I remember, as a small child, being fascinated with anything that was just beyond the grasp of my developing consciousness– the cover illustration of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends in which two children seem to peer over the crumbling culmination of the sidewalk at the edge of the world or the puzzling behavior of “my son John“who went to bed with his stockings on, one shoe off and one shoe on.” (The possibility that he had been drinking before he fell asleep was still well beyond me.) Like all children, I couldn’t let these odd images go. I relished their strangeness and, to this day, I feel a reverberation of wonder when I recall anything that then caused me confusion. I remember what it felt like to feel my mind growing. I still love that feeling.
This article from October 5, 2009 reports on the suggestion by researchers that encountering what seems to be a nonsense scenario, something that could not be expected to exist in the everyday world, sharpens the mind by causing it, through anxiety or just an innate desire to make sense of things, to work harder to find patterns in what it perceives. Even if the perceiver is unable to make satisfactory sense of the original experience, subsequent experiences are sharper and subtle patterns more visible. Thus, order comes out of apparent chaos. This got me thinking.
I do not believe that it is possible to perceive utter nonsense. Order is not what we see but how we see. It is the organization of data that allows our minds to congeal objects and events out of what would otherwise be the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of raw sense experience. As thinkers such as Rudolf Steiner and Henri Bortoft have pointed out, thinking is involved even in the act of simple seeing. We would not be able to see (make a phenomenon out of) incoherence any more than we would be able to read (make a word out of) a string of consonants. Encountering a walking, talking tree-like being as the hobbits Merry and Pippin did when they entered Fangorn Forest or stumbling upon a lamppost in a wood as young Lucy did when she entered the world of Narnia is unexpected and improbable but not impossible. It is not strictly nonsense but, rather, not-yet-sense. Walking trees and magic wardrobes make their own kinds of sense within the context of the story. Discovering how they make sense is very good for us. It tells us something essential about ourselves and the world. It tells us that there are other worlds hidden within our own.
Any incongruity, the lack of those ready categories that allow us to navigate an experience without actually having the full available experience, has the potential to cause us to suspect a deeper order, to cause us to suspect that the world is more wonderful than we had supposed. Of course, the wonderful world is always with us but, when we are preoccupied with avoiding a collision with a tree, we need only register its presence, location and a vague sense of its properties. The thrilling coarseness of its bark and the delicate vein pattern of its leaves are of no consequence. The gift that comes to us when we read Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” or Ionesco’s “The Lesson” is that we do understand it on some level, that we do find order there. What we find, in fact, is the pervasiveness of order, itself. It is an opportunity to wake-up a little to the inherent sensicalness of the cosmos which is the source of all beauty.
The name that has been given to this process of waking up is deautomatization. In The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science, Henri Bortoft uses the term, borrowed from psychologist Arthur Deikman, to describe a process of coming to see the thought habits by which we organize our perceptions then learning to see around them. You can think of it as paradigm-busting. “Philosophy,” according to Owen Barfield, “is the most wakeful part of a people’s consciousness” and it has historically been the task of philosophers to “get outside of the plane of consciousness in which they normally lived.” It has, in other words, been the task of philosophers to reveal a deeper order by, as Goethe expressed it, opening up “a new organ of perception.” It is time that we all learned to see ourselves as philosophers. Reading a good fantasy tale is an excellent place to begin.