Posted by: HAT | October 19, 2009

Suffering in Utopian Form

A representation of a possible destination

A representation of a possible destination

For the sake of argument, consider “utopia” as “an image.”. In particular, let “utopia” stand for an image of a place where people are happy. “People” remains deliberately vague for now, though at some point it will be important to consider whether “people” actually includes “all” or only some people, whether it is supposed to include “all” but manages to exclude some by accident or mistake, or whether this happy place was never intended to include more than some.

At first it looks like there is no suffering in this place. On reflection, however, it becomes clear that the content of the image is precisely suffering. Granted, it is suffering in the form of “having been overcome,” or possibly “never having been.” The experience of suffering in this form presumably differs, appreciably, from that of suffering in the form of “not yet having been overcome” or “never to be overcome” or even simply “not overcome.”

Noticing that suffering is the crucial content of the image utopia doesn’t justify reducing that image, or whatever substance might correlate with it, to “the same as” the image of some other, less happy place. Saying something like “that’s just suffering in another form” doesn’t disqualify utopia’s claim to difference. The difference in form matters; it’s a difference a person would be likely to care about under various sets of circumstances, for instance, if she had to spend fall break there or elsewhere. Utopia or . . . Alcatraz, say, or Manhattan? A person would be likely to have a real preference, and some good reasons for it.

It might be important to note that suffering isn’t the only content of the image utopia. Suffering in the specific form of “having been overcome” or “never having been,” in order to take on that form, has to incorporate some change in content. What precisely that change is remains deliberately, and maybe unavoidably, vague. Maybe unavoidably, because if it were entirely clear what specific changes in content had to be made to suffering to get it into the form it assumes in the image utopia, the state or condition that correlates to that formal change would already have been made actual. Maybe acquiring that entire clarity comes with effecting that formal transformation, which in practice turns out to entail a simultaneous and correlative modification of content.

A transformation like that resembles the creation of a work of art, or the solution of a puzzle or riddle — for “riddle” in this context someone might even be inclined to substitute the word “koan” — or the achievement of a result of practice, such as playing a tricky piece of music legato or looking at a neighbor’s accomplishment without envy or swimming a 50 freestyle in under 60 seconds.*

*No fair laughing in a really mean way, readers who recognize that this is not a fast time in any absolute sense.

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