Thursday, February 20, 2014

terra firma, terra incognita

It may be "obvious" to others that it is the same thing differently dressed, but these two rode into my mind on different horses this morning, so I greeted them as two visitors rather than one: "Solid ground" and "rule books."

1. "Terra firma" is Latin for "solid earth." Metaphorically -- in thought or argument or logic or personality or description -- it is the realm of certainty or, if not exactly certainty, at least anyone's best and most convincing guess... the bet anyone is willing to put his or her money on. "I am a Republican, a Buddhist, a husband or wife, a stock broker or psychologist, a man or woman, tall or short, strong or weak ... " This, whatever it is, is part of my terra firma.

"Terra incognita" is Latin for "unknown land." It is "there" as distinct from my terra firma "here." It is the edge of a flat-earth believer's world. It is the trackless reaches of the Gobi desert stretching into the traveler's distance. It is the risk a horny guy or gal takes when approaching a gorgeous prospect at a boozy party. It is the "death" from which pulpiteers make their money. It is the frisson that ruthlessly defies all certainty. It beckons and repels with equal -- if frequently unacknowledged -- force... to fear what is longed for and long for what is feared all wrapped up in a single terra incognita package.

Like it or not, the boundaries of terra firma invariably describe and define and create the realm of terra incognita. Walls erected for safety's sake may in fact keep danger at bay, but they are also by definition confining, constricting and confounding. In this, terra firma becomes not quite so firma. What's outside those walls? If you don't know that, how can what is firma be assuredly firma?

And the same may be observed in "terra incognita" -- the realm of shudder and uncertainty and many tears, perhaps. Confused and afraid and alone, a (wo)man stands at the edge of the flat earth, the known world, the terra firma. Jeeeee-sus! Only an intellectual could claim to be unafraid. One single step forward and ... and ... and who knows what could happen?! And yet, setting intellectual hi-jinx aside, gently but firmly, isn't this time of confusion and fear and loneliness an assured and reassuring terra firma? Isn't this the known world? Is it in any way in doubt? It may be unpleasant, but is there any real doubt about it?

Oh well, I have gone on long enough. The inextricable nature of terra firma and terra incognita is a personal matter. Terra firma and terra incognita may be differently named and feel quite distinct -- even antithetical, perhaps -- but somehow individuals have to hammer out the peace between them... or rather, discover the peace that was always there. "I know" and "I don't know" are the same thing, but saying so only distances them further from each other. The peace between them lies in a world where there is no "between" ... you know, your world, a world of terra firma ... or is it a world of terra incognita ... I forget.

2. I've blown my writing wad at the moment. Maybe I'll get back to "rule books" later ... I want to write something about cussing, a subject near and dear to my heart and closely tied to the practice of Zen Buddhism.

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