Unicorns are mythical creatures, but many people believe in them. They don’t necessarily believe in the immanent possibility of seeing a unicorn on the street or in the woods any time soon. They believe in believing in unicorns.
Myth speaks truth to reality, and the truth is that we need unicorns. In the dialogue between myth and reality, we see the supposedly real world for what it really is: impermanent, ever changing, mutable, a place that doesn’t have to be what it seems. A place that isn’t really all that real, if by real you mean solid, concrete, tangible, or certain.
Without myth, the present is all we have (hello, Leonard Shelby). Myth helps us to understand the world of now by freeing our dreams of worlds that might be, quite apart from whether or not they ever really happen. Myth allows us the reveries of worlds lost, races won, loves cherished, sufferings endured. Myth makes livable the stresses and oppressions of the moment. Myth binds the present to the possible – the past that was, the past that could have been, the futures that may and may not come to pass, and the imaginary worlds that, without ever existing, will feed our passions and determine which future of the real world will, in fact, come to pass.
Myth is to our mundane world what relativity and quantum mechanics are to the world of Newtonian physics. Newton’s laws work very well to explain the world of human-level sensory experience. There’s a reason why an apple hits you on the head, and why every hanging apple on earth will do the same if you put a person under it at the right moment. Newton explained the stuff we all see and helped us understand what was happening. His laws extended our vision beyond the moment, predicting futures and explaining pasts.
At either end of the spectrum – the massive or the tiny – Newton’s laws don’t make sense, even though they explain the world in between quite well. In relativity, things that happen now might occur before something that happened already, depending on where you’re looking from. At the quantum level of subatomic particles like electrons and quarks, things can be in two places at the same time. To believe in the physics of the massive, or of the tiny, is to suspend belief in the world we can see and touch. And we can deal with that, because our minds constantly ask for more than what’s just beyond our noses.
This is why we have relativity, the 10 or 11 dimensions of string theory, the superposition of quantum particles, positrons and anti-matter, quarks, and unicorns.
Afternote: For a real treat on the marriage of design, art, and Isaac Newton, go to The Newton Project at the Dutch Art Institute. Click on the artists’ names and see their designs. My favorite is the one by Meiyu Tao.
Leonard Shelby: See the post, “The truth and tattoos” and Memento.
Gold unicorn: Norman Walsh, photographer, Bristol, England, http://norman.walsh.name/2003/10/08/bristol.
The Unicorn in Captivity, from “The Hunt Tapestries,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters. Image from: http://www.geocities.com/area51/corridor/5177/hunt.html.