I was reading Cassiodorus’s Through the Looking Glass on Abrupt Climate Change, which is quite a good read, and realized that this was the third time this week that I’d seen that same quote he uses from Humpty Dumpty.
The other two citations, which I have no idea where they are, were both in the context of the Obama/Mcbush mashup this past week. The English language has been sorely abused these last eight years, by politicians and the traditional media, and I expect things will only get worse as the campaign season runs on.
Some years ago I used that same quote from Lewis Carroll as an epigraph to a short story. I’d like to share “The Investigation” with you now, so…
Hop in a barrel and follow me over the fa-a-a-a-alls……
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Lewis Carroll
The Detective arrives on the scene and begins assessing the situation. Initially, by necessity, he is assigned the passive role of quiet observation, giving him the opportunity to take note of any interesting details, patterns, or irregularities. The limitations imposed upon him at this early stage of development constrain his inquiry; only the most rudimentary information regarding the state of things is available to him. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he proceeds to make tentative exploratory excursions, investigating the existing conditions from his own unique perspective.
At this point he is as yet unaware that he has embarked upon a case which will involve an infinite task bounded only by the inescapable limits of time.
His superiors carefully (or so they imagine) guide him through a time-consuming process of learning, demanding of him his utmost concentration and attention. Much of the work is merely mechanical but he manages to find satisfaction and even joy in numerous small discoveries of his own. These private revelations bring him more personal gratification than do either his outwardly acclaimed accomplishments or the rewards bestowed upon him by his mentors. This inner motivation drives him to persist in the investigation which continually shifts and expands, each horizon receding as he approaches.
The Detective collects various bits and pieces of elemental data and strives to make some sort of sense out of all the seemingly contradictory clues. Previously unimagined issues arise which force him to reconsider prior assumptions; red herrings crop up and distract him from more productive lines of thought; ordinary everyday circumstances beyond his control intervene, interrupting the course of his inquiry. He struggles with a mass of material external to himself as well as with his own internal questioning and states of mind. Doubts and uncertainties sometimes plague him as he endeavors to come to terms with new and unexpected information.
Having become accustomed to making steady progress, The Detective suffers from these setbacks which engender a futile and festering crisis of identity. Sensing his vulnerability, certain individuals with unknown intentions advance insidious ideas under the banner of “common sense”, exacerbating the difficulties with which he must contend. These ideas, propounded by well-intentioned fools, may not be the result of overt maliciousness; however, the subtlety of their covert intrusion is perhaps more disruptive and does more to obfuscate the issue than if they were. Lingering doubts impede The Detective’s research and undermine his advancement towards a solution.
Stumbling in the dark, he makes mistakes, some errors in judgment which threaten to inflict irreparable damage upon the entire enterprise; he becomes embarrassed at the public disclosure of his shortcomings. Uncomfortable in the spotlight and perplexed by the unsuspected complexity of the case, he withdraws, retreats to a more secure, less visible position in order to reconsider his options. Favored with a solid internal fortitude, his determination does not flag; rather, he redoubles his efforts, more positive than ever that he is capable of developing the requisite proficiency. Consequently, he dedicates himself more fervently to the investigation and expands his field of inquiry.
Not satisfied with mere approximations, The Detective consults with a diverse group of contemporary and historical experts; he concentrates on defining a firm central core of indisputable facts. He reads widely and intensively, always seeking the bedrock of certainty. Disregarding faulty logic, specious reasoning, and outright nonsense, he becomes adept at the process of learning. In order to apprehend and fully appreciate the subtle distinctions between various abstruse arguments, an almost monomaniacal devotion to detail is required. However, at a certain point, he discovers that the experts themselves are incessantly embroiled in internecine disputes; nothing has been clearly decided, clearly refuted, or clearly explained. One could scarcely make any sense at all out of their hairsplitting vagaries and ego-driven contentiousness. Another crisis ensues, much deeper and more profoundly unsettling than any previous quandary ever encountered.
No longer able to merely absorb the material as presented, he begins to question the entire process, and becomes abhorred by what he sees. In a state of confusion he forgets everything he has ever learned: gone are the rules of conduct purporting to guide one to graceful and impeccable behavior; gone are the simplistic platitudes drilled into him in his youth; gone are the quaint dreams of beauty and the misty vapors of idealism; and gone also are the lofty ambitions which led him to overrate his abilities in the first place. This dire situation leads The Detective to the depths of despair.
It is here, and only here, at the very bottommost pit of hellish awareness that he begins to realize that there is no possibility of retreat and no further to go. Forced by circumstances to consider and reconsider all the issues, he comes to accept that the only recourse is to return to the facts. He sorts through vast amounts of information collected from an array of diverse sources and attempts to arrange the material according to one pattern or another, hoping that some as yet untried configuration will yield the coherent, comprehensive explanation which has eluded him (and others) for so long. In so doing, he discovers that no overarching set of criteria exists for assessing the validity of any given interpretation of the case.
The diversity and mutual exclusivity of all prevalent theories make it impossible to decide which one (or ones), if any, should apply to the given circumstances. Preconceived notions can be imposed on the matter but that is a presumptuous, superficial, and fruitless undertaking, doomed in advance. With all prior modes of thought thereby precluded, he reaches the inescapable conclusion that only a decidedly new but as yet unguessed paradigm can be proposed.
Despite being overwhelmed by a myriad of insoluble complexities, The Detective, perhaps foolishly, persists in his belief that a theory consistent with the facts will someday be developed. Powerfully driven by an inborn desire to achieve the highest pinnacle of success, he makes enormous, perhaps inordinate, demands upon himself. Disregarding conventional wisdom and ignoring established practices, he assembles as much of the pertinent data as possible, attempting to attain the perfect expression of his most sublime intuitions and personal insights. Given the pressing limitations of time, he must prepare his presentation, discovering in the process that the most he can hope to accomplish is a composite image of his failure to solve the case.*
*(Note: Concluding his investigation, The Detective submits the foregoing summary report immediately prior to his resignation. The Scientist, arriving on the scene, begins assessing the situation.)