01/30/01
S. David Stoney, Ph.D.
Dept. of Physiology
Towards an Ecological Neuroscience: Grendel's Instruction in Process Philosophy

"Things fade; alternatives exclude."

John Gardner, a respected author, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1982.  Grendel, an adaptation of Beowulf from the monster's point of view, written in 1971, was one of his most acclaimed novels.  The Christian Science Monitor commented that "It deserves a place on the same shelf as Lord of the Flies, Cat's Cradle and Catcher in the Rye."  I discovered this book over the holidays and was delighted to find in it an entertaining description of the basic tenets of process philosophical thought.  I have reproduced the relevant portions.  In the first, long quotation (pgs. 66 - 75), Grendel (the monster who has been ravishing the Danes), despairing over his aloneness and the boredom of simply killing people, was thinking about changing his ways.  He has gone, with some trepidation, to visit the dragon.  We join the story as the dragon, who seems to epitomize aspects of both premodern wisdom and deconstructive postmodern, cynical, self-serving fatalism, has been attempting to explain his view of the nature of things to Grendel.  He presents, I submit among other things, an image of the likely outcome of solipsistic neuralism.

     "Again [said the dragon], all special studies presuppose certain fundamental types of things. (Here I am using the word 'thing,' notice, in its most general sense, which can include activities, colors, and all other sensa, also values.)  As lower minds function, study, or 'science,' is concerned with a limited set of various types of things.  There is thus, in the first place, this variety of types.  In the second place, there is the determination as to what types are exhibited in any indicated situation....Unfortunately -"
    He glanced at me suspicious. "You're not paying attention."
    "I am!" I said, clasping my hands to show my seriousness.
    But he shook his head slowly.  "Nothing interests you but excitement, violence."
    "That's not true," I said.
    His eye opened wider, his body brightened from end to end. "You tell me what's true?" he said.
    "I'm trying to follow.  I do my best," I said.   "You should be reasonable.  What do you expect?"
    The dragon thought about it, breathing slowly, full of wrath.  At last he closed his eyes.  "Let us try starting somewhere else," he said.   "It's damned hard, you understand, confining myself to concepts familiar to a creature of the Dark Ages.  Not that one age is darker than another.  Technical jargon from another dark age."  He scowled as if hardly capable of forcing himself on.  Then after a long moment: "The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order.  The universe refuses the deadening influence of complete conformity.  And yet in its refusal, it passes toward novel order as a primary requisite for important experience.  We have to explain the aim at forms of order, and the aim at novelty of order, and the measure of success, and the measure of failure.  Apart from some understanding, however dim-witted, of these characteristics of historical process..."  His voice trailed off.
    After another long pause, he said: "Approach it this way.   Let us take this jug."  He picked up a golden vessel and held it toward me, not letting me touch it.  In spite of himself, as it seemed, he looked hostile and suspicious, as if he thought I might perhaps be so stupid as to snatch the thing and run.  "How does this jug differ from something animate?"  He drew it back out of reach.  "By organization! Exactly!  This jug is an absolute democracy of atoms.  It has importance, or thereness, so to speak, but no Expression, or, loosely, ah-ha!-ness.  Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the universe.  Limited to a finite individual occasion, importance ceases to be important.  In some sense or other - we can skip the details - importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite.  Expression, however - listen closely now - expression is founded on the finite occasion.  It is the activity of finitude impressing itself on its environment.  Importance passes from the world as one to the world as many, whereas expression is the gift from the world as many to the world as one.   The laws of nature are large average effects which reign impersonally.  But there is nothing average about expression: it is essentially individual.  Consider one definite molecule -"
     "A what?" I said.
    The closed eyes squeezed tight.  He let out a long, cross sigh of red-orange fire.
    "Put it this way," he said.  His voice had grown feeble, as if he were losing hope.  "In the case of vegetables, we find expressive bodily organization which lack any one center of experience with a higher complexity either of expressions received or inborn data.  Another democracy, but with qualifications, as we shall see.  An animal, on the other hand, is dominated by one or more centers of experience.  If the dominant activity be severed from the rest of the body - if, for example, we cut off the head - the whole coordination collapses, and the animal dies.  Whereas in the case of the vegetable, the democracy can be subdivided into minor democracies which easily survive without much apparent loss of functional expression."  He paused.  "You at least follow that?"
    "I think so."
    He sighed.  "Listen.  Listen closely!  An angry man does not usually shake his fist at the universe in general.  He makes a selection and knocks his neighbor down.  A piece of rock, on the other hand, impartially attracts the universe according to the law of gravitation.  You grant there's a difference?"
    He waited, furious with impatience.  I met his eye as long as I could, then shook my head.  It was unfair.  For all I knew he might be telling me gibberish on purpose.  I sat down.  Let him babble.  Let him burn me alive.  The hell with it.
    After a long, long time, he said, "It was stupid of you to come."
    I nodded, sulking.
    He stretched his wings - it was like a huge, irascible yawn - then settled again.  "Things come and go," he said. "That's the gist of it.   In a billion billion billion years, everything will have come and gone several times, in various forms.  Even I will be gone.  A certain man will absurdly kill me.  A terrible pity - loss of a remarkable form of life.  Conservationists will howl."  He chuckled. "Meaningless, however.  These jugs and pebbles, everything, these too will go.  Poof!  Boobies, hemorrhoids, boils, slaver...."
    "you don't know that!" I said.
    He smiled, showing all his teeth, and I knew he knew it.  "A swirl in the stream of time.  A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak - part metaphor, you understand - then by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, and expanding universe -"  He shrugged.  "Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind.  Purple dust.   Gold.   Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!"   He laughed, hollow as the cavern around him.  "New laws for each new form, of course.  New lines of potential.  Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident, until -"  His leer was like icy wind.
    "Go on," I said.
    He closed his eyes still smiling.  "Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse.  A sea of black oil and dead things.  No wind.  No light.   Nothing stirring, not even an ant, a spider.  A silent universe.  Such is the end of the flicker of time, the brief hot fuse of events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man.  Not a real ending of course, nor even a beginning.  Mere ripple in Time's stream."
    I squinted.  "That really could happen?"
    "It has happened," he said - and smiled as if it pleased him - "in the future.  I am the witness."
    "I don't believe you."
    "It will come."
    I went on squinting at him, hand on my mouth.  He could lie.   He was evil enough.
    He shook is ponderous head.  "Ah, man's cunning mind!" he said, and cackled.  "Merely a new complexity, a new event, new set of nonce-rules generating further nonce-rules, down and down and down.  Things lock on, you know.  The Devonian fish, the juxtaposed thumb, the fontanel, technology -"
    "I think you're lying," I said, confused again, aswirl in words.
    "I noticed that.  You'll never know.  It must be very frustrating to be caged like a ...cricket in a limited mind."  His cackle lacked spirit, this time.  He was growing very weary of my presence.
    "You said 'Fiddlesticks,'" I said.  Why is it fiddlesticks if I stop giving people heart attacks over nothing?  Why should one change one's ways, improve one's character?"  I must have be an interesting sight, that instant, big shaggy monster intense and earnest, bent like a priest at his prayers.
    He shrugged.  "Whatever you like.  Do as you think best."
    "But why?"
    "'Why? Why?'  Ridiculous question!  Why anything?   My advice to you - "
    I clenched my fists, though it was absurd, of course.  One does not swing at dragons.  "No, why?"
    The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire.  "Ah, Grendel!" he said.  He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity.  "You improve them, my boy!  Can't you see that yourself?   You stimulate them!  You make them think and scheme.  You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last.   You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.   The exile, captivity, death they shrink from - the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment - that's what you make them recognize, embrace!  You are mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain.   If you withdraw, you'll instantly be replaced.  Brute existents, you know, are a dime a dozen.  No sentimental trash, then.  If man's the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him!  Scare him to glory!  It's all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple and complex.  No difference, finally.  Death, transfiguration.  Ashes to ashes and slime to slime, amen."
    I was sure he was lying.  Or anyway half-sure.  Flattering me into tormenting them because he, in his sullen hole, loved viciousness.  I said, "Let them find some other 'brute existent,' whatever that is, I refuse."
    "Do," he said leering scornfully.  "Do something else, by all means!  Alter the future!  Make the world a better place in which to live!  Help the poor!  Feed the hungry.  Be kind to idiots!  What a challenge!"
    He no longer looked at me, no longer made any pretense of telling the truth.  "Personally," he said, "my great ambition is to count all of this" - he waved vaguely at the treasure around him -"and possibly sort it into piles.  'Know thyself,' that's my dictum.  Know how much you've got and beware of strangers!"
    I scraped away rubies and emeralds with the side of my foot.   "Let me tell you what the Shaper said."
    "Spare me, I beg you!"  He covered his ears with his claws, gave a hideous grin.
    But I was stubborn.  "He said that the greatest of gods made the world, every wonder-bright plain and the turning seas.  He said -"
    "Ridiculous."
    "Why?"
    "What god?  Where?  Life-force, you mean?  The principle of process?  God as the history of chance?"
    In some way that I couldn't explain, I knew that his scorn of my childish credulity was right.
    "Nevertheless, something will come of all this," I said.
    "Nothing," he said.  "A brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity.  My advice to you - "
    "Wait and see," I said.
    He shook his head.  "My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it."

     Nothing was changed, everything was changed, by my having seen the dragon.  It's one thing to listen, full of scorn and doubt, to poet's versions of time past and visions of time to come; it's another to know, as coldly and simply as my mother knows her pile of bones, what is.  Whatever I may have understood or misunderstood in the dragon's talk, something much deeper stayed with me, became my aura.  Futility, doom, became the smell in the air, pervasive and acrid as the dead smell after a forest fire..."

* * * * * * *

Grendel's next instruction in process philosophy (and theology) comes at the hands of the oldest priest of the meadhall near Grendel's lair.   Although fond of the taste of priests, Grendel chooses not to eat him:

     Midnight.  I sit in the center of the ring of gods, musing on them, pursuing some thought that I cannot make come clear...[someone is] coming toward me in the snow, vaguely alarming, approaching like an arrow in a slowed-down universe, and a shudder runs through me.  Then I see him..."Who's there?" he says... and pokes himself through between two gods, feeling ahead of himself with the cane...
    "It is I," I say, "The Destroyer."
    A violent shock goes through him.  He shakes all over, practically falls down.  "My lord!" he whimpers.  He goes down to his knees.   "O, blessed, blessed lord!"  A look of doubt crosses his face... He squints, cocks his head, struggling to penetrate his blindness by force of will.   "I am Ork," he says uncertainly, "eldest and wisest of the priests."  I smile, say nothing.  I intend to paint the images with the old man's steaming blood.  "I know all mysteries," the priest says.  "I am the only man still living who has thought them all out."
    "We are pleased with you, Ork," I say, voice very solemn.   Then suddenly impish - at times I cannot resist these things: "Tell us what you know of the King of the Gods."
    "The King?" he says.
    "The King."  I do not giggle.
    He rolls his blind eyes, figuring the odds, snatching through his mind for doctrines.
    "Speak to us concerning His unspeakable beauty and danger," I say, and wait.
    The snow falls softly on the images...
    "The King of Gods," he whispers, and searches his wits.
    At last he folds his arthritic white hands, raises them before him like a nightmare flower, and speaks.  "The King of the Gods is the ultimate limitation," he keens, "and His existence is the ultimate irrationality."   A tic goes down one cheek; jerks the corner of his mouth.  "For no reason can be given for just that limitation which it stands in His nature to impose.  The King of the Gods is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality.  No reason can be given for the nature of God, because that nature is the ground of rationality."
     He tips his head, waiting for some response from me that will tell him how he's doing.  I say nothing.  The old man clears his throat, and his face takes on an expression still more holy.  The tic comes again.
    "The King of Gods is the actual entity in virtue of which the entire multiplicity of eternal objects obtains its graded relevance to each stage of concrescence.  Apart from Him, there can be no relevant novelty."
    I notice, with surprise, that the priest's blind eyes are brimming with tears.  They seep down his cheeks into his beard.  I raise my fingers to my mouth, baffled.
    "The Chief God's purpose in the creative advance is the evocation of novel intensities.  He is the lure for our feeling."  Ork is now weeping profusely, so moved that his throat constricts.  I observe in wonder...
    "He is the eternal urge of desire establishing the purposes of all creatures.  He is an infinite patience, a tender care that nothing in the universe be vain."
    He begins to moan, shaking violently, and it occurs to me that perhaps he is merely cold.  But instead of hugging himself, as I expect him to, he stretches out his arms toward the sky, huge-knuckled fingers gnarled and twisted as if to frighten me.  "O the ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil, such as hatred, or suffering, or death!  The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination.  The nature of evil may be epitomized, therefore, in two simple but horrible propositions:  'Things fade' and 'Alternatives exclude.'  Such is His mystery: that beauty requires contrast, and that discord is fundamental to the creation of new intensities of feeling.  Ultimate wisdom, I have come to perceive, lies in the perception that the solemnity and grandeur of the universe rise through the slow process of unification in which the diversities of existence are utilized, and nothing, nothing is lost."  The old man falls forward, arms thrown out in front of him and weeps with gratitude.  I have trouble deciding what to do.
* * * * * * *
Source: John Gardner, Grendel, NY: Vintage Books, 1971.