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Don’t Panic

BY Gabrielle Basha October 23, 2022

“Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula. Image taken by the James Webb Telescope 2022. RELEASE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Public Domain.

“I like the cover,” he said. “Don’t Panic. It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”
Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics was just awarded to three physicists (Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger) who worked independently over decades to reach a breakthrough in understanding quantum entanglement. If you are not a physicist (and I really can’t express emphatically enough how much I myself am not a physicist), the extremely simplified gist of their discovery is this: Two separate particles can act identically, even when they’re extremely far apart—disproving what Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” We’re just not sure how they do it, why they do it, what it means, or how it might be useful.

In an interview with the American Institute of Physics following the announcement of his win, Dr. Clauser said, “I confess even to this day that I still don’t understand quantum mechanics, and I’m not even sure I really know how to use it all that well. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that I still don’t understand it.”

There’s something about a Nobel Prize-winning physicist saying “I don’t understand” that makes my heart skip: with joy for the curiosity and humility necessary for such perception-altering discoveries, and with deep unease, because the sum of human knowledge is the flicker of a matchstick in a cold, perhaps infinite, darkness. 

But we humans, being clever little creatures, have a remedy for the terror of the unknown: stories. In Joseph Campbell’s collection of essays Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, he offers a reason as to why myth is comforting: 

Myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. It gives us a map or picture of the universe and allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature, as when we speak of Father Sky and Mother Earth. It supports and validates a certain social and moral order. The Ten Commandments being given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai is an example of this. Lastly, it helps us pass through and deal with the various stages of life from birth to death.

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Thou Art That 1st edition cover
Thou Art That 1st edition cover

Story—myth, metaphor—isn’t about telling a happier story to make us forget our fear, but about putting our fear in greater context. It’s a comfort to know we’re connected to those who came before, and those who will be here when we’re gone. It isn’t about solving, but being at peace with the unsolved. 

Myth is often misused, though, by being taken literally. Campbell cautions, “One way to deprive yourself of a religious experience is indeed to expect it. Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience.” [12]

Science fiction author and humorist Douglas Adams identified himself as a “radical atheist,” and dedicated the non-writing portion of his life to environmentalism. Adams is best known for his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the many stories he wrote before his untimely death at age 49 are an ode to the absurdity of “life, the universe, and everything.” He remains, to me, the perfect example of someone who was deeply curious yet cheerfully embraced the unknown. He saw that life is finite, and yet dedicated so much of his own to the celebration and preservation of our shared home—including its many mysteries.

A posthumous collection of Adams’s essays called The Salmon of Doubt includes his gleeful summary of the situation: “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”

Campbell expands on this idea of transcendence in Thou Art That’s penultimate chapter, Question Period (which is our gift this month, so you can download it for free until the end of October). He has a few ideas on how someone might be able to understand transcendence—to be clear, not that which transcends, since that is by definition ineffable, but the concept of transcendence. “For a start, I would say, study poetry. Learn how to read a poem.” [92] 

Making our way through a brief existence within a long eternity is, at baseline, absurd. Three physicists who worked independently, passing research forward from one to the next over decades to reach a Nobel Prize, still have more questions than answers. Humanity’s knowledge of our existence is incremental this way. Looking at the whole picture can be dizzying—but what is the “whole,” anyway? Campbell quotes another physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in saying, 

“…this life of yours is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense the whole; only the whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one simple glance. This… is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula that is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, that is you.” [13]

Gabrielle Basha is a writer and educator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the Communications Manager for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and a member of the executive communications team at the Wikimedia Foundation. In addition to her lifelong study of where pop culture meets folklore, she holds a BFA in art history and illustration and an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University.              

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“Question Period” from Thou Art That

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

“Question Period” is the seventh chapter of Joseph Campbell’s collection of previously unpublished work titled Thou Art That. It is a transcription of some questions, and Campbell’s responses, asked after lectures and captures some of the more off-the-cuff remarks from Campbell.

Weekly Quote

In every sphere of human search and experience the mystery of the ultimate nature of being breaks into oxymoronic paradox, and the best that can be said of it has to be taken simply as metaphor––whether particles and waves or as Apollo and Dionysus, pleasure and pain. Both in science and in poetry, the principal of the anagogical metaphor is thus recognized today: it is only from the pulpit and the press that one hears of truths and virtues definable in fixed terms.

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Myth Resources

The Spell of the Sensuous

Animal tracks, word magic, the speech of stones, the power of letters, and the taste of the wind all figure prominently in this intellectual tour de force that returns us to our senses and to the sensuous terrain that sustains us. This major work of ecological philosophy startles the senses out of habitual ways of perception.

For a thousand generations, human beings viewed themselves as part of the wider community of nature, and they carried on active relationships not only with other people with other animals, plants, and natural objects (including mountains, rivers, winds, and weather patters) that we have only lately come to think of as “inanimate.” How, then, did humans come to sever their ancient reciprocity with the natural world? What will it take for us to recover a sustaining relation with the breathing earth?

In The Spell of the Sensuous David Abram draws on sources as diverse as the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Balinese shamanism, Apache storytelling, and his own experience as an accomplished sleight-of-hand of magician to reveal the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural environment. He explores the character of perception and excavates the sensual foundations of language, which–even at its most abstract–echoes the calls and cries of the earth. On every page of this lyrical work, Abram weaves his arguments with a passion, a precision, and an intellectual daring that recall such writers as Loren Eisleley, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez.

Featured Work

Thou Art That

Thou Art That is a compilation of previously uncollected essays and lectures by Joseph Campbell that focus on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here Campbell explores common religious symbols, reexamining and reinterpreting them in the context of his remarkable knowledge of world mythology. According to Campbell, society often confuses the literal and metaphorical interpretations of religious stories and symbols. In this collection, he eloquently reestablishes these metaphors as a means to enhance spiritual understanding and mystical revelation. With characteristic verve, he ranges from rich storytelling to insightful comparative scholarship. Included is editor Eugene Kennedy’s classic interview with Campbell in The New York Times Magazine, which brought the scholar to the public’s attention for the first time.

Book Club

“I can’t wait to join you next month to explore The Life Fantastic! I feel we’ll gain so much fortitude from our collective reading that will assist us in meeting the trials of destiny… as well as a sense of enjoyment from the discipline, which comes from executing ideas, as much as indulging in their inspiration. Until soon!”

Kristina Dryža
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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