through a period of peace and prosperity. Much as people dream of a bubble of infinite progress and perpetual peace, they instinctively understand that that particular bubble is very fragile and may very easily be punctured.
My final example is the less than well-known movie Zardoz, dating from the 1970s and starring Sean Connery. In it, some human beings have achieved ‘immortality’ but the consequences are less than perfect, and the Sean Connery character has the task, given to him by nature, to restore the balance between life and death, just as Gilgamesh had to understand that the two went together.
There are some bubbles that are meant to be burst, some realities that human beings have to face if they are to appreciate their place in the scheme of things. Hence, we face a paradox. Human beings are constantly producing bubbles as they chart their way through a world that is also always changing. This is a consequence of their plastic nature. For good reasons, largely out of a desire for stability and security, they also tend to bring these infinite bubbles together into a much smaller number of bubbles that they view as possessing being and hence permanence.
The problem is that these ‘bubbles of being’ are treated as if they really described the world in some sort of universal fashion, rather than treated as useful tools. Human beings can become the victims of their own creations. At the same time, human beings have an instinctive appreciation that the world is not stable and fixed, and this appreciation finds its expression in the products of their imagination. They burst bubbles through the use of their imagination in response to their fears and anxieties.
Bubbles are the product of the interaction between the changing nature of both the world and human beings and the desire of those human beings for a degree of stability. Human beings need to appreciate both the reality of change and the strengths and weaknesses of bubbles as they navigate their way through the world.
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