Expressionist absurdity

Rehe im Walde, 1914, by Franz Marc. Image source: Wikipedia.

In Rationalist Spirituality I suggest that a possible answer to the perennial question of the meaning of existence is that physical reality is a kind of expressionist artwork: a device or allegory whose aim is to evoke certain subjective states – emotions and ideas – for the sake of experience and insight. A peculiar characteristic of physical reality, as an expressionist allegory, is that we all experience seemingly the same allegory from slightly different points of view. As I discuss in Dreamed up Reality, what guarantees this consistency of experience across subjects are the laws of physics and logic that give reality its continuity, self-consistency, and predictability. Thanks to this consistency, reality provides us with a common playground of shared experiences, instead of isolating each one of us in a unique, idiosyncratic universe of private reveries that would forever prevent us from communicating meaningfully with each other. So the laws of physics and, more fundamentally, those of logic are enablers of this common playing field of shared experiences we call reality.

However, physics and logic have the ‘side-effect’ of limiting the degrees of freedom available for evoking the strongest and most meaningful emotions and ideas. In expressionism, the artist parts with these limitations: expressionist art often seems to defy physics and logic; its use of vaguely realistic symbols and images go only as far as the artist considers it useful for evoking certain subjective states. Beyond that, the artist will freely depart from realism and go deep into the land of absurdity to achieve his or her expressionist goals. An example of this is Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893), whose utterly absurd appearance has a powerful and obvious evocative effect in most people.

In my upcoming book Meaning in Absurdity I argue the hypothesis that, below its more superficial layer available to ordinary experience, reality is indeed fundamentally illogical and absurd. One can then fantasize about a cosmological future when reality will manifest higher degrees of absurdity for the evocation of deeper subjective states, while somehow still preserving the consistency of experience that enables us to share and evolve together in a common allegory. I touch briefly on these thoughts in my TEDx talk of last MayTo complement that talk, and to illustrate what I mean when I say that absurdity has higher evocative powers than logic, I want to share with you a highly illogical dream I had earlier this year.

In the dream, I was back to a small coastal village where I used to spend weekends as a kid. It was a very quiet, sedate village with narrow streets and people going about their business without hurry. I was walking on a sidewalk and needed to cross one of the streets in order to get to where I needed to go. But as I turned to cross, I realized that the very narrow street was, concurrently with being a narrow street, also an immensely broad channel of churning, stormy seawater where huge waves crashed and deadly currents lay hidden beneath the surface. Naturally, this was profoundly illogical on the face of it but, in the dream, with my pre-frontal cortex partially deactivated, this did not stop me from allowing the contradiction to be completely real to my experience.

The cognitive dissonance in my mind was palpable. While the reality of the narrow street made the crossing very tempting, due to the tantalizing proximity of the other side, the concurrent reality of the wide water inferno was a deterrent to any attempt at crossing it: I would most likely be swallowed up by the huge waves or dragged under by the currents.

As I stood there contemplating this impossible dilemma, I suddenly saw a group of classical ballerinas, dressed in full attire, run on the other side of the street towards the water. They ran in a line and, as the first one approached the edge of the sidewalk, I thought to myself: ‘If she jumps in she will be as good as dead, for there is just no way such a small, delicate creature can survive this raging water inferno.’ But with no hesitation whatsoever, she jumped in, immediately followed by the next one, and the next, until all of them had jumped, imbued with an incomprehensible confidence in their actions. In the reality of the narrow street, this all took place just a few meters away from me, so I could witness, in horror, every detail of their suicidal behavior. My immediate thought was: ‘Damn it, now I have to jump in and rescue them, otherwise I will have a few casualties in my hands!’ And in I went…

Once in the water, my worst expectations were fully confirmed: despite being a relatively good swimmer, I could barely hold my head above the water; the force of the currents was incredible, the waves gigantic, and I thought I had just made the last mistake of my life. Now the ballerinas seemed to be very far away, all the way across this very broad channel of churning seawater. With difficulty, I kept track of their position so I knew where to swim to, but the effort was exhaustive.

And then I made a striking observation: beyond all my expectations and common-sense, the ballerinas seemed to be in no trouble at all. Somehow, they were timing their movements in such a way that they swam effortlessly along with the flow of water, not against it; yet they were going precisely in the direction they wanted to go. Their movements were unfathomably gracious, delicate, and effortless, as though they were gliding through, propelled by the water itself. I was in awe. This phenomenal display was akin to a dance of two partners in perfect synchrony: a ballerina and the ocean she was immersed in, ‘flowing around one another’ like a couple dancing the tango.

Yet I was still in trouble, straining every muscle of my body to stay afloat. It then occurred to me that I could try to imitate the movements and timing of the ballerinas' swimming style. And it worked. The more I observed and tried to imitate them, the better I got at it. Soon it became second nature to me and I was gliding along effortlessly just like they were. I was literally ‘in the flow,’ a state where I tried to exert no conscious control of the situation and, instead, simply allowed myself to move by my newly-acquired instinct. The water had become my partner, not my enemy. Ultimately, the otherwise scary and threatening situation turned into a very pleasurable and rewarding dance with what is. I was lost in it, in bliss, until I eventually woke up.

The absurdity of the dream is self-evident. Not only did it defy physics and common-sense, it defied bivalent logic itself – the core of our rationality. Yet, precisely because of it, the dream evoked a level of subjective feeling and understanding that would have been impossible to convey with an otherwise logical, coherent scenario. For personal reasons I do not want to touch upon here, the lesson it contained was the thing I most needed to grok at that point of my life. And because of the absurdity of the way in which this lesson was delivered – exploring degrees of evocative freedom unavailable in a logical reality – I not only understood it intellectually, but felt it in every bone of my body. Obviously, the lesson was this: Go with the flow; don’t try to control the world. And it was a lesson for life; an example of what we miss because of our civilization’s insistence in dismissing all translogical realities.

1 comment:

  1. I am as it happens reading Rationalist Spirituality right this moment -- into chapter four, on consciousness!!