September 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
“Unsettling.” This was a term employed numerous times in class to aptly describe our reactions to a number of stories we had read. I realized that I had found several readings from the semester thus far to be “unsettling” (in a very enjoyable and stimulating kind of way), in the sense that I was somewhat mentally uncomfortable while reading them, and they seemed to be going against some ingrained current of my mind. A few stories I had noted to be particularly unsettling, so I set out to find the common thread of discomfort in these stories. Surprisingly quickly, almost as if some corner of my mind had been eagerly awaiting this exact query in order to proudly produce its carefully crafted answer, I realized that, in almost all cases, the stories I had found most unsettling were those in which humans are not cognizant of what is truly going on…they are ignorant of the fact that reality has somehow changed.
In “Sound of Thunder,” for example, I was disturbed by the fact that, after Eckels stepped off the path in the past and thus altered the present, the people in the present world to which he returned had no idea of what he had done, or that the past had been affected and the present thus changed. In “Brooklyn Project,” as the present is being changed as a result of their exploration of and interference with the past, none of the characters are aware of what is actually taking place; particularly chilling is the closing line spoken by “the thing that had been the acting secretary to the executive assistant on press relations”: “Nothing has changed!” In “Nightfall,” the true horror of Aton is not in the impending destruction of civilization, but rather: “We didn’t know anything…we couldn’t know.”
I think that such stories demonstrate that, in our heart of hearts, we are terrified of human ignorance, or human failure to perceive reality, things as they truly are. At first, I felt that this concept should not disturb us if, like many of the characters in the stories, we are ignorant of our own ignorance, not knowing that there are things we do not know, forces acting upon us and our present reality that we do not perceive. Why should it matter if there are things which we do not know, if we do not know that we do not know them? Yet this lurking doubt—that we also, like the people in the stories we read, are ignorant of our own ignorance—haunts us. We are petrified that we are not in control, that we are not somehow outside the system, manipulating it, but rather are a part of the system, unknowingly being manipulated. We theorize, experiment, and quantify in an effort to assert our control of the universe and establish our privileged position on a higher plane of existence than the rest of the world, yet, buried deep in our hearts but occasionally escaping into the space between the lines of our literature, we secretly wonder…What if we’re not? We hear the question, though often we can’t quite define or express it, and find it thought-provoking; we unexpectedly hear its echo in our own hearts and find it…unsettling.