The Art of Perplexity

On the virtue of resisting the easy answer.

stone initiation well at quinta da regaleira in portugal

Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1131-1205), is a good person to meet if you’re looking for some antidote to the excesses of a mode of thought (typically Greek in origin) that tends to value “the universal, the general, and the unequivocal” over modes more typical of Hebraic scholarship, namely an openness toward “ambiguity, contradiction, and plurality of meaning” (from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). The title of Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” was enough to pull me into his orbit. The following is inspired by this treatise, as translated by Shlomo Pines

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Consider this: the meaning of a sacred text can only be glimpsed. It is best accessed by those prone to being perplexed. Consider also how contradictions, so often maligned, may be embraced instead of being shunned as flaws.

I am moved toward those terms that may sometimes have one meaning, and sometimes many.

When it comes to some subjects, a sensible reader will know better than to demand a complete exposition and will not expect any given meaning to be exhaustive. A sensible reader would never consider the possibility of removing all difficulties, ever, from the interpretive challenge. The most valuable truths may at best be glimpsed, and then concealed again.

Sometimes, in a long, dark night, a flash of lightning will illuminate the landscape. It’s like that, and yet––

Many a fool has so hungered for certainty that he refers to pretend the flash continual, pretending night is day,

––hence the parable, the riddle, the poem, the allegory. Let me show you a deep well. Would you drink? No, you cannot reach it, except by attaching the pail to one, and the next, and the next of each of these, in succession and with humility of mind. You will find no rope long enough, but the vulgar won’t bear this truth. They’ll keep insisting, tell it straight and in a single breath, and when you can’t they will call you a liar and when you won’t you are nothing.

My goal: to guide a single, virtuous reader to rest. Most will be highly displeased. Here is no answer, no show. What may be told to mortals of their own beginnings, except obscurely?

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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