The Weird and the Real

"The weird reminds us that reality is unimaginable."

Maybe you know that the English word apocalypse comes from Greek apokaluptein, to uncover. The uncovering described by apokaluptein can be concrete and literal; it’s something you might do to a dish of food. In fact the word occurs in Book 1 of Herodotus’ Histories in precisely this context: Harpagos has been invited to feast with the king, having disobeyed him in an important matter, but having apparently been vindicated and forgiven. The feast, the king says, is to thank the gods that everything has turned out in the end. But we soon learn that Harpagos has not really been forgiven. The meat served to him at the feast is the flesh of his own son, whom the king has slaughtered and cooked — “roasted some parts and stewed others”; and when Harpagos, unknowing, has eaten well and has said that he enjoys this food, the king, having ordered the dish brought that contains the boy’s head and hands and feet, invites Harpagos to uncover the meat and help himself. The word used to describe Harpagos’s uncovering of the dish bearing his son’s remains is apokaluptein.

When I first read the passage (I’ve been studying Greek) the word gave me a shiver, which I recognized as the shiver of the weird. Its double meaning is, as far as I know, accidental and innocent; Herodotus merely meant that Harpagos uncovered the dish. But language has been complicating and ramifying and folding in on itself for the last 2,500 years, like the gray matter of the brain, and apocalypse means to us something different from what apokaluptein meant to Herodotus. The word, that word in that context, made me feel haunted. And the source of the feeling, the thing that gave me that shiver, was not the grisly scene itself, or even the way the resonance of the scene was amplified by this serendipity in the language, but rather the sudden awareness I had of language itself — language as a coherent and continuous thing, stretching across time and space to connect Herodotus and me, and suddenly, in this slight intrusion or glitch, visible.

What about the idea that language is the thing that’s really alive, and we humans are just its carriers, the dumb neurons of a distributed intelligence two million years old? That’s a weird idea. Weird because it points to something frankly unimaginable — the vastness of language and the nature of our interface with it — but at the same time clearly true. Language really is that vast, really is that mind-boggling, and if we don’t think about that more often then it’s because we can’t. We aren’t equipped. And when occasionally we get reminded by a stray word, we feel the shiver of the weird.

I’ve been talking here about the weird as I found it in nature, the emergent weird if you like, but the literary weird often works in the same way. Lovecraft works in the same way: we can’t imagine the scale of his cosmos, can’t imagine its geometry, can’t imagine its sheer alienness; he can communicate only the barest sliver of it. But when we’re honest with ourselves we admit that that’s what the cosmos really is: not the humanist projections of conventional genre fiction, but alien, unimaginable. The weird reminds us that reality is unimaginable.

Not always on such a vast scale. We humans don’t live long; most of our history is all but unimaginable to us, as is any dramatically different future. We can pretend to imagine the future, but for the most part we’re just imagining the present with different furniture, or the way we thought things were when we were teenagers. Actual big change is something different, and harder.

Back to words for a moment. On the afternoon of November 2 of this year I happened to be walking through downtown Oakland. It was the day of the general strike; you might have heard of it in the news. I knew that the strike was on, but I didn’t know what that meant. The last general strike in the United States had been in 1946, people Twittered. What would happen today? And afterwards? I crossed the street and passed in front of Whole Foods, which was darkened, and across the windows of which, in white letters ten feet high, had been spray-painted “STRIKE”. That’s it, I thought. That’s what it means today, or rather a small part of what it means — a shred of the unimaginable. I felt, again, that shiver. Heard strains of some future that I still couldn’t envision and didn’t understand, but that was not for that reason any less real. The word on the windows told me that something unimaginable was hovering at the edge of reality.

When I went back later, it was gone.

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Brian Conn is the author of The Fixed Stars (FC2, 2010) and co-editor of Birkensnake, a literary journal.