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The Elephants

A Brief History of Omniscience

Evelyn Hampton

I am trying to learn French. I always think navré means ship. In fact it means heartbroken.

But I don’t want to tell you about the facts of my life. I am tired of them.

I want to transform my life into a loop of blue or a rectangle of bright yellow.

In the evening Mrs. Ramsey would put down her knitting and become the light sweeping over the water.

The light felt like “her own eyes meeting her own eyes.”

“It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one...”

This transformation could only happen while she was alone, in the evening, when nobody was expecting her to be Mrs. Ramsey. “For now she need not think about anybody,” Woolf writes.

She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

This is not a common desire, this desire to lose one’s human form. Or maybe it is. In “What is a Master-Piece and Why Are There So Few of Them?” Gertrude Stein says that being an “entity” rather than an “identity” is necessary at times, especially for writing. Elsewhere she writes, “I am because my little dog knows me.”

Then there is Cassandra, who is not a writer but longs to be. She is the narrator of I Capture the Castle, a book by Dodie Smith.

When she is seventeen Cassandra decides she will teach herself how to write a novel. This begins her fascination with hiding.

I don't intend to let myself become the kind of author who can only work in seclusion—after all, Jane Austen wrote in the sitting-room and merely covered up her work when a visitor called (though I bet she thought a thing or two)—but I am not quite Jane Austen yet and there are limits to what I can stand.

The barn. She climbs up on high piles of chaff and looks out of the little door near the roof.

A small panopticon. She can see everything without being seen—useful. The view feeds her budding novelistic omniscience. She is learning how to create a setting for her world.

“I look across stubble and ploughed fields and drenched winter wheat to the village, where the smoke from the chimneys is going straight up in the still air.”

Place, setting: these allow access to a world. Access allows escape. During a difficult time, Cassandra goes into a church and tries to find relief.

I thought, ‘I don't feel helped or comforted at all.’ Then I remembered the Vicar's nice, fat voice saying: ‘Sit—listen.’ He had told me not to pray, and as looking at an altar always seems to turn my thoughts to prayers, I sat on the steps and looked towards the main body of the church. I listened hard.
I could hear rain still pouring from the gutters and a thin branch scraping against one of the windows; but the church seemed completely cut off from the restless day outside—just as I felt cut off from the church. I thought: ‘I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness.’

Later, when nobody is home, Cassandra goes naked on the roof of the old castle where she and her family live. She lies in the sun and feels herself becoming a part of the world that until now she has only looked at through windows in the barn and attic. But now, because of her vantage, her world has become larger, and so has her capacity to feel.

The novelist, writes Kristin Dombek in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, may be best able to “help us see from more than one position at a time,” and thus achieve a greater degree of empathy. Seeing from multiple perspectives at once, the reader realizes that her own perspective is but one of many perspectives, but also, that her own perspective can include many perspectives. The individual can be a plurality.

“After a few minutes,” Cassandra says of being naked on the roof, “I seemed to live in every inch of my body as fully as I usually do in my head and my hands and my heart. I had the fascinating feeling that I could think as easily with my limbs as with my brain...”

In the late Middle Ages, “fantasy” meant “the mental apprehension of an object of perception”—

“...the mind's very act of linking itself to the phenomenal world,” as Ursula Le Guin writes in her essay “Things Not Actually Present.”

Over time this same word, fantasy, came to mean the exact opposite—a “fantasy” became an hallucination: a falsification or at least exaggeration of something more real.

Now, “fantasy” can mean the imagination itself, “the process, the faculty, or the result of forming mental representations of things not actually present,” Le Guin writes.

There is a painter I know living in Toronto. She wakes in the mornings filled with a very old light that she found in a small village in Italy.

She was supposed to be painting there, but her work instead became a process of gathering, each morning, the light into herself. Scraping it off the wall of the neighboring building, a brown sienna tinged with yellow for which there was no acrylic or oil equivalent. Plus sashes of white light reflected by panes of glass, black shadow-brows cast by sills.

She said that after two months, she got on a plane bound for home having completed zero paintings but containing an inexhaustible supply of a particular, ancient light.

I understand now where all the light goes, when it goes. It goes into the past.

Think of it: the view from 1500 feet, the green rectangles and brown circles and straight lines, everything confined to clear edges. While, if one were on the ground, one would likely be driving without ever really knowing what’s ahead and forgetting what’s behind, the present receding in the rearview mirror, as in memory, into equally unknowable, uninhabitable territory.

It is a sorrowful and maybe a blessed fact of human existence that no person can be everywhere at once, all of the time. Maybe this is one reason why Dombek, writing about the narcissism inherent in our human limitations, points to novelists—they, even better than air travel, can help us to access a sense of omniscience, not by confining the world to clear edges, but by revealing its blurriness and complexity. As Dombek writes, seeing the world this way has the power to make us more empathetic, more able to feel with another, as if we occupy both their body and our own at the same time.

The notion of being everywhere at once, all of the time, is a relatively young idea—“omniscience” is only about 400 years old.

The word was first used around the end of the Middle Ages. In Medieval Latin it’s from omnis (all) and scientia (knowledge).

I sit in a chair and look out a window my friend painted after she got back from Italy.

The light is astounding. That she herself emitted it makes the trees it illuminates seem like trees and also like thoughts she is having about trees, in my brain.

Supposedly trees are now known to communicate with each other, and even send water and nutrients to nearby trees (even, possibly, to other species) through below-ground networks of fungus called mycelium.

These networks might be the largest organisms on Earth. Beneath the ground they spread through a mass of branching, threadlike hyphae. One of these networks, in eastern Oregon, was estimated to be 1,665 football fields large and 2,200 years old.

That’s older than the late Middle Ages. Older than omniscience. Older even than Mrs. Ramsay.

“This one fungus,” writes Paul Stamets of the network in eastern Oregon, “has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees.”1

A few days ago, at the indoor pool, I noticed an ear-shaped fungus extending on a gray stalk from the damp crease between the wall and floor. It seemed to be listening to the white noise of the pool’s filtration system. When touched it felt like wet, slippery flesh, and then part of it, the outer lobe, disintegrated.

I think I am looking for a way out of my body. Not only through books, but in my life, too.

I read that there is a small stanza inside each human eye. It is an empty place, nothing in it except light passing through. However, I imagine that inside each of mine is a chair, and that I—both of me, or else a single me, doubled—sit on my chair(s) looking out at the trees.

I am privileged in every basic way—I have the food, clean water, and shelter I need. And, I desire to vanish. I desire to see that I am vanishing, becoming “something invisible to others.”

Days pass in which I am not, in fact, trying to learn French. I am trying to learn a way to talk about sadness.

It is a basic fact, this sadness, a fact as mundane as facts and as real as Mrs. Ramsay’s “inanimate things.” It is the material all other things in my life are made of. It’s as versatile and ubiquitous as plastic, this sadness, and it is, for me, the reality.

I first noticed it on a particular afternoon in New Brighton, Minnesota. I was eleven or twelve. I had climbed one of the pine trees in the back yard. I could see the roof (tan shingles). I could see the plum tree that grew by my bedroom window. I could see the branches’ dark fruits. I could see the window (open) and I could see the room, and through the room I could see out the other window.

I could see right through my bedroom. And suddenly the world lost a certain solidity, a certain firmness at its edges. I sat on the branch of my pine and filled with a darkness empty of me. It was the darkness that would gather outside my bedroom windows at night—around the branches of the plum tree, spreading out from its leaves into the yard, until everything but me was ensorcelled by it. But now there was nothing separating me from it; it was me, and I was it.

A house, this thing that seems so solid when you are in it, is not, after all, such a solid thing. It is filled with holes, I realized. You can see right through it. And because you have taken its solidity for granted, seeing through it is like seeing through yourself. You are filled with holes, too. You are like light, darkness, water, air, pouring in and out of your room.

But what made my body feel so heavy was not this new knowledge about houses and their porosity, but the look of my belongings—my bed and desk and stool, my comforter and pillow and bookshelf, and on the wall, a print of a painting by Georgia O’Keefe.

Is there a language for how sad the sight of one’s own belongings can be?

There in the tree I felt something departing. What was left behind was heavy. It was just a body.

I carried it down the tree / it carried me.

I’m sorry. I haven’t found a better way to say it. I haven’t written a novel. But I can offer you some advice related to personal hygiene: The next time you need to trim your fingernails, do it near an open window, so that the sound can go out. If someone is listening, they will hear it—the sound (tick, tick, tick) of their own body coming from another.

1 Mycelium Running 45.

Evelyn Hampton is the author of The Aleatory Abyss (Publishing Genius) and Discomfort (Ellipsis Press). Her website is Currently she is living in either Washington, Rhode Island, or Porto, Portugal.

This originally appeared on November 15, 2017