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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 375 Response

Experimental Writing

by Bertrand Cayzac and Don Webb

Challenge 375: If the world were unknowable, impossible to understand and thereby unpredictable, could any living creature exist in it?

[Bertand Cayzac] If the X-Files series made anything clear, it’s that the TRUTH is OUT THERE, unknown because it is concealed by POWER. But today CONSPIRACY has taken us a step further: in 2006, Donald Rumsfled, then the U.S. Secretary of Defense, wanted us to believe that Unknowns can be Unknown. We shall pass over this bit of DISINFORMATION (the concept of Unknown Unknowns resembles a quantity the square of which yields a negative or imaginary number) and take stock of the knowable.

Yes, Lucifer is the answer — not the cat in Cinderella, the other fellow, the one who makes inroads into Chaos in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

First, though, I want to salute Tantra Bensko’s inspiring endeavor to write off the illusion of knowledge. But since I am stuck inside the Occidental paradigm — I’m still with the Memphis blues — I will not try to answer the Challenge question from the standpoint of wisdom but rather with the most advanced methods of information analysis. To this end, some verses of T.S. Eliot’s are relevant in the corporate asphaltic pool where I dwell:

Where is the Life we have lost in living,
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge,
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The Rock

Let me summon the ‘powers of the axes’ (x and y, which are dominant forms in industry), to build a tentative typology of the perspectives from which one can live and write. These perspectives depend on x, whether the world is deemed knowable, and on y, the actual knowledge displayed in the work — with a hint of meta-knowledge, to be truly pedantic. The resulting graph is necessarily comprehensive, since it covers all of Cartesian space: that’s what is meant by “the total power of the axes.”

We can break it down into four squares:

The Rumsfeld Conundrum
x Unknown Knowns (-1, +1) Known Knowns (+1, +1)
Unknown Unknowns (-1, -1) Known Unknowns (+1, -1)

We may thus isolate objects not only in the Unknown Unknowns region, where black swans come from, but also in the oxymoronic Unknown Knowns zone, which may exist only in the subconscious but can nonetheless be put to use like any mathematical concept.

With this method, we will answer the Challenge question but reformulate it with a twist, for the sake of argument: If the world were unknowable, impossible to understand and thereby unpredictable, could any writing take place in it?

The Cayzac Corollary
Unknowable Knowns (-1, +1) Knowable Knowns (+1, +1)
Unknowable Unknowns (-1, -1) Knowable Unknowns (+1, -1)

I will briefly touch on the other two boxes to satisfy my geometrical spirit; however, I will not dwell too much on the Knowable Knowns, to spare the nerves of gist-seekers who may still be reading at that stage.

It is no wonder that Milton explores many different positions in Paradise Lost, for knowledge is obviously central to the poem. As a result, we will encounter Paradise Lost protagonists all along the way. We will not discuss Paradise Regained, though, because it is a Knowable Unknown, i.e. I know it’s there but I haven’t read it yet.

Is the world an Unknowable Unknown? This concept works best when truth is being unveiled or hinted at. The motto for this section is, of necessity, the famous ignoramus et ignorabimus (‘We do not know and we will not know’) coined in the 19th century by Dr. Emil Dubois-Reymond, a famous German physiologist in his book Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens (I cannot resist citing that title; it means “On the limits of our understanding of nature”).

King Solomon, whose wisdom is legendary, put it rather better than the father of experimental electro-physiology: “He [God] hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11; the book is traditionally attributed to Solomon).

This is in line with Raphael’s recommendation to our ancestors in Paradise Lost:

Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid
Leave them to God above, him serve and fear
— VIII, 167

Such a limited knowledge is the key to their blissful slumber:

These lulled by nightingales embracing slept
And on their naked limbs the flow’ry roof
Show’red roses, which the morn repaired. Sleep on
Blest pair; and O yet happiest if ye seek
No happier state and know to know no more
— IV, 771

This is no slumber actually, but the ‘happier state’, the acme of paradisiacal life.

And we must place willy-nilly into this Unknowable Unknowns box Kant and his “things-in themselves,” which ultimately cannot be known. The “things-in themselves” reappear with Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, of course, as well as in Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism, in which truth ceases to exist and leads to nihilism. Das Ding an sich thus influences modern literature by casting doubt on the knowability of the world.

Franz Kafka must be given a special place. Is The Castle ultimately unknowable? Is The Trial definitely devoid of sense? Do we know? Albert Camus’ sense of the Absurd also qualifies, and Samuel Beckett’s as well.

Luce Irrigarays’ most experimental writings may also fall into the Unknowable Unknowns square, but they are rather aimed at a space beyond the logos as an emanation of male power, sometimes called phallogocracy. They may also indicate a real way out the x/y graph.

Likewise, in Donna Harraway’s Cyborgs’ Manifesto, both knowledge and the objects of knowledge change radically:

We do not need a totality in order to work well. The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction.

Are these texts bridges to “Lucid Fiction”?

In Alice in Wonderland, specifically with Alice and Dinah, the world is an Unknowable Known. What a bewildering perspective! We would have thought that only the Almighty could fathom the unknowable; He let it be, after all.

But this is the magic of the axes. The Unknowable Knowns combination is akin to the imaginary number i (the square root of -1), which is brought into existence only as a transient artifact in complex numbers. What does it really mean that something is both known and unknown at the same time? Do we have a use for it?

Hold that thought: this may be the realm of chaos theory or quantum physics, where the world can be known only statistically. Prime case in point: the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle holds that we cannot measure simultaneously an object’s velocity and position.

But to begin with, if we may make a play on words, “unknowable” can also mean that which ought not to be known, i.e. an interdict or taboo. To some extent, the Tree of Knowledge is unknowable by divine decree, and Jocasta is “unknowable” in the biblical sense to her son Oedipus. And, as we know, both interdicts were transgressed with tragic consequences.

Do the wildest attempts to grasp the unknowable fail here? John Milton makes an attempt at singing Chaos:

Chance governs all. Into this wild abyss
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds.
Paradise Lost, II, 910.

This is a meaningful image in the light of the Challenge 375 formulation and my re-formulation. A text can exist and be rich as long as it corresponds to the editorial purpose that Milton cites. Chaos can thus be fertile.

Indeed, we may picture Lucifer plying his way to paradise. He challenges the throne of Chaos:

and his dark pavilion spread
wide on the wasteful deep ; with him enthroned
Sat sable-vested Night, eldest of things,
the consort of his reign ; and by them stood
Orcus and Hades and the dreaded name
Of Demogorgon; Rumour next and Chance.
To whom Satan turning boldly, thus. Ye Powers
and Spirits of this nethermost abyss,
Chaos and ancient Night, I come no spy
With purpose to explore or to disturb
the secrets of your realm, but by constraint [...]
Paradise Lost, II, 968

And we can also salute his negotiation skills, when he asks for directions:

Directed, no mean recompense it brings
To your behoof, if I, that region lost
All usurpation thence expelled, reduce
To their original darkness and your sway (Which is my present journey) and once more
Erect the standard there of ancient night.
Paradise Lost, II, 981

It is worth noting, by the way, that the tactical move is intended to lure man into knowledge.

Interestingly enough, one of the poems in Don Quixote’s prologue is a speech by Urganda the Unknowable (la Desconecida, or la Méconnaissable), a magician and Amadis of Gaul’s protector. Does she belong to the Unknowable Knowns region in some fantastic way? In her poem, she recommends simplicity, enjoining the author not to philosophize. And should I not heed her warning myself:

Foolishness written
always follows the hack
no matter what he does.
— (my rough translation)

True, but I trust Miguel Cervantes to manage several levels of interpretation. Why not weave a Don Quixote thread across the squares? How known, how knowable is the world to the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, who does not even need to know his Dulcinea? What if Sancho Panza’s world were our now familiar Knowable Knowns ground? We would have to parse all his proverbs to figure it out.

Anyway, the pursuits of old Alonzo take place in a bounded world, one that is knowable enough for fair fame to be desirable although not as much as everlasting glory:

All these and a variety of other great exploits are, were, and will be, the work of fame that mortals desire as a reward and a portion of the immortality their famous deeds deserve; though we Catholic Christians and knights-errant look more to that future glory that is everlasting in the ethereal regions of heaven than to the vanity of the fame that is to be acquired in this present transitory life; a fame that, however long it may last, must after all end with the world itself, which has its own appointed end.
Don Quixote, I, 8.

Does Surrealism also fit here, with the author’s endeavor to manifest the power of the unconscious as an unknowable domain? Sigmund Freud is unavoidable, as well as Jacques Lacan and the ‘Real’, which is the unknowable instance, impossible to imagine and symbolize.

And does Gombrowicz’s Cosmos also apply, with his characters reading signs in tiny cracks on the ceiling, where there may be nothing, or just... what? Pulsations? Visions? Ludicrous tricks of a monstrous reality?

And yet someone is hanging the dead birds. Perspectives shift in Gombrowicz’s stories according to the characters’ state of mind, which travels along the x and y axes with a hint of terror.

The Knowable Unknown: The Tree of Knowledge is untouched, obviously, but the category also offers a wide range of perspectives and some kind of Cosmos, at last.

Let’s start with Albert Einstein’s warm, stimulating belief:

We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.
— in an interview, responding to a question about faith in God

Does William Shakespeare share this view, or does he believe that philosophy will always fall short of comprehending the world when he has Hamlet say these famous words: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, I, 5).

We cannot help thinking of Plato’s myth of the cavern, in The Republic. But beware, the world brought out of chaos may just be another unstable compound. I suspect “the other” is forced into “the same” to be the mother of all Unknowable Unknowns. It was forced into “the same”:

Out of the indivisible and unchangeable, and also out of that which is divisible and has to do with material bodies, he [the eternal God] compounded a third and intermediate kind of essence, partaking of the nature of the same and of the other, and this compound he placed accordingly in a mean between the indivisible, and the divisible and material. He took the three elements of the same, the other, and the essence, and mingled them into one form, compressing by force the reluctant and unsociable nature of the other into the same.
Timaeus, 34b-36b

Likewise, in Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice, scientists fail to decipher a mysterious message from outer space. And yet the message yields bits of meaning, a formula, and an explosion: the message can probably be known; hence it is a Knowable Unknown. But it cannot be deciphered by human beings, which makes it an Unknowable Unknown.

One fondly recalls A.E Van Vogt’s World of Null-A, where the brilliant Gilbert Gosseyn gradually awakens to an ever wider reality. Remember: “The map is not the territory.”

Let us return to Alice in Wonderland for the Knowable Known. I don’t know about this, really. It probably works best when a priori or general knowledge is not in question. This is the domain of mainstream literature, including “whodunits,” especially Sherlock Holmes. The category contains many good books, such as Alice in Wonderland. Does The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also fit this typology?

As for me and my own attempts at writing, I am interested in evading conventional rules and plot constraints, mostly because I fear I am not up to the challenge of fulfilling them; in other words I feel ill-adapted or incompetent.

The category Knowable Knowns is of particular relevance in my perverse attempt to write my stories in spite of my formalistic disability. I guess part of the solution I seek consists in writing conventional style sequences as part of a supposedly known plot. My attitude is: “The story is known, so why should I worry?”

Could this be called “parasitic fiction”? The markers of a serial convey the idea that both author and audience know the concept and recurring structure of the narrative, although not yet the details of the specific episode. Hence my characters can live and prosper in a viable ecosystem, feeding on some low-hanging fruit, hiding behind thick leaves or jumping from high branches... into the unknown. In this way, the as yet unknown plot progresses as if it were known. In the end, the plot will be knowable, even though nobody may ever be able to determine whether it is consistent.

Copyright © 2010 by Bertrand Cayzac

[Don Webb] Thank you for a most illuminating discussion, Bertrand. It would appear that “experimental writing” has not only been done for millennia and includes some of the greatest works of world literature, but that those works have also touched on what seems to be involved in experimental thinking and writing.

The Challenge question can be taken literally. Did any life exist when “all was without form, and void”? Nothing we’d recognize as such. Life first required the spirit of God moving across the face of the deep — or the collapse of the solar and planetary accretion disk, take your pick — thereby establishing enough order to allow life — and writing — to evolve as emergent properties.

Order implies laws, namely the laws of nature within which life can evolve, and the laws of esthetics, within which literature can evolve. But are those laws immutable? The question is still debated whether the speed of light has always been the constant we know. In any event, one thing is sure: esthetic laws aren’t “laws” at all: they’re rules of thumb, guidelines that seem to have worked well most of the time.

Let’s take the old admonition: “Write what you know.” Your venture into Cartesian space should convince us that the advice is illusory:

  1. It’s clear that one might say more appropriately: “Write what you think you know” (Known Knowns). I imagine Descartes would approve.

  2. But on the other hand it may not be such a good idea to write about Known Unknowns, when you know you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  3. Writing about Unknown Knowns can take you on an interesting trip into the subconscious, but how do you know when you’re writing about something you don’t know you know?

  4. Finally, writing about Unknown Unknowns brings us back to the conundrum we started with:
    “What are you writing about?”
    “I have no idea. The truth is Out There... somewhere...”

Be it noted parenthetically that one of the two creation stories in Genesis actually pulls off the feat in #4. The prose poem that effectively describes nature and all creation as holy — God’s handiwork — inadvertently parallels modern cosmology and paleontology in some respects. But if we time-traveled back to congratulate the author or authors on their lottery-winning lucky guess, they would wonder what we were talking about. And when they understood, they’d wonder what difference it makes.

In any event, one can’t break rules without knowing what they are (the Known Knowns). Otherwise, if you break rules haphazardly (the Unknown Knowns), we’re just reinventing the wheel, and like as not it’s going to be square.

Truly experimental writing, then, would involve consciously and systematically breaking one or more common guidelines in writing — and seeing what happens. That’s the sort of thing experiments do.


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