A Handful of Opposed Thumbs

It is with rueful longing, sometimes, that the naturalist in us undertakes to describe the life our longing calls “the idyll of the animal.” We ponder the spider as it spins, and end in admiration for its patience, its persistence, the instinctive geometries of its web, even its ruthless indifference – a callousness it cannot be blamed for; or we track the lion to and from its lair, or watch the tiger in the tense alertness of its stalk; and we envy how organised the insects and animals are, how – to us – they seems always to express the essential; they know nothing, we think, of distraction, guilt, excess, anxiety, delusion, pride, shame (Nietzsche’s example is a herd of grazing cows, unmolested by memory or foreboding, the present passing from one ruminating stomach to another as if life, when processed, delivered only milk); and how fortunate these creatures are, we imagine in such moments, because each of them possesses the superior efficiencies of its species; they fit without their measure being taken; whereas we perceive a painful inexactitude in our forms and functions; the fit is the tantrum we throw when we fail to find our station; and so we say that we have these gifts because we need them, because basically we are a handful of opposed thumbs: we don’t know how to live.

– William H Gass, Finding a Form

The Gass essays from Finding a Form are jewel-like: exquisitely formed, enlightening; new depths are revealed through each reading. The paragraph is from an essay entitled Nietzsche: The Polemical Philosopher.

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