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Essay of the Month: Eidolons I


I met a seer,

Passing the hues and objects of the world,

The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,

To glean eidolons.

Lo, I or you,

Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,

We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,

But really build eidolons.

The old, old urge,

Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles,

From science and the modern still impell’d,

The old, old urge, eidolons.

Densities, growth, facades,

Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,

Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,

Eidolons everlasting.

All space, all time,

(The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,

Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their longer, shorter use,)

Fill’d with eidolons only.

The above five verses are gleaned from Walt Whitman’s 1876 twenty-one verse poem Eidolons. Eidolon is a word of Greek origin meaning phantom or apparition. Whitman lays out that all we express, all  we are, all we do, all that is — all is phantoms. A similar concept was a dominant part of eastern thought, in India expressed as maya — simply put, all  we experience is illusion projected by our limited capacities.

As our capacities have expanded though science the evidence that what we experience as life is illusion has been verified to the extent our limited capabilities allow. All of what we experience as our solid existence is infinitely tiny bits of energy that appear to temporarily manifest as forms our consciousness calls me, you, chair, computer, earth, etc. — eidolons. This can be difficult to absorb. Human beings have found it much easier to formulate religions, philosophies, and other designs to try to give the apparitions more substance and solidity.

While this realization that nothing is as it seems may be unsettling it can also be reassuring. For one thing, it is a powerful example of the relative nature of point-of-view. If we can accept that what we experience is a very limited and partial view of reality it seems obvious that we must be humble in our fragmentary understanding, be this in personal relationships, political arenas, or cosmic awareness.

As creatures who will always be incomplete in perception and understanding (no advance in technology will ever give us complete understanding) we must learn to use our minimal intelligence to make a positive and possibly enjoyable experience (be it an illusion) of the short years we have as individuals and a species in this shifting flux of energy.

We are hardwired with survival and propagation instincts that drive much of our behavior, albeit strangely disguised in this stage of civilization and culture in which we live. We also have the capacity to move beyond security and sex and delve into some of the more refined behaviors of conscious existence – compassion, creativity, contemplation. I believe that it is in this realm that we have the most to offer in shaping and refining the eidolons in which we exist. While these illusions seem to be largely shaped by the cause and effect of the energy forces that ripple through our lives, I think we have the capacity to send positive ripples into that energy. We are, after all, not only part of that energy; we are no more or less than any other component. This is the great egalitarian truth of existence.

But here is where the big obstacle lies. The eidolons are so convincing and the sweep of the illusion is so swift, and our time is so short in the tumbling series of apparitions which we see as our lives, that few see the opportunity to send out those ripples. Most people feel that they cannot “change” things as they might like to. War, poverty, hunger, inequity seem to be a permanent part of the eidolon and maybe they are. But to make an impact on that ever changing energy field one does not need to eliminate hate or greed, one needs to help a neighbor or teach a child or write a poem or sit quietly. Everything we do impacts everything else – we have no choice. It is only a matter of what kind of impact we wish to have.

I understand that this all seems to have a bit of a wishy-washy flavor, but I am coming to the conclusion that wishy-washy is the nature of being. I think I have been taking existence far too seriously. We creatures who have had the mixed blessing of consciousness have often made a mess of it and created eidolons of pain for ourselves and others. It is time to understand our limitations and drift in this energy field with harmony and gratitude.

copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

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