TRAINING ASTRONAUTS IN MAGIC
“It’s always night or we wouldn’t need light.”
“If you want to say microtonal music has a social purpose, it involves letting people experience reality outside the boundaries they believe surround EVERYTHING.”
Unknown San Diego microtonal composer
“She did not really want to know; she believed she already understood.”
Philip K Dick, “Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said”
MAY 18, 2011. Anyone who’s read much science fiction eventually comes across a story about an alien who lands on Earth and falls into the hands of the US government.
The military holds him in a facility, while scientists try to figure out how to communicate with him. They run all sorts of tests, of course, and they bring in experts.
But the alien isn’t talking.
The solution sometimes occurs in the form of higher mathematics, “the universal language.” Equations on a page, and the alien perks up.
I’ve never read one of these stories that satisfied me. The “breakthrough” always seemed too easy. I mean, suppose the guy was so different he spoke a vastly strange kind of language, based on principles that would, if we discovered them, make absolutely no sense to us?
His language would be absolutely meaningless, no matter which way we turned it. Worse than gibberish. Far worse. It might somehow be invisible, soundless. An empty space, perhaps. We’d perceive it as a vacuum. We’d have nothing to compare it to.
And then, for our own deep-space missions, we’d have to train our astronauts to deal with this situation. What would we do? Give them reproductions of Dali paintings to show the aliens on Parsec-12?
I once had an interesting conversation with an electrician about light bulbs.
We got down to discussing where the light comes from. He explained that the electrons flowing through the wires in the house, when they reached the thin filament inside the bulb, heated it up, excited atoms in the filament, and then electrons in those atoms gained, momentarily, more energy. When the electrons went back to their original levels of energy and orbits, their atoms released photons of light…
Yeah, I said, but what about the light itself?
“What about it?” he said.
“Where does it come from?”
“You mean they contain light and emit it?”
“Or ARE the photons light?”
“Look at it either way, I guess,” he said.
“Because,” I said, “if the photons CONTAIN light, then light isn’t the photons. It’s the stuff they release.”
“Mmm, well, the photons are light,” he said.
“Not little tin cans full of light.”
“The filament in the bulb—it already has light in it—photons.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
We had reached the limit, because light is, after you break it down and explain it, still light. It’s that stuff that illuminates. It is. It doesn’t really derive from something else. If a photon (or a wave, or both) is made of light, then the labels don’t matter. Light is light.
It’s the same way with language, although linguists would choke on their coffee if you argued that. What I mean is, you can diagram sentences and underline parts of speech, and go back in time to show how words developed and changed, you can float half-baked hypotheses about how babies learn to talk, but in the end, you have to admit, without explanation, that we UNDERSTAND each other when we use language.
Maybe not perfectly, but we understand. Meaning means something. And it can’t be captured in a bottle and sold over the counter. You can’t describe how we know the meaning of conversation and text any better than you can explain light.
I bring all this up because, when we come to the subject of magic, people like to differentiate between everything we do understand, and the incomprehensible and possibly meaningless thing called magic.
However, whether it’s light or meaning or understanding, we very quickly reach a point where we draw a blank and throw up our hands. So magic isn’t the only thing that’s strange.
Or as Thelonious Monk once said, “Trying to explain music is like trying to dance architecture.”
I keep returning to this subject of understanding because, since it is a given, since it comes from something non-material about us (see my recent “Interview with Einstein”), its limits might be expanded by stretching the medium of language itself.
In the same way, by increasing the threshold temperature at which a filament in a light bulb would melt, we could pump more juice into it and make the bulb brighter.
So what is it about our present language that imposes limits on us?
Another analogy: until the subject of topology was invented, no one was serious about measuring irregular surfaces. A new mathematics was brought to bear, and boom, understanding was widened.
Our language tends to fall into two basic categories. You have your subject-action verb-object sentence. And you have your “sentences of being.”
Jones broke the stone.
Jones is a man.
Those are the structures.
There is the little-known work of a philosopher/linguist named Ernest Fenollosa, the author of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry. Fenollosa analyzed modern Chinese words back to pictographs that minimized nouns. Instead, these pictographs presented a view of reality that was far more dynamic and shifting, in which action was the main event. The subject and object were themselves of lesser importance, and were related to one another by their mutual participation in action. “To be” verbs—is, are, am, and so on were just dead ducks.
A different kind of language.
There are many possibilities once you open the door.
Suppose we had a language in which every noun is also a verb, in the sense that it throws off rays and curves and vectors of action and energy.
What would we have then, aside from the linguistic shift?
We might, at the extreme, have an endless supply of dynamic universes. No potted plants. No unmoving rods buried in the ground. ACTION.
And what would this do for us?
Well, for starters, we would be communicating with each other in a way that instantly gave birth to possibilities beyond current meanings embedded in our style of speaking and writing. The implications of each word of text would jump and leap. Instead of peeling off layers to get at the precise definition of a word, we would automatically be proliferating it.
I’m not trying to ban English or any language we use now. I’m adding a new one.
Language, created by consciousness, also feeds back to it. And this feedback is very powerful, in the sense that it informs our way of viewing reality. The structure of language becomes, in a true sense, a monitor on what we can see and what we can’t see. What we can imagine and what we can’t imagine.
As imagination is the door through which we walk into magic, making that door wider allows more magic.
A new language of the sort I’m suggesting here would pump more energy into imagination and widen its scope.
For the past year, I’ve been painting such languages. Many times, in many ways. These languages require no explanation, nor do they offer one. Rather, they enlist innovative thinking.
It’s as if a psychologist, running one of those old inkblot Rorshach tests, told the patient: “Guess what? There’s nothing wrong with you. Forget all that nonsense. Look at these shapes and imagine anything you want to. Tell me what you invent. Then I’ll do thesame. Pretty soon we’ll be speaking a different language, and we’ll levitate out of this worn-out reality into new worlds. We’ll get a few hundred, a few thousand other people to join in, and we’ll…”
Going from structures to non-structures.
The example of the inkblot test is useful. Used in the normal setting of the psychologist’s office, it’s employed to connect the patient’s descriptions of what he sees in the blots to his “states of mind.” As preposterous as this is, it does reveal a crude attempt to pipe language (what the patient reports to the therapist) through an innovative system: the patient looks at blobs of ink, sees things, and tells what they are. The therapist then adds his own ludicrous interpretation. (All in all, sort of a more deeply depressing version of modern art criticism.)
It’s not the kind of talking you’d hear on the street. Or at parties. Or in the office. Or at home.
Having supper at a restaurant, you’re not likely to have your companion say, “Looking at this piece of salmon, I see a shoot-out between a twelve-legged insect and a flock of flying goats.”
So in that sense, conventional Rorshach tests are interesting. They unfortunately assume that neurotic states of mind are generating the perception of “neutral objects” (blobs of ink on a page). Of course, a person actually generates those perceptions out of his imagination. He creates the perceptions.
So let’s just cut out the middleman: therapeutic evaluation. Let’s eliminate the notion of mental disorders generating imagery, and let’s eliminate the connecting of perceptions to an arbitrary catalog of disorders. Let’s eliminate the idea of a test, and results, and actions based on those results.
What conventional Rorschach proves is this: you can build a partly visual language of psychological interpretation out of thin air. You can invent categories and disorders and results, and all the rest.
And people can communicate in this limited language.
So if they can do that, they’re part-way there. They’re already seeing something where people aren’t used to thinking they can see something. In ink blots.
That’s pretty good.
It’s a start.
So instead of the blots, print out all sorts of complex shapes on a page and say THIS IS A LANGUAGE. FIGURE OUT WHAT IT MEANS. WORK ON IT.
Then if you can nudge or inspire or bribe people to do that, they will work for a few years on believing there is really something there, something that is embedded in the shapes, and they’ll dig in and try to “decode” it. A few more years and they might throw in the towel and say, “The hell with this, let’s just make it up. Let’s say each shape means whatever we imagine it to mean, and each shape canchange its meaning from minute to minute.”
Then they start writing to each with these shapes and thousands of others they make up—and gradually, they forget about the notion that they might be crazy. After that, glimpses and glints begin to surface in their minds. They don’t know what they are, but they feel they’re de-conditioning themselves from any language they previously knew. They’re out in open water. Their operational concept of Understanding is undergoing a revolution.
They realize the former power of their conditioning about what meanssomething and what doesn’t.
They realize how tightly they clung to their old basic notion of Meaning.
They drop that. They discard it in the wastebasket, because they’re fascinated with the glints and glimpses they’re getting. They want more glimpses. They’re writing back and forth in this language with no rules and no assigned structure.
They’re experiencing sensations of flying and soaring in a free sky. These sensations are feeding back into their body processes and into their minds. The hard wiring is giving way.
You could say they’re astronauts training for a mission in which they’ll encounter an intelligence that’s completely alien to Earth.
There are many analogues to what I’m discussing here. For example, microtonal music. You tune a piano so that, altogether, 88 keys display the range of sounds contained within just one octave of a conventional piano. Going from the lowest note to the highest on the microtonal piano, you hear thin slices and graduations of notes that cover, all told, no more ground than one octave of a normal piano.
You sit at the microtonal piano and you play.
You listen to what you play.
At first, it’s repugnant. It’s not only dissonant, it’s absurdly muddy.
But after a few months of playing that piano every day, you begin to hear something. It comes through. And the sensations it brings might remind you of places you’ve been, experiences you’ve had. But they go further, into a void where new sensations and meanings you can’t name are possible, are happening. Are real. Eventually, super-real.
These sensations flood your endocrine system, and new proportions and sequences of hormones are produced. You experience feelings you’d forgotten or never had before.
The spectrum of feeling and thought expands.
Your whole notion of what you can experience and understand changes.
Your imagination is gearing up.
You never seriously considered there could be seven comprehensible sounds between any two keys on an ordinary piano. Now, you’re not only hearing them, they make sense. They convey emotion.
This would be like saying that, between each word in the sentence, “I want to go outside,” there are seven other words, and every one of them is an action verb.
When you understand that expanded and exploded sentence, you can talk to the alien from Parsec-12. He can talk to you.
After your first conversation, when you walk out of the facility where he’s under heavy guard, take the elevator down to the parking lot, and drive through the gate, you look at the desert and you see things you never saw before.
You understand why magic was hard to do. It was all supposed to be taking place in a tight reality of unbreakable connections. But now those connections have snapped. The landscape, any landscape, is much more inclusive and malleable.
You look at a tall cactus and it floats off the ground a few feet.
You’re reminded things were this way once. And now processes in your body open up. There is a reason for them to change. They secrete information and energy that have been dormant for a long time. Dormant, because there was no use for them.
The cells in your nervous system wake up to a remarkable degree. They’ve been waiting for this moment. They turn off the game show they’ve been watching on TV for 40 years. They project brilliant rays in all directions. Your physical aliveness shifts up exponentially.
Through the walls of the holding facility behind you, you can see the alien. He’s nodding at you. Yes, he’s thinking. You’re getting the message.
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