On “Terror”

Yes, yes, come in. Please, sit down. I’ve been wanting to talk to you, to somebody; at any rate I expected you. I know, I know, you wish to discuss the government’s policies, the problems in the legislature, I know. These are important but, you see, there is something else that is on my mind, it has been for days now. So, perhaps, if you will just hear me out.

I have mentioned to you before my thoughts on synergy and synchronicity, haven’t I?[i]  Maybe. You know, the extraordinary “coincidences,” the way in which inexplicably one unrelated occurrence will mesh with another? It’s a bit silly, you’re right. But still, one can’t account for everything in life. And some things really have no explanation. As I read this somewhat obscure book I came across Nabokov’s short story called “Terror.” I had never heard of it before. It is about the shock of stepping out of our normal mode of being, the distance we can sometimes feel from everything that we consider to be real. Yet, I believe it is seeing things as they really are. In the story, the narrator experiences a distance even from himself. He experiences this separation while in bed at night contemplating mortality, repeating a word over and over again until its very sound is nonsense, or staring at the mirror and not recognizing the person staring back. He is only brought back to our conventional reality by the sudden death of his beloved. The story ends with the disturbing consideration that, once the emergency has passed, the sensations of seeing things as they are without the attachment of meanings that we impose through our daily lives will return and drive him to madness.

I mentioned synchronicity because just days prior to reading this story, while at a friend’s home, I glanced in the mirror and did not recognize the person looking back. I am telling the truth. I looked more intently, examining his features and facial reactions, stared into his eyes. And yet, while I knew intellectually that it was me; I simply could not feel it. Now, let me read you what he wrote:

Then it would go like this: during the time I had been deep at work, I had grown disacquainted with myself, a sensation akin to what one may experience when meeting a close friend after years of separation: for a few empty, lucid, but numb moments you see him in an entirely different light even though you realize that the frost of this mysterious anesthesia will presently wear off, and the person you are looking at will revive, glow with warmth, resume his old place, becoming again so familiar that no effort of the will could possibly make you recapture that fleeting sensation of estrangedness. Precisely thus I now stood considering my own reflection in the glass and failing to recognize it as mine. And the more keenly I examined my face—those unblinking alien eyes, that sheen of tiny hairs along the jaw, that shade along the nose—and the more insistently I told myself “This is I, this is So-and-so,” the less clear it became why this should be “I,” the harder I found it to make the face in the mirror merge with that “I” whose identity I failed to grasp.

And so it was with me. I swear. Just days prior to reading this, the very same thing had happened to me and it had never happened before. And then, when I considered his thoughts on lying awake at night and considering mortality, I remembered a similar sensation from my youth that was so tangible that it was simply overwhelming. But different. For you see, my sensation was not one of mortality – that death awaits. It was one of life, of being alive, of being amazed at the miracle of consciousness. That, at that moment, not before, not in the future, I was thinking, and breathing, and living. So I returned once again to his thoughts on this, his supposed terror, and I saw it differently.

You know, it is said that this story is unique in his body of work even though it touches on his themes of consciousness and the strangeness of things.[ii]  I wish he had gone further with it, for I do see it differently. Truly. These moments of separation from the way things are I do not take to be the “[s]upreme terror, special terror” that his narrator believes them to be and that will eventually drive him to madness. Just the opposite, in fact. It seems to me that the ways in which we see things on a daily basis, our mode of going through the motions as required, are merely symbolic of what is true. If we all have these experiences of detachment from our conventional reality, as Nabokov assumes, then isn’t it likely that there is some truth to be found there? Isn’t it possible that our routines, our activities, our roles, our masks, are simply symbolic of something far more profound?

I see that look; your skepticism is obvious. So, instead of retreating, let me go further. While we are animals, we experience an extraordinary level of consciousness, thought, emotion, and reasoning. We have determined much about the nature of this reality. In particular, we know that there is a finite amount of mass-energy that makes up existence and that this mass-energy is always transforming into different forms. Conversion is constantly taking place. We, as individuals, exist and will cease to exist because of conversions of mass-energy. Everything is made of the same stuff, the same essence. It simply appears in different forms, at different times, and only briefly. So it is with us. With you, and with me. Our being, our nature, our personhood, all of what we think of as “us” is a temporary symbol of something much bigger than our selves. Something so extraordinary that our minds, our consciousness are incapable of comprehending it. Yet, we are a part of it, it is the essence of what and who we are. It is at those moments of separation from the motions of daily life, of being able to tangibly feel consciousness, of being beyond ourselves to the point of not even recognizing our own reflection, that we are moving beyond the mere symbolic to communion with the fabric of everything. And that is extraordinary.

Well, that is what has been on my mind. Now, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?


[i] https://dispatches.tk/2011/07/23/yesterdays-synergy/

[ii] “Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years,” Brian Boyd (Princeton Univ. Press 1990).