The World Beneath the World
There is a world underneath the world. At least we want there to be. It’s the foundational idea beneath conspiracy theories and secret societies and underlying many of the things that people like best: fictional stories. How many have you read or heard that talk about a clarity, a certainty, an explanation that’s just below the surface. It’s the CIA or the Elder Scrolls, the Trilateral Commission or the Freemasons or the Knights Templar (or maybe all of those are the same thing). In a story like that, if you just find the key, or the informant, or the secret document, or whatever the maguffin might be, everything that’s baffling and crazy and incomprehensible on the surface can be explained simply, clearly, understandably.
Human brains evolved to explain things. That is to say, everything. We live in the universe, and we are driven to explain it on a grand scale. At various times in history, depending on the most powerful metaphors of the age, the universe has been explained as a clockwork, a realm ruled by a diety or a royal family or an inanimate god or powerful animal spirits or a computer program. On the more local scale, we evolved in a dangerous environment where it was a survival strategy to be able to notice threats in the edges of the jungle or on the savannah. That’s probably the source of our drive for understanding, for judgement. Survival.
Given those very utilitarian origins, though, we’re pretty damn good. That math thing, that’s killer. It’s taken us a long way. And things like the scientific method and materials research and engineering, well geez. Physically we’re certainly making our mark, for good or ill, seeing as how we can’t in any real way transcend our average little planet. Nevertheless, we can envision things like black holes and even build a space telescope to see the giant one at the center of our galaxy. We can figure things out, from e=mc2 to (maybe) dark matter to things entirely outside our experience like the quantum world.
I think it’s all in service to the world underneath the world. What we see, what we experience, often makes no sense. People act in ways we can’t understand. Sometimes we decide they’re something wrong with them; an illness. In other times and places we’ve call inexplicable behavior a possession. Sometimes we don’t call it anything but nevertheless attack it and try to eradicate… “it,” whatever that might be.
The lesson is always the same: when we don’t understand, we often react badly. At some level, we know that about ourselves. So we’re even more driven to understand, even when the “understanding” might be less anchored to the universe than might be hoped.
And it all comes from how we evolved on our little green world. Not understanding — not jumping to a conclusion — could be very dangerous, even fatal. Predecessors who didn’t figure out (or just guess) that shadow in the bushes might be a lion didn’t survive. The ones who figured it out — even if they were wrong and it was just a breeze, a rabbit, or an antelope, well, they reacted promptly and they got the hell out of there. And that meant they survived to reproduce, which meant that along with all the other combinations of genetic markers, maybe that particular one that demanded understanding got passed along too.
It could have persisted for a thousand generations, saving individuals from lions real and imagined, then maybe from other dangers, until finally until it came into play to suggest, just as strongly, and just as irresistibly, that the hidden operations of mysterious, very powerful lions (er, I mean rich and powerful people with banks, secret societies, and mysterious agendas, of course) are what could be in the shadows just beyond certainty.
We want the world to make sense, and we force sense upon it when we don’t find it self-evident. Sometimes the “sense” we force on it seems, well, not very sensible. The more we observe about the quantum world, for example, the weirder it gets, to the extent that most people (me included) don’t grasp what could be — or really is — going on. It’s just too far outside the kinds of everyday experiences we’re familiar with. In the best cases, these things can be tested. An experiment that produces the same outcome for different people in different labs, with elaborate controls to rule out any possible confusion? That’s something we can finally rely on. But in a lot of realms from social sciences to politics, nobody does those experiments. If you look more closely at some of the things that are “known” in those realms, you can find that they’re based on, well, fiction. A world beneath the world that just isn’t — can’t possibly be — a representation of reality. “Economic man,” who always acts rationally and thoughtfully to maximize his own outcomes, doesn’t exist; people just aren’t like that. The countless “explanations” of how people vote, or what policies they will or won’t support? Too often those are just concoctions of a world beneath the world that might be simple and clear, but can’t possibly be true.
Because here’s the thing about the real world beneath the world. It’s not simpler. It’s not clearer. What we observe and experience is a boiled-down, simplified account of what the universe is really like underneath — and it’s not less complex, it’s more so.
There is a world beneath the world. We don’t see it, not because it’s hidden from us, but because it’s so complex we simplify it so we can understand something, or at least feel like we do. We need to understand. To jump to conclusions. But it’s good to remember where that urge comes from. It’s fear. And as Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.”
Tales from the Forest
Magpie was pleased; she’d been perched near the coffee shop at the college when she’d noticed a large chunk of cookie that had been left behind, discarded. Seeing her opening, she swooped in, grabbed the cookie without stopping, and flew away. Nobody had noticed — or if they had, Magpie thought, they must have agreed that it would have been a shame to let the cookie go to waste. Holding the cookie, she few a short distance into the forest and landed on a handy branch.
“What do you have there?” asked Fox, who was sitting under the same tree reading a book.
Magpie put the cookie down carefully on the branch, making sure it wouldn’t fall, then told Fox the whole story.
“Hmmm, just a minute,” said Fox, and looked through the book. “Ah, there it is,” she said. Then she turned back to Magpie and said “you’re looking particularly lovely today, Magpie. You have the shiniest feathers, and your talons look stronger than anything.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Fox?” said Magpie. Fox never talked like that.
Fox glanced back at the book, then said “um, it’s a shame such a beautiful bird can’t also talk. No, wait, that can’t be right. Give me one second, Magpie.” Fox reread the page she had open. Magpie nibbled some cookie.
Fox closed the book with a snap. “This book is no good,” she said, “I’m giving it back to Beaver.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Magpie.
“Beaver loaned me this book,” said Fox. “He said it had stories in it about foxes, and they were full of wisdom. Really clever stuff. So I thought I could learn something. There really are stories about foxes, but these foxes must be from Cousin Dodo’s branch of the family. All I’ve learned is to give the book back.”
“Can I see some of the stories?” asked Magpie. She grabbed her cookie and landed next to Fox. “Here, have half of this cookie, Fox. It’s pretty good.”
“Thanks,” said Fox. “Here, look at the table of contents. The book is full of really short stories, and in lots of them one of the characters is a fox. This is the one I was looking at; it’s about a fox and a crow, and the fox character tries flattering the crow.”
Magpie read through the brief story. “Ha,” she said, “you’re right, those characters are acting silly. The fox wants to steal the crow’s piece of cheese, so he convinces the crow to open his beak and drop it. Crows are a lot smarter than that.”
“So are most of us foxes,” said Fox, taking a nibble of the cookie. “Thanks for the cookie, Magpie; it’s good. Anyway, if you want to get someone to talk, why would you start with all that flattery nonsense? I should think simply saying ‘hello, how are you’ would be a better idea.”
Magpie scanned through a few of the other stories. None of them were even a whole page long. “All the characters are silly,” she said. “What is this book?”
“I dunno,” said Fox. “Beaver seemed to think I’d like it because of the foxes.”
“Hmmm,” said Magpie, “I notice there don’t seem to be any stories about beavers in here. I bet Beaver didn’t even read it — just noticed that foxes are mentioned in the list in the front.”
“I’ll ask him,” said Fox. “I’m taking the book back anyway. Maybe he’ll have a better one I can borrow.”
“I’ll come too,” said Magpie, “this could be interesting.”
Fox and Magpie found Beaver working on his dam. “Beaver,” said Fox, “did you read this book before you loaned it to me?”
“As a matter of fact I didn’t,” said Beaver. “I just looked at the table of contents and noticed all the foxes.”
“None of those foxes are clever,” said Fox. “There really isn’t any wisdom in here, Beaver.”
“Oh,” said Beaver, “sorry, Fox. That writer is supposed to have a lot of smart things to say.”
“I think,” said Magpie, “that they’re only smart things if you’re not very smart yourself.”
“Not only that,” said Fox, “but everybody around you has to be kind of silly too.”
“Let me have a look,” said Beaver. Fox handed over the book, and Beaver opened it to a random page. “I see what you mean,” he said after a moment. “Here’s one about a dog who thinks a reflection in some water is another dog. No real dog would do that; reflections don’t have a scent. I’ll put the writer on my list of dodos.”
“Who IS the writer?” asked Magpie. “Maybe I’ve heard the name over at the college.”
“It’s a weird name,” said Beaver. “It’s either ‘ee-sop’ or ‘ay-sop’; it’s spelled so you can’t be sure.”
“I’ll listen out for both of them,” said Magpie.
“In the meantime,” said Beaver, “I’ll just put this book in my ‘no good’ pile. Do you want to borrow a different one, Fox?”
“Sure,” said Fox. “I don’t mind if it has foxes in it, as long as they’re smart foxes.”
“Come on in,” said Beaver, “and we’ll have a look in my library.”
“I’m heading over to the college,” said Magpie, “Maybe I’ll hear about more writers, or maybe I’ll find another cookie. Either way, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks again for the cookie,” said Fox as Magpie flapped away.
There is a certain point of view represented in picture postcards. This scene from Vernonnet, France, is carefully framed, well lit, reasonably well composed, and has a lovely color gamut. But there’s something shallow about it. It’s not really a picture postcard; I made the image myself (iPhone), and I was trying for a “postcard” sort of image. I think I managed it, but I’m left unmoved by the result. I’m not entirely sure why. I will never understand photography.
Word of the Day
In 1593 Gabriel Harvey wrote a piece called Pierce’s Supererogation, or a New Praise of the Old Ass. It was basically an extended insult of a fellow named Thomas Nashe, and in part he refers to him as “...a dodkin author, whose two swords are like the horns of a hodmandod...”. In this he was evoking the subject of an ancient English riddle:
“Though not a cow I have horns;
Though not an ass I carry a pack-saddle;
And wherever I go I leave silver behind me.”
Likewise, in 1654 John Webster wrote Applus and Virginia in which he said “I am an Ant, a Gnat, a worm..a Hodmondod amongst flies.” Other contemporary writers also used “hoddy-doddy” and “hodman-did” to mean the same thing.
Etymology is no help here; nobody knows where “hodmandod” came from. It might be related to “dod”, but that’s just as obsolete as the first word, and its origin is also a complete mystery. It was probably a word from a local dialect that became more widely used a few centuries ago. And actually it’s not completely obsolete. Although it hasn’t been in widespread use since the 1800s, reportedly it can still be heard in at least on dialect around Norfolk, England.
There’s a similar-sounding word that used to be confused with hodmandod: “dudman”. But they’re not at all related; a “dudman” was a scarecrow — “duds” is fading out, but is still an obscure term for clothing. Because you’d only use your old, ragged clothing for a scarecrow, “duds” came to mean tattered, useless clothes, and that’s where the figurative sense of “dud” came from: something that’s of no use or does not work.
But back to hodmandod. If you haven’t guessed at this point — and the riddle is really the only decent clue; there’s nothing in the sound or derivation of “hodmandod” to suggest its meaning — a “hodmandod” is a snail.