sábado, 4 de janeiro de 2014

Live is a Fever of Matter

What was life? No one knew. It was undoubtedly aware of itself, so soon as it was life; but it did not know what it was. Consciousness, as exhibited by susceptibility to stimulus, was undoubtedly, to a certain degree, present in the lowest, most undeveloped stages of life; it was impossible to fix the first appearance of conscious processes at any point in the history of the individual or the race; impossible to make consciousness contingent upon, say, the presence of a nervous system. The lowest animal forms had no nervous systems, still less a cerebrum; yet no one would venture to deny them the capacity for responding to stimuli. One could suspend life; not merely particular sense-organs, not only nervous reactions, but life itself. One could temporarily suspend the irritability to sensation of every form of living matter in the plant as well as in the animal kingdom; one could narcotize ova and spermatozoa with chloroform, chloral hydrate, or morphine. Consciousness, then, was simply a function of matter organized into life; a function that in higher manifestations turned upon its avatar and became an effort to explore and explain the phenomenon it displayed—a hopeful-hopeless project of life to achieve self-knowledge, nature in recoil—and vainly, in the event, since she cannot be resolved in knowledge, nor life, when all is said, listen to itself.


What was life? No one knew. No one knew the actual point whence it sprang, where it kindled itself. Nothing in the domain of life seemed uncausated, or insufficiently causated, from that point on; but life itself seemed without antecedent. If there was anything that might be said about it, it was this: it must be so highly developed, structurally, that nothing even distantly related to it was present in the inorganic world. Between the protean amreba and the vertebrate the difference was slight, unessential, as compared to that between the simplest living organism and that nature which did not even deserve to be called dead, because it was inorganic. For death was only the logical negation of life; but between life and inanimate nature yawned a gulf which research strove in vain to bridge. They tried to close it with hypotheses, which it swallowed down without becoming any the less deep or broad. Seeking for a connecting link, they had condescended to the preposterous assumption of structureless living matter, unorganized organisms, which darted together of themselves in the albumen solution, like crystals in the mother-liquor; yet organic dif­ferentiation still remained at once condition and expression of all life. One could point to no form of life that did not owe its existence to procreation by parents. They had fished the primeval slime out of the depth of the sea, and great had been the jubilation—but the end of it all had been shame and confusion. For it turned out that they had mistaken a precipitate of sulphate of lime for protoplasm. But then, to avoid giving pause before a miracle—for life that built itself up out of, and fell in decay into, the same sort of matter as inorganic nature, would have been, happening of itself, miraculous—they were driven to believe in a spontaneous generation—that is, in the emergence of the organic from the inorganic—which was just as much of a miracle. Thus they went on, devising intermediate stages and transitions, assuming the existence of organisms which stood lower down than any yet known, but themselves had as forerunners still more primitive efforts of nature to achieve life: primitive forms of which no one would ever catch sight, for they were all of less than microscopic size, and previous to whose hypothetic existence the synthesis of protein compounds must already have taken place.

What then was life? It was warmth, the warmth generated by a form-preserving instability, a fever of matter, which accompanied the process of ceaseless decay and repair of albumen molecules that were too impossibly complicated, too impossibly ingenious in structure. It was the existence of the actually impossible-to-exist, of a half-sweet, half-painful balancing, or scarcely balancing, in this restricted and feverish process of decay and renewal, upon the point of existence. It was not matter and it was not spirit, but something between the two, a phenomenon conveyed by matter, like the rainbow on the waterfall, and like the flame. Yet why not material—it was sentient to the point of desire and disgust, the shamelessness of matter become sensible of itself, the incontinent form of being. It was a secret and ardent stirring in the frozen chastity of the universal; it was a stolen and voluptuous impurity of sucking and secreting; an exhalation of carbonic acid gas and material impurities of mysterious origin and composition. It was a pullulation, an unfolding, a form-building (made possible by the overbalancing of its instability, yet controlled by the laws of growth inherent within it), of something brewed out of water, albumen, salt and fats, which was called flesh, and which became form, beauty, a lofty image, and yet all the time the essence of sensuality and desire. For this form and beauty were not spirit­borne; nor, like the form and beauty of sculpture, conveyed by a neutral and spirit- consumed substance, which could in all purity make beauty perceptible to the senses. Rather was it conveyed and shaped by the somehow awakened voluptuousness of matter, of the organic, dying-living substance itself, the reeking flesh. 

Lodovico Settembrini in "The Magic Mountain", by Thomas Mann, 1924


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