Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Shipwreck of David Hume

For some reason I was today reminded of this poem that I wrote in graduate school. It is based on Hume's Treatise 1.4.7, where Hume sums up where his skepticism leaves him. It's a section of the book that has considerable literary potential; but as far as I can tell, only I in my doggerel and Johann Georg Hamann in his "Night Thoughts of a Skeptic" (Nachtgedanken eines Skeptikers), which is basically just a paraphrastic translation into German of most of 1.4.7, have ever really made use of it in such a way.

The Shipwreck of David Hume

I am a wayward thinker; I have journeyed on the sea;
I have traversed all the systems of rationality.
In my weather-beaten vessel I have sailed from Firth of Forth,
Diffident for my future in this melancholy north.
I have crashed upon this rock of forlorn solitude;
How can I journey ocean-sea, that vast infinitude,
When all my former errors crowd about the air
And I, with every breath I take, feed my mind's despair?
I am an uncouth monster; Prospero's island knows
Such barren isolation as reason to me shows.
O disconsolate exile! Foe of all who feed
At any system's table with any system's need!
On every side detraction, inside I have but doubt,
The world conspires against me and seeks to catch me out;
And I, my closest enemy, at every reason's move
Induce new hesitation lest I new error prove.
How can I venture onward in this boldest enterprise?
For I am only human, tho' in more prodigious guise,
And all of human error and all error of my own
Haunts my resolution and chills my very bones.
In leaving received opinion do I still follow truth?
Finding her, shall I know her, and by what sterling proof?
All my best conclusions I only do believe
Because it strongly seems to me; could I be deceived?
Experience only guides me and habit is what persuades;
And I have but concluded as imagination bade.
Inconstant, yes, fallacious! It lies and cheats our mind,
And when we reason justly we contradictions find.
Reason shows us rightly from the rule of effect and cause
No continued being, external, can be reached by reason's laws;
And if there are no bodies, 'tis a truth we must not opine;
Yet these contradicting reasons are wholly intertwined.
The gods of inquiry mock me. When I trace the roots of mind
It ends in laugh, their smirking, after painful paths that wind.
Shall I, complacent in illusion, sit, as in common life,
Or shall I correct through reason, find philosophic strife?
Shall I take up wings with fancy and blind myself in flight
Or adhere to understanding and fall to fatal night?
I am confounded in all questions, blind and deaf and dumb,
Environed in the darkness where beats the dooming drum,
Wracked in imagination with a fever fed by pain
And faced with contradictions in my illness-heated brain.
But as the wind breaks storms in heaven's empyreum,
So nature breaks despair and reason's delirium,
And melancholy scatters at the breaking of the rain
As I go and play backgammon once again among the sane.
But shall I venture ever again upon the stormy sea?
Yea, I shall there be driven by my curiosity,
When I have yet grown tired of all friendly company,
When my mind will be collected into quiet reverie,
Then I shall again out-journey, unable to forebear
The lure of the quaint and curious, the sea-wind in the air,
The chance for high adventures and the making of a name
Beyond all mere amusement and the playing of these games.

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