Notes on Weirdness: Vertigo

Gravity is the force against which all firm things and intransigent principles are measured. Or so people say. I wish they were right; I know they are wrong. From my earliest days until I was seventeen, I lived in fear of the suspension of gravity. It could go in an instant. For no reason. Suddenly my sense of a relation of attachment to the ground or to any horizon would disappear. I’d crumple, curl up, and clutch my head. My self-perception would zoom out to include the available space — the room, the sky, the galaxy — in which I perceived myself to be an infinitely tiny and ungrounded mite. No considerations of propriety or self-preservation could stop me. In the street, in a classroom, in the car, in a bed: my sense of gravity would fail and I would fall. Vertigo they called it. I called it feeling dizzy.

Sometimes the vertigo stalked me in my dreams. It always appeared, personified, as the ludicrous figure of a pink hippo. Into any kind of dream, this hippo could suddenly intrude, seize me by my feet, and begin to spin me in a wide circle. (The hippo had an unmistakable resemblance to and the same balletic tendencies as the hippo in Disney’s Fantasia. Don’t ask.) If the pink hippo of vertigo had invaded my dreams, when I woke I’d be dizzy and unable to function for the whole day.

Nowhen was safe. Sleeping, the pink hippo might appear at any time; waking, gravity might stop. I worried that I would be unable to handle adult tasks and responsibilities. Who could drive, or hold down a job, or care for a child, or really be trusted at all, if they lived under constant threat of vertigo?

The pink hippo hasn’t appeared in a very long time. I will never stop expecting it. Thanks to my vertiginous years, to this day I probe my sense of proprioception like a dentist’s victim probing a jaggedly drilled tooth with their tongue. Our basic, fundamental species’ awareness of rootedness, of placement, is a fickle and alien force to me. I experience horizons, and my own body, as profoundly weird.

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The truths that allow of no existence alone deserve the name of truths. Superior to the exigencies of the living, they do not condescend to be our accomplices. They are “inhuman” truths, truths of vertigo. — E.M. Cioran

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I’m reading Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s massive anthology The Weird. They argue the weird is a genre, a genre fed by the tributaries of surrealism and symbolism, decadent literature and the gothic, Lovecraft and Kafka. Liminal, patched-together, motley, insidious, it is also perfectly clear and concrete to those who recognize it viscerally. Not merely a genre, but a feeling and the phenomena that provoke the feeling.

The weird is the natural home of my imagination. Weirdness is a feeling I can’t shake, a feeling rooted, I suspect, in my history of vertigo and the accordingly weird character of the world itself as I experience it.

But what is weirdness, exactly? I think of it as the sensation of unexpected order or chaos: when the stable thing suddenly disintegrates, or the slow process suddenly speeds up, or when seeming randomness appears to communicate some kind of order or information. This definition of the weird is tendentious. There are competing definitions. I like mine because it seems to gather up and bind together all the various tropes, scenarios, and images that feel weird to me.

Thus déjà vu and dopplegangers are weird. Ghosts are weird. Metamorphoses are weird. Unmistakable but alien intelligences are weird: octupuses are weird. Unsettling contrasts in size are weird, when you realize you’re swimming in a pool too deep to see the bottom of, or when your candle flares in a dark room and you realize you’re in an enormous chamber. Prophetic dreams are weird. Kafka’s combination of anxious attentiveness to detail and simultaneous helplessness to understand what is going on is weird. Looking in the mirror and seeing your reflection blink when you did not is weird. Recognizing that a pervasive economic system or social hierarchy has historical origins and an expiration date is weird. Depth hermeneutics of all kinds are weird.

And of course vertigo is weird.

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The only true purpose of a good list is to convey the idea of infinity and the vertigo of the etcetera. — Umberto Eco

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You mustn’t confuse weirdness with horror. Certainly weird things can horrify, but not all weird things are horrifying nor are all horrifying things weird. The particular frisson of weirdness occurs when psychological heuristics fail in particularly noticeable ways. Horror is just one possible response to such a failure.

One might say weirdness is a by-product of the fact that we don’t live in an Aristotelian world. Aristotle liked to explain perception by saying, for example, that sight occurred when that with the capacity to be seen encountered that with the capacity to see: in other words, he thought the apparent interface between consciousness and the world derived from a reciprocity that entailed intelligibility. In fact, though, we often perceive unintelligible things. And just as often we feel that we are faced with phenomena whose intelligibility we suspect without being able to perceive it. Usually we simply look away, or else the unintelligible becomes intelligible, snaps into place. If we don’t look away and intelligibility fails to arrive, we have entered the zone of weirdness.

The weird story, as a genre, is a not-looking-away, but instead a memorializing, crystallizing, proliferating of anomalies.

Vertigo, Leon Spilliaert: 1908.

Weird: from the Old English “wyrd,” fate. This etymology supports my definition of the weird, I think. Fate is order arising in what seems a chaos of choice; fate is the idea of a necessity hidden in the very fundament of freedom. On the other hand fate, as death, is also the unraveling and ultimate negation of order, the implacable rule of change and disintegration that renders all states of the sublunary world mere temporary configurations.

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[A]nother kind of vertigo seizes me, that of the detail of the detail of the detail, and I am drawn into the infinitesimal, the infinitely small, just as I was previously lost in the infinitely vast. — Italo Calvino

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Lately I have begun to write fiction in a new way. Rather than just scrabbling after the rudiments of technique or experimenting with tools to achieve various effects, I have started exploring tropes and themes, scenarios and characters for their own sake. My stories have become attempts at expression, experiments in communication, rather than mere exercises of craft. I think this transition is called maturing as an artist. Many of the things I’ve begun writing about belong under the rubric of the weird. So to accompany my fictional interrogation of the phenomenon of the weird, this is the first of several essays feeling around the concept.


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