The Falls

Part of a recent series of paintings based on the work of American scholar of the weird Charles Fort (b.1874, d.1932).

The inspiration (and source of the accompanying text) is Fort’s Book of the Damned (1919), a massive tome that consists largely of hundreds upon hundreds of accounts of strange objects and substances falling from the sky, obsessively gathered from centuries worth of almanacs, scientific journals, and eyewitness accounts, and interspersed with flagrantly bizarre stabs at explanation (at one point, he proposes the existence of an antigravitational atmospheric zone- the “super-sargasso sea”- where lost objects end up and are occasionally dislodged by errant wind currents).  These explanations are, I suspect, tongue-in-cheek, intended not so much to provide a believable theory to account for these events as to show what such a theory would have to look like.

The paintings are oil on wood, ranging from 24×18″ to 10×8″ in size.  Ultimately, for each painting, the corresponding text will be printed on a separate panel, matching the width of the painting and displayed directly below it.  Better images to come.

The Falls: silk
The Falls: silk

“…there is mention of a fibrous substance like blue silk that fell over Naumberg, March 23, 1665”


The Falls: flakes
The Falls: flakes

“Upon March 3, 1876, at Olympian Springs, Bath County, Kentucky, flakes of a substance that looked like beef fell from the sky- ‘from a clear sky’.”


The Falls: paper
The Falls: paper

“Substance like charred paper fell in Norway and other parts of Northern Europe, Jan. 31, 1686”


The Falls: worms
The Falls: worms

“London Times, April 14, 1837:  That, in the parish of Bramford Speke, Devonshire, a large number of black worms, about three quarters of an inch in length, had fallen in a snowstorm.”


The Falls: disk
The Falls: disk

“A disk of worked stone fell from the sky, at Tarbes, France, June 20, 1887.”

In Defense of Absurd Cosmologies, part III, or: conclusions drawn from several centuries of odd things falling from the sky

“I suppose that one of our main motives is to show that there is… nothing but the preposterous- or something intermediate to absolute preposterousness and final reasonableness- that the new is the obviously preposterous; that it becomes the established and disguisedly preposterous; that it is displaced, after a while, and is again seen to be preposterous.”

Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned

(italics added)

Light and Faster Things

Wednesday evening, scientists at CERN announced that they had observed a neutrino breaking the speed of light- not by tricky means such as bending spacetime or quantum teleportation, but the old-fashioned way- by going very, very fast.

The significance of this announcement cannot be overstated.  Since Einstein, the speed of light has been a defining concept in cosmology, setting the boundary for everything from the expansion of the Universe and the exchange of information therein, to the relationship between matter and energy.  The speed of light was more than an arbitrary boundary- it was a fundamental quality of the universe.  If the CERN reserchers’ observation is accurate, it challenges all of this.  A massive crack would open in our understanding of the Universe, a true scientific revolution would ensue.

A question arises: will we get it right this time?  This question is neither silly nor presumptuous; the pursuit of science (and cosmology in particular) has been predicated on the idea that a complete and accurate model of the cosmos is waiting for us out there in the abyss of undiscovered principles, and that one day we will find it.  And yet, this assumption is hardly a given.  Imagine this claim with any other species in our place.  Imagine that someone proposed that a complete scientific understanding of the universe was attainable by an amoeba, or a lemur, or a flamingo.  Humans, however, are supposed to be different.

It is an oft-told tale that the scientific quest of the past millennium has progressively stripped humanity of its privileged place in the universe- first by removing the Earth from the center of the cosmos, then by redefining the human species as only an animal among many.  But for all this, the ancient (though by no means universal) doctrine of anthropic exceptionalism remains an unspoken assumption within science.  Indeed, it is the fundamental article of faith upon which the entire scientific enterprise is based- that the Universe is intelligible, and specifically, that it is intelligible to us.  We glorified chimpanzees, with brains evolved to locate edible roots and defend our tribes from sabretooth tigers, are expected to use these same brains to analyze the contents of stars.

The converse assumption is that our minds are wired for survival rather than truth.  If this is the case, then it may well be that the rich pageantry of supernovae and DNA, quantum uncertainty and thermodynamics, may just be a fiction fabricated by our simian survival instincts.  Indeed, such a position would cast all of our ideas, no matter how self-evident, into doubt, all the way down to causality and basic arithmetic.

There is something both humbling and exhilarating in this idea, but there is no reason to let it restrict the scope of the universe that we’ve (perhaps) come to know.  We can and must act as though we can understand the world.  We must act thus, even with the knowledge that that it may be an evolutionarily useful lie.  Because even if the cosmologies that spring from it are myths, they are myths of an unprecedented type- myths that carry within them the seeds of their own destruction, myths that can be disproved but never proved, and yet continue to spring, one after another, growing to the size of the Universe before being shattered by an impossibly fast neutrino, to be rebuilt again.

In Defense of Absurd Cosmologies

Animism- the idea that every entity, even inanimate ones such as stones and buildings, has a soul (or to use less weighted language, a mind) – is about as unfashionable is at gets.  It is hardly ever brought into discussion outside of new age circles, and when it is, it is usually referenced as a humorous reductio ad absurdum to some other idea.  Indeed, the very word “inanimate” seems to function within our language as a built-in rejection of animism.

It has been traditional to attribute animism to the supposed infantile tendency to view all entities/phenomena as possessing minds comparable to one’s own, a tendency that is gradually outgrown as one’s perceptual faculties mature.  What arises from this view is a sort of theological hierarchy, with each successive stage corresponding to ever higher levels of cognitive development: animism -> polytheism-> monotheism-> atheism (this last step may be skipped depending on which state you live in).  Modern-day anthropology has mostly shed this narrative, but it lingers in the background of popular understandings of cultural development.

The biological analogue to this model is the now-discredited idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny- basically, that the historical development of forms mirrors the development of individual beings.  So, in its maturation, the human body passes through phases mirroring the evolution of the human species.  The only real defense of this model lies in the fact that human embryos possess gills and a tail- never mind that human children never pass through phases wherein they resemble lizards or lemurs.  Regardless, there is a sort of superficial elegance to this model, and it was very much in vogue about a hundred years ago.

Applied to the development of cultural forms, this idea dives into even more dangerous waters.  We are, after all, not just talking about a sequence of extinct ideas that ultimately gave rise to our current models.  Animism, polytheism, monotheism, and atheism (as well as any number of less easily-categorized models) all persist to this day.  To prefer any one of these as the inevitable evolutionary endpoint depends upon a fairly obvious ethnocentric assumption.  It goes without saying that one’s own culture would possess the most advanced understanding, and other cultures would be viewed as more or less primitive (“infantile”) in proportion to their similarity thereto.

I mention all of this here because what is at issue is ultimately an aesthetic conflict.  There is of course absolutely no rational or empirical defense for animism, and as a model it has no explanatory or predictive power.  It is not so much a means of understanding the world as encountering it.  Just as we would perceive other humans differently if we believed them to be mindless automatons, so do animism and related models offer the potential for a radically divergent experience of the world at large.  This alone makes them worth engaging with on their own terms, and not to be rejected solely on the basis of their presumed absurdity.