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"I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past."

— Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

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Monday, August 23rd, 2004

I had allotted time last night to draw images for PaaT, but I used it in rereading Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. (Hence the changing of the quote at left, which is also significant in another way I'll get to below.) I'm determined to be honest on this site; whether I succeed or fail to produce, it will be recorded here.

One theme in Lem's classic novel is humanity's reaction to an essentially unsolvable mystery: optimistic enthusiam, which when unrewarded gives way to wild speculation, which when unfruitful settles into petulant dogmatism grim resignation or impotent rage. I've mentioned before that an extraterrestrial being may well be so different from humans that there would be no way for one to understand or communicate with the other. Lem's stories embrace this concept with crushing honesty; only in his humorous works do extraterrestrial beings appear as companions or foils to humans. In his serious work, there are fundamental and insurmountable barriers to humans interacting with or understanding aliens. (Which, by definition of the word 'alien,' is as it should be; if we understood something it would not be 'alien' any longer. But I don't want to make the error of using a word's definition to set limits on reality.)

This frustration of blunted understanding points to another theme - that when humanity sets forth to seek the mysterious, more often than not it's searching in a mirror. We want solvable mysteries; nothing to a human is more offensive or horrifying than an enigma with no answer,1 particularly when such enigmas seem to lie at the heart of our existence. Small surprise that when confronted with the grand mysteries of life, most people prefer to make up an easy answer, rather than leave a void in their understanding. Faced with the truly alien and incomprehensible, we insist on painting it with human motives. Remaining objective and unblindered in such situations is the goal of science, but this can be undermined even by the honest, for they may be too close to their own biases to even recognize them as such.

The new sidebar quote seemed particularly appropriate to my situation (at least as I perceived it, distorted within my own mirror). I know very little about the space I'm exploring; proceeding by intuition, I am surely remasticating grass that has already been thoroughly chewed. Is there any value to such an approach? I can think of two - first, that one might even now by a fresh approach come up with an angle that no one has yet mentioned, and second that my efforts might serve as an amusement to the experienced and a set of guideposts to the beginners, the experts being too busy with other projects to cover things in such detail. So on I work, waiting for the light, hoping that growth in insight and skill still lies ahead of me.

1 When I was a boy, I borrowed a book of middle eastern riddles from the school library. One of the riddles was a long paragraph of impossible and gruesome happenings, and I strove to make sense of it. When I turned to the back of the book for the answer, it said: There is no answer. This terrified me to my core, and I still feel the effects of it today.

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