One of our stranger customs is explicitly not thinking about certain charismatic megafauna: An elephant. A pink rhinoceros. A white bear. Or rather, instructing someone not to think of one of them a notorious way to tease her, because it triggers what cognitive scientists call an ironic process of ideation: it is impossible to not think of something you are told not to think about. These three things will not be considered here, so I won't tell you to not think about them.
I worry about the insignificance of anonymous units of the physical world. A grain of sand on a beach, a single leaf on a tree, a single piece of junk mail I won't open. Each of these things might have something about it that distinguishes it from all others of its kind, but how can I know? Lacking evidence to the contrary, I have to assume they're interchangeable. They have no monetary value in the aggregate, so individual units must be doubly worthless. Like fractals, these units of insignificance can be found at every scale: a single tree in the forest, a single leaf on the tree, a single vein in the leaf, a single cell in the vein, or a single electron attached to a single atom in the cell. Each of these things is faceless, nameless, as far as we know—but how can we be sure? We only know that we swim in a sea of insignificant objects, of things that have absolutely nothing special about them.
Sitting in my car, waiting for traffic to move, I notice the license plate on the car ahead of me. Like all non-personalized passenger-car plates issued in California since 1980, it's embossed with: a number, followed by three letters, followed by three numbers. I quickly parse this sequence for patterns: are the three letters a pronounceable syllable? A palindrome or anagram? A familiar acronym or abbreviation? Is the sequence of three numbers regular or memorable in any way? Are the numbers sequential, monotonic, antitonic? Do they have a common factor? Is one of them the sum or product of the other two? I'm looking for features that would make the license plate easy to remember—supposing I had a reason to remember? Maybe I'll remember it for no reason, like an earworm, a catchy tune that buzzes incessantly in my head—a mind's-eye-worm, an obsessive intrusion on my attention. Perhaps this license plate is not completely irrelevant to my life; I've already spent three whole seconds studying it, and I'm even beginning to feel a bit attached to it. Memorizing it could be a form of mental calisthenics, supposedly protective against cognitive deterioration in old age. But my mental acuity, such as it is, must be based on other qualities, because memorization is an ability I possess in only a modest degree. I can remember four or five phone numbers, my social security number, and three birthdays; beyond that I've never ventured. I don't even remember the license plate on my own car, so how can I add this stranger's plate to my meager store of remembered random sequences? It might push out one of the things I need to remember. To forestall this, I avert my attention to other things and continue waiting for the light to change. Elapsed time: four seconds. There was no reason to focus on that license plate; it was just mental gears spinning, the clutch disengaged, no interface to reality or anything that matters. It was a waking dream. Like most dreams it would be utterly forgotten, as soon as the traffic awakes and I step on the gas.
In a plot device of detective fiction, perfected by Agatha Christie, the true culprit lurks in the background. An apparently innocuous minor character is introduced early, but is then forgotten while suspicion falls on a series of sinister foreground characters. At novel's end, this unconsidered character is revealed to be the only one with the means and opportunity to commit the crime; and his or her guilt is confirmed by a dramatic confession. In a readerly reversal of this scale of importance, the murder-mystery aficionado identifies the least conspicuous character as the guilty one, taking pleasure in solving the mystery before the solution is revealed by the author. Only a casual reader, like myself, gets to experience it in the way the author intended.
There is some consolation in the myth (?) that no two snowflakes are alike. It comforts me when I contemplate the legions of endlessly cloned physical units that comprise our universe. The material law of anonymous physical units corresponds to a social law best expressed by Herman Melville: Take mankind in mass, and, for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates. If this is so, what's to stop anyone from concluding that I am an unnecessary duplicate? But if every snowflake is unique, how can this not be the case for people? So here's the good news. Cal Tech has a web page devoted to the question of the uniqueness of snowflakes, and they conclude, after preliminary qualifications about tiny and simple snowflakes, that because the crystal structure is determined by the random distribution of relatively rare water molecules with a variant isotope of oxygen, or with a deuterium atom replacing one of the hydrogen atoms: it's unlikely that any two complex snow crystals, out of all those made over the entire history of the planet, have ever looked completely alike. The bad news: although all the snowflakes that exist are most certainly unique, there's still no reason to consider one of them more worth our attention than the others. They are all unique, yet none of them is special. This feels wrong to me, as if we were slighting them, denying the claim to individual value that all individuals implicitly make, tempting karmic justice by failing to give them their due.
ALIENATION IN GENRE FICTION
I have long been devoted to Victorian genre fiction, like the novels of Wilkie Collins and the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. I read them whenever I am under the weather and don't feel up to more challenging fare. In these stories, the density of social life is often contracted to a point, centered on an individual who "knows" no one, never leaves the house, and never receives visitors. The reasons for such isolation may be cataloged as: the necessity of protecting a guilty secret, or hiding from retribution, or avoiding snubs earned by public guilt; the preservation of gentility on reduced means of support; misanthropy; penitential self-denial; the establishment of a late-romantic mood of world-weary dismalness; the genre's convention and/or the author's preference to sharpen the focus and intensity of the narrative; a paramount interest in individual psychology that blunts the author's attention to the outer and inner life of the social group. In Conan Doyle's "The Cardboard Box," one of these solitaires is baffled to receive a package containing two freshly-severed human ears. The newspaper, read aloud by Dr. Watson to his friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, reports: There is no indication as to the sender, and the matter is the more mysterious as Miss Cushing, who is a maiden lady of fifty, has led a most retired life, and has so few acquaintances or correspondents that it is a rare event for her to receive anything through the post. Such unrelieved social isolation seems almost inhuman. But wait—on going to Miss Cushing's residence, our heroes tapped at the door, which was opened by a small servant girl. No further mention is made of this girl, nor is there any mention of the charwoman, the milkman, the grocer's boy, the butcher's boy, the vendors who cry their wares in the street, who sell Miss Cushing her flowers or fish in season, or any other such person, because all are social nobodies according to the mores of the time and place, so it is not possible for her to "know" any of them. All are beneath consideration—yet they relieve Miss Cushing from the lonely condition of living like a hermit. It's all understood; you don't even have to think about it.
Things we don't like to think about change from one era to the next. Sex was high on the list in Sigmund Freud's fin de siècle Vienna. A good example of the repressed in the present day is: our complicity in factory farming and its undeniably cruel treatment of fellow creatures like chickens and cows. If you are a meat-eater, as I am, you don't want to think about it. Vegetarianism seems cultish, and vegetarians self-righteous misfits; but as an omnivore I assess the prospects for moral clarity on the subject as slim to nonexistent. The cruelty is out of sight and out of mind, and that satisfies me for now. I can even deny the suffering present to my senses, like the hypothetical death agony of the very real boiled lobster. I prefer to believe that lobsters don't feel pain in any way that people would recognize or be able to sympathize with, because they are about as complex as a beetle, and who cares about the comfort and feelings of a beetle? But rationalization will only carry me so far. Mostly I rely on good old fashioned denial.
Among the things that will not be considered, there are a few that will not go quietly. They have a lot to say for themselves, and they want to be heard. They want to be known. And remembered. They want to stand out, to endure, and not to be just another defunct cog in the bygone machinery of their era. Some of them, like Enoch Soames and Ozymandias—specifically, the fictionalized Ozymandias of Shelley's poem—are remembered only for their burning desire for fame, and the futility of their hopes. Their salient personality trait is pride: they don't want our pity. Out of respect for their feelings, we pass over them in silence.
A common process of artistic creation is to transform some feeling or insight into a metaphor. The method I used in "Unconsidered Things" is to find a metaphor which has a resonance I don't understand, and attempt to find out what it's a meta-phor for. This is not exhaustively known, so it's best not explicitly stated. The meaning of the metaphor is brought out obliquely, by setting it next to other metaphors that have a similar resonance. I've brought forward a particular meaning, which is basically Enoch Soames's fear that his poetry will not be read or remembered by future generations, but this is far from exhausting the meanings to be found in a catalog of the species of anonymity, invisibility, and forgetting.