Into the Labyrinth

Have you ever found that the more obsessed you become with a certain topic, the more references to it keep spontaneously appearing in your life?

That’s what’s been happening to me over the past few weeks, as I’ve spent just about every free moment preparing and polishing my TED talk. The talk is a celebration of one of my favorite topics – the allure of the weird – and lately it seems like every link I click takes me to an article that explores that idea in a new way.

First it was this professor’s tale of teaching Emily Dickinson’s poetry to community college students, which referenced a poem that sent chills up my spine:

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —

Dickinson penned those lines almost a century before the phrase “ghost in the machine” was coined – but she still felt an instinctive sense that the brain her consciousness haunted was a vast unexplored labyrinth. I couldn’t help thinking of my favorite Thoreau quote: “Direct your eye right inward and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered.”

But that poem was just the beginning – later that day, I was browsing a Reddit thread when I came across this quote attributed to Joseph Campbell (though I can’t find a source):

The view of the world roundabout — that the Pawnee Indian would have had on the plains of Nebraska 200 years ago — is very, very different from what is now propounded in the University of Nebraska. A totally new cosmos has come into being — has come into our consciousness.

This points back to a science fact that fascinates me: reality isn’t some objective “thing” that’s just “out there” – it’s an ever-evolving process that your brain is continually performing. Just as a fire is the process of burning (rather than the thing that is burning), consciousness is the process of “burning through” experience.1

Campbell isn’t just being all mystical in that quote – he’s describing the very real process by which our perceptions of the universe around us change as a function of the context in which we place them. After all, if our minds can learn to see a vase or two faces in the same simple image, how confident can we be that the things we see and hear really are what we think they are – or that the question even has any objective meaning? Again, I’m not trying to get mystical here – neuroscience urgently begs weird questions like these.

On an unrelated note, skulls are objectively awesome.

And just this morning, I stumbled across this article about Jonathan Blow, creator of the innovative video game Braid. The game seems to contain some veiled references to the development of the atom bomb, which prompts the writer to speculate that perhaps even those references point to a deeper level of meaning:

You’ve been chasing some deep form of understanding all your life, and what I think you’ve found is that questing after that knowledge brings alienation with it. The further you’ve gone down that road, the further it’s taken you from other people. So the knowledge is ultimately destructive to your life, just like the atom bomb was — it’s a kind of truth that has a cataclysmic impact.

I almost fell out of my chair when I read this. See, ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with the motif of harmful sensation – the idea of a single word or phrase or piece of knowledge that has the power to singlehandedly drive a person insane, or turn them to stone, or transform their life in some catastrophic way. In fiction, such a piece of knowledge often holds a powerful allure for certain characters – after all, who wouldn’t be curious?

The story of Jonathan Blow, however, provided a take on the motif that I’d somehow never considered before: that the quest for the weird is itself a motif of harmful sensation. It’s a series of life choices that have taken me to some rapturous places, even as they’ve made it harder and harder for me to carry on mundane conversations, or form meaningful relationships with the less-geeky. Given the choice between normality and my eerie House of Corridors – well, I guess it’s obvious which I chose.

And it’s a choice I don’t regret, because things are just so much cooler out here where it’s weird. Don’t you agree?

1. I think the Buddha was onto something when, 2,600 years ago, he told an audience of monks that “all is burning.”


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