Saturday 7 November 2021: Running, Listening, Thinking, Understanding
Trapped under the ice, blinding white above, deep, endless, frozen dark beneath, struggling ever more weakly, knowing he is about to die, terrifed…
Understanding by Ted Chiang on BBC Sounds.
Leon finally emerges from his deep coma and the nightmares caused by the accident that almost killed him in hopsital. He’s been given a test treatment, Syndrome K. As he takes more of the drug, an unexpected side effect emerges: the startling increase in his intelligence.
Not particularly academic at school, Leon notices with astonishment how K opens up his mind and his perception. The drug makes Leon first notice and then begin to understand strange patterns, the interconnectedness of art, music, science, everything that surrounds us.
But the drug soon starts to take over and Leon becomes increasingly enmeshed inside his own consciousness, turning ever more inward while his brain searches restlessly for the ultimate Gestalt, the pattern that underpins the entire universe.
Award-winning US writer Ted Chiang’s sci-fi thriller was published in 1991 and explores with rich lyrical density, what it is like to become ever more self-aware. The sad irony: the more self aware and hyper intelligent Leon becomes, the more he’s becoming locked inside his own head, separated from the rest of humanity while seeing how connected we all are, the strands of energy that vibrate between person to person.
‘Benevolence’ muses Leon, ‘being able to bestow generosity on other people. How many emotions are required by the presence of another person….’
Leon creates his own language from all the languages of the world so he can express the inexpressible. He writes a poem ‘which is like combining Finnegan’s Wake and Pound’s Cantos…’
Ted Chang’s book is packed with rich descriptions: Leon’s search for the ultimate Gestalt and the struggle to describe what lies beyond the capabilities of human language – yet still having to use language to describe what lies beyond words and most mere mortals’ comprehension.
Gestallt – the patterns and the systems that underpin us, climb inside and understand the secret machinations of the universe…
After his third dose of K, Leon watches his mind watching itself working itself out, each time creating chemical reactions and interconnections. Leon’s watching himself watching himself fall into ever deeper understanding but the more understanding, the less that is understood as the universe expands out in a giant fractal. Soon, he’s using more of his brain than any other human in existence but his mind is getting too big for his brain, a mere piece of organic matter, to contain.
‘ Exploring the nature of reality and existence – that life is an illusion, that life is just a dream – that the true reality is just out of reach. That to be biologically concious means we can never get to ultimate reality – our thoughts, our emotions, our attachments constantly getting in the way.’
Patterns everywhere. Life ending and beginning across the globe one second at a time. The condition inexorably changing as time moves constantly forwards one moment to the next. Steam rises from the subway, smoke curls up from the bonfire, the child laughs, the clouds chase each other across the sky.
Plane trails, leaves falling, people walking. The exhalation of my breath running on a cold Autumnal day.
The universe: zero point, one giant fractal. Half into half into half and back out again.
Further Thoughts and Reading
There was a definite mind expanding, examining theme to this weekend. The trailer at the end of Episode 3 was for The Haunting of Alma Field.
I discovered Gestalt Therapy – developed in the 1930s by Fritz Perls in Berlin: https://gestaltcentre.org.uk/what-is-gestalt/
And then explored the infinite expanding and contracting beauty of fractals: