One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. Nor overestimate it, for that matter.
Big Ideas seemed pretty powerful in late ‘sixties Cambridge. The University had always patted them on the head, but now, in the rather feverish political atmosphere of the times, they had swollen mightily, were biffing above their weight and bidding fair to revolutionise the world, as we student activists dared to hope. Or if not the world, at least academia.
Few can have had more faith in the power of a Big Idea than Robert Simpson, a first year architecture student one corridor below me. Quite why Robert had chosen architecture I never understood, as he was so rapidly disillusioned by the technical emphases of the discipline that he wilfully hurled away any chances of passing his first year. But no matter if architects were unfit to build a new world, for meanwhile Robert had discovered Dialectical Experience.
I don’t think I have ever seen anyone so transformed by a revelation at a purely intellectual level. In fact, Robert became, for a brief while, fanatically evangelistic. Typing up his thoughts, he had them Gestetnered onto sides of quarto; a few sympathetic souls, myself included, were press ganged into shoving these leaflets under every door in the college.
As it happens, I still have a yellowing copy (probably the last surviving), which I transcribe here:
LIFE HAS A MEANINGLESS PURPOSE AND A PURPOSELESS MEANING.
Logic is total, indivisible and real. There are either things or there are not things. There are no half-things. A thing either is what it is or what it is not. If it is what it is not, it is not. What is exists, what is not, does not exist.
Dialectical logic is logic orientated by the “unity of all things,” and as such has no premises, nor can the experience be intellectualized or known. It denies critism[sic] and can only be accepted. There is no dialectical theory, all dialectical statements are self-evident truths, and as such are balanced procreating systems.
Logic is real, thus it can be used instrumentally by the dialectical experience; and logic is energised by thought; and thought is generated by the need to survive.
Polemical logic is logic orientated by a dual concept of the universe, in which man defines things through this conceptualization. He conceptualizes by the differentiation and the polarization of entities. The type-form is conceived as a standard against which all experiences are classified. The type-form is a fabrication. As polemics can therefore only describe things in terms of what they are not, or in terms of an unreal, conceptualized standard, it can never answer a question demanding to know what a thing is and/or why a thing is. So, to “answer” those questions and prevent paralysis of thought and, therefore, total self-destruction, polemical logic polarizes man and the universe in order to have individual authority in a controlling ego (“I think, therefore, I am.”)
The dialectical experience sees that this identification separates an inseparable and, therefore, it cannot be real. So, the ego (societal and individual) cannot exist. Only the single entity exists; thus man is the universe (“I am, therefore, I am.”)
The classifier cannot classify himself!
The instrument cannot be instrumental upon itself!
What am I and why am I? These questions compel the ego to destroy itself and, so, liberate the “mind-body” from freedom!
“Life is not in the getting; life is in the doing” ………
Put like that, one can hardly disagree. On the other hand, once one has thunk, it’s not entirely clear what happens next. But Robert was gleeful. The leafleting, he explained, was to be done at the dead of night. That way, nothing could pre-empt the collective revelation to be enjoyed by pyjama’d breakfasters poring over their discovery. All we had to do was to sit back and wait for the popping sound of hundreds of polemically orientated egos imploding across lawn and quadrangle. He was, I think, quite serious and sincere in his belief that the college would never be the same again.
I know what you’re thinking, so let me say that, to my knowledge, no type of hallucinogen or similar had ever passed Robert’s lips. Our dialectician was stone cold straight. But who or what had led him to this point? Perhaps not Hegel; the term “synthesis” appears nowhere here, and Robert’s conception of the dialectical seems particularly static. But I’m reminded by one who was there at the time that he had been reading Norman O Brown. And in its urge to totalise, this text is very close to the Zen-ish spirit of Brown’s monism.
Needless to say, the apocalypse failed to happen, and the nation’s future great and good remained oddly untouched by their brush with the philosopher’s stone. (Including, across the corridor to me, a young Rowan Williams. Had the future Archbishop of Canterbury been attracted by Robert’s leaflet towards a Brownian, more Dionysian, form of Christianity, might the path of the Anglican Communion have proved a little less orthodox?)
Undaunted, Robert himself moved on towards a more orthodox faith, quickly developing an equal, if not greater, enthusiasm for certain French Catholic philosopher-theologians. He rather lost us at this point, so I can’t remember which, though I suppose it could have been Jesuit Thomists such as Maréchal or Rousselot, whose Platonism might have appealed to him. At about this time he also discovered plastic toy dinosaurs, which were scattered in quantities over his furniture. “Look at them!” he would say, picking them up and making them eat each other. “Aren’t they fantastic?” He was certainly liable to overwhelming enthusiasms, and you can’t help but admire that.
I think that for a while, after he crashed out of his first year, he stayed in the area, somewhere out along the Ely road. He acquired a vehicle, possibly a Land-Rover, which he drove dangerously. And then he was gone. I recall a letter from Israel, maybe from a kibbutz. And after that? Wherever he is, I hope he’ s still tilting at windmills.
For many years I clung stubbornly to a huge architectural drawing from his course work that he was throwing out and which I begged from him. The brief had been on bathroom design, and the drawing showed a super-smooth modernist bathroom suite, across which in huge but perfect capitals he had written “TO WASH OR NOT TO WASH? THAT IS THE QUESTION”. This protest piece certainly contributed to his exit. Unfortunately, it seems to have perished in one of my many house moves.
But I still have a photo booth image of Robert, probably ripped from his NAS card and now yellowed by old sellotape . Why do I have it? No idea. Though his hair grew longer with studenthood, here it is still grammar school neat. But the eyes peer out from the geeky glasses as if already they perceive the fabrication of the type-form, as if they foresee the liberation of the mind-body.
One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. If not power to change the world, then certainly power to re-route radically one’ s passage through life.