Earth, water, fire, and air
Met together in a garden fair,
Put in a basket bound with skin:
If you answer this riddle you’ll never begin.

            --The Incredible String Band, “Koeeoaddi There”

To make a narrative of one’s life is to lie about it; the result can only be selective and brutally reductionist, and any meaning or significance conveyed by the story depends on some external end or value. We persist in this nonetheless, and it is not hard to see why: it gives us the illusion of ownership and control over “our own stories” and therefore over our own lives.

Ownership is a metaphor, of course, but a telling one. It reifies the peculiar and unstable reflexivity of self-consciousness, in which (to borrow Fichte’s words) the self tears itself away from itself, and converts it into a relationship of possession. The social and historical development of the split between the subjective self and its own experience is complex, with Augustinian Christianity and Cartesian dualism among its contributors, but the harmony between its model of the human subject and the atomized owner of labor power under capitalism is so obvious that it is almost unnecessary to mention it. It is that convergence of folk psychology, philosophical and theological theories, and capitalist relations of production that makes the ideologies of modernity all-pervasive and, for that very reason, all but invisible.

There are cracks in that structure, though, and there are times when one can see through those cracks to glimpse a different order of things and different ways in which experience presents and organizes itself, not strictly under our individual direction but as shared activity. Such moments cannot be forced into existence, though they can be courted. Even then, though, they are likely to take us by surprise.

Last July, in the last light of a summer’s day, my wife and I were driving home from Dano’s on Seneca, a restaurant on the model of an Austrian Heuriger that serves light meals and new wine. Earlier that day we had seen a charming small-scale production of L’Elisir d’Amore from Geneva Light Opera, and the long hills and broad valleys of the Finger Lakes, the memory of Donizetti’s music, the lingering haze of the wine, and the taste of Dano’s impeccable pastries had us both in a quiet and receptive mood.

Our route ran through the town of Ovid to New York Route 96, which connects Rochester and Waterloo to Ithaca. I have lived most of my life in Rochester, more than forty years except for an eighteen-month stint in Brooklyn, and have driven Route 96 for more reasons, in more weathers, and to more destinations than I can possibly list. I am fond of the highway; even though it would be faster to take expressways all the way to New York, I’ve always gone through Ithaca, hoping to see the white deer in what was once an army depot and savoring the narrowing roads and the steady decline in traffic on the return trip.

And all at once I found myself keeping company with other drives along the same road. The scenery evoked countless sensations and emotions that had been laid down through years of passages back and forth, in different cars, with different people and with the same person, all viscerally alive in the landscape and in my body. In one perspective it was a moment such as Proust had with the madeleine and lime-flower tea; like “the smell and taste of things” these memories had remained “poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind [me], waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; [to] bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” In another sense, though, they were most un-Proustian. They were sufficient in themselves and in some indefinable but persuasive sense they were not even past. They did not need to be recaptured in narrative, made sense of, or described so as to account for me or for Marcel in the present-day of his authorship. They were not the image of a single past, either, but a palimpsest, many different times written over one another, which arose around and within me in their color and distinctive shape and gave way to others, or to nothing at all, leaving behind only the ineradicable sense that they were all silently present whether I noticed them or not.

Of course, they are not in the landscape. When we walk into an older building, we often feel that something has been left behind by past lives, permeating the walls or curtains or furniture, but we usually tell ourselves that this is our imagination running off with itself. Yet they are not exactly inside us, either. They are different from the memories we summon up deliberately, or the stories we tell ourselves. What we encounter is a multiplicity of interactions, ourselves at all ages with our lovers, family, friends, or strangers, and with specific landscapes in many different seasons and under many different skies. The landscape is more than a prompt or aide-mémoire; it has its own role in these memories, and we look on its changing faces the way we look into the face of a person we love and see all the faces they have turned to us in all of our years together.

Even built environments can bear this significance. What is sacred about sacred spaces also seems to have seeped into the stones; there is no rational accounting for this, but to chant a sutra in a 1400-year-old temple is not the same experience as doing it in one that is newly built. No such reservations apply to the rituals themselves, though. They are transformed by the presence of others, and those others are awakened within us when we walk surrounded by the pillars, gods, incense and music.

Certain rituals are clearly designed to turn secular into sacred space, to write the divine into the landscape. There are the saints’ processions in Italian and Iberian Catholicism, for example, and Hindu chariot festivals. In the latter the deity mounts a lavishly decorated cart and is drawn around the temple grounds or through the town by dozens or hundreds of devotees, all pulling on thick ropes in a mood that mingles reverence with hilarity. At several points on the circuit everyone stops and food is offered to the deity and shared with the crowd, often tossed down from the chariot itself like Mardi Gras throws and sought after just as eagerly.

The chariot festival is a holy version of a royal progress, the ruler’s ceremonial travels through her domain where she is feasted, not by groups of Indian housewives, but by nobles and local notables on whom the honor of a royal banquet is imposed. The function is much the same; one’s relationship with the monarch or deity lives on wherever one has witnessed their presence and wherever one had shared food with them. These deeply emotional rites give shape to our lived environment, and from those times on our movement through those spaces evokes our encounters with the regal or the divine.

Indigenous peoples have been at pains to remind others that personal identity is intimately bound up with landscape, and many must still fight for their right to possess or at least be able to return to the land with which their lives are embraided. Unlike Christianity, which emphasizes “the temporal dimension … American Indian tribal religions [are] basically spatially located” and their histories are not portable; its events have “no meaning apart from where they occur.”[i] A nation’s dispossession is not simply a loss of the familiar, then, or of local knowledge about hunting and fishing grounds, or even of the presence of ancestors. It is a loss of self, too, which is not thought of as walled up inside the skull but as extending through the community, its ancestors and spirit companions, and its loved and honored land. It is as if vital nerves had been severed.[ii]

One does not need to go to other cultures for examples. The elderly are often advised that they should move to smaller houses which are easier to navigate and maintain. “Relocation stress syndrome” can result, though, and many have reported “lower levels of well-being in … environmental mastery, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.”[iii] Some of this is likely due to the inconvenience of living in a house where the washing machine, the company china, the knives, and the television remotes are no longer where one could reach for them without conscious thought, but the severity and depth of the trauma bespeaks something more, a loss of the living connections with family and the others in one’s life that are tied to the locations where they occurred and which are now forever lost.

Older people are neither emotionally inflexible nor obdurately unwilling to face the misery of moving. They stay put, in part, because they pay a higher price for leaving home. They have much more to lose than the young and much less time to reweave their lives with new people and new places. They may be more attentive to the music of their surroundings, as well,, since their lives are less crowded with obligation and they are less yoked to time-bound pursuits by the goads of ambition or financial necessity.

This is a genuine advantage. We live in time, but we do not have to comprehend ourselves in time as well. To do so commits us to a stance that is already at an unbridgeable distance from the life we are trying to understand. Stories have subjects, and we cannot be subjects unless we are distinguished from everything else. Every autobiographical narrative must involve an independent self confronted by the entirety of its surroundings, human, animal, vegetable, and mineral, and these elements are never simply encountered. They arise within the complex rendering of experience that Fichte was the first to examine, the positing of the self, what is opposed to it, and the mutual limitation of self and not-self. Our stories begin with a separation that we ourselves create, and they are crafted to show us how we fit with or at least relate to a universe that we have made into something alien. They stabilize and reinforce the initial diremption.

It is otherwise with memories encountered in space, where they were first laid down. These are open, decentered, and multiform. We seem to be in the presence of the range and texture of a life that is ours simply because we are living it, not because we have made it our own or, worse yet, derived “life lessons” from its events. Nobody else has those memories, of course, just as nobody has anybody else’s life, but the substance of each life is so intricately interwoven with all others that we experience it as a singular perspective on a shared activity rather than as a distanced, subjective interpretation of an external and objective environment.

This is not mysticism, except perhaps in Wittgenstein’s sense when he wrote, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”[iv] It is arguably what Deleuze was writing about in his last essay, “Immanence: A Life,” when he spoke of “a pure immediate consciousness with neither object nor self, as a movement that neither begins or ends.”[v] Fichte’s Guide to the Blessed Life, Deleuze said, presents the transcendental field “as a life, no longer dependent on Being or submitted to an Act—it is absolute immediate consciousness whose very activity no longer refers to a being but is ceaselessly posed in a life,” a life which is “a haecceity no longer of individuation but of singularization.”[vi]

Deleuze makes a helpful distinction. Individuation is carried out within the structures of self-consciousness, within its self-imposed scission between self and world. To be individualized is to have a story, or at least to have a point of view that stands apart from everything else. A singularized life, by contrast, is the kind of life we share with all other beings, vocal and speechless alike. (Deleuze used the examples of a dying man and a very young child, but there is no reason to limit it to human lives.) Each such life is unique, recognizable, and unreproducible, but none can be understood by itself or separated from that “movement which neither begins nor ends.” Each one is only a node in the interweaving actualization of the immanent, to which we cannot assign any speakable significance because immanence itself cannot be defined “by a subject or an object that is able to contain it.”[vii]

Narratives must always betray the imminent. But the imminent is not nothing to us even if we must pass over it in silence. Fichte, for one, maintained that we could become aware of the movement of the Absolute, which plays the role that Deleuze assigned to the transcendental, as it manifests as the actual. In the later presentations of the Wissenschaftslehre he tried to turn his listener’s attention to that activity, to “think energetically” a “through” or a “from.”[viii] Apprehended in its simultaneity, as it is laid down in space, this generative activity shines through one’s life and the lives of others as they emerge, write over each other, and vanish in a Bacchanalian whirl such as Hegel describes in the preface to the Phenomenology, an incessant arising and dissolution which is also “transparent and simple repose.”[ix] Narrative is palpably inadequate to capture that movement, that stillness, and the unity of the two, and the idea that it ought to have a meaning is laughable. One might as well ask for the meaning of the Andromeda Galaxy, or of the second tree from the corner.

We are better off if we don’t answer that question. If self and world are not and have never been separate, and if we write and are written by each other, there is nothing outside of this activity which could give it meaning or sense, but there is also no gap between experience and reality which must be accounted for.[x] The question of meaning is then both impossible to answer and unnecessary to ask. We can dispense with it, and this is no loss. To quote Wittgenstein again:

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)”[xi]

No story can ever resolve that problem. The search for a meaningful narrative only perpetuates it, in fact, because it conceals its starting point in the dislocation and lack that arise as the self tears itself away from itself. That unstable and self-contradictory stance creates both an insoluble problem and an infinite longing for its solution, a wound like Amfortas’s which we perpetually seek to stanch but which cannot be healed so long as we keep inflicting it on our selves. Just because that self-alienation is our own doing it can be seen through, however, and “although it is unavoidable” within self-conscious thinking, Fichte said, we can “simply ignore[] it and abstain[] from the results,”[xii] recognizing then that life is itself blessedness.[xiii] Whether it is or not, there is certainly nowhere else where blessedness might be found.



[i]           Vine DeLoria and Alfonso Ortiz, quoted in Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, Press, 2002), pp. 131-132.

[ii]           The songlines of indigenous Australians deserve mention here, but they also require too extensive a discussion for an essay of this length.

[iii]          Kyrsten Costlow, Patricia A. Parmelee, Shinae L. Choi, Beverly Roskos, When less is more: Downsizing, sense of place, and well-being in late life, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 71, 2020, 101478,

[iv]          Tractatus § 6.44, Ogden translation.

[v]           Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, tr. Anne Boyman. (New York: Zone Books, 2001), p. 26.

[vi]          Ibid., pp. 27, 29.

[vii]         Ibid.,p. 27.

[viii]         This terminology pervades the second of the 1804 lecture courses, J.G. Fichte, The Science of Knowing, tr. Walter E. Wright. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005).

[ix]          G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A.V. Miller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), § 47, p. 27.

[x]           It does make us ethically responsible for one another, but that is a different subject.

[xi]          Tractatus, § 6.521 (Ogden translation).

[xii]         J.G. Fichte, The Science of Knowing, supra, p. 120; GA, II/8: 239.

[xiii]         J.G. Fichte, “The Way to the Blessed Life,” in Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Popular Works, tr. William Smith (London: Trübner & Co., 1873 [3d ed.]), p. 389.