Phantasmagoria – /ˌfanˌtazməˈɡôrēə/ – noun – A sequence of real or imaginary dreamlike images. The original usage referred to an early predecessor of slide projection, primarily used to project unsettling images of ghosts, devils, and other terrifying creatures, making the word have somewhat sinister undertones.
This same dissonant, ethereal, ‘that ca’n’t possibly be real’ feeling is evoked when I look around at the state of the world around me.
I don’t mean the greater political landscape – though that terrifies me as well, for different reasons. I mean, literally, the world just outside my door. And, often, within as well.
We live in a world full of wonder. Every morning, the sun rises – an almost unimaginably hot, indescribably huge ball of nuclear fire claws its way up above the horizon in a blaze of colors ranging from faint orange to deep crimson, against a field of every brilliant shade of blue imaginable. Only those colors aren’t real – they are simply the only way our tiny brains can begin to interpret the vast spectrum of electromagnetic waves spewing at us across the immense distances involved. And, actually, it isn’t moving. We are, at more than 1,000 miles per hour, on the surface of a spinning orb that is, itself, moving in a complex dance that carries it, us, and everything we know through a deadly void that is as close to true nothingness as one can get.
We, ourselves, are amazing. Our bodies are built out of nearly countless cells – estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of one hundred trillion (that’s 100,000,000,000,000… but just typing that number out makes it clear how totally incomprehensible it really is to our minds. I know what it means. I can even sort of grasp the magnitude of it, with effort. But then I think about how just to count that high at my normal counting rate (roughly three numbers a second) would take, literally, a million years, and my mind just blanks again.
That’s not the best part, though. These cells come in a stunning variety of sorts, each radically specialized for its own particular task – a clockwork machine called a ‘person’ with one hundred trillion little moving springs and cogs and wheels. And it happened – most likely – totally by accident, one chance in a number so high it is essentially infinity that lead to something that could replicate itself, a process which snowballed into what we have today.
And each of these cells is, itself, made of one hundred trillion atoms – and this is even more amazing, if that is possible. The cells, at least, are ‘alive’ (whatever that really means, but that is beyond the scope of this post) and so their ability to do things is at least somewhat comprehensible. The atoms, formed into molecules, formed into larger arrangements, are simply a game of pachinko at a massive scale, tiny particles crashing and bonding and splitting and crashing again in a way that, through some ineffable miracle, gave rise to this self-motivated, apparently conscious, willful, powerful bag of dirty water which has incredibly – impossibly – incomprehensibly – gained consciousness.
And all around us are billions of similar creatures, and trillions more somewhat related clockworks, from tiny ones with but a single cog to those hundreds or thousands of times more massive than we are.
How do I get from here to phantasmagoria? Simple: we don’t see it. We blithely go about our business, moving from here to there and back, doing our ‘jobs’ – as if they were part of some natural law, totally heedless of the fact that everything we call society is just a consensual, mass hallucination shared by seven billion of us, fractured and subdivided by nearly imaginary lines. We allow ourselves to be so consumed by our nearly insignificant concerns, worries, joys, disappointments, victories, defeats, and other ephemeral-in-a-cosmic-sense experiences that we manage to be -bored-.
So: phantasmagoria. A dreamlike illusion of banality overlaid on an astonishing backdrop of staggering immensity.
I think I am going to make a point of watching a sunrise sometime soon, just to remind myself.