A Short Piece Featured In (Re)constructing “A is A” by O.G. Rose

The Dialectic Between “Meaningful Memories” and “Pure Experiences”

Living ironically while seeking a balance between the incomplete and the always “just missed.”

Frozen Glory Photography

(This work assumes “On Thinking and Perceiving” has been read.)

There is technically no such thing as “meaningful experiences,” only “meaningful memories (about experiences).” An experience is precisely relative to what thought is not involved: it is ultimately a matter of perception, which means it is a matter that doesn’t involve thinking or meaning. There cannot be meaning where there isn’t thought, so “pure experiences” are necessarily meaningless. And yet that meaninglessness can be a source of wonder and beauty.

Audio Summary

We never recall an experience, only a memory about an experience (so if the phrase “meaningful experience” is used, it must mean “meaningful memory”). I cannot “summon forth” my experience yesterday of going to the park and relive it again: once an experience is lived, the experience never returns. It seems like experiences “can return” because I can remember them, but this is a mistake. And this doesn’t mean I can’t return to the park and have a new experience like my experience yesterday, but it does mean experiences are always a “on(c)e in a lifetime” event.

If I could “recall” experiences versus just memories, I would “practically” be someone who could travel through time. Perhaps not technically, because if I relived an experience from my past, that “past experience” would become my present (I wouldn’t really travel to the past), but I would basically be a time traveler. “Experience” and “time” share an interesting relationship, because the only time we ever experience is “now” (the present), and in that sense we could say that every moment is “an experiment with the new,” for every “now” is “new” (“n(e/o)w”), and in this way, “experience” and “experiment” can be linked (if we could literally “resummon” experiences, experiences wouldn’t always be “new”). Our capacity to think about experiences transforms them into something less experimental, because thinking adds a framework by which we can understand the experience. In other words, thinking reduces the experimental nature of an experience, for thinking makes it more so that we “know what we are doing” versus “experimenting.”

Anyway, experience is always new and experimental in that newness, and yet at the same time never there. This is because “now” is never there: in a strange way, the present is the only moment of time we ever experience, and yet something we never (“meaningfully”) experience at all (the moment we think about it, it has slipped away). Hence, experience is something we never have; experience is something we are “always” just missing (the “always” seems to make possible a sense of “solidness” to our experience). And yet, in another sense, if we aren’t thinking about it, we don’t experience the “now” being missed: in perception, the “now” seems practically present (unified with the undivided “painting” of the scene before our perceiving eyes, or — to combat “sight privileging” — perhaps the undisturbed “music” of what our perceiving ears pick up). It is only in thinking that the fact “now” is always “slipping away” is meaningful; in perception, the loss loses its meaning and perhaps pain. “A now” is always with us, even if “this now” is always gone as soon as it comes. And yet there is no “now” — not now, at least.

Given time, an experience is always an approximation, something at which we never arrive. We also never think about experiences, only ideas and memories based on experiences (thinking is only ever “toward” experience). All we ever experience or think about is something “slipping away,” and if any “new metaphysics” is to be erected today, it should take into account this strange and “self-concealing” phenomenological experience. In my view, metaphysics needs to begin with an experience more than an idea, and for me that means metaphysics will entail some degree of irony, paradox, and tragedy, but what I mean by this will have to be explored elsewhere.

To think about an experience is an attempt to capture what can only ever be approached, yet if we didn’t attempt this, our experiences would be meaningless. Hence, “meaningful experiences” are always incomplete, only ever “meaningful memories.” “Pure experience” though is meaningless and of a subject that is “slipping away” (with “now”). Where there is perception and no thinking, the experience is complete and unified (for there is no thought to divide it up), and yet it is always “just missed.” Hence, “meaningful memories” are always incomplete, while “pure experiences” are always “just missed.” To put it another way, thinking is always incomplete while perception is always limited and “of” subjects always “just passing beyond” those limits (in terms of time, at least).

Strangely, “pure experience” (and corresponding “pure observation,” as will be discussed) seems to be both the ideal for the scientist and the mystic. The biologist studying nature for science, hoping to avoid subjectivity, seeks to meet the animals or landscape “on their own terms,” outside of all thought, and yet the Japanese monk, perhaps inspired by Nishida Kitarō, also seeks a state which breaks down the divide between subjects and objects (a return to the life of the infant before Lacan’s “mirror stage” — which is a subject of interest in the work of the wonderful Javier Rivera, who can elaborate further.

The best humans can hope for seems to be a dialectical state between “meaningful memories” and “pure experiences,” which is a dialectic between thinking and perceiving, the scientist and the monk. We cannot “resummon experiences” (and experience them again), but we can recall them and, in that act, make them meaningful. And the meaning we are able to find in those recalled experiences could be linked to how well we “purely experienced” the experiences at the time of their occurrence (and/or our “approximation”).

If we’re always trying to make our experiences meaningful, we may find that the meaning we can derive from them is less than had we just approached the experiences “purely,” on their own terms (however imperfectly), at the time. Yet if we never think about experiences, they will never mean anything to us, even if we experience the height of the world’s sublimity. Also, every moment is a new experience, so if we are to “think back” on a previous experience to make it meaningful, we must be forsaking the experience occurring “now” in favor of the past. Can we ever be certain if this is the right prioritization? No, which suggests the impossibility of avoiding risk.

It would seem then that we need to learn how to move deftly between thinking and perceiving, which means we must find a balance between incompleteness and limitation, the meaningful and the “just missed” (which may also impact our capacity to balance “givens” and “releases,” as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose). What exactly does that look like? It’s hard to say, and the answer is likely situation-dependent, but if we’re not even aware a balance needs to be struck, we’re unlikely to hit it at all.

But, despite the difficulty, hitting this “balance” doesn’t seem optional: if perception and “pure experience” entail “thoughtlessness,” then failure to balance them with thinking and meaning will leave us vulnerable to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” but what is meant by this will be expanded on in “Belonging Again.” At the same time, too much thinking will existentially overwhelm us too, making totalitarianism appealing. There are pitfalls on both sides of the path, and the path proves narrower the further we travel. How do we stay centered?

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