by Tom Jacobs
– Do you know the expression, “Let sleeping dogs lie?” You are better off not knowing…
– I have to know…
– Very well…
~ from Polanski’s Chinatown
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
So there is a dark tunnel that stretches out into indefiniteness. There is the faint light of the lobby behind but really there is no direction to go but forward into the darkness. To do otherwise, to go back towards the light would be weak, cowardly—a failure of curiosity. After it is all over, the directions that are meant to explain what to expect and how to go about navigating the otherworldly blackness will become apparent; these directions and explanations would have clarified and demystified the whole thing and were right there for the seeing but somehow they went unobserved. But that comes later. Perhaps it is better to have passed them by, to not have seen them. So, again, nowhere to go but in.
There is nothing but darkness and no light, no wind, not even the faintest draft. Seemingly nothing ahead and, once the lobby light fades, nothing behind. Just a meaningless blankness that begins to seem weirdly seductive. Nowhere to go but in.
The air is filled with fear and ignorance and it is all ridiculously thrilling. To not know. To not know but to go on anyway, just to see.
Eventually the end of the tunnel presents itself, as do two chairs. After five minutes or so of sitting in the soundless nothingness the magic of proprioception becomes a kind of revelation. There is really nothing to observe but the rhythms of breath and blood.
After ten minutes the dark adapted eye begins to see, or at least to discern. An amorphous gray blob begins to shimmer and pulsate in the distance. This gray blob fascinates until eventually it doesn’t anymore and it’s time to leave.
Groping through the darkness of blackness, a vaguely irritating question emerges. What is actually out there in the darkness? What is that faint pulsating gray blob? Nothing? Something? An illusion? And where does the inner eye stop and the world of things out there begin? There is the certain knowledge that a trick of some sort is being played. The senses are being manipulated and played and the confusion of inner and outer is offered as a kind of weird gift. Enjoy it and don’t ask questions; float and luxuriate in the strange equilibrium of Turrell’s dark solution. But then, just then, the cell phone presents itself as something that might cut through Turrell’s riddle. A flash of digital light might cut through the murk.
The consequences of wrecking the mystery are considered and dispensed with, completely supplanted by the desire to know what’s really out there in the darkness.
The cell phone’s light flashes and a very mundane, delicately curved white space appears for the time of the flashing and then is gone again.
So that’s what it was. An empty space, a bannister, and two spare chairs. That’s all it was and nothing more. Maddened by the absence of anything, the dark-adapted eye seizes upon whatever light finds its way in to bounce off the blank walls and a confused and hungry retina. That’s it. It’s hard to say whether the plainness of the thing makes it more or less intriguing. More, probably.
Finally the lobby presents itself again, a far duller place than it seemed just ten minutes before, even if the inner ear and the inner eye take the rest of the day to realign and find concordance again. A certain regret begins to gnaw, an unformed inkling that perhaps it would have been better not to know. To just let the mystery ripen and be. It is funny that the pleasures of pursuing resolution and clarity and coherence almost always destroy the deeper pleasures of the enigma, the cryptic, the befuddling.
INHABITING THE CRACK OF LIGHT
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged-the same house, the same people- and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.
~ Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
I read somewhere that when Isaac Babel told his mother that he wanted to be a writer she responded by saying something to the effect that “to be a writer, you have to know everything.” This seems true. To understanding any particular, singular thing requires that you know everything, including the history of the universe. (This seems to me one of the most interesting implications of the divagations and digressions in Terrence Malick’s peculiar movie, “The Tree of Life.” It is unashamed in seeking to investigate the emotional tangle of a single family by beginning its investigation at the beginning of time, which, in truth, is where you have to begin to understand anything.) It’s an impossible but inescapable obligation, to know everything, or at least to expand one’s experience towards infinity and to sharpen one’s judgment to as fine a point as possible. No other way but to try and to fail, but I take inspiration from a throw-away line from one of David Mamet’s movies: “I might have been born yesterday but I stayed up all night.”
My nineteen-year-old son is beginning to read the newspaper (partly because he is required to for of his college classes) and is having a bit of a hard time of it, of finding a way in. It set me to thinking about why it is so hard to really understand or know what you’re looking at when you pick up a newspaper. It is hard because, at the beginning of things—of anything, really—you have no experience and you have no judgment. There seems to be nothing but darkness and no light and you just want to go back to the complacencies of the well-lighted lobby. But there is no other option than to simply begin, to stumble blindly into the dark tunnel, to pierce the surface of things to follow the echoes and shadow to hear and see where they lead.
The always-interesting Errol Morris has just released a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, called “The Unknown Known,” playing upon Rumsfeld’s famously evasive response to a journalist’s questions about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.[i] I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have read his four-part series in the New York Times. As ever, Morris seeks to show how the Truth can still be found within or behind or beneath the various expressive forms that are deployed to conceal or reveal it. The real interest of these pieces, however, has less to do with unearthing what really happened (which is pretty well-established and well-trod ground) than it does with the much murkier and probably ultimately unknowable questions of what Rumsfeld actually believes and how he perceives the world.
At the heart of the heart of Morris’s examination of Rumsfeld’s epistemology, and of his use of the phrase “unknown unknowns,” in particular is the role of the imagination in the assessment of risk. Rumsfeld, it seems, was particularly fascinated by a 1960 paper written by the economist Thomas Schelling bearing the pretty great title “Meteors, Mischief and War.” There is one line from the paper that struck Rumsfeld with something like the force of a revelation: “There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.” This, according to Rumsfeld, in a somewhat bent application, is why Pearl Harbor and 9/11 came as such a surprise: it isn’t that we didn’t understand that real and severe risks existed, or that we didn’t know that there were entities that meant us harm; rather, it is that we failed to imagine the form this harm would or could possibly take.
Here is Schelling himself, in some surprisingly lovely prose about surprise:
Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost. It includes gaps in intelligence, but also intelligence that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the alarm that has gone off so often it has been disconnected …. finally, as at Pearl Harbor surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.
“Genuine novelty.” It is a rare idea that cuts through to the very quicknesses of art, everyday life, and foreign policy, but there it is. Morris is quick to point out that Schelling’s point is less about any failure of imagination than it is about an inability to know how to interpret an overwhelmingly large amount of evidence.
The deep attraction and interest of finding oneself lost in one of Turrell’s orchestrated discombobulations, or in the bloody muddle of the day’s newspaper, or in the simultaneously clarifying and obfuscating words used to explain is precisely in finding one’s bearings in the lostness. In figuring out how to see the evidence the world casts at our feet.
The light in the lobby is inevitable and alluring. You can’t stay in the darkness of blackness and groping uncertainty for long. Certainly you can’t live there. But if there is genuine novelty to be found, surely it is there in the lostness of the dark forest where the sleeping dogs lie, where the line between inner and outer grows all muzzy and finally the eye adapts to the darkness and suddenly begins to see.
Slavoj Zizek also has much to say on the philosophical implications and reverberations of Rumsfeld’s language, one iteration of which can be found here:
If one wanted a “take home” message from the piece, it is probably this: “The task of philosophy as the ‘public use of reason’ is not to solve problems, but to redeﬁne them; not to answer questions, but to raise the proper question.”