The Otherworld as the Unknown
From Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld by Patrick Harpur
The Otherworld is always imagined as beginning at the edge of our known world. It can be the wilderness outside the city walls or the unexplored regions at the edge of maps labelled ‘Here be dragons’. It can begin at the brink of the ocean—or at the garden gate. As the boundaries of the Unknown are pushed back, the world largely mapped, the Otherworld is located in outer space. Early aliens claimed to come from Venus, Mars or the Moon; later, when these planets seemed more local, less remote, they claimed to come from distant star systems such as Zeta Reticuli or the Pleiades.
Religion sets the boundary of the Unknown at the limits of human life. In traditional cultures, the other world beyond life, after death, is immanent—another reality contained within this one. In Christianity, it is transcendent, a separate reality removed from Earth. Scientism recognizes no Otherworld, but … daimonic reality has a way of subverting it. Thus scientism constructs its own literal versions of a transcendent and immanent Otherworld. The former appears in the weird models of the universe articulated by astronomers and cosmologists; the latter appears in the speculations of nuclear physicists.
It is worth lingering a moment over the Otherworld of the nuclear physicists, if only because their discipline is widely held to be the doyen of sciences. They, above all, seek to establish the “facts” of the matter. I would maintain, however, that their subatomic realm is merely another variant of daimonic reality. Everything that is predicated of it could, for instance, be applied with equal justice to the land of Fairy. Both worlds invert the cozy Newtonian world we inhabit: laws of time, space, causality and, of course, matter are ignored. (Once past the “event horizon” of a black hole, say the astrophysicists, time slows to a standstill; or, once inside the black hole, it “runs backwards”.) Subatomic physics introduces extra dimensions—”string theory” allows for ten, I think: our four, plus six more, compacted very tightly. Multi-dimensionality is a staple of science fiction and ufology.
The daimons of subatomic “inner space” are called particles, although strictly speaking they aren’t—elecrons, for example, are both particles and waves at the same time. They are paridoxical, both there and not-there, like faeries. Like UFOs they cannot be measured exactly: we can calculate their speed, or their position, but not both. This, roughly, is what Werner Heisenberg called the Uncertainty Principle, and it applies to all daimonic phenomena. We cannot know subatomic particles in themselves; we can only identify them via their daimonic traces. Like minute yetis, they used to leave tracks in vats of detergent placed at the bottom of mines; nowadays they are more likely to leave their spoor on computer screens linked to particle accelerators.
They tease their investigators mercilessly. Each newly discovered particle promises to be the fundamental building-block of matter. First there were atoms; then electrons, protons, neutrons; then quarks, their playful, even Mad Hatterish nature evident in their Lewis Carrollian name. I remember when there were only four quarks, daimonically named Upness, Downness, Strangeness and Charm (good names for UFO types). The last time I looked into them there were more than forty, and counting. Ever smaller, ever more impish and less substantial—the massless particles—they recede from us like quasars, those enormous daimons said to be moving towards the edge of the known universe at speeds close to that of light.
As with all anomalous entities, the very act of observing the particles disturbs them. Observer and observed, subject and object, cannot finally be distinguished. Particles whose existence is predicted obligingly turn up. If we didn’t know better, we might almost say that they had been imagined into existence. The so-called New Physicists smelled a rat long ago. They began to compare the whole enterprise to oriental religion or to suspect that its reality is primarily metaphorical, not literal and factual. This is not to say that daimons cannot manifest concretely, as we have seen. In fact, the smaller they are, the more powerful they can be, viz. the atom bomb.
Students of the daimonic—spiritualists, ufologists and so on—excitedly invoke subatomic physics as evidence that other dimensions, other worlds are possible and real. They are encouraged to believe that one day their own favorite daimons will be acceptable to Science. But the subatomic realm is not a literal world of facts from which they can derive support for the literal reality of their own. It is simply another metaphor for the Soul of the World. It is not even an especially good one: daimons prefer to appear as persons, not as impersonal, quirky little particles. The subatomic Otherworld has its own elegance and a certain stark beauty, as the physicists are keen on emphasizing; but it is grey and meaningless compared to the world William Blake saw in a grain of sand. Indeed, while special instruments, such as the microscope and telescope, extend sensory limits, they do not increase its qualitative depth. They produce an ersatz vision, a shadow of that true imaginative vision which alone reveals meaning.
The Einsteinian model of the universe—more like a great thought than a great machine, said Sir James Jeans—reverses the Newtonian model. They are variants of each other, images of a universe whose final reality can never be known. The Otherworld mirrors ours. It can be benign, like paradises that reverse this world’s suffering; or it can be uncanny, like the realm some tribes ascribe to witches who walk or talk backwards, wear their heads upside down, their legs back to front. These characteristics are sometimes attributed to the inhabitants of neighbouring villages, reminding us that, to people of imagination, the Otherworld has always been in this one. For such people, to wake is, in a deeper sense, to fall asleep; to die, to live. There may well be an end to this literal world of ours, but there can be no literal end to it because it is continuous with that other world, without end.