Regular visitors will doubtless have noticed Skunkworks has been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is due to October’s having been devoted to packing and moving the physical facility and the days since working on unpacking and getting the new digs functional. As the library (sorry, Nick) is presently just piles and piles of books, it hasn’t been possible to maintain the level of erudition I’m uncomfortable without.
Nevertheless, one chance volume on the top of one those piles provides the impetus for today’s reflection.
In a recent brief back and forth concerning how to take if not explain Deep Prasad’s recently famous experience, Rich Reynolds expressed discontent with understanding it as a variety of religious experience. He writes:
It seems to me that a Shamanic interpretation is the least interesting, not worthy of the discussion we’ve given it here.
It leads us away from a truly imaginative and possibly insightful determination that Deep’s experience invites.
I had remarked Prasad’s experience bore certain resemblances to a shamanic initiation (an insight whose grounds and implications await a functional library here in the Skunkworks…). Reynolds, however, finds my conjecture lacking interest, imagination, and insight, which is curious. Why should a variety of religious experience, archaic, perhaps contemporary, and doubtlessly global and transcultural, and, most importantly, which eludes explanation, be deemed uninteresting?
What’s thought-provoking is how an undoubtedly real anomaly (the nature and significance shamanic initiation and experience) fails to inspire, while far more tenuous possibilities (that Prasad had communicated with extra- or ultraterrestrials or interdimensional intelligences) or downright dismissive psychological explanations (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy or “a waking dream”) are ready grist for the mill.
The German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known as “Novalis” (pictured above)) writes in one famous fragment:
By endowing the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious aspect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic.
The Fortean or anomalist, it seems to me, is somewhat of a Romantic in this regard. The opposite of the debunker or skeptic who would reduce every anomaly to the commonplace, ordinary, or known, the anomalist is equally dissatisfied with phenomena that are in fact already mysterious, dissatisfied with something both provocative and amenable to investigation, needing an extra aura of “the unexplained” to fire the imagination and maintain interest. One need only think of those who quite understandably wonder about the engineering that went into constructing archaic monuments but dismiss explanations that are human, all-too-human, instead, finding it better to invoke “the gods”, extraterrestrial or otherwise.
Aristotle writes in the opening of the Metaphysics that “philosophy begins in wonder.” This wonder at the phenomena of the world incites investigation. It’s just such wonder that, in the best of circumstances, drives the sciences, and it is likewise such wonder that inspires the proto-Romantic poet William Blake to urge us
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
A kind of wonder, it seems, just not enough for whom the world and its mysteries need an added, however artificial and flimsy, glamour.