The City, The World And What Can Not Be Measured. : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture The poet reminds us of mystery's necessity.

The City, The World And What Can Not Be Measured.

What is the value of not knowing? What is the value of boundaries between what we think we know, and what we do not even know how to formulate?

The poet, playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel took on these issues in an address to the Forum 2000 conference last year (he died on Dec 11). It is well worth reading the entire speech. Here I wanted to just give you a feel for his argument.

He begins by recounting his experiences of the changing structure of his own city.

What was until recently clearly recognizable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can't find a word for. It is not a city as I understand the term, nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, car and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote.

This unchecked growth, in Havel's eyes, denudes the texture of human experience.

Our cities are being permitted without control to destroy the surrounding landscape with its nature, traditional pathways, avenues of trees, villages, mills and meandering streams, and build in their place some sort of gigantic agglomeration that renders life nondescript, disrupts the network of natural human communities, and under the banner of international uniformity it attacks all individuality, identity or heterogeneity.

Taking the city as a metaphor for the global culture now emerging, Havel sees the growth of a terribly misplaced sense of confidence.

I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilization, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don't yet know we'll soon find out, because we know how to go about it...

But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.

Seeing the recent economic crises as indicative of a far greater problem he insists on the importance of not knowing.

In all events, I am certain that our civilization is heading for catastrophe unless present-day humankind comes to its senses. And it can only come to its senses if it grapples with its short-sightedness, its stupid conviction of its omniscience and its swollen pride, which have been so deeply anchored in its thinking and actions.

It is necessary to wonder. And it is necessary to worry about the non-self-evidence of things.

It's well worth reading the full text. And it is well worth considering why it must be the poet who reminds us of mystery's necessity?