Last week, someone I knew on Facebook posted a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon.
It was one I had seen before- did I mention I was a big Calvin & Hobbes fan?- and shared with my academic friends, sort of as a light-hearted in-joke- a nostalgic reminder of our experiences as clueless students trying to hand in assignments within looming deadlines. As one classmate very memorably said on encountering a discomfiting question- “What’s the point of studying literature for all these years if you can’t use the language to fib and improvise?” Strangely enough, I had never seen this joke as a specifically literary one, but found its humour revolving around the fact that Calvin didn’t actually know anything substantial to say about the subject. As a teacher one knows that the less a student has studied, the more likely she is to “inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning” and write longer and more convoluted sentences. However, my Facebook friend graced this little strip with a caption, and it was:
“What I feel literature and maybe all of humanities is basically.”
That was it. All of literature and all of humanities were built on weak ideas inflated to obscure poor reasoning that may be useful just like prayer and voodoo was useful (this from the comment section) but not necessarily valid, because “the premise of humanities is the antithesis of scientific principles of objectivity and falsifiability.”
I don’t want to go into defending all of humanities, nor do I need to. Most of us know that the charge of a lack of objectivity and falsifiability is not even true in most cases, especially in the social sciences. Let us talk instead of the mode that is supposedly the antithesis of the objective scientific principle- which I presume is human faculty of imagination.
Now I know that it is impossible according to the principles of biology and physics for a man to fly by attaching wings made of bird feathers to his shoulders using wax. But if Icarus didn’t fall from the sky, where would the Wright Brothers be? Humans have an innate desire to fly, to transcend the limitations of their physical bodies. I do not have objective, quantifiable data to substantiate this claim, which I suppose makes it an unscientific, weak idea. And I am aware that there is a thin line between claiming that there are multiple modes of perceiving the world to those that state that evolution is merely a theory. My aim is not to dismiss the science. I am definitely not a creationist. What I do believe is that our creation stories offer us certain modes of understanding the world, or of the people who told those stories. Like the Discworld Death, I find myself hovering between the rising ape of Darwin and the falling angel of the Bible and I am struck by the incomprehensible beauty of creation from Chaos, to imagine that some part of me might have always been and will always be existing in the universe, through Time and beyond it- “Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought that it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea-lions, seals, lions, human beings and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.” (Stephen Fry, Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece).
It is beautiful to see sunlight breaking into VIBGYOR through water and rain-washed clouds, but if you ask me, it would be a sad world if we couldn’t imagine a path to Asgard through the rainbow, or see a Mary Poppins cycling down from the sky. A dead world, even, for what is science but the physical manifestations of our dreams and stories? If we didn’t dream, we would stop living. Is it happening inside your head? Perhaps. Is it not true? Why the hell not? (Sorry, Dumbledore) And how could something happen outside your head if it didn’t happen inside it first? After all, as Dr. Radhakrishnan said in a rather heavily-worded essay, it takes quite a leap of imagination to see an apple falling from the tree on the evidently flat surface of an average planet to visualizing cosmic spheres each exerting its own force of attraction in the universe. Other people saw apples fall from trees too, Newton just saw it differently.
Dermot Moran, in an article on Merleau-Ponty writes-
“In his wonderful “Eye and Mind”, Merleau-Ponty asks what the world looks like for whose eyes are lateral and don’t unite to give a single sense of vision. What would the world look like if humans had eyes on either side of their heads – like birds? … I remember travelling on the train from Aberdeen and looking out at green hills on one side and water on the other. … We see differently when we try to see what others see.”
In coming to terms with a personal depression over the past year, I have increasingly come to see that human beings need more than a practical existence, although I do not in any way intend to belittle the struggles of many around the world fighting to eke out a decent existence. But it is a fact of history- whether we look at ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley that when people have found food and rest and stable existence, they have created art. If I may borrow the Discworld Death again, human beings need fantasy to be human, they need meaning beyond the quantifiable data of science. To quote Philip Pullman, “Everything that touches human life is surrounded by a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown. In this way of seeing things, the world is full of tenuous filaments of meaning …”– meanings that are equally, and sometimes more valid than those we can quantify and prove. For when you consider from a wider perspective, human life is absurd. We are born on a middle-sized planet of an obscure solar system of an average galaxy, and we die. If our stories were invalid, there wouldn’t be any rationale behind our existence. If existence was enough, Socrates wouldn’t ask his questions and Galileo wouldn’t turn to the skies, and there would be no poetry, no arts and certainly no science.
Let me know what you think of this in the comments. And you can read more of my poems and listen to my music on these handles:
Facebook: Ruchira’s Rambling
YouTube: Ruchira Mandal
 From The Philosopher’s Magazine, an article on Merleau-Ponty by Dermot Moran (h/t However Fallible)
 Terry Pratchett, The Hogfather,