In praise of astonishment

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As a young British officer, JRR Tolkien fought at the Battle of the Somme, was invalided out, and by 1918 had lost all but one of his close friends to the war. He’d spent long hours in the trenches, and later in hospitals, relieving his tedium and loneliness by writing notes about an imaginary world he later called Middle Earth, a place whose histories he told in works like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Surrounded by death in the Great War, his mind went elsewhere for comfort, to a world where good and evil were in eternal struggle, where darkness grew from the lust for power or the desperate desire to cheat death, a place where goodness flowed from an abundance of love for living things. [1]

Many years after the war, now an Oxford don and a scholar of medieval literature, Tolkien wrote “On Fairy Stories,” a professorial defense of fantastic literature. In the essay, he argued that “…the tongue, the tale, and the mind are coeval.” They arose at the same point in the distant past, while in the present they still entwine in ways that make them inseparable. Fantastic stories are therefore a serious kind of play. These literatures use language as a tool to subvert our mind’s sense of things, and they can remind us that the world we live in is a startling place.

Tolkien argued that the rediscovery of strangeness can have restorative powers, by enlivening a mind that we so often let slip into dullness through habits of thought and feeling. Magical realism and surrealism, of course, also play with our sense of the real in this way, along with some — but far from all — science fiction. Most of the written work of Philip K. Dick qualifies, or stories like The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem. Though I enjoy them, most of the Star Wars and Star Trek canon doesn’t qualify here, not really, because most of the moments when we wonder what’s going on in those movies concern plot twists, not usually a subversion of our sense of reality itself.

What the best fantastic literature can do with words and tales, calling up strangeness to the mind’s eye, imagery can do via visual experience. When the very slow, the very faint, or the very quick, become visible, we find that much of the world becomes strange to us, and a technologically-delivered sense of newness potentially provides some of the same playful restorative potential Tolkien found in literature.

For example, if our eyes could gather light over many seconds, minutes, or hours (the technical term for this is “integrating the light signal”), then the night sky would be full of objects that are far too faint to see with the human eye, even on the darkest of nights. Long-exposure photography revolutionized astronomy in the late 19th century. Until then, objects like the spiral arms of Andromeda, or the Orion Nebula were unknown, unseen by any human eye, although they were always right overhead. [2]

NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team [Public domain] https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/30775. The three stars that form a line in the center-left part of the image are familiar to those who live in the Northern Hemisphere as Orion’s Belt, one of the most recognizable of winter constellations. The patch of luminous sky in the image is larger than your hand held out at arm’s length, and yet to the naked eye, even using a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, the spaces between isolated point-like stars are inky black.

In the same spirit of serious fun, to see what he would see, my friend and colleague Pablo Yáñez created a time lapse video of the Milky Way during a family trip to Chile. Each frame of the video is a thirty-second exposure, which brings out the dust lanes and molecular clouds surrounding the central core of our galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius.

The core of the Milky Way setting as the moon rises over the foothills of the Andes in Valle del Elqui, Chile.  The area is known for spectacularly clear and dark skies. Each frame shot at 30”, f4.5 and ISO 3200. Pablo Yáñez, July 2014. The moving shadows on the mountains in the foreground are due to the Moon, which rises behind the camera.

Peering into all the dark places we don’t yet understand is clearly the work of science. But this excavation of the unknown with each new generation of technology leads to a continual subversion of our sense of the world around us. To make something strange, something that we once thought familiar, is a form of alienation. That’s why any serious play that heals and creates meaning is so important. As we expand the known world by leaps and bounds, we need to populate those new mental landscapes with stories, legends, and myths, to continue to weave together the tongue, the mind, and the tale, because the human mind abhors all vacuums of meaning.

The love of magical tales and our childlike fascination to look under rocks to see what hops out, these are different outward expressions of the same interior motivation: the desire to experience the kind of surprise that renews our love of the world. Science can open our eyes in new ways, and take us into undiscovered countries, but ultimately it’s art and stories that help us find a home there.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Wikipedia entry. Accessed February 26, 2019.

[2] Image at top: Composite image of the Moon and Andromeda Nebula, to scale. Notice that Andromeda is far larger than the Moon in the sky, yet the naked eye can see only the most inner bright central bulge. Adam Evans and Luc Viatour, montage constructed by Rothwild [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

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