alethic

You have reached the river, the lethal river, the river Lethe. All that you have been is behind you, all your memories, the house you have constructed of yourself; ahead is the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind: oblivion. Metempsychosis requires not merely mental lethargy but deletion of the cargo. Be reassured: the erasure is of the chalk, not the board. But you have no choice: you must drink the cup in order to persist; were you not to, you would become nothing but memories.

But what is the real ethic of this? Who is the true you? Is your self the graffiti on your wall, or is it the wall? Are you being turned on the lathe of time in your formation, or are you the hands and instruments that carve? Are the memories mere illusions, a narrative of distraction from being? Or are they the only truth? Are there two mutually exclusive truths? Is a person who has forgotten who they were the same person?

We know, at least, what the ancient Greeks thought: truth and forgetfulness are opposites, just as sleep and intelligence are. “Intelligent” in Greek, after all, is εξυπνος exupnos, “unasleep”. And α a “not” plus λήθη léthé “forgetfulness” gives us ἀλήθεια alétheia, “truth”. And is death forgetfulness? No, lethal comes from Latin lethum “death” and is unrelated. It is rebirth, not death, that requires forgetting.

From alétheia we get (aside from the female name Alethea) our word alethic, a lithe word with its liquid and soft fricative, a word not necessarily for thelemites but one for philosophers and linguists. It refers not to ethical considerations but to questions of truth.

And yet what is truth? How well do your memories truly serve you? You close your eyes only for a moment and the moment’s gone. If someone says you did such-and-such or saw so-and-so last week, past a certain point of specificity you may only say that it probably happened or probably didn’t, or that it must have or couldn’t have. So, too, in reference to things that have not happened, you may talk about whether they could have or could not have; and in reference to determinations of present reality not known from experience, you may talk of what must be the case and what can’t be the case.

All of this is in some sense alethic, but just as we have two parallel universes for the truth of who you are, so too do we have two parallel universes for alethic. You see, in linguistics, the alethic modality is when you make a statement of logical necessity, possibility, or impossibility in relation to the world you are in: “Because every moment of being is an unrepeatable combination of circumstances and time, and change is unceasing, the person you were at time x cannot be the person you will be at time x+y.” “As you may not remain in the past, and as the present instantly becomes the past, you have no choice but to proceed into the future, to be what you were not before.” This is what we know is; by contrast, when you talk of things the way you know they are not or have not been, that is certainly not alethic; it is subjunctive, it is counterfactual.

But in modal logic, the subjunctive mode, the counterfactual mode, is what is called the alethic mode. It is the question not of how things are – they are as they are – but of how things could be, or would have to be, or could not be, if they were otherwise than what they are: “If you could stop becoming, you would never be anything other than what you have been.” “Were you not to drink the cup, you would become nothing but memories.”

So you are at the river, the river Lethe, one of the rivers of Hades, and you have no choice – do you? All your dreams pass before your eyes, a curiosity. Could you make a lithe, graceful, athletic leap, and like Thalia write your own comedy or idyll? Oh, no, your idyll is only an empty idol, an idle fantasy. The truth is what must be, and the truth is that, from where you are now, you must have been what you were, but you must become something you never have been before. You bend to drink from the stream… and then you realize that you are, and always have been, nothing other than a wave in the stream, and your bending is no more than you, the wave, subsiding again, the same water but no more wave, nothing lost but nothing there. The world of the surface versus the world of the substance: parallel universes, Lethe and aletheia. And which is true?

One response to “alethic

  1. Pingback: Styx, Stygian | Sesquiotica

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