by Tom Jacobs
We may be in the Universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.
—William James (1908)
Years ago I found myself wandering through library stacks picking up and putting down books until I found a tome with a title that I liked. It was called Forbidden Knowledge, and the first line of the book as I remember it was: “Are there some things we shouldn't know?”
This question has haunted my mind in some way or other for many years, and although the writer was interested in a vaguely conservative way about whether we should be reading dangerous thinkers of resistance and rebellion like Foucault or the Marquis de Sade (or, less topically, whether Prometheus should have stolen that fire, or Adam and Eve have eaten that apple), I found that his opening line got me interested not so much in what we maybe would be better off not knowing, like how to build an atomic bomb, but rather in considering how it comes to pass that we come to know the sorts of things and animals and ideas that exist at the very edges of conceptual understanding. This would be the space between the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns.”
Clearly there are things that we don't understand just because we don't have a vocabulary or language to understand them. The universe itself might be one of them. As Richard Rorty so compellingly claimed, sounding not unlike Fox Mulder: “The world is out there, but descriptions of it are not.” This is not a simple idea at all, and while I don't want to suggest that we don't know what we are talking about just because we have to use language (or music or art or whatever) to describe the world in some meaningful way, what I'm interested in is how we regard those things that make us aware, even if only in the most inchoate of ways, that our representations of things are fundamentally inadequate and maybe even misleading.
I am utterly fascinated by the notion that there are some things that can't be seen because we don't have the language or means or the technology to render them visible and coherent. One of Thomas Kuhn's most compelling claims in “The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery” has to do with what he calls the “violation of expectation”—the moment when an anomaly asserts itself and is perceived in however muddled a manner. Kuhn's discussion of this moment of violation reverberates in all kinds of ways, and although he is interested in how we understand what it means to “discover” something, it makes me wonder about how many things in this world escape our attention because we are in some sense looking at things wrongly.
We are always looking at things wrongly, though, because so much escapes what we can see or perceive when we look at it directly. We have more rods (which are the cells meant for light perception) at the edges of our retinas than we do cones (which perceive color and which are at the center); to paraphrase Lewis Thomas's thoughts on the implications of this physiological peculiarity: the real meaning of things sometimes only becomes perceptible at the corner of the mind where it offers itself up to us with “overwhelming astonishment.”
There is a kind of voice or call that issues from the unsafe and wild parts of what used to unproblematically be called “nature”—he was talking about what it's like to be out and about amongst what we perceive to be nature…. This us what Aldo Leopold calls it a “deep chesty bawl.” This bawl cries out in “defiant sorrow,” and in “contempt for all the adversities of the world.” The meaning of the voice, its very significance remains secret from us because of our extreme finitude, or sharply limited existence that pales in comparison to that of the mountain. But still we can get inklings if we call to mind Thoreau's dictum: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” As Leopold develops his thinking about why we need to pay heed to the cry of the wolf, he withholds the object at the very heart of his discussion—it isn't quite clear just what he's referring to until well into his discussion, and even then he goes to some length to problematize and estrange the cry of the wolf so that it doesn't just resolve or even dissolve into coherence or clarity. He's trying to get us to see, however obliquely, the shape of something much bigger.
His writing coaxes we who read it into setting aside ready made categories of comprehension and understanding since these are the very things that tame what would otherwise be an unruly and wild world. Even the word “nature” immediately seems inadequate to describe what the wolf's cry evokes—it is something that offers both a threat and a sense of home.
I am in some sense blinded to very real political problems because in some sense I don't care enough to really see them. Or maybe not that I don't see them but that the part of my eye that is governed and directed by that part of my being that There are, no doubt, a million reasons for this wistful anomie. But there are a few of which I am conscious enough of to more or less name.
Why do we care about some things and not others? Why do I give my money to one of the homeless and not another? These are silly but actually very difficult questions. I think in part it has to do with the kinds of suffering we are willing to acknowledge. And there are plenty of varieties to pick from. Too many, really. We have to be judicious, and it is in this judiciousness that we begin to see the outlines of how things seen and unseen, known and unknown are truly felt.
Part of this has to do with the ways in which I send echoes into the world and hope to hear back echoes that I recognize. Familiarity, knowness, the not strange and unknown. Loving the unknown requires a kind of commitment that few of us really have. The things that are happening at the edges of the small terrain We've carved out for ourselves echo distantly. There are migrants dying horrible deaths all across the Mediterranean and Europe. Yet the mild case of flu beleaguering my neighbor takes precedence. How does one fix this type of short-range echolocation?
One of the great passages in Moby Dick is one in which Ishmael is on the mast and floating above the waves, experiencing a kind of oceanic oneness with the universe until he almost slips out of his dream and nearly falls off his perch. Here is what Melville thinks through him:
There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!
I have changed the way I think about this passage over the years because I used to think it contained the answer to something important. Then I thought it was about the dangers of a too-simply won religious experience of something like ecstasy. Now I think it can be about both at the same time, which is probably one of the reasons Melville is such a great writer—he can encompass both the ego's desire to lose the ego and the desire to be part of something bigger and larger and less coherent. Ishmael's moment of what I thought was revelation was, I think, just a moment on his life's way as he tried to find that way on board of the wildly cosmopolitan Pequod. He sees the allure of the sorts of things that lead to self-destruction and sees them as temporary salves and then moves on to larger and more difficult questions. Ishmael shows us how to inhabit a space on the edge of everything while still being so vividly in touch with the limits all around. Make no mistake. We are surrounded by limits, and the allure of the everyday is as seductive as is the allure of the wild vacation.
One of the reasons I have so little patience with people who find Wallace's “This Is Water” trite or silly is that it is such a fundamental and clear call to all of us to return to the pleasures and revelations of the everyday. People really don't think they need to hear about it. Of course they do.
Moments of the loss of self are interesting because in part of the inevitability of having to return to oneself in the end. The self, however, can be a slippery and scary and bottomless thing with strange creatures swimming at the bottoms of it. What does it look like to swim in the self?
This is part of what this can look like—my friend lying on my couch in a pile of Chinese takeout and slurping on straight vodka as he watches one episode of some Netflix series after another. This is a self that has totally lost itself. Have I been this person on other occasions? Indeed I have. But how does this come to pass? How do we decide to recede into some kind of facile oceanic oneness with what seems to be the universe (but which is, I think, actually one's own ego)?
I think that maybe it isn't a decision. It is about a kind of blindness. There's a blindness to the terrors of swimming in oceans with bottoms full of unimaginable creatures. There are the pleasures of slipping from the acuities of daylight perception into whatever foggy shadows Here there be monsters.
I don't have a cat, but I have a dog, and a dog in a library is a very different thing than a cat in the library. Maybe William James understood this, but I don't think so. He was thinking about a cat, a creature with curiosity but not much assertiveness. My dog actually eats my books from time to time. Maybe she gets more out of them I do sometimes. We all consume texts and whether dog or cat or human, these texts are the sort of thing that we want to rub up against, to eat, to read, to ruminate on for the rest of our lives. The library is a universe. The earth is a universe. And the home is a universe. We are all at home in the library in one way or another, which may well merely be one of many.