Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley

Source of book: I own this.


The internet in general, and social media in particular have, like most technology, been treated with suspicion and unfairly blamed for social ills, particularly by the older generations who often fail to understand or utilize them in a responsible manner. (See: Boomers and Russian Bots spreading propaganda and fake news.) Any technology has its downsides, of course, as well as its upsides. That said, every new technology has been greeted with pearl clutching and misuse by those who didn’t grow up with it; and within a few generations it is taken for granted. 


All this to mention that, while social media has unfortunately ruined my opinion of a number of people I grew up with (particularly of my religious tradition) as it has encouraged and facilitated their airing of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic beliefs and even outright hate; it also has enabled me to reconnect with people separated by geography. And, unexpectedly, it has led to a number of long distance friendships that have been beneficial to my well-being in many ways. Particularly during a time when Covid makes in-person contact risky. 


One of the friends I met - through a series of reconnections and mutual conversation on friends’ posts, is J.M., who shares a love of poetry, philosophy, and music. He often shares quotes from books he is reading, one of which was Loren Eiseley. Although I love science and science writing, I had somehow missed Eiseley, so this discovery was like that of buried treasure that you find while digging post holes. 

 Loren Eiseley was an anthropologist and educator, with a background in paleontology. It was his writing, however, that brought him fame. He has been compared to Thoreau, which is a good place to start. They do indeed share the same combination of scientific interest, love of the natural world, and the ability to think and write poetically. However, while Thoreau holed up at Walden, Eiseley’s formative experience was more itinerant. While studying at the University of Nebraska, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and took a multi-year sabbatical to try and regain his health. During this time, he lived much like a hobo, jumping trains, travelling the western United States, and exploring his identity. 


He would later return to school, eventually earning his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937. He got a job teaching, and continued his scientific work. It was in the 1940s, however, that he started writing, and the works he would write over the next thirty years that established his reputation. 


It isn’t easy to describe the essays in The Unexpected Universe, because I haven’t really read anything quite like them. They are not lectures on science, although science is certainly in the background. They are a mix of personal stories, historical and literary references, musings on the nature of the universe and man, philosophy, all written in a poetic style. They are a glimpse into a fascinating mind, one that has thought long and deeply about the implications of a vast and ancient universe, and man’s insignificant yet meaningful place in it, as a being that can contemplate its own existence. 


Eiseley was not religious in the sense we think of it. But he was clearly deeply spiritual, filled with wonder at the universe, and connected to a sense of the holy. One might call him a mystic, I suppose, in the best sense. Richard Wentz, in an article for Christian Century back in the 1980s, explored the spiritual dimension of Eiseley’s writing. Wentz makes a perceptive comment on the problem of how we categorize religion:


“We do not really know what to do with religiousness when it expresses itself outside those enclosures which historians and social scientists have carefully labeled religions.” 


In that sense - and in others - I found Eiseley to be a kindred spirit, one who doesn’t fit into the boxes that organized religion uses to control people, whose mind is not for rent to god or government, as Rush put it. Eiseley himself made an interesting comment on his life:


“I am treading deeper and deeper into leaves and silence. I see more faces watching, non-human faces. Ironically, I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage.”


That resonates very much with me these days. 


The Unexpected Universe was written in 1969, and has (to borrow from Auden) the theme of mankind as the “Quest Hero, the wanderer, the voyager, the seeker after adventure, knowledge, power, meaning, and righteousness.” The essays are about journeys, from the epic, like those of Darwin and Cook, to the small walks Eiseley himself takes. Usually, a given essay is broken into several parts, seemingly unrelated until he draws them together in a grand shift in perspective. The visceral experience of reading them was incredible - I could really only handle one at a time, because they required thought afterward. And during. 


It is impossible to truly capture the experience, but I did take a number of notes about quotable sections. Here are a few to give a flavor, starting with parts of the opening paragraphs of the first essay, “The Ghost Continent.” 


Every man contains within himself a ghost continent, a place circled as warily as Antarctica was circled two hundred years ago by Captain James Cook. If, in addition, the man is a scientist, he will see strange shapes amidst his inferior ice floes and be fearful of exposing to the ridicule of his fellows what he has seen....

Like Odysseus, man seeks his spiritual home and is denied it; along his path the shape-shifting immortal monsters of his earlier wanderings assume more sophisticated guises, but they survive because man himself remains and man has called them forth. 


Throughout the essay, the idea of that ghost continent within humankind, where our fears and hopes and monsters reside, intertwines with Odysseus’ quest and Cook’s voyages. Eiseley notes that the magic of the quest stays with us, but the destination itself is unsatisfying. 


Odysseus’ goal is home, but after the adventures on the mysterious sea where Proteus can be found basking on a rock among his creatures, the suitors and their puerile human rapacity are singularly unattractive. Odysseus himself loses stature when he is reduced to lynching helpless if inobedient women servants. Something vanishes from the tale at this point, no matter how necessary it was for Homer to complete the Odyssean voyage. 


Margaret Atwood made the same observation about Odysseus and the servants. 


In the title essay, Eiseley explores what he refers to as a “heresy,” the idea that certainty isn’t even possible from our human reference, that there is something that will always remain incomprehensible to us, because we cannot even conceive of it. I wish I could quote the entire thing, but this line stood out:


It is here that the predictability ceases and the unimaginable begins - or, as a final heretical suspicion, we might ask ourselves whether our own little planetary fragment of the cosmos has all along concealed a mocking refusal to comply totally with human conceptions of order and secure prediction. 


I think Eiseley is on to something. In my experience, both science and organized religion have a tendency - a human desire perhaps - to find neat boxes to explain things, and do not always deal well with the unexpected. Eiseley is looking in the direction of science here, and opines that there is an underlying reality that we humans cannot truly comprehend. This parallels my experience of religion, where the unexpected, the transcendent, the unknowable has been squeezed out of it in favor of doctrinal certainty and political violence against heretics. Eiseley goes on and looks at the evolution of human attempts to categorize and control, beginning with our first consciousness. 


No longer, as with the animal, can the world be accepted as given. It has to be perceived and consciously thought about, abstracted, and considered. The moment one does so, one is outside of the natural; objects are each one surrounded by an aura radiating meaning to man alone. To a universe already suspected of being woven together by unseen forces, man brings the organizing power of primitive magic...Crude and imperfect, magic is still man’s first conscious abstraction from nature, his first attempt to link disparate objects by some unseen attraction between them. 

From there, the essay looks at the evolution of human culture as a natural result of our brains. 


With the rise of Homo sapiens and the final perfection of the human brain as a manipulator of symbolic thought, the spectrum of man’s possible social behavior has widened enormously. What is essentially the same brain biologically can continue to exist in the simple ecological balance of the Stone Age or, on the other hand, may produce those enormous inflorescences known as civilizations. 

In the domain of culture, man’s augmented ability to manipulate abstract ideas and to draw in this fashion enormous latent stores of energy from his brain has led to an intriguing situation: the range of his possible behavior is greater and more contradictory than that which can be contained within the compass of a single society, whether tribal or advanced. Thus, as man’s penetration into the metaphysical and abstract has succeeded, so has his capacity to follow, in the same physical body, a series of tangential roads into the future. Likeness in body has, paradoxically, led to diversity in thought. Thought, in turn, involves such vast institutional involutions as the rise of modern science, with its intensified hold upon modern society. 


I also loved this paragraph later in the same essay, which may be my favorite of the bunch. 


Einstein is reputed to have once remarked that he refused to believe that God plays at dice with the universe. But as we survey the long backward course of history, it would appear that in the phenomenal world the open-endedness of time is unexpectedly an essential element of His creation. Whenever an infant is born, the dice, in the shape of genes and enzymes and the intangibles of chance environment, are being rolled again, as when that smoky figure from the fire hissed in my ear the tragedy of the cast-off infants of the city. Each one of us is a statistical impossibility around which hover a million other lives that were never destined to be born - but who, nevertheless, are being unmanifest, a lurking potential in the dark storehouse of the void. 


Within the same essay, Eiseley recounts a strange incident in his own life, which he finds to be a metaphor for the unexpected and unfathomable mystery of the universe. 


Recently, I passed a cemetery in a particularly bleak countryside. Adjoining the multitude of stark upthrust gray stones was an incongruous row of six transparent telephone booths erected in that spot for reasons best known to the communications industry. Were they placed there for the midnight convenience of the dead. Or for the midday visitors who might attempt speech with the silent people beyond the fence? It was difficult to determine, but I thought the episode suggestive of our dilemma.  


The ending too is powerful. 


“It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped,” Emerson had noted in his journal, “the discover that we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly.” Wisdom interfused with compassion should be the consequence of that discovery, for at the same moment one aspect of the unexpected universe will have been genuinely revealed. It lies deep-hidden in the human heart, and not at the peripheries of space. Both the light we seek and the shadows we fear are projected from within. It is through ourselves that the organic procession pauses, hesitates, or renews its journey. “We have learned to ask terrible questions,” exclaimed that same thinker in the dawn of Victorian science. Perhaps it is just for this that the Unseen Player in the void has rolled his equally terrible dice. Out of the self-knowledge gained by putting dreadful questions man achieves his final dignity. 


I particularly love his assertion that our discovery of our inability to perceive and comprehend should lead us to act with wisdom and compassion. All too often, we respond instead with folly and hate, asserting we (and we alone) have certainty and the truth. But we are just whistling past the graveyard. 


As I said, this is probably my favorite of the essays - but they are all good. Such as “The Hidden Teacher,” about the way we learn things unexpectedly, without a formal “teacher.” He starts with a story about encountering a spider in her web. He touched the web with his pencil and watched her respond, trying to figure out what was happening. 


A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best, raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.


This relates back to the previous essay, and our own inability to understand outside our own universe, so to speak. Here is another pertinent quote, from the next essay, “The Star Thrower.” 


There is a difference in our human outlook, depending on whether we have been born upon level plains, where one step reasonably leads to another, or whether, by contrast, we have spent our lives amidst glacial crevasses and precipitous descents. 


The essay as a whole looks at the development of early man, but not in the sense of “here is what happened,” but rather “here is what this meant emotionally and functionally to self-aware beings.” Once we could see beyond the immediate, and conceive of a future beyond tomorrow, things got scary. 


Here tools increasingly revenged themselves upon their creators and tomorrow became unmanageable. Man had come in his journeying to a region of terrible freedoms. 


Or how about this one, which is pure - and terrifying - poetry. 


Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits, like the demoniacal stirrings of the ooze from which he sprang, a tale of desolations. He walks in his mind from birth to death the long resounding shores of endless disillusionment. Finally, the commitment to life departs or turns to bitterness. But out of such desolation emerges the awesome freedom to choose - to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle in the role of titans. They contend for the destiny of the world. 


That’s what it sounds like when a scientist-poet writes about existentialism. This philosophy contends with other viewpoints throughout the collection, particularly in the intersection between the metaphor of the Fall of Man and our awakening to knowledge of our own existence and choice. Honestly, one of the most freeing results of my own spiritual journey over the last decade or more has been discovering that the literalist view of Genesis is mostly an anomaly within greater Christianity (and Judaism too!), and that there is a rich history of a much deeper and meaningful metaphorical understanding of the text. Ironically, an evolutionary understanding of human origins actually meshes well with the stories about creation, the Fall, and the Cain and Abel narrative. Seeing all of them as a symbolic memory of our gradual awakening to self-awareness, and thus moral responsibility (aka, the knowledge of good and evil), followed by the shifts from hunter-gatherer to herdsman to farmer. Eiseley writes so well about this. 


For man did fall; even to an unbeliever and an evolutionist like Darwin. Man fell from the grace of instinct into a confused and troubled cultural realm beyond nature, much as in the old theology man fell from a state of innocence into carnal knowledge. 


In “The Invisible Island,” Eiseley explores the idea that mankind is its own “island,” in the sense that the Galapagos was to Darwin. We have, by our nature - our brains - isolated ourselves and developed into strange forms, so to speak. 


It is a somber reflection upon human nature that so much has been written about the triumph of the fittest and so little about the survival of the failures who have changed, if not deranged, the world. 


Eiseley recounts the incident when he was attending a lecture, and a deer mouse perched in an empty seat. He mentioned in his own lecture that the mouse seemed more engaged than some of his students. After being chided by a young woman for his anthropomorphism, he mentioned that humans too came through a chink, so to speak, and it took generations for us to be able to understand lectures. Why not the mouse too?  Eiseley also points out that natural selection gets all the press, but it is only one factor in evolution, and tends to suppress rather than create variation in many cases. (Random variation and mutation tend to get less press, despite being increasingly obvious in our observed world.) 


Struggle, of and by itself, does little but sharpen what exists to a superior efficiency. True, it plays an important role in evolution, but it is not necessarily the only or even the primary, factor in the rare emergence of the completely novel. It must always be remembered that natural selection is one of those convenient magical phrases that can embrace both dramatic change and stultifying biological conservatism. 


The development of our brains both put mankind on an island biologically and permitted him to go beyond it. 


Man was no longer confined, like the animal, to what lay before his eyes or his own immediate attention. He could juxtapose, divide, and rearrange his world mentally. Upon the wilderness of the real, men came to project a phantom domain, the world of culture. 


And, eventually, we experienced what Eiseley described earlier as the Fall. 


The precarious thread that bound man to the living whole finally snapped. He had passed irrevocably into another dimension. His predicament is recognized in the myths of the Tree and of Pandora’s box. He had learned to distinguish good from evil. Moreover, his capacity for evil increased as he discovered that the tiny sounds could be made to lie. This was an island within an island. It separated people into many islands.


“The Inner Galaxy” is filled with personal stories, from an ill-fated attempt as a student to access an observatory to a trip and fall that rattled his brain. There is a wonderful passage in the aftermath of the accident that really grabbed my attention. 


Century after century, humanity studies itself in the mirror of fashion, and ever the mirror gives back distortions, which for the moment impose themselves on man’s real image. In one period we believe ourselves governed by immutable laws; in the next, by chance. In one period angels hover over our birth; in the following time we are planetary waifs, the product of a meaningless and ever altering chemistry. We exchange halos in one era for fangs in another. Our religious and philosophical conceptions change so rapidly that the theological and moral exhortations of one decade become the wastepaper of the next epoch. The ideas for which millions yielded up their lives produce only bored yawns in a later generation. 


This is why the study of history - and the close study of religion - are death to the idea that our particular doctrinal obsessions are the One True Faith™ - or that any era “got it right.” Culture and religion always interact; and our current religions moment (which looks increasingly like theofascism), is as much a product of our time, with its legacy of racism and misogyny coming home to roost in various ways, is no different. Eiseley describes his era as a “period of social violence” in which our “inner eye...grows clouded with anxiety.” But Eiseley is also optimistic that we can do better: we are not governed by determinism, in his view, but can pursue the better angels of our nature


Few of us can be saints; few of us are total monsters. To the degree that we let others project upon us erroneous or unbalanced conceptions of our natures, we may unconsciously reshape our own image to less pleasing forms. It is one thing to be “realistic,” as many are fond of saying, about human nature. It is another thing entirely to let that consideration set limits to our spiritual aspirations or to precipitate us into cynicism and despair. We are protean in many things, and stand between extremes. 


This post is getting too long already, and I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant description of fog at the seashore and a fox in “The Innocent Fox,” or the equally haunting images in “The Angry Winter.” There are just too many great lines in here. I will end with an image from the very end of the collection, that of life - and humankind - as consisting at its root of the careful “hoarding and burning” of energy. 


I have spoken figuratively of fire as an animal, as being perhaps the very essence of animal. Oxidation, I mean, as it enters into life and consciousness...What if now it is only concealed and grown slyly conscious of its own burning in this little house of sticks and clay that I inhabit? What if I am, in some way, only a sophisticated fire that has acquired an ability to regulate its rate of combustion and to hoard its fuel in order to see and walk? 


It is this kind of language and thought that made the book such a delight. 


I should briefly mention one awkward note, and that is the liberal use of “primitive” and “savage.” Eiseley is of his time, and uses the words in the sense scientists of his era did. They sound condescending to less technologically advanced societies to our more modern ears, which is unfair to Eiseley’s intent. Throughout the book, he makes it clear that “primitive” societies of the past, and “savage” civilizations around the globe are not really different from “modern” man. For an old white guy writing in the 1960s, he is progressive on racial issues, and globalist in his outlook. In fact, more than anything, he works to draw the connections between humans and their ancestors, both the stone age humans, and the hominoids that came before. As with many worthy authors of the past, you have to take them as they were in their time, and evaluate them not in light of what we now wish they were, but as to whether they were moving in the right direction. As Eiseley himself noted, human self-awareness cannot be separated from its time. Eiseley doesn’t sound like a 21st Century progressive, and he has his blind spots, but he is moving in the right direction. 


I am looking forward to reading the other works in this collection, and maybe getting the second volume as well. 



Peter Enns did a wonderful podcast on many of the same themes. 




This year has been good for reading poetic nature writers. For example:


My First Summer in the Sierras by John Muir

Home Economics by Wendell Berry

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