taking a moment to appreciate the total perspective vortex
The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses. To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.
The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife. Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.
And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her. And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.
To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.
In case I haven’t talked about it lately, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of my all time faves, my fandom before I knew what fandom was - and this passage has always been a favourite of mine (particularly in the radio version), because Zaphod’s experience and reaction are hilariously Peak Zaphod.
I’ve been known to muse on the existential truth of this passage now and then: I think it appeals to my inner historian. However, I’m not convinced it’s true. Or rather, I’m not convinced it has to be true - and I think it can not be true without having an ego the size of Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Shortly before Easter I was in Wadi Rum. It is one of the most astonishing places I’ve ever been. It is somewhere that makes you feel small in the space of the desert and the shadow of the rocks - and somewhere that has existed if not literally forever at least for almost all of human history. Sitting in the back of a pick-up truck driving through a narrow gully between sandstone cliffs it felt like my own total perspective vortex, and I loved it. I felt very tiny, but also very present in the universe. There was no existential angst, no over-planning-ahead whirring in my brain (not even how best to caption a photo of the moment on instagram), and no worrying about just how badly Brexit, global climate change, and Donald Trump are going to screw up the future. My shoulders dropped and I breathed more easily. (And I cried, just a little)
In A Disruptive Witness Alan Noble describes a type of moment, which you could call a ‘total perspective vortex moment’:
There are moments in our lives when we feel the tension between modern life as we know it within the immanent frame and our awareness or longing for some vision of fullness that goes beyond it. It’s the tension between feeling that “all things are continuing as they were since the beginning” and a hope in the “promise of his coming” (2 Peter 3:4). In these moments we are invited to consider the possibility that we are not at the center of the universe, that creating and expressing our identity is not our greatest purpose, that goodness may not be a preference but may be embodied in God, and that meaning is not primarily a choice of interpretation but a revelation. (p.149)
This was the kind of moment I had in Wadi Rum; one the place I was in was so much bigger than me in every possible dimension and yet I felt totally content. On it’s own, it was a great feeling, but the memory of it is perhaps better still. I could spend my life chasing that feeling by place hopping, or - even though I’m probably not going to give up travelling any time soon - I can try to remember what it felt like in my bones as well in my spirit.
The premise of the total perspective vortex is that it crushes the mind - but I don’t think it has to - I think it can liberate the soul.