A Short Work

Addressing the Meaning Crisis by Forgetting Everything

Considering Vervaeke and The Pérelin Decline by Pae Veo

I love Pae Veo, who is both a gifted writer and thinker. Searching for Marilyn Monroe was tremendous, and now we find ourselves blessed with another text by the same great mind: The Pérelin Decline. ‘Change is the only constant,” Mr. Veo tells us, ‘yet somehow, there is nothing new under the sun. Impossibly, both these statements are true, and no one questions either.’¹ I found this to be an incredibly engaging way for Mr. Veo to end his Preface, mostly because it is undeniably true: I myself hold these conflicting notions, but how? Well, a point of the novel is for Pae to unveil how the two notions could both be true and yet not contradicting, and the answer seems to have a lot to do with the fact that recognizing “change has occurred” and that “nothing has changed” both require memory, and if memory is unstable, then the standard according to which we could tell if “everything changed” and/or “nothing changed” is unreliable. And thus everything could be both, and since “perfect memory” is impossible, everything practically is both. Also, if I put a bunch of rocks in my bedroom, leave them there for a decade, then one day lose all my memory, it will be like the rocks were put there just a few minutes ago. Nothing will have changed, and yet everything will be new.

This paper will hopefully spoil nothing regarding Pae’s excellent novel, though my review on YouTube does contain spoilers (so don’t watch it until you’ve read the book). Here, I only want to wet your appetite to read the whole text, which you can find on Amazon.

I

‘Everything in this world already exceeds its welcome in existence,’ Pae tells us in the Preface, and the story starts off with Simon having no idea what’s going on or what she’s doing, immediately creating the impression that Simon is out of place.² We are told her life is ‘smaller than teacup’ (a subtle allusion to Prufrock), and that, in her case, ‘in a thimble, one puts together history.’³ She woke up on a hospital bed and stumbled into a coffee house, having lose all her memories — now what? Anything seems possible, funny enough, precisely because she is not bound by anything which came before, and yet without history, how could anything come next?

Moving forward, a main idea I want to explore is how we can make everything feel meaningful and pregnant with mystery by losing our memory. I found myself thinking about “The Meaning Crisis,” the phrase coined by John Vervaeke, constantly as I read Pae’s book. Simon’s life feels meaningful and like an adventure — is amnesia the answer to “The Meaning Crisis?” Something regarding memory seems important, and Pae’s book might suggest a new angle by which to approach the problem. Why exactly is a question I would like to frame with the following:

Scenario: When Simon returns to her apartment, she finds ‘[r]ocks of all sizes and shapes […] planted all over the carpeted floor, on the windowsill, the sink, high and low.’⁴

Question: Is there a Meaning Crisis here?

Does Simon suffer a Meaning Crisis, or she is actually free of the Meaning Crisis? She has no idea what is going on, so in that sense everything is meaningless, and yet in another sense her life has meaning because she has “something to do” (“a meaning”). So, I ask again: Is Simon suffering a Meaning Crisis? I personally found this question provocative, and I’m in Pae Veo’s debt for considering it, a question which is full of irony (the material of great literature). ‘Her life’s purpose before the accident would settle in and become obvious with the return of her memory,’ we are told, and yet that might be precisely when her life would lose purpose.⁵ In Action, as mentioned in “Philosophical Developmentalism” by O.G. Rose, Maurice Blondel tells us that ‘at the very moment we are persuaded that the sensed impression is the absolute and complete reality, we look for something other than what we hear and what we see.’⁶ This is staggeringly ironic, for generally the reason we think about something is precisely because we hope to gain understanding about it, but Blondel here suggests that the moment we understand, we cease to care. In this way, Simon is blessed to have no idea what is going on, because that makes her care to know what it is going on. She doesn’t know what to think, so she cares to think. Her life has lost all meaning, and so she gains a meaning in trying to regain meaning (meaning which may have never been there in the first place).⁷ In this way, it is the loss of the meaning of everything which is easily making everything feel meaningful to Simon, which (pointing to the end of the novel) suggests that giving up meaning in one sense is how we gain it in another. But this suggests a profound paradox which will require the whole novel to explore.

Looking over one of her rocks, Simon considers how ‘[i]t was only a piece of earth that seemed, oddly enough, out of its element,’ and it is precisely because the stone is somewhere we don’t expect the stone to be that it strikes us as “holding a meaning.”⁸ Likewise, when we lose our memory, we can’t expect to be anywhere at all (everything lacks context), which makes everything seem new and strange (an ideal and dream of Phenomenology, suggesting that memory threatens the goals of Husserl and the like). Memory is how we know our place (or think we do), and when we are “out of place” we gain meaning for our life in trying to “(re)gain” our place — a place in which we may have originally felt meaningless and purposeless. In a strange and paradoxical way, this suggests that we gain meaning by not gaining “too much” meaning…

‘Whatever the reason may have been for the rocks,’ we told, ‘it was bound to show up. If she had to turn over every stone in the world, she was determined to find the meaning behind such an odd obsession.’⁹ Can we imagine Simon looking at the rocks before she lost her memory and giving herself such a quest, such a meaning? I don’t believe so, and it’s funny myself to think of how I would respond to the tree I’m looking at right now from my porch if I lost all my memory. Suddenly, I would wonder how the tree got there, why “that tree” and not another — the tree might gain the “aura” Walter Benjamin discussed regarding art. But with memory and knowledge about the tree, it’s just “that tree”: particularity is of little significance. And yet I don’t know everything about the tree and could indeed learn more about it but nevertheless feel little desire to investigate it. Why? Why don’t I feel a need to learn about the tree, whereas if I lost my memory, I might care about it? Well, it’s perhaps because I wouldn’t be confident that the tree had nothing to do with who I was as a person, while currently I “feel confident” that the tree and my identity are unrelated. With Simon, she cares about the rocks because they might help her determine her identity and life story: she doesn’t know they don’t. And this suggests something: could we help address “The Meaning Crisis” if we weren’t so sure that the world around us had nothing to do with us? Could we feel like life had meaning if our external world felt to contain truths about us that we didn’t know? This, I think, is one of the truths which Pae’s novel suggests, and indeed when people were more religious, they could consider the external world as part of a “created ordered” which they were situated within and that understanding could help them understand the Mind of God. Modern Science though has contributed to a split between objects and subjects, and there is reason to think this split has contributed to our “Meaning Crisis,” which for me suggests a need to “return to Hegel” and embrace “a science of the subject” — but that is another topic for another time.

‘Everything she did seemed to be a small step in figuring out her place — there was no ‘what’s next?”, but only ‘what now?’’ — this struck me as a particularly important line.¹⁰ Simon does not live according to any “what’s next” but is radically “present,” a concern emphasized in many of “The Meaning Crisis”-discussions. Because her immediate world might contain secrets about her, and because she doesn’t know what she should do, all she has is a present which she cannot say for sure doesn’t contain truths about herself and is thus full of possible meaning. Because Simon has, in a way, “lost everything,” everything is worth her attention. Everything is meaningful. Everything (might) relate(s) to her. But what if she regains everything? Then all could be lost. Okay, how does she “(re)gain” everything then? Is the way best to address “The Meaning Crisis,” an act of “(re)gaining” versus “gaining?” Is this what Pae suggests when he writes that ‘the most reasonable, most progressive action she could take was to do absolutely nothing?’¹¹ We decide.

II

In the Preface, Pae tells us something interesting:

‘One may want to call this a story about memory, but this would be wrong. It would be more accurate to describe this story as a story, not about memory.’¹²

This novel is about living where memory is gone, not “about” memory but about “the absence of memory,” which strangely is a world that can feel full of meaning. Much more can be said on the novel, such as the brilliant (and hilarious) way Pae incorporates “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus, as well as the ultimate conclusion, which emphasizes sacrifice in a manner that I strongly align with and see as similar to “the real choice” discussed at the end of (Re)constructing “A Is A.” Simon describes herself as suffering ‘an unsolvable identity crisis,’ and the novel might ultimately suggest that this is how we address “The Meaning Crisis” (I won’t say for sure to avoid spoilers).¹³ But this “identity crisis” must be earned (like Hume’s “Philosophical Journey”), which ultimately requires a profound sacrifice — the details of which I will leave to Pae’s novel to explore.

If we don’t know ourselves fully, we cannot say for sure we aren’t somehow part of the external world, and thus we cannot say for sure that learning about the world isn’t somehow the same as learning about us (thus giving the world “enchantment” again, to allude to Charles Taylor). Yes, Simon needed the name “Simon,” so we all need some degree of an identity, but having “enough identity” is not the same as having “full identity,” and in this novel we see the possible need for this distinction. We perhaps need ‘an unsolvable identity crisis,’ which is to say we need to never fully respond to Socrates initiative to “know ourselves.” Considering Blondel, the moment we can answer Socrates is precisely when we don’t have any answer worth giving; the moment we know ourselves is the moment we cease to be worth knowing. It is the moment we try to “be something” that we cease being engaging; it is only nothing which is new under the sun.

‘After all […] [will there not] always be truth behind the truth discovered that would render the previous inconsequential to the relevance overall?’¹⁴ Do not all meanings “eternally regress,” on and on? Perhaps, and so in this way it is best to have “enough identity” versus “fully identity,” both so that there is always mystery to be experienced and so that we avoid experiencing any “eternal regression.” But isn’t that unsatisfying? That’s part of the point, but this is where I would suggest a topic brought up extensively in works on Hegel by O.G. Rose, which emphasizing the need to focus on “cultivating a skill” versus “finding a meaning.” Skill and habit are in what we find meaning more than propositions, I think, but skills and habits require sacrifice. Thus, it is best to ask not “What is the meaning of my life?” but instead “What is the work of my life?” Simon had a work, but it cost her everything — though what I mean exactly will require you to pick up a copy of The Pérelin Decline today.

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Notes

¹Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 5.

²Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 4.

³Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 7.

⁴Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 8.

⁵Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 9.

⁶Blondel, Maurice. Action. Translated by Oliva Blanchette. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1893: 57.

⁷Suggesting Plato’s Meno dialogue, perhaps the only way to address “The Meaning Crisis” is to “(re)gain meaning?” This also hints at Augustine’s famous attention to memory and the notion that God is known through it, as suggested in Confessions.

⁸Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 11.

⁹Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 23.

¹⁰Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 33.

¹¹Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 43.

¹²Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 2–39.

¹³Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 69.

¹⁴Veo, Pae. The Pérelin Decline. Stygian Society Publications, 2022: 189.

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For more by Pae Veo at Attention, please visit:

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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart. https://linktr.ee/ogrose