by Tom Jacobs
Nobody knows anyone. Not that well.
~ Miller’s Crossing
The midnight thoughts we have when we are kids are amongst the most profound we will ever have, even if we are not in a position to understand them at the time. How do I know the color I see as red is the same color of red for you? What happens after you die? How do I know that my life is not a dream?
These are ridiculously important and childish questions. The kind of questions that used to keep you up at night and that now seem safely relegated to the category of pointlessness (in part because possibly unanswerable…what evidence could one ever marshal to “prove” or even convincingly argue one’s case one way or the other?). But the heart, and somewhere in the back of one’s mind, the mind too, knows, that these questions matter. They will not go away. But there’s work to do and subways to get and schedules to keep. Whether or not you really exist kinda fades into the shadows, along with one’s fear of ghosts. Hell, it’s not even in the background. It’s offstage, somewhere in the wings, occasionally whispering stage directions. But not much more than that. But still it whispers.
Sometimes the moon appears in the middle of the day, spang in the middle of the cerulean familiar. It’s always seemed a damned strange thing, this midday moon. It’s a nighttime thing, the moon, the sort of thing that draws out freaks and lunatics and people who are up to the devil’s business. And yet, the moon is there, hovering over the horizon, at midday no less, offering a kind of vague threat or prophecy. Geosynchronous with us, never letting us see its ass end. As Pink Floyd pointed out long ago, there’s a dark side to it, even if we never get to see it. And this is what creates and cultivates the notion of mystery. Things we know are there but have never seen. The substance of things hoped for, but have never felt or seen (to paraphrase).
My thumb is more or less exactly the same size as the moon is. My thumb is actually usually bigger than the moon, depending on how far it is from my head when I point it towards the sky. How, then, do I know that the moon is, at least in relation to my thumb, immense? How do I know this?
Faith, mostly, with a bit of reason and textbook understanding of physics and geometry thrown in. Even if I was born yesterday (which I wasn’t…I age, I age, and it fills me with a sense of Gnosticism, the felt sense that something has been lost, something important with the advent of consciousness), but even if I was born yesterday, I would never believe you when you tell me that the moon is a moon, orbiting in some unlikely revolution around our earth. And you tell me the earth is four billion years old? Get outta here. But I do trust people who tell me so and I believe them. Why is this so? Is it worth anyone’s time to try to worry over or try to verify these things? Pragmatism comes to the fore to point our attention to things worth thinking about, even if on some deeper level, questions remain.
These are dangerous questions, questions that can lead to all sorts concerns about the true nature of experience and also to all manner of zany theories and ideas (the earth is six thousand years old, the moon landing was faked, the Bavarian Illuminati are running everything). Worrying over such questions is like a game of epistemological Jenga where pulling one tiny little brick out of the base can send the whole edifice of belief tumbling down. But this is not the paranoid style that Richard Hofstadter discusses, or at least not exactly—it’s not about feeling persecuted and wanting to find a nemesis/source of one’s putative “suffering.” It’s about feeling uncertain about the most essential things that make it possible for life to proceed more or less untroubledly.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
~ Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
I want to filter everything from myself, to no longer take things at second or third hand, and to not look through the eyes of the dead, but it’s impossible not to. This is just the way the world comes to us, through the eyes of others, through the spectres in books and newspapers. There’s just no other way to know what the fuck is going on. So whom do we trust? And how do we make this judgment? It’s important to wonder about.
Once you leave the grid of hallowed integrity and expected coherence, you are totally at sea. If you become skeptical of what’s told to you in, say, the New York Times, you’re kinda screwed, or at least screwed to the extent that it becomes difficult to know what’s the what. Who are you gonna believe? And why? So many ideas and things are relegated to the literal footnotes of history and scholarship. But those footnotes can make for fascinating reading and hours of reflection.
I have been thinking about synchronicity lately—Jung’s (and special agent Dale Cooper’s) idea that when two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must pay strict attention, or, to tune into a more Jungian channel for a moment, whenever two events causally unrelated occur together in a meaningful manner, there’s something going on there. It’s impossible not to feel this sense of meaning glimmering but always just out of reach.
Synchronicity matters because it turns everything we know or think we know on its head. No, there is no such thing as actual synchronicity, it’s just coincidence. But some small form of doubt and faith remain. How can it be that, say, on the very day that I’m thinking of a long lost friend, he should call me on the phone at the very moment that I think of him, having not thought of him for lo so many years? It’s odd, and just odd enough to make one worry about how things work.
What we want is some kind of visceral understanding of things, some sense of knowledge of the world that isn’t just cerebral but physical and emotional at the same time, carnal even, I dare say. Some form of knowing that isn’t restricted to concept. Is such a thing possible? I think it is. This is what words like “love” or “passion” refer to. Things that can’t quite ever be reduced to conceptual modes of thought, even if that’s the only way we can ever understand them. They defy our ability to grasp them. We know these things because we feel them, not because we understand them. At all. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Elusiveness is something I value. Obliqueness in expression, only grasped fleetingly in moments of intensity and possibly even ecstasy. I know them because I’ve experienced them. Everything and everyone else, I just have to trust.
And still the moon appears, unexpectedly, on the horizon, thumbsized, upturning everything.