Reality is replete with wonder. And much of this comes from the knowledge that in fact we not only know so little but experience the world from such a partial perspective. Despite attempts to frame theories of everything (whether in philosophy or physics), whenever we presume we’ve grapsed the whole of reality, our perspective will shift just enough to remind us that
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5
Milton, the first person writing in English to refer to the universe beyond the earth as “space” —
Space may produce new Worlds; whereof so rife.
Paradise Lost, Book 1
also recognised how each of us in our own minds makes the world according to who we are, as much, if not more than “how it actually is”:
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
We exist as a peculiar species in which reality has conjured what Richard Feynman called “atoms with consciousness”. We populate the world with minds and bodies that are both extraordinary and limited, not only in our thinking but in all our senses and perceptions.
a world view vast and limited
The human condition, which is at the heart of so much of our writing, is essentially one of paradox. We are, every one of us, miraculous. Each of our bodies is made of atoms with an array of fantastic histories and the likelihood of any of these atoms ending up in conscious beings is infinitesimally small. Not only are we the stuff of stars, rocks, trees, earth, animals… but we are also miracles. This is rich territory for us as writers and all the more so because we carry not only all these stories within every cell, but do so in bodies with highly complex minds.
Our world view is vast. And we are able to perceive that other minds have a world view just as immense, but also mysterious to us. As the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch puts it, there is a bittersweet edge to our experience in realising that
others are to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves.
As self-referential creatures whose own particular language, passions and experiences often feel monolithic, our miraculousness can easily overwhelm our willingness to accept that not everyone sees the world in our unique way. And this difficulty of holding together the paradox of being vast miracles at the same time as being limited and flawed is perhaps at the heart of tragedy in the human condition.
Historically, perceiving reality from a single perspective is at the root of how, time and again, particular cultures and people have failed to value or even recognise the legitimacy of otherness. Focussing an entire world view through a narrow lens, whether as an indvidual embodied mind or as a nation, is a foundation for racism, genocide, and colonialism. And a foundation, also, for a dismissive attitude to non-human species and the earth itself; reducing all of it to resources to pillage.
shifting the perspective
It is, of course, completely understandable that everything we perceive, as wonderful as it is, is mediated by the lens of the particular body and life we each live. But we are capable also of empathy and of understanding that others, even others as various as dandelions or squid, experience the world differently. We have our own language, memory and experience, our own somatic ways of knowing, but we also have imagination. And as writers this is a tool of hope and transformation for telling different stories.
There was a time when the human perspective was so myopic that we believed the universe revolved around the earth.The Ptolemaic belief that the earth was stationary and central to the solar system became dominant from the 2nd century CE despite the heliocentric view of the Greek philosophers Philolaus and Hicetas in the 5th century BCE and further arguments from Aristarchus of Samos 200 years later. When Copernicus, writing in 1543, once more argued that the earth revolved around the sun, along with other planets, it was Galileo’s telescope that widened our vision sufficiently to support Copernican thinking, revolutionising astronomy and bringing Galileo into the sights of the Inquisition.
Milton lived through this paradigm shift that upended the myth of our centrality, and widened our frame of reference. Although, by the time Milton was able to visit Galileo, he was blind and unable to look through the telescope for himself, he nonetheless took to heart the new perspecrive. He saw that the universe is alive with an uncountable number of points of view, that otherness is basic to reality and that we have a responsibility to make room for this in our thinking and writing.
from the narrow lens to connection
I’m currently reading the superb Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell, which he describes as being about “sonic marvels, evolution’s creativity and the crisis of sensory extinction.” He recounts in sumptuous detail how different the world is to those creatures that hear at other ranges. The world as we hear it (and this would transfer to all our senses) is not the objective reality outside our body, but the particular slice of the world that we apprehend from our particular sense organs.
Not only is this partial, but it is also highly interpretive. What we hear is mediated by the brain’s attempts to make sense of the sounds. The psychologist Diana Deutsch has used this to show how the brain can begin to ‘hear’ words and whole melodies that are not there, but are the result of our constant attempts as humans to make sense and story of all that comes at us. Not only this but the particular words and melodies that any one individual ‘creates’ will be unique, depending on their own culture and experiences.
Our brains’ interpretative mechanisms also have biases in terms of scale. We are attuned to prioritise quiet sounds that might signal dangers, which means that we are less adapted to a noisy post-indudstrial environment and so grossly underestimate the loudness of some machinery and music, pre-disposing us not to protect ourselves from its efffects on the delicate cilia of our ears.
And in this world of skewed and partial sounds, there is a mass extinction taking place, one of the most overlooked amongst the many extinctions of this moment of history. As Haskell says:
Life is made not only of molecules and countable species but of relationships among living beings. These relationships—life-giving interconnections between the “self” and the “other”—are mediated through the senses. Diversity of sensory experience is a generative force, a catalyst for future biological innovation and expansion, not merely a product of evolution’s creativity.
Sound is part of the richness of sensory experiences which together keep us engaged and empathetic, but sound, Haskell considers, has
…special qualities—unlike light, it passes through barriers; unlike aroma and touch, it carries far—mak[ing] listening an especially important, joyful ,and sometimes heartbreaking practice in this time of crisis.
As writers, as humans, we need to listen—deeply, constantly and with humility. It’s when we truly listen that then we can speak from every sense, from our partial perspective that recognises that others have as much or perhaps even more to offer to the story of this planet than our species; that what we offer has to come from a different perspective, a different story.
This is Linda Hogan, who sums this up:
When the Body
When the body wishes to speak, she will
reach into the night and pull back the rapture of this growing root
which has little faith in the other planets of the universe, knowing
only one, by the bulbs of the feet, their branching of toes. But the feet
have walked with the bones of their ancestors over long trails
leaving behind the roots of forests. They walk on the ghosts
of all that has gone before them, not just plant, but animal, human,
the bones of even the ones who left their horses to drink at the
spring running through earth’s mortal body which has much to tell
about what happened that day.
When the body wishes to speak from the hands, it tells
of how it pulled children back from death and remembered every detail,
washing the children’s bodies, legs, bellies, the delicate lips of the girl,
the vulnerable testicles of the son,
the future of my people who brought themselves out of the river
in a spring freeze. That is only part of the story of hands
that touched the future.
This all started so simply, just a body with so much to say,
one with the hum of her own life in a quiet room,
one of the root growing, finding a way through stone,
one not remembering nights with men and guns
nor the ragged clothing and broken bones of my body.
I must go back to the hands, the thumb that makes us human,
but then don’t other creatures use tools and lift what they need,
intelligent all, like the crows here, one making a cast of earth clay
for the broken wing of the other, remaining
until it healed, then broke the clay and flew away together.
I would do that one day,
but a human can make no claims
better than any other, especially without wings, only hands
that don’t know these lessons.
Still, think of the willows
made into a fence that began to root and leaf,
then tore off the wires as they grew.
A human does throw off bonds if she can, if she tries, if it’s possible,
the body so finely a miracle of its own, created of the elements
and anything that lived on earth where everything that was