by Brooks Riley
According to a biologist who studies the properties of dirt, a single teaspoon of the stuff contains more living organisms than there are people on earth. Not a particularly salient fact, but enough to launch the imagination toward other epic notions and distortions of scale: What if our whole world is just a tiny microcosm in someone else’s teaspoon out there in the ether, no more than a microbiome in the belly of a beast so vast it swallows whole universes from a teaspoon into its black hole of a maw, itself a spoonful in a nest of universes, like Russian nesting dolls, their own spoons poised over a bottomless bowl of Beta borscht along a belt of milky ways that go on forever?
Infinity doesn’t bear thinking. ‘Do I matter’ always leads to ‘do we matter’, and along this precarious train of thought the ‘we’ keeps getting bigger, from our person to our species to our planet to our solar system to our universe and beyond. Where does it all end? That we’ll never know doesn’t diminish the question. If there’s only one universe, what is outside of it? If it has boundaries, can it be a universe? These are secular thoughts leading to the contemplation of unimaginable insignificance, and are best left to astronomers or philosophers to figure out, if we survive that long.
The notion of scale has insinuated itself of late into my sleeping life as unpopulated dreams go in search of miniscule changes in a grid pattern, or the perfect word to correct an imperfect song, or a secret combination of colors out of a staggering number of variants. Sometimes I am scaled down to the size of Thumbelina, ready to crawl up the back of a peregrine falcon before takeoff.
Awake, I feared I was slouching toward early autism, which is how I imagined the early autumn stage of my life, or as Gustav Mahler so sublimely echoed Friedrich Rückert’s words: ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.’ Or ‘I am lost to the world’.
But that’s not entirely true. I’m more interested in the world than I’ve ever been, but from a safe distance. I may be ‘lost to the world’ but it isn’t lost to me.
With advancing age we leave the Big Picture behind (one that seems to be getting darker by the hour), especially that tricky personal one that consolidates all the emotional sturm-und-drang of social interaction and valiant attempts to navigate the thick of life. Now I am left to my curiosity, which grows exponentially as I rush to learn as much as I can before it’s time to go—a pyrrhic endeavor, as fraught with contradictions as Faust’s pact with the devil. I used to collect experiences, especially aesthetic ones; now it’s knowledge I’m after, in small doses, fodder for thoughts that keep multiplying, the more I explore. It’s a form of scaling down that camouflages another kind of ambition.
As David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees, put it “Extended attention to the seemingly small and insignificant paradoxically takes us into the bigger questions.” Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not looking for the meaning of life here, just the details.
My old mother warned me in the nicest way. The more removed from the rules of engagement, the more engaged she became, knowing full well that none of it would matter personally. There’s purity of thought and perception that comes with being out of the running, being unencumbered–nothing to gain, but more importantly nothing to lose, especially not one’s own future. No petty emotion or ulterior motive crashes the party you’re having with your new freedom of attention. As the outside gathers wrinkles, the wrinkles on the psyche seem to disappear, old angst and neuroses faded away, adrenalin retired. This is when life should begin, and in a way it does.
If age is a second childhood, it’s not because we become driveling idiots. Children aren’t, so why should we be? On the contrary, we become absorbed again in the details we so loved as children, and the wonder that goes with it–the bumble bee sunning itself on a wall, the march of ants across the terrace, the fractal geometry of sunlight, the pleasant slope of a hillside undulating like a wave frozen eons ago, the music of geometry, the Tristan chord, the sophisticated aerodynamics of geese flying in V formation (which I tracked down after seeing a group of seven fly over)–most of them scaled-down subjects fit for momentary scrutiny. I see things now I never had time to notice. Strangely, I find myself wondering, or trying to guess at, how things work, a childlike endeavor postponed over a lifetime.
My mother wasn’t so lucky. Pre-internet, she had to go to the library to get her intellectual kicks. I have the privilege of entering that brand new, already endless man-made cyber universe, our species’ greatest collective achievement even if it plays to the basest instincts along with the noblest. I get sad thinking how underexplored and unexploited its preserved troves of ideas, history, discoveries, documents and definitions are, while a majority prefer to while away their time on Facebook or lose themselves in clickbait. The bits and pieces I pick up from a day of serious surfing, like wood gathered for winter, are tied into a bundle to fuel a train of thought that departs from where I am sitting and leads me far and wide in time and space.
Among many other things, algorithms intrigue me now, those hidden drivers that know–or think they know–how to narrow my internet searches, or play to my interests. Spotting Spotify’s elegant algorithm is like catching someone in the act, as it deftly suggests other music similar in style, instrumentation, rhythm and even mood, to what you’ve just been hearing. How better, for instance, to explore all those Baroque composers languishing in obscurity than to send Spotify to retrieve them from that vast bin of recordings at its disposal?
What algorithms can’t do is follow the rogue quest as it goes off course unexpectedly, following an impenetrable trail of connections leading to searches no algorithm could possibly predict. Algorithms are practical tools to combine and manage big data and big business. They rarely take the mystifying power of curiosity into account. (Does Google care how wild I am about 19th century polymaths? It’s of no use to them.)
There’s a neurological algorithm at work inside us as well, a regular idiot savant (or is it an evil twin) who picks and chooses material from random memory to become the stuff of nightly dreams, lending significance to a seemingly insignificant fleeting image or thought from the day before:
The classic square peg in a round hole, which came to mind recently (don’t ask), ended up in a dream that night, transformed into a physics riddle: A square can indeed fit into a round hole if the hole is big enough; if it’s a tight fit, is the cylinder stronger with four corners supporting it than it would have been with a snug round peg inside? (Logic tells me the answer, but how can I be sure?) What I do know is that these nocturnal conjectures, however absurd, seem to suggest a subconscious desire to understand the world, physically, philosophically, biologically and existentially.
The question is why. Why now, when it won’t matter in the end? Is learning wasted on the young even though it’s crucial to their development as members of society? Is it wisdom I’m after? Hardly. Secular epiphanies? Perhaps. Research for its own sake is what drives me now. Who, what, where, when, how, and why—especially the why—are the nagging questions a child asks, the building blocks of curiosity. They don’t go away, even if you’re distracted for decades by the business of living.
The riddles are there in my analog life: Why did the merles I wrote about in June all stop singing on July 1st? I knew they would stop singing sometime in July but thought they would taper off, or peter out, one after the other. The sudden silence, like going deaf, or a door slammed shut, raised questions I couldn’t answer: Do their genes order them to stop exactly 10 days after the summer solstice? Is there an undiscovered sense like ESP that triggers their behavior, akin to the strategic movements in a murmuration or the migration of lemmings? Is there an airborne hormone? Did some head honcho merle give the order, and just how? Was it imbedded in his swan song the night before? Do they mark their calendars? I won’t find the answer if no expert has posed the question. I am simply confronted with one more small mystery in a world full of mysteries.
Society is the shell around us that allows us to function collectively. It has no other significance for us as individuals unless we fall into the trap of thinking that we can’t exist without it. Solitude is the true mother of invention, our greatest luxury if we take advantage of it. It allows us to think, and to think outside that shell, to go where no ‘like’ matters at all. It’s achievable even if you’re not alone, or perhaps especially if you’re not alone, as Thoreau well knew. Isolation is something else.
Goethe expressed something similar to the delightful chronicler and peripatetic Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau one evening in Weimar, as reported in the latter’s Letters of a Dead Man: ‘Every man should trouble himself only thus far,—in his own peculiar sphere, be it great or small, to labour on faithfully, honestly, and lovingly; and that thus under no form of government would universal well being and felicity long be wanting.’ (Unlike the more liberal Pückler, Romantic idealist Goethe believed in individuals more than constitutions, which didn’t stop his own boss from being the first German ruler to provide his grand duchy with one.)
A few days ago, a morning dream disgorged this ‘revelation’ (it’s always the last one before waking that deludes me into thinking I’ve discovered something new): A thing observed becomes something else, a new mental entity made up of the ‘thing’ combined with its ‘observer’: A leaf is no longer a leaf, it’s the leaf, a cloud no longer a cloud, but the cloud. Our brain creates these mutations to be put to use in a synthesizer that engenders thinking. And what is consciousness anyway if not the means to apply what we experience to what we invent in our minds? Wine is meaningless without the glass. The glass is meaningless without the wine.
In search of the aesthetic experience in art, in nature, in thought, and in science, I‘ve often gone to obsessive lengths to achieve an emotional fulfillment that has nothing to do with social or biological yearnings–chasing ‘aha’ and ‘ah’ moments, or the Einfühlungseffekt (a ‘feeling into‘ something) in its original meaning. Those experiences are moments of recognition, like coming home to a place you always hoped might exist.
I’d apply my own different, but similar-sounding German word to describe the aesthetic experience: Einfüllenseffekt, when a sight, a work, a performance, an object ‘pours into’ you, like the wine into the glass, completing a chemical reaction between the thing observed and the observer.
With experience behind me, I’ve turned to vicarious experience in the form of knowledge. My cabinet of curiosities may not add up to much, but it contains enough pocket versions of ‘ah’ and ‘aha’ to keep me going.
I carry with me a single scale, the trophy from a tarpon improbably caught and released long ago when I weighed hardly more than the fish. It’s value as a Proustian madeleine has waned over the years. What moves me now is its singular beauty, its shine brighter than polished silver, untarnished by time. It’s become a luminous metonym for the lasting power of curiosity.
Forget the universe. To dwell on Mars and beyond is to be unfaithful to all the marvels here at home–the one inside our skull, the one around us that nature made possible with its millions of delectable designs (including us, that scale and the uniquely immortal tardigrade), and even that cyber-verse we’ve brought into being, a weightless wonder documenting the amazing thoughts and accomplishments of our species. Before the tardigrades inherit the earth or the worms inherit me, I’ll keep on fishing. I don’t need the whole fish. A scale or two will do.