Monday, March 9, 2015

The Undiscriminating Terror

One common theme in fantasy and science fiction is the terrible destructive force beyond good and evil, the abyssal Things that send dark lords and supervillains running for their mommies, the tentacled world-devouring monsters with minds so eldritch, so alien, we cannot begin to understand them. (Those who try lose their minds.) These Things always exist just outside reality, waiting for the inevitable breach in its thin shell, when they can surge in and consume. They don't destroy out of malice—which would give us the comfort of knowing that we matter. They destroy simply because they don't know or care that we feel. They cannot distinguish a life from a speck of dust. They move through the realms as they will, and those who can't get out of the way are annihilated. It is neither a heroic nor a tragic death. It is an abrupt, anticlimactic punctuation mark casting the short sentence of your existence in a meaningless light.

These beings usually come from dark places: deep space, caverns, ruins, the ocean's depths, nightmares. Unfathomability is their essence, and darkness is their habitat.

If the answer is infinite light
why do we sleep in the dark?

—Paul Simon, "How Can You Live in the Northeast?"

In symbol and myth, light is depicted as a benevolent force: wisdom, love, understanding. Truth shining into the dark, banishing the monsters of our fear and ignorance. The light shines magnanimously on the righteous and the unrighteous, the cultivated fields and prairies and forests, without distinction.

But how many of us hang around naked outdoors in the summer, letting the sun soak into our unprotected skin? We don't want sunburn. We really don't want cancer. So we wear sunscreen and sunglasses and wide-brim hats (and for the very whitest, sun shirts). We shield our bodies and our eyes from the harshness of natural light. The light will kill us, and it will not care. It makes no distinctions for us, no discriminations between fragile lives and specks of dust.

We don't hang around in the truth without protection, either. We have these fabric(ation)s, these little comforts, these filters that let us get a glimpse, feel some warmth, without exposing ourselves to the radiant danger. We don't dare shed our protection. (Who do you know who goes around asking their friends to rip off their band-aids?) We know instinctively that the truth would kill us without a thought. It has no respect for the life of a human being. Diluting truth with lies, we seek a palatable and survivable dosage. But the devouring fullness of truth is always there, pressing in, seeking the breach in our armor.

It is wrong to treat inventions as discoveries.

—Myself, "Mistaking Abstractions for Reality" (2011)

The thing about lying to yourself is, it only works when you don't know you're doing it. When you begin to realize—likely after one kind of cataclysm or another—that the meaning and purpose you thought you discovered in the world may actually be invented, the warding power of fiction drains away and reality, waiting all this time, slices into the membrane of your world like a scalpel exposing your organs to the light.

Thus the undiscriminating chthonic horrors you expected to find in the dark, at night, in nightmares, take the form of light and truth and understanding. They shine the intensity of their non-value system inside the skin onto the organs, the heart, the brain. (The real world outside breaks in to reshape the worldview inside.) Then nothing is any longer imbued with value or meaning. All beauty is noise. All decisions are arbitrary.

  • Being drunk is to be intoxicated by alcohol to such an extent as to be unable to perceive the world clearly through the senses.
  • Being sober is to be able to perceive the world clearly through the senses, yet humans are quite capable of giving themselves illusions and little stories to make life more bearable.
  • Being knurd is to be (un)intoxicated with Klatchian Coffee to such an extent that all such comfort stories are stripped away from the mind. This makes you see the world in a way 'nobody ever should', in all its harsh reality.

—Discworld & Terry Pratchett Wiki, "Knurd"

And then you arrive at a cruel choice: the coffee, or the booze? The red pill or the blue pill? Stay in the head-splitting truth, or slap the snooze button, plunging yourself back into the comfortable dream, hoping you can forget the morning light?

Or is there a third option?

Can you just... decide? Can you choose to draw circles distinguishing the valuable from the worthless, the lovable from the unlovable, Right from Wrong; and enjoy the ensuing comforts when you believe all the while that this value system is your own fabrication? Can you somehow still gain the comfort and passion and vision that come from believing in a world someday redeemed of evil, if you no longer believe? How can you love when the sun and the cosmos don't?