The Irrational Elsewhere

Jupiter, with lightning bolt. Engraving, 1597

These days it feels like a gesture of emotional safety—like securing a seat belt around your soul—to step out of the confusion of our daily existence and look at life as a full blown allegory. What happens when you allow it to all be an enchanted journey, with symbols and meaning that come together and make sense in the end? Something shifts.

Märchen—the German term for wonder tales, fairy tales, tales of magic—capsulate adventure, test bravery, deliver insights and end happily. Every culture has its own set of these, and their ubiquitousness suggests a fundamental human hunger for stories with wisdom and a built in insurance policy. The ride can be wild because, in the end, all is well.

It is dismissive to accuse someone of living in a “fairy tale,” but increasingly I see how sticking with a linear world view is woefully inadequate. Artists know intimately about this, and most of the ones whose work I respond to are highly skilled at stepping away from the constraints of linear thinking and structured language, beyond the zone where the only useful information is that which can be measured and proven.

This has been a consistent theme during the 13 years I have been writing on Slow Muse. A few of my favorite quotes on this topic are reposted here because, well, they are so damn good.


“The practical reality is that any present-tense version of the world is unstable. What we currently consider to be true—both objectively and subjectively—is habitually provisional. But the modern problem is that reevaluating what we consider “true” is becoming increasingly difficult.

Chuck Klosterman

“The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality.”


“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.”

Erich Fromm

“Our tendency is to narrate our ‘not knowing’ in a way that confuses it with knowing. Our instinct is towards narrative in general.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“And then the kicker is this: in passing from the real to the imagined, in following that trail, you learn that both sides have a little of the other in each, that there are elements of the imagined inside your experience of the “real” world – rock, bone, wood, ice – and elements of the real – not the metaphorical, but the actual thing itself – inside stories and tales and dreams.”

Rick Bass

“Almost everything around us is imperceptible, almost all the rest is maddeningly difficult to perceive, and what remains scarcely amounts to anything. Physicists estimate that less than five per cent of the known universe is visible—where “visible” means only that we could, theoretically, observe it, given the right instruments and sufficient physical proximity. A far smaller amount of the known universe, roughly 0.3 per cent, is dense enough to form stars. Perhaps 0.000001 per cent exists in earthlike planets. As for the part that exists in or near our own planet, the stuff that is visible to us in any literal sense: that is a decimal attenuating out almost to nothing, a speck of dust in the cosmic hinterlands.

“Even here on earth, with our senses seemingly full to the brim, we see almost nothing of what matters. Molecules, microbes, cells, germs, genes, viruses, the interior of the planet, the depths of the ocean: none of that is visible to the naked eye. And, as David Hume noted, none of the causes controlling our world are visible under any conditions; we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it—all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls…

“We can do this because the invisible, although it keeps itself hidden, makes itself felt. I cannot see the people I love as I write this, but I can sense their pull, and I act as I do because of their existence. Taken literally, that is how the cosmos works. An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.”

Kathryn Schulz


Our current circumstance is that we are tethered to perennial news reporting and we are being held hostage by an incompetent reality show entertainer posing as a president. More than ever, an entire category of information coming in needs to be parsed, defanged and cautiously rationed. That firehose of noise isn’t contributing anything to our wisdom or our human need to make sense of things.  We need other channels, communicating in a different way.

In speaking about her exhibit Intuition at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, curator Daniela Ferretti said,  “Freed from the need to depict the visible world, the artist becomes the receptor through whom the echoes and reflections of an irrational elsewhere flow freely and take form.” Curated by Ferretti and Axel Vervoordt, Intuition embodied that “irrational elsewhere” by assembling a visual experience without language or a prescribed point of view. Something was unleashed by just allowing each work included on those four floors to speak for itself. (For photos and information about that exhibit, click here and here.)

Märchen tap into that irrational elsewhere as well by accessing domains that exist outside the blinkered world of linear reality. When I experience a narrative told in this manner, I can feel the shift in my mental receptivity. It is as if the decision to enchant rather than instruct signals the mind to let go of its defended stance, like a fist relaxing into an open palm. Anything experienced in that open palm mind set is a different kind of knowing.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is a good candidate for Märchen-esque storytelling. Based on the early Celtic British King Cunobeline, the play steps beyond its historical foundations to include other popular Shakespeare themes and motifs—young love, deceit, compassion, forgiveness, patriotism, ghosts, a woman disguised as a man. Set in Roman times, even the god Jupiter makes an appearance on stage.

In his Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of Cymbeline, director Fred Sullivan abandons a linear approach to tell the story as a magical and playful fairy tale. The production is high energy, full of theatrical whimsy, with a set design suggestive of an enchanted Mother Goose world. Nora Eschenheimer’s Imogen holds the stage with her lights out charisma, morphing from princess and secretly married wife to swashbuckling mountaineer and aide de camp in drag. The pacing and the tone of the play is endlessly playful: the battle scene is balls thrown from from one team to the other, evil characters are charmingly caricatured. And everything ends well, tied up in a big bow.

I saw the play the night of the Mueller testimony. I arrived at Boston Common feeling depleted, stripped of hope and full of dark premonitions. This production was the perfect antidote. It was also a visceral reminder of Howard Zinn’s sage advice:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”

The irrational elsewhere is alive and singing loudly in another production in Boston this week—The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical, at the Huntington Theater. Based on the popular fantasy series of Percy Jackson YA novels by Rick Riordan, this irresistibly entertaining production–music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki–blends adolescent angst, disaffected parenting and the power of friendship with ancient mythology, the forces of evil and the hero’s journey. (In a moment of unexpected serendipity, Jupiter/Zeus makes his appearance in this production as well.) Working with a cast of only seven—five of whom play a wide variety of characters—this is a tight, well rehearsed and talented crew. While this production is aimed at a younger audience who are already Percy Jackson and/or Chis McCarrell fans (the line outside the stage door afterwards was unprecedented at the Huntington) this is magical storytelling for every age group.

Living as we are during a particularly dark era, we can all be heartened by moments like this, when a fantastical tale of gods and demi-gods (called “half-bloods” in this world) can offer a strong message for our current circumstances. As is the case in the Harry Potter novels, a younger generation faces unimaginably powerful forces of evil and destruction that must be confronted and defeated. Their elders can no longer protect them. Still part children but also heroes in embryo, these characters are being asked to step up as the leaders in crafting a newer, better, safer world. Offering a model of exceptional courage is essential right now, and tales like The Lightning Thief offer a wisdom lesson for the next generation about facing the obstacles that lie ahead. As sobering as that reality is, I left the theater feeling delight as well as hope.

Cymbeline is playing for free on the Boston Common through August 4.

The Lightning Thief is at the Huntington Theater through July 28.

6 Replies to “The Irrational Elsewhere”

  1. Bravissima! Thank you for another stunning post DB

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Suzanne!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you!

  2. Deborah, Once again you’ve stopped me in my tracks — so much to think about and consider — and re-consider.

    I too struggle with how to “parse” the news. No news is not an option. After all, I am one of the privileged. Yet, too much information sends me plummeting.

    Here’s an interesting essay on writing. The metaphors are a bit heavy-handed, but the idea of “braided essays” was intriguing — and new to me. Memory and stories are an important part of my work. file:///Users/vickystein/Documents/ART/MY%20WORK/**IMAGES%20&%20IDEAS%20&%20INSPIRATION/WORDS%20&%20LANGUAGE*/Literary%20Narrative%20&%20Quliting.webarchive

  3. deborahbarlow says:

    Vicky, I am sorry for such a slow response. I was away most of August with my family and am just now getting through to this comment. I wasn’t able to get the link to work. Can you try posting it again? I am very interested in reading your essay. Thanks.

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