That’s me above, Anonymous, leaving a comment –and receiving a response– on the very quirky, curious and highly visitable Aangirfan blog. I’ve been meaning to hash out this notion for awhile now, so here goes on the slimmest of invitations.
While I would have composed the comment more carefully (had I known I was going to memorialize it here for blogsterity), the final sentence cited by the commenter is suitable enough for government work:
We are radically curtailed in appreciating realities for which we lack prefiguring imagery.
A related line of thinking was sparked recently by my familiarity with David Paulides’ Missing 411 series of books about which I wrote a Lovecraftian analysis based around the latter’s theory of Cosmic Indifference. Human reality could be so non-intersecting with alternate realities as to inspire a firewall of indifference between us. It may even be conceding too much to allow that such entities are of a ‘higher consciousness’ as no qualitative hierarchy should attach to phenomena so radically different.
There are echoes here too of Fortean John Keel and his notions of ‘high strangeness’. Into this strange brew, I might also include Jacques Vallee whose empirical discipline (as an astrophysicist) brings forth some starkly original hypotheses having to do with UFOs being psychic manifestations or perhaps even a ‘control system’ employed by another consciousness to help guide Man’s consciousness to an alternate plane for reasons unknown. Nor must these reasons be sacrosanct or carefully conceived. They might just as easily be capricious, mischievous, malevolent, inadvertent or programmatically deceptive.
The spirit of these inquiries is neatly summed up by British scientist and polymath J. B. S. Haldane (although it’s sometimes attributed to others and appears paraphrased in various forms) when he said:
The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can ever imagine.
At first blush this may not seem an especially profound quote until you attempt to feel the walls i.e. start imagining just how unimaginable the unimaginable might be. Of course it’s impossible, on tautological grounds, to imagine the unimaginable. Better to ask perhaps why some aspects and realities of the universe might forever be foreclosed to human imagination. Some people resent this foreclosure, thinking it too definitive, curtailing and, well, lacking in imagination. Surely, they insist, we are capable of imagining anything, no?
I’m not so sure. (Although meditative and mystical experiences may successfully jump this track.)
Human imaginings require some reality-grounded launch-point, or as I suggested above, some toolbox of prefigured imagery. Robert Frost said all poetry is metaphor. A poetic image must embark from something familiar in order to arrive at something poetic. Poetry is the encapsulation of this journey. (Some have taken to calling it the Orphic journey, traversing the Lands of the Living and the Dead.)
Could it be that truth is an never-ending accommodation that strives to inhabit a middle ground, a bipolar oscillation? Or of you prefer Plato, material objects are matched with a companion in the Realm of Ideas. Each suggests the other. In poetry, this parallelism intrigues us, often vaulting us to fresh insights.
Imagination’s reliance upon the familiar exists across all genres of expression. Every SciFi book launches from elements of our own physical form, our cities, our egos, our desires. We are forever comparing the existence of the fictional alien race with that of our own. Neither could exist without the other.
How then could we ever imagine the radically strange, let alone behold it in an authentic encounter? David Bowie relays the Starman’s cautious message in the song of the same name: “He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’ll blow our minds.”
To help form an appreciation for just how strange the strange might be, I’ll employ an extended metaphor (what else?!) using stomach bacteria.
I’m going to imbue this particular species of stomach bacteria with a modicum of consciousness (which may anthropomorphically compromise the analogy by way of anthropomorphism. Oh well. It’ll still push us further along.)
At lunch time we pull into a McDonalds and order a Big Mac and fries. Chomping on the burger, we silently reprimand ourselves for eating such crappy food. But we’re in a hurry and there’s no time for anything else. Suffice to say we ourselves attach no great reverence to this pit-stop.
Meanwhile in another world not so far far away, the sound of our masticating jaws is greeted with great portent. Manna from Heaven is about to arrive as it always does from the great Hole in the Sky (our esophageal sphincter). The stomach bacteria have devised a complex mythology for this ritual giving-forth. Various cosmological murmurings signal these events. Their world rumbles. Just when it seems all manna is depleted, another endowment descends from the Great Hole. Is it a miracle? Nah, it’s just Arby’s for dinner.
What, in our world, passes for a rather quotidian, off-hand event the bacteria community ascribes intense religio-metaphysical significance to. Have they already over-interpolated the meaning of their existence through misapplied imagination? We’re not even at the molars yet. How soon things ran afoul.
How then could bacteria possibly imagine whole other echelons of the universe’s strange gears and pulleys; like say, manna in its pre-masticated form, restaurants where the manna/burger is sold (what’s a cash register, money?) bakeries where bread is baked (what’s a bakery, bread?), fields where the wheat is grown (what’s a field, a tractor, wheat?), the commodities exchange that transacts the sale of grain, macroeconomics, seasonalized commodity trend-lines…okay you get the picture.
We’ve had fun slapping around the vastly curtailed and cloistered life of a stomach bacteria. But Haldane is right: there is no earthly way a stomach bacteria could even begin to imagine a baker’s delivery truck. The two orders of reality are simply too structurally estranged. Metaphor fails. And yet, each divorced reality is subtly enmeshed in the other.
No doubt there are workings in this universe that are orders of magnitude beyond our greatest imaginative exertions too. Hopefully this analogy offers a thought-metric for just how strange strange might be. Pretty strange indeed, I’d say.