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The Wealth of the Possible




Higher than actuality stands possibility.
--Heidegger, Being and Time



I usually talk about beginnings on the first day of classes. What with the students' summer vacation coming to an abrupt end and their eager notebooks still fresh and clean as the newly (re-)painted blackboard behind me, I find it only proper to ride on their hangover and relieve them from their anxieties of beginning a new class, a new semester, a new school year, or even--I'm sure for some--a new life. Relieve them: because I tell them that beginnings are wonderful things.

Though I do not resort to such antics as what my former management teacher did when he said that at the beginning of the course, everyone had an A--and that we can keep the A so long as we study and work hard, which means, as long as we remain perfect. There may be some pedagogical explanation for such a trick, and even some real worth to it as students suddenly feel like a million bucks. But now that I'm a teacher, I know, of course, that no one can "stay" perfect because--and pardon me if I read too much into it--to be perfect at the beginning means to be perfect at all times--or eternally; and to be able to "lose" perfection, to go down one notch, means you really weren't perfect to begin with. And even if you exchange "perfect" with "excellent," the same goes: if I were truly excellent to begin with, then my excellence need not be "tested" anymore, need not be shown anymore, and this means I can no longer be a student. Anyway, I got the A.

In contrast, what I tell my students is that to begin again usually means that something has ended. Now, perhaps it doesn't matter so much whether what ended ended well or badly, gloriously or tragically; or if it died its own natural death or was terminated with a decision by my hand or by another; or if it ended prematurely, at the right time, or at the worst possible time. No, maybe they are all the same: what ends ends much less from our willing and wanting than because time is time. Everything--joy or sorrow--longs for eternity, said Nietzsche; and if we had it "our" way, nothing would end, all would remain the same, but we could also no longer begin.

So I tell them that beginning again necessitates twisting free from what ended, or what comes to the same, twisting free from what ended necessitates beginning again. I tell them that all beginnings begin with a clean slate or a tabula rasa: nothing is still written, nothing is still settled.

In a way, the first pen mark on the new notebook spoils it. It did not know till then what would be written on it, what it would be for, or what kind of notebook it will (forever) be. And sure, a blank notebook is worth nothing because it contains nothing; in this way it is just one of the many blank notebooks which anyone can arbitrarily choose from.

But the emptiness of the page is the condition of the possibility of its being something, something distinct from all the rest. At the first stroke of the pencil the notebook is born. But like all things that are born, the notebook, too--at that very moment of its birth--begins its decay. Yet to be born and to die still means that it has a life.

What am I saying here talking about dead notebooks? Perhaps just this: beginnings are indeed wonderful things not only because they survive what ended but also because they offer the possibility of a new life. The possibility that beginning itself is, however, has nothing much to be proud of like the blank page which still has nothing to show. So the beginner can never be excellent or much more be perfect. How could he?--when he hasn't done anything, hasn't proven anything, or is in fact nothing? The beginner doesn't even have much to say.

The language of beginnings is silence because its world is the world of the possible. And when nothing is yet to be settled, then nothing could be said. But its silence is its thundering voice, as the dearth of its nothingness is the wealth of its being.

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