The Thinking 

Dust and Its Implications

May 15, 2009


Dust is pervasive. Wherever you are, dust is silently gathering, a fleck of everything, fragments of nothing, the particulate manifestation of the truth that all things are disintegrating.

Ordinary household dust is rarely considered a subject worthy of consideration. We live in a superficial world. Perhaps we’re secretly dumbfounded by some of the most commonplace things. We just don’t know what to make of them. We’re holding out for explanations that never appear.

One of the most interesting things about dust is its imperviousness to scientific progress. The scientist in his lab may have the illusion of progress. The duster knows this: nature only progresses so much. The world is never cured of dust and no human habitat is without it.

The earliest materialist philosophers may have been sent on their first chain of speculations by the visible clouds of tiny particles they observed while sitting in a room. From there, they may have leapt with intuitive brilliance – before there were any microscopes to confirm their suspicions – to the conclusion that all things are particulate.

Our senses deceive us, said Democritus, the early Greek philosopher who logically inferred the presence of infinitesimal particles, or atoms, in all matter. “By convention, sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.” Even thought is atomistic. Our bodies are composed of thinking atoms. So Democritus thought.

Perhaps it is not crude after all to find philosophical implications in something so common. We can never dismiss a thing solely on the basis of its size. Our thoughts would be the least important things if size was paramount as they take up no space and weigh nothing. They are materially non-existent.

The smallness of dust allows it universal entry. No door or closed vent keeps it away. It gathers on tables and floors, books and computers, under the beds and in the drawers, a powdery fog. Cumulatively it is against order, cleanliness and the efficient operation of machines. Secretly, it teems with hideous and ravenous life, the microscopic household fauna we would starve if we could. We embrace, and particles rise from our clothes and arms.

There is no beauty, not the slightest grandeur, no redeeming charm to dust. And, yet for those of us who have spent a portion of our lives removing dust from rooms, the dust cloth may be, like the microscope to the bacteriologist or the telescope to the astronomer, one essential tool of  our enlightenment.

The Old Testament contains many references to dust, reminders for the most part of life’s brevity. According to Genesis our origins were particulate. 

       “And, the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,
       and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became
       a living soul.” (Gen 2:7)
Cries Job:

    “And wilt thou bring me into dust again?
     Hast thou not poured me out as milk
     And curdled me like cheese?” (Job 10:9)

We were dust and we will be dust again. Viewed in this way, dust becomes companionate. So inert and inanimate, and yet so filled with intimations of one aspect of our own nature.

The inanimate animates us. It fills us with hope. Out of the very ephemera of dust, the idea of eternity rises. Dust draws into sharp relief all that is non-dust.

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