The following was written at the same time as The Grendel We Cling To, post of July 2. Below we talk about what could be a modern equivalent of dragons. By this I mean what could function to move the story along. Move the story along means for the mind to keep going, to give the effect of motion when actually all the mind can do is a bunch of still shots, like the effect of motion in a movie. Dragons we talked before about because their abduction, battles with, defeating of, moved along stories of human grief, loss, triumph and made these things understandable, gave them significance. Below I suggest that a modern equivalent is the physical sciences, that in fact by talking about science, we are enabled to obscure, to forget, the real conceptual and physical gaps in our knowledge of the world. Kind of ironic, unless we remember what Jan Cox said, there is no such thing as irony in the world, that the term irony means you do not understand what is going on. There will be some repetition below...
Dragons, in human history, have served to move the story, the people, the world, along, they provide motion, in a world which is now, and has always, been, at the heart, incomprehensible. Dragons are the plot points, that incite and demand human activity, they slay the heroes, the give a purpose to the quest, the dragons draw in big black lines the irreducible dimensions of the human world.
I wonder is there not some modern substitute for monsters? The accent of reality is not on dragons in modern literature, even when they appear in stories.
Does the world make more sense now. Some would say yes. But does the world really make more sense than it did to forest dwellers two thousand years ago?
I merely raise a question which will make no sense to some, and they need read no further. Although I cannot resist pointing out that the blame we cast on corporate despoilers of pensions, of gulfs, may actually be just a way to avert our gaze from the reality of the limitations of the human intellect.
I wonder if there is not some way to deal with the rush of reality in our modern times, while still acknowledging somewhat a world which compared to the human brain conceptual apparatus, makes the latter puny. Possibly it is still true that the known world is so far surrounded by incomprehensibility that we still need some kind of monsters to let us operate in this sea of the unknown, without finding the truth fatal. The words about monsters serve as a kind of shield like Perseus used, to slay a monster which to see directly would be freezing. We still need monsters to move the action along is the theme of this essay. Our assumption is that the human intellect is part of a larger cosmos, but the human intellect is merely a part and not equipped at a mechanical level to deal realistically with questions that involve counting beyond two. And yet reality is far more complicated than the binary functioning human brain can grasp. This assumption I will not defend now, but merely point to the writings of Jan Cox, at the moment, for reasons of space, for readers who find this phraseology intriguing.
I suggest we live In a world where Zeno, where Hume, can poke holes in any scientific argument, (and wind up being ignored for their troubles, since no literate response is possible).
When you examine the external world, it ultimately is not coherent. Now I know most scientists out there are sputtering (if they read this far) well we just have not finished our TOE, (Theory of the Extraneous). You can list scientific mysteries til the ravens come back to Oakland. Modern scientists must deny the obvious or they would be unable to proceed in the piecemeal manner they do. The ocean of the unknown would swamp the brave intellects who do battle at the frontiers of the known, if they did not pretend their task was doable, if the scientists did not compartmentalize in effect, and ignore the surging sea of the unknown, a sea in which we bob and must, to struggle at all, bob unbrowbeaten.
Why the gap between the observed world and quantum physics, when don't the measurements of the universe's expansion make sense, and of course, the good physicist can say, well we are working on it, give us some time. Nice and irrefutable, and ---possibly---newsprint, wallpaper, over the gaping whole we avert our eyes from. What if, these stories about how the research has just not turned over the right stone, yet, what if these stories are just, the dragons of the twenty-first century, a means of moving the story along, because, you sense you cannot stop. What if modern science itself is the monster of the twentieth century.
You cannot stop, say, your mind, from clacking. Something within senses that such a halt could be destructive for something we love a lot, our sense of identity. (Or whatever, I'm just making this up, maybe.) The mind cannot live mechanically on the slippery coast of reality. There must be stories which help us ignore the terrifying aspects of our world. Aspects like, its immensity.
Is it not motion, change, time itself, that poses the biggest theoretical trilemma? Same reality as that faced, pondered, fingered, expounded upon, by those forest dwelling, forebears of most of us. They wrote Beowulf, and used the tools at their disposal to understand their world. The to and fro, cleaving and sundering, mincing and meditating, the everchanging and frozen expanse we find ourselves a part of, that moving, improbable, yet ceaseless, sea.
To take any kind of view, is to distort this world. Yet we must, go out, come in, search for a meaning beyond the hormonal verities; we must sometimes also, speak----and so those bards fixed on the hard part, the worthy quest, what makes it all move, and dragons is as good an answer, as the others I have heard---if you must have answers. For isn't the real, our daily experience of flow of change, that very flash of light, and dark, isn't that our reality, and if you have followed any of this, then see---- that real---- is what cannot be explained. If you go to war, or find a treasure, or win a Nobel, you are interacting in the world, but it is an utterly implausible world, and only the brave can even glimpse that ----fact.
Let me rephrase my proposal: the world, all the objects in it, if viewed and studied by the mind, do not really fit together. An example is David Hume's point that you cannot prove the validity of inductive logic, inductively. My example is the world as lived flows in a manner which the external sciences cannot explain.
The old stories tell of dragons and monsters: these creatures function as a kind of explanation of movement---people's lives are threatened by nighttime attacks by monsters, people's motives, the reason they go into the woods, is to revenge themselves on a monster, or find the treasure monster's might have. The flowing quality of the medieval world is explained (partially) by monsters.
In our century, a similarly clumsy attempt to explain the vivid life we actually experience is made by scientific explanations. Both attempt the same thing, and both fail. Both can teach us something.