a is for ‘absence’, in the Greek language. A is for ‘not’, a negative qualifier, an ‘is not’ attached to an ‘is’. The idea of absence, of something defined by not being something else, is a curiosity of language and of a consciousness that recognises the separateness of objects in time and space, and the absence of those objects from either. We have no direct experience of ‘not’. In the pre-conscious world of experience, and in the preverbal mind, we do not know what ‘not’ is. ‘There is no not at the preverbal level,’ wrote Gregory Bateson. A is not only the first letter of our alphabet, but as a prefix denotes the absence of the object or idea that follows it. There is therefore something very fundamental to the nature of being and of knowing residing in this amulet, A, that wards off things that are in the world and invokes their ghosts as equally real.
Its roots are ancient. It plays the same part in Sanskrit as it does now in English. Non-being is asat, non-acting is akarman. Pronounced staccato, ‘a-a!’ it is a general non-verbal prohibition, a caution, particularly when addressed to the preverbal infant, whose own first attempts at language often consist of the same syllabic combination. Yet the infant is asserting something in a positive way, and is not yet equipped with knowledge of its own absence, compelled to vocalise its presence in the presence of others and other objects of the senses, like the bird on the branch announcing the space it inhabits.
‘Amorphous’ means shapeless, by which we indicate our expectation that all matter should not only possess substance but an identity that conforms with our interests in relation to it, having the shape of our potential actions upon it, as Bergson says. Matter shapes itself to the objects of our interest. Pure matter is not something we are able to represent to ourselves except as an abstract concept. Matter is always something, amorphous to us if it does not conform to the recognisable, but something none the less. If anything is absent from it, it is ourselves. Always there is something, never nothing, and the child shares with the animal the unreflective immersion in being until language unravels the mystery of not-being and bequeaths to us the fear of our absence, which, as we have said, is beyond our experience. Only the self-conscious human animal, able to prefix a negative to the world that is, is afraid of what is not.
‘Amoral’ is a fairly recent word formation, and an erroneous and ‘inexcusable’ one to the ears of Fowler since the Greek prefix should be affixed only to stems of Greek, not Latin origin. Hence ‘non-moral’ is the correct form. It is used to mean morally or ethically neutral, but has come to mean ‘without morals’ and hence not much different from ‘immoral’, since no one is allowed to sit on the sidelines either as actor or observer. We seek approval or seek to avoid disapproval of our actions, their ‘approbation’ or ‘disapprobation’ which Adam Smith identified as the roots of moral sentiments. (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.) To be without a sense of morals is to fall foul of some one or other order of morality, not to negate it. Only nature, indifferent to suffering, is truly amoral. And the mechanical, in so much that it too partakes of the natural, unarguable, impersonal order of the universe. A watch: ‘It speaks, marks time and understands none of it.’ (Louis Aragon, Twenty-Three Manifestos of the Dada Movement, 1920.)
‘Apathy’, from the Greek apatheia, the term employed by the Stoics to describe the state of perfect equanimity of mind their philosophy was intended to lead to, is an indifference to the passions, to pathos. It is our feelings, the absence of indifference to what befalls us, that perturb the soul, hence the equation of our emotional disturbance with suffering, illness or disease, with ‘pathology’. Things themselves have no emotional content. They stand outside us, ‘still and quiet’, as the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius declared. It is only our seeking after our happiness that breeds disappointment, anxiety and unease. To be at ease in the world is a better ideal than to be happy; to be indolent, not in the received sense of apathetic but as a positive attitude towards life, ‘diligent indolence’, as Keats expressed it, which is the poet’s ideal state of mind; to cultivate that ‘passionate indifference’ Lawrence Durrell speaks of, which is the true duty of consciousness once we have had the courage to abandon all other hopes. ‘All you have to do is to walk out of the door with your hat on at a jaunty angle.’ (Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November.)
‘A’ becomes ‘an’ before a vowel, as in ‘anaesthetic’, which means to be without sensibility. This word’s connection with ‘aesthetic’ is not immediately apparent until we learn that ‘aesthetic’ was originally adopted from the Greek to speak of matters pertaining to the senses. It was only later applied (some would say misapplied), by the 18th century German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, to the ‘criticism of taste’, before it took on its current meaning of sensory ‘appreciation’ in general. (‘Sensibility’, too, developed to indicate a refinement of aesthetic taste, not to mention ‘taste’ itself and its journey from sensory materiality as a useful evolutionary distinguisher of the palatable to the abstract arbiter of the forms in which objects of the senses should appear to us.) Since the world is in the first instance phenomenal, a product of sensory data out of which we create its sensory forms, its essence in consciousness is aesthetic rather than a sphere for moral action. It must first be apprehended as something before we are able to make any judgments about it, perceived as the form of our potential actions before we are able to act. To appreciate the world as aesthetic phenomena without attaching to it our own desires and judgments is to return us to the ideal of the creative mind’s ‘passionate indifference’, which one can easily believe must have been the state of mind of God at the creation, since the world is, in the most wonderful way, but we cannot see in it anything but indifference towards us. Under anaesthetic it all amounts to nothing, an absence. An absence that is the beginning of all that I am:
…and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not. John Donne, A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day