I've been preoccupied lately with the unknowable. Not the mystic or fundamental unknowables discussed in the above write-up, but in their much less sexy cousin, the mundane unknowable. You see, I was listening, as I am wont to do on a Sunday afternoon to This American Life, and Seth Lind, a producer on the show, was telling a story about how, as a kid of six, he developed night terrors after having been deeply affected by watching The Shining one night as a kid of six years. These persisted for two years, and though the terrors were limited to the night time, he also spent the day in dread, knowing that night will inevitably come. Although these terrors were a major part of his life at the time, Lind's parents, in a taped conversation for the show, plead predominant ignorance, as it seems Lind kept his fears for the most part to himself. And then Mrs. Lind says something profound: she says, "I guess it just really shows that children have very involved inner lives that their parents might not know much about". True that, Mrs. Lind, and it's not just kids, a lot of us lead rich, complex inner lives that are if not self-contained, then connected to the external world only at the margins. And the inner lives of others, even of close ones, remains almost entirely hidden from view, unknowable.
"We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. ... Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies - all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves."
This terrific quote is from Aldous Huxley's record of and musings about his experience with the drug mescaline (the active ingredient in peyote), "The Doors of Perception". In it, Huxley suggests that despite our very limited perception in practice, each one of us might have the potential, indeed the capacity, to be Mind at Large -- a sort of universal pooled consciousness. The ego and our other sensory systems have evolved to serve, according to him, an eliminative faculty instead of a creative one: they work as reducing valves, filtering down the torrential flow of information into a trickle of survival-relevant data. This is much too fanciful for me, but it does make an excellent point: our sober consciousness should by no means and never be taken as a reliable representation of our environment. It is designed by evolutionary pressure to emphasize biological imperative, such as classifying peers into friends and competitors. Most of the rest can, and probably is, safely chucked away.
Huxley makes another point, which is that in those where the reduction mechanism fails (as he conjectures it does in schizophrenics), the result is an overwhelming, unbearable intensity of ecstasy and pain without the possibility of retreat into the comforting world of abstractions and common sense of the ego, that inner life of limited perception. In that sense it might be that it could drive a person mad to be confronted with the unknowable. I don't see any other sensible way to interpret this common philosophical conceit. Particularly, it just seems silly to consider the answers to those mystic unknowables of the write-up above as the terrible causes of such madness.
The unknowable we encounter in Huxley's essay is much more mundane even than the unknowable of the inner lives of others, which I opened with. And with this notion from Huxley, let's return to the same hour of This American Life we left a few paragraphs ago. Though the official theme of the hour was fear of sleep, it had a strong undercurrent having to do with all the things that happen without you ever knowing. "You just have no idea what's going on at any moment in any family in any house. Pretty much everything in life is an absolute freaking mystery," tells Joel Lovell in another story. In it, the sleepless child narrator, a guest in a strange house in a strange town where his team is vising for a pee-wee football game, offers this commentary after having walked in on the parents of the house having rough sex. And his commentary is also absolutely true, of course: I just have no idea what's going on in almost any of the houses in my street. The sheer amount of stuff going on around and about me in my world that go on unknown to me is immense. And while theoretically each of them individually is not unknowable, the sheer amount makes them collectively unknowable. And that is the mundane unknowable I was talking about and have been preoccupied with.
The reason is because these stuff that happen are important. They affect our lives profoundly and form just about all that's around us. That we are ignorant of how everything comes to be as it is, despite all of its mundane triviality, is slightly ridiculous, but inevitable. There are robust threads connecting all of us together, and their action goes on mostly under the surface, invisible. Though there were many films in the last fifteen years to explore this theme (Magnolia, 21 Grams, 13 Conversations About One Thing, and other ensemble films), my favorite is the beautifully shot and scored "The Double Life of Veronique" by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Its soulful young heroine feels the effects of the unknowable spiritually, as a benevolent unseen influence -- particularly her metaphysical connection with an identical-looking Polish woman who she would never meet. After the death of her Polish doppelgänger, she feverishly follows mysterious clues which she hopes would lead to a metaphysical understanding of this connection, but turn out disappointingly to be the work merely of a suitor. The films ends with a lovely shot where Veronique stops her car by a tree and touches its trunk, feeling a vague, never concrete connection.
So what makes the unknowable so related to the fear of sleep? Well, Ira Glass opens the hour of This American Life by describing his own fear of sleep as a child, which was related to his fear of death at the time (after his uncle was sent to Vietnam):
"So, I was six, and I knew I was going to die, and my mom and dad couldn't help me. Nobody could help me. I'll be dead, forever. Galaxies would spin, humans would travel to other worlds, and I would miss all of that. ... And I would lie awake at night, scared to fall asleep. Because sleep seemed no different than death. You know? You were gone, not moving, not talking, not thinking, not aware. Not aware -- what could be more frightening? What could be bigger?"
So in addition to the inner lives of those around us, which we can't know but through symbols and at second hand, and all the things that go on behind our backs and while we sleep, which are individually knowable but collectively unknowable, there is also the unknowable of all the things that will happen after we are dead, which is truly inaccessible. And though I keep calling them mundane, they do start to take on a mystic quality when pondered thoughtfully. But while the last unknowable seems to be the most disturbing to Ira Glass, I am for some reason not troubled by it at all.
Hear: Fear of Sleep on This American Life.