Once upon a time a little boy was walking down a dirt road, beside a lively creek. There were five of them traveling together — the road, the creek, the dog, the grandmother and this boy – and they were all dancing their way to a waterfall, which is where the road stopped and Pan’s kingdom started. A few staggering clouds came along too, out of curiosity. And if the boy had entered paradise at that moment it would have felt like a let-down. The wilderness beyond the waterfall, and its mysterious beasts, which he knew from stories his grandma would tell him, would have lost their beguiling danger — that spice of potential doom, which the cooks of paradise always seem to forget.
At any rate, suddenly (and these things always happen suddenly) everything froze. The dog didn’t notice, and neither did the grandma. But the little boy noticed something which turned the world instantly cold and stiff. He noticed that everything was a story, and that he was no longer tasting, touching, smelling, seeing or hearing a real world (if he ever had), but only the filter of his mind, that incessant voice, which, once it gets going, can’t be stopped on purpose. And this instantly isolated the boy from all the beings and spirits that had danced beside him and inside him a moment earlier.
That is to say, the little boy had taken a merry step with his left foot and by the time his right foot landed he had entered a hall of mirrors, a circular trap, or self-confirming bias in perception, without knowing what it was. This generated a claustrophobic panic, because he could see that everything he had trusted in the world wasn’t real, but only a story, which implied that he, too, was a fiction, and so he didn’t feel real anymore. And by the time his left foot touched the road again, his thoughts were already running in panic, in search of something conclusive, but finding at each turn yet another mirror of wishful thinking. And this panic colored the world dark and lifeless.
Or, rather, it was an empty world, a solipsism for which he had no word.
But still, he kept on walking. He even petted the mirage of a dog with arms as translucent as thought and looked at the waterfall.
Pretty, isn’t it? said the grandma.
What’s the matter? she asked.
I’m in a daze, he said, wrapping himself in a phrase he’d heard an older child use, because he didn’t want to say anything that might solidify the fear, and he couldn’t make sense of it anyways. And so he made his way through adolescence, caging his fear as much as he could, envying his friends, the way they blithely trusted their five senses, the smallness of their social anxieties, the way they enjoyed the smell of bacon in the morning, and he also pretended to enjoy these things to keep the panic from rising.
But then one day he realized that this horror he’d been feeling was also a story. “Everything is a story,” he said to himself. Even the cold, lifeless world he’d been experiencing wasn’t real.
Can you feel his panic lifting momentarily at this realization? It’s not obvious, I’m sure. But the horror itself could be seen at that moment as only another story that no longer needed to be feared. In all those years he hadn’t understood what “Everything” meant. Well, it’s an odd word. The meaning isn’t found in a definition. No one can posit a picture of something larger than the frame itself. It’s almost meaningless.
The real meaning of “everything is a story”, he realized then, is hitting a wall and being forced to stop moving in a direction he’d never noticed he was traveling. Until then, every response to that panic had been a leap in the direction of a new story, which generated the same unsatisfying fiction, and therefore the same panic, which kept the brain racing in a circle, and from which there is no exit.
But this collision with futility was different. Here the futility was so complete that no story was possible. He was like a fish discovering water, having breached the surface for a moment. Thought stopped pumping like a stressed heart, stopped generating any horrors to cause more stress. Stopped provoking the imagination to posit answers, conclusions, beliefs, and logical proofs in a self-defeating attempt to shore up a sense of reality with yet more imagination. It was like a radio had turned off in his head that he hadn’t realized had been playing. And the real world rushed in like a long lost friend, loud and vivid, and needing no proof.
Futility had moved him in a new direction. Call it a negative movement. Not down narrowing hallways towards positive conclusions, but outward through open-ended questions, and into metaphor, which has no intention of squeezing the bear of reality into a parakeet’s cage of domesticated certainty.
And he lived as if he was walking backwards into a dark room, feeling his way by collisions with dis-illusionment, bumping and scraping his psychic toes against the only firm ground thought can reach, which is error itself. That’s the unexpected confidence he found in ceasing to move towards answers: not the positive confidence of knowing what is real, but the momentary confidence of banging into what is not real, which I’m calling Negative Knowledge.
But there was a missing element to this discovery that pulled the boy back into the mundane world of low-grade anxiety and restless movement, albeit without that horror hanging over him anymore. And I have a theory, a story in other words, about why this would happen. But that requires taking a deeper plunge into the relationship between story and reality, because a more tenacious confusion exits there, which may be the very factor that held the boy (and everyone else I know) in thrall to a story-frantic brain.
(This is the first in what looks to be a series of 5 essays that should appear almost weekly (probably more like monthly, knowing how slow I am at this). They will build on each other indirectly, and together take a deeper dive into the relationship between story and reality. My sister and I shared this terror of unreality, although it manifested in different ways throughout our lives.
- Now Featuring: An Honest Fairy Tale
2) Negative Knowledge and the Eruption of a Metaphoric Mentality
3) working title: Learning to Tell Honest Stories Rather than Truths (why writing matters) — Post Script: The best I could do so far was this one).
4) An essay with no working title on the relationship between guilt, white/male privilege and human privilege in relation to the earth — (PS: this one seems to have fallen a little short of its potential, but here it is).
5) an essay that is still barely a gleam in the eye – on Pareidolia, which turned out to be a smaller thing than I first imagined it might be.
We’ll see if this actually comes to pass or not.
Lastly, in the late 1980s I found a paragraph in a book that described the “unreal feelings” very clearly. It was a shock to stumble on this paragraph, and it made me realize how widespread if not well known this “malady” might be. The book is titled Beckett & Zen:
“…Watt (a Beckett character) has perceived the fact that the I-as-object has no validity and that the subject of such perception is thereby implied. He admits that the discovery is a distressing realization — often, when that fact is discovered accidentally, the experience can be a considerable shock — for nothing could be affirmed as real, that is, not bearing the stamp of the conceiving part of the mind. H describes the moment of realization as “false” and adds that he finds the experience more disturbing than anything else that had affected him” (page 42).
Update, June 25, 2022: About four months ago I discovered the name for this “malady” — depersonalization/derealization. My first attempt to metabolize this new information came out as “Post-Modernism as a Depersonalization/Derealization Crisis.”