On the waterfront of Eliot Bay, tucked beneath the “Alaskan Highway”, and a block before the beginning of Seattle’s famous Pikes Place Market lies a wayside boutique called “Ye Ol’ Curiosity Shop”. The shop is undeniably a tourist trap, tacky to the extreme, it is the type of place where a wandering tourist on the wharf might find a plastic snow globe of the city skyline or press a penny into a copper plate with the words “Seattle” on it. True to form, the shop specializes in pirate and mermaid-themed merchandise, even though, to my knowledge, no pirate has ever set sail on the sound and I am yet unaware of any local mermaid sightings, or even legends for the that matter. But “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” itself has roots that go deeper than its exterior might imply, and it remains, to this date, a touchstone to my memories of the city that I now call home.
Ye Olde Curiosity shop does have a history, or at least as much of a history as an American West Coast city will allow. Founded by an Ohioan pioneer at the end of the Klondike gold rush, one J.E. “Daddy” Standely, the shop originally served as a clearing house for memorabilia, artifacts, and forgeries. Standely, himself a notorious indian trader (in both sense of the word), made a practice of obtaining, and often times manufacturing, relics that might be passed off on prospectors and tourists. In addition to his wheeling and dealing, the man was also an avid collector of rare items and made a point of buying any number of oddities (fake or not) that passed through the Puget Sound region in the first half of the 20th century. To this day, many of these items still remain in the shop. No longer for sale, the objects serve chiefly as windows into the strange fare on offer by a snake-oil salesmen in early Seattle. Most prominent in this collection are two human mummies. Called “Sylvester” and “Sylvia” by the shopkeepers, the bodies were procured (and possibly mummified) sometime in the mid-1800s when such traveling oddities were at a premium and poaching bodies was not out of the question. No longer identifiable, the human remains now stand on display behind glass, serving as unofficial mascots of the establishment.
I remember encountering this macabre pair, while on a childhood vacation to the city decades before I lived there as an adult. Then – being about 12 at the time – I was keenly interested in collectible trinkets and oddities, and after completing a rather underwhelming tour of the neighboring wharf, I took a detour into the shop found my way to “the main exhibit”, where Sylvia and Sylvester stood book-ending a 19th century harmonium and a section of a pacific-style totem pole.
Having never seen a “mummy”, I initially found the exhibit rather anti-climactic. These mummies, and indeed most mummies, do not look authentic. Regardless of how “well-preserved” they are in an archaeological sense, they seem less like dead people, and more like the stain of human likeness after all remnants of bodily and spiritual life have been blasted beyond recognition. I remember, there, trying to search for the humanity in the pair. Perhaps, I could piece together what the mummies must have looked like in life, adding on hair, muscle, and flesh in my imagination and until the figures looked like recently deceased corpses. The effort proved to be futile, but as I lethargically ambled towards the exit, a visceral sensation seized my mind. I now find it hard to explain, but at that moment an image of the larger mummy, Sylvester, became immediately visible; not as a desiccated husk, or even as a recently deceased corpse, but as the man that he must have been once in life. And then it seemed as if there was an essence, as alive as any of the shop patrons, trapped within his dried and mangled form. An uneasy feeling took me as I exited the shop.
This vision persisted long into the evening that day, returning later as a nightmare. Though I only have a vague recollection of this, I remember that in the dream I had taken the place of Sylvester behind in the glass display, paralyzed, with a frozen gaze peering out across the shop. However, this time, something was very different. The image I saw before me was hardly the lively boutique I had experienced in my waking state. Instead, the patrons were frozen in place with glassy-eyed stares, and it was as if the entire outside world had been coated in a thick waxy pollution that robbed even the woodwork, earth, and outside sky of life. In the true nature of role reversals, just as my life had was now inside the mummy, the lifeless process of mummification had seized the rest of reality and drained it of its essence.
Even after this dream left me, my mind lingered on the fearful notion that what I had seen was prophetic and that this sort of living death in which all of reality is frozen in eternal lifelessness might be what waits for all sentient creatures at the moment of their demise.
I remember toying with this masochistic idea over the course of the years to come. Perhaps some this persistence owes to a certain amount of self-inflicted psychological morbidity common to teenagers, but aside from this, I found the scenario altogether plausible. I even found the motif repeated in the popular movie “American Beauty”, albeit their notion of this frozen existence was far more euphoric than mine. Gradually, my speculation evolved from a state of eternal living death to the even more terrifying notion that the mind, after cessation, would descend into complete sensory deprivation in full possession of all of its rational faculties. Lost in an abyss of meaningless, measureless time, that would consume the consciousness with madness. It was chilling to think that all humans, by virtue of their life, stood on the shores on an endless abyss that was destined to consume them entirely.
And even years later, I have found myself returning to these scenarios as a point of reference for the examination of the human condition. The reduction of the human brain to an eternal state of sensory deprivation, despite its terror, creates a platonic state pliable for philosophical questions. Certainly scientists have done sensory deprivation exercises for a few hours (resulting in euphoria) and for several days (resulting in depression, hallucination, and memory loss), but what would occur when such an experience stretched out to an indefinite time horizon. Might a mind reach some absolute state where its last memory was dismissed as delusion? And even after the mind re-emerged from madness would rationality be preserved? Would even the self? These questions seemed altogether inscrutable and so I shifted to easier ones. If not FULL sensory deprivation, what about near sensory deprivation? A mind with access to a gentle binary input but still in possession of its rationality. What might a brain without experience or memory do with such a simple but consistent input. And with this thought, my mind returned to the image of Sylvia and Sylvester encased in glass at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and I was brought, rather impulsively, to produce a new philosophical extension to my story.
Suppose through some bizarre circumstance, Sylvia and Sylvester are not totally deceased but instead live in a state of rationality separated both from their memories of life and any stimulus of the outside world. However, we might imagine that their darkness is periodically broken as each mummy experiences a mild electrical sensation whenever a human makes eye contact with their exterior form. Due to the age of the establishment and its popularity, the mummies’ eternal silence will be frequently punctuated by these tiny shocks. We could even imagine that the pair would welcome the sensations as miraculous wards against the emptiness that would otherwise consume their minds. In fact, in recognition of this centrality, the pair would likely deploy their rationality to the task of modeling the phenomenon. Of course, due to its regularity and repetition this task would quite tractable. The inputs could be fit with normalized statistics; paired with a cyclical model to account for daily variation, and a regression model to account for the changes in the shops popularity. With this such a model the sensations themselves would become explainable, predictable, and even expected. The mummies would have developed a complete and satisfactory explanation of their universe. One from which their mind never needs to be roused. And to this end, the sudden sensations of contact would seem less miraculous and more like expected happenings pouring forth from a fully specified set of equations. So, even though predictability has been achieved, a certain placidity of existence will have set in.
But then, apropos of nothing, an extraordinary event occurs. And just like my own experience 18-odd years ago, one of the mummies, Sylvester, is beset by a sensory explosion, his mind is displaced and thrown jarringly into the universe of human observation. For a brief moment he is no longer in darkness and instead sees the lively bustling reality of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Human communication, sensory perception, the sights and smells, all become immediately apparent to him. And for a moment he realizes the nature of his previous position and the confines of his former existence. But, these sensations are fleeting, and after a few brief moments, Sylvester is once more lowered into the darkness of his previous state. The revelation has departed, never to return again.
But what can Sylvester glimpse from this experience? One might think it might upset his reality, and upend the way he had formed his explanations earlier. Perhaps he might recast his limited sensations as something grander then he originally thought. He might realize that his incredible experience was a window to a much larger existence beyond anything he could have thought possible and that his mundane sensations were but a shadow of this larger life that he could only catch a the briefest view. But of course, in all likelihood, he might just as easily dismiss all of this. All previous thoughts, all his previous understanding of the universe, indeed his very model of existence was predicated on an observation occurring with consistency and repetition. The extraordinary experience that beset his senses in that one moment will not conform to that standard and its very singular nature would precludes its incorporation into Sylvester’s original model. As grand as the revelation , it cannot be recast as a data-point. And in fact will not even possess predictive power when it comes to the task of describing the mundane system of sensations that make up his ordinary existence. And so, as powerful and as important as it seems to us, this brief glimpse into a wider universe might be easily dismissed and cast into the dust bin of delusional mistakes that might beset a mind encased in eternal darkness.
At this point, I am sure, my more astute readers will chuckle upon noticing that I have inadvertently traced the steps of one ancient Athenian in a torch lit cave. Nonetheless, for my own purposes, I have found this modern update helpful in its own right; not necessarily for its capacity to illustrate, as Socrates intended, the limitation of the human senses. But rather, and I am want to do, its ability to contextualize the teleology of the human mind.
The confinement to a living death of eternal sensory deprivation, holds a transfixing and terrifying power for a reason. That is that, it forces the function of rationality, and indeed personality, to confront an existence where its own nature is eternally futile. Inside a word free of sensation there is no substance to be grasped or dealt with, no experience that can be raged against or even embraced. And as such, any semblance of personality would be obliterated through contact with that gaping chasm of meaninglessness.
But might not something similar be said, for that mind so confidently in possession of a totalizing model of the universe? A model where everything is either predicted or dismissed as random deviation from that prediction? I used think that there was a massive distinction between this state and that total oblivion, but the thought because it seems this path is as sure an excuse to marry the human mind to an inertia it would have otherwise resisted. In other words, man’s rationality is no less defeated if it is swallowed up by simplicity than if it is swallowed up by darkness. And though we might find simplicity useful for prediction, it can become a jailer the moment it drives out the meaning of that prediction.
At one point in my life, I did think that the development of such a totalizing and simple model of the universe to be the goal of humanity. Of course like most moderns, the complexity and difficulty of obtaining such an end, masked its limitation. And since, I have come to see this project of as not only as impossible but also as foolish.
Human beings define themselves through their contact with raw experience. With surprise, with astonishment, with wonder. The points in time where we are want, or indeed must, toss out our previous modes and replace them with something higher and better. And whether we appreciate these jarring moments of discontinuity that interrupt our existence, they are indeed the key to our humanity. We do not maintain our own existence in anticipation of eternally repeating patterns, or an unchallenged life of stimulus and response. We exist for those moments when reality invades our minds stronger than ever before and tears those petty models asunder. Call them “miracles”, or if you prefer the modern neologism “black swans” ,but whatever we choose to call these moments, they etch the boundaries of our human recollection and personality. And I have long speculated that the true desire of mankind is to stand before this fountainhead of existential wonder, in full possession of our rational personalities.
I will stop myself before this essay diverts into spiritually, but I have to wager that most people, at any some moment of their lives have been taken back by a strong impression that a person, or even an object, before them is much more than the material that constitutes its physical existence. They will then see something in that moment that contains a hint of the eternal, something that cannot so easily be tamed by our pattern-seeking and model-building brains, and something that calls them to a higher type of existence. I am certainly not the first thinker to speculate about how human existence might be much elevated if but we could go through our daily lives with these types of revelations intact in our conscious wills. But due whatever human frailty, they are fleeting. And men and women continue to gloss over these interactions with the transcendent, dismissing them as curiosities, like the human form itself, sitting lifeless among the myriad dross in a wayside city boutique.