Dark Mountain has inspired some of the writings I’m proudest of. And I’m proud to be a “Featured Mountaineer” now on their site. There is so much more great work to explore there. I invite you to do so.
When I walk, things and their meanings seem to flood my mind simultaneously. Because the meanings are made of sense and emotion and intellect; it’s all of a piece. When I am back in a room, trying to type, I lose so much. I lose thousands of the impressions that fire a billion brain cells on a short walk, and retain a tiny handful, drying up like reeds when you pull them from the stream. Then of the few I retain, I lose either the things or their meanings; I can’t hold on to them both. The things become pictures: empty, flat. The meanings become abstract, word-work, sentences forming an architecture of the non-living entirely in my mind.
James Joyce tried to capture that mottled flow of things, sensations, ideas; even he, all synapses firing with syphilitic genius, couldn’t do it. But he created a simulacrum that has its own life. The purpose of art is to make something alive, said Henry Green, who wrote in Joyce’s shadow.
That’s what our much-lauded creativity comes down to doesn’t it, though? The desire to hold on, to capture, to dominate a temporal reality with our minds and extract its temporality, like choking off a spring of fresh water. To persist, when all of life says you must die, you must not persist, because if you did the world would fill with ghosts and ash.
Only the very best can create something that persists and still flows (Proust’s dream of the roman fleuve), and even that thing only flows because it intersects with our minds, and they re-animate it, re-impose upon it the temporality that is the source of all flow.
Signatures of all things I am here to read, said Stephen Dedalus as he walked on the beach. And yet we are narcissists, as he was. We read things only to look for our own reflection. We write them only to create our own image. What would it be like to disappear, to step aside? What would the literature of humility, the collapse of otherness look like? Would there be one? Or only silence?
This is the story arc of our species: we have traveled, although with many meanderings, a single traceable path from wild to domesticated to mechanized beings. We still carry our past with us – sometimes it is expressed, sometimes only potential, but it is not entirely (never, thus far, entirely) lost; it is embodied in us. So there are still groups of human beings who have more wilderness in them, many more who are fully domesticated but not (yet) mechanized, and some – in fact, considered the most privileged in contemporary civilization – who are being positioned for, and now, like good domesticated creatures, actually trotting faithfully towards, machine-life. Clutching essential contrivances to which they have outsourced their memory, sociability, wealth, intellect, and imagination. The next step on this path is to further incorporate (embody) our machines: first to wear them, then to implant them, and finally to become them.
Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks made me realize children are the throwbacks. Domesticated children held the wild in them, released when they went outside to play; machine children will probably still hold the domestic, creating farms and households and schools on their virtual reality playgrounds. All children have held the body, the physical, preeminent – a physicality in constant motion, irreducible because it is alive at all levels, seen and unseen. What adults abstract to a separate and imaginary realm, the metaphysical, is merely a single reality that is alive throughout. This is the world of children.
It was the children who perceived, as Macfarlane says, doors everywhere in the landscape, the children who could slip between worlds without difficulty, just as they can speak in different languages without interposing translation, or express paradoxical ideas without a sense of contradiction.
There really is a butterfly effect at work in the Homo sapiens sapiens story: Imagine, tiny genetic anomalies reverberating into distinguishable types of physicality and cognitive processing, expanding into historical acts in the world altering aspects of large-scale material reality – the climate of a planet! (the largest if not the happiest example) leading to concatenating unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences through great spans of time.
Missing from what we call complex civilization today: the ethic of humility, attentiveness, and care that a real understanding of the nature of this effect would seem to demand.
But Shevek has a home outside of the murderous, gleaming, extractive civilization of Urras to which to flee. We don’t. For now, our stories are the only door to the sky.
If we try to use language transparently, are we doing ourselves a disservice? Perhaps Wallace Stevens was right: if we can’t experience reality directly, and if there is no transcendent level to experience anyway, why not just revel in our own invention? Those fantastical filigrees of forked lightning flashing inside the crystal sphere at the center of our heads. That lovely Blue Guitar plucking out the tune; that jolly Emperor of Ice Cream leading the dance. But Stevens might have been wrong about a couple of things: one is that there is in fact already order in nature, elegant, fiendishly complex order that we have nothing to do with creating – the more science advances, the more it confirms this. Poetry – since Stevens, anyway – seems rather slack-jawed by comparison.
Humans are not the sole artists of creation, the unique imposers or creators of elegant and sophisticated order out of nature’s slovenly, fanged chaos – at Key West or elsewhere, by placing jars in Tennessee or elsewise. In fact, we are the generators of a uniquely inordinate amount of entropy by comparison with other species or systems in the unbuilt, living world.
We can love our words, as Narcissus loved his rippling image in the silken pool, but the world can still reach up to drown us with a single, silent wave.
Mandelbrot’s fractal set is an abstraction; still the nature of our experience is fractalesque. For there are invisible patterns that do seem to repeat at ever-larger scales: individual consciousness, human history, the cosmos.
For example there is the fact that our personal experience is not any kind of a straight line but rather a series of waves and when we are in one, we think it is all and all, and accurately represents the largest and most enduring picture – and then we pass to another and must acknowledge that the whole pattern shifts, that it is always shifting. But not randomly – those layers of unexamined past experience are always solidifying, hardening into the cruel shape of the present, as real as mountains. Proust understood this, more than any other writer I have read. And so described habit as a monster. He knew that most of what shapes us we do not, and cannot control, at least as the fundamentally isolate little beings he felt us to be.
And so praised art, because it could make of the insubstantial kaleidoscopic evanescent debilities of an individual consciousness something that took manifest form and persisted in the material world far beyond the duration of that or any single consciousness, regaining and vindicating unique experience – time – that was otherwise lost: forgotten, irretrievable, pointless.
Physicist Lee Smolin wrote Time Reborn, not Time Regained. He looks at it another way, and sees, instead of ironclad timeless laws guiding the physical universe, a kind of evolution at work that echoes (or is echoed by) biological evolution. A “principle of precedence” that starts out randomly, developing, down the eons of repetition with alteration, what his outrider colleague in biology Rupert Sheldrake calls “habits, rather than laws” for the physical universe. For this to be true, though, flowing time must be fundamental to material reality, not an illusion or a property that emerges out of other phenomena.
Most of his fellow physicists and mathematicians scoff at this. After all, Einstein! Time is (hypothetically) just an extra dimension in a spatial continuum; it is not a universal standard; its passage is relative to an observer: slowed by accelerating mass, limited by the speed of light, and all that. After all, (somewhat against Einstein) time is (theoretically) reversible or even non-existent at the quantum level. Anyway, once the equals sign has been established in an equation, it doesn’t just evolve into greater- or less-than over time, they say.
Science is always looking for what is fundamental in material reality, but the scientific method is one that with regard to this question may be, as Sheldrake says, “like burning down a cathedral and sifting the ashes to understand the architecture.” Or perhaps building a lovely thing out of mathematical symbols that one then decides is just as real as Chartres – more so, because it is permanent, independent! (That is, isolated. It stands alone, disdainful of all context, as Chartres cannot.)
But what if, after all, temporal flow might be fundamental – but flowing has simply become inimical to our thinking and thus our way of acting in the world? The scientific method needs to isolate bits of reality in order to analyze them, but nothing actually exists in isolation. Flow is also practically impossibilized (a word of Joyce’s, lover of rivers and infinite recirculations, co-inventor of the “stream of consciousness” in fiction, who evidently did understand something about flow) by our language itself, its hardened tenses, its isolation of two elements that are likewise inseparable in the time-bound, living world: entities (nouns) and actions (verbs). Cf. the wise words of quantum physicist David Bohm, often channeled through the wise spirit of Jeff Shampnois’ Negative Geography.
None of this is to argue against the need for evidence and reason as tools for understanding. It is to argue for a scientific principle of humility: like physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s “island of knowledge.” The island of knowledge as it grows in size never diminishes the sea of ignorance out of which it emerges; instead its lengthening borders come in contact with an ever greater area of ignorance; its growing height merely allows us to see a larger portion of that infinite sea…
You, Andrew Marvell
And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:
To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow
And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change
And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass
And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on
And deepen on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown
And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls
And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land
Nor now the long light on the sea:
And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …
[This poem I discovered as I child still haunts me, and I still, often, whisper to myself its closing lines…]
Not reprinted with permission but with reverence.