Yesterday, my Twitter friend @theoriginaledi drew my attention to this video by Hank Green, in particular the part between 2:42 and 4:14:
Hank Green says, in this part,
There is the sudden realization . . . that your life is not gonna be the same anymore, and there is no way to reacquire that sameness. . . . It’s such a specific feeling, this moment where you suddenly realize that you don’t know what the future holds anymore, and the story you’ve been quietly, silently telling yourself about what the future is going to be like, that story just… falls apart. It’s not there anymore. It doesn’t get replaced with something. It’s just gone. I wanted to know what this feeling is called, because it seems so specific that there should be a name for it. I’ve experienced it a bunch of times. I could not find a word for this in English.
Hank says that he asked Susie Dent, and she replied, “I’ve been wondering similar for days. I keep returning to ‘wuthering’: a rushing or raging that you’re powerless to stop. Emily Bronte described it as ‘atmospheric tumult’.” Hank allows that “this isn’t quite it”; he’s willing to make it it, but he’s open to suggestions.
I think the word required is kenophany.
That’s not what I replied to Edi right away. I first said, “Ah, a peripeteia and anagnorisis into the postmodern moment: the Wile E. Coyotification of life, when you look down and realize you’re in midair, and all the metanarratives are empty. The dark side of satori. Postmodern philosophers and Zen Buddhists write about it.” And I think Wile E. Coyotification has a certain something, but Wile E. Coyote had an assortment of calamitous moments, not just the one where he runs off a cliff and doesn’t realize at first that he’s in mid-air. Besides, at that point he does have a sense of a future. It’s a revised sense, but the gravity of the situation is clear and the consequences proceed inevitably.
No, this is more “the dark side of satori.” Allow me to explain. Satori is the moment in Zen Buddhist meditation where you achieve insight, understanding, awareness of the true nature of things; it comes from the Japanese verb satoru and it means ‘comprehension’ or ‘understanding’. But the true nature of things is that – well, I mean, one can’t actually put it in words, but it’s the lack of inherent essence; it’s what in Japanese is said mu, sometimes translated as “void,” but void has strong negative emotional connotations that are not intrinsic to it. It’s just that there’s no there there.
Which can be very disconcerting as an idea to many people. It’s similar to how Fredric Jameson described the postmodern: “incredulity towards metanarratives.” (By the way, if you’re about to rant about “postmodern thinking” as some kind of epitome of the airy stupidity of ivory tower academics, don’t bother; you’re just being lazy – what you think of as “postmodernism” has nothing to do with what it actually is. If you had an accurate idea of it, you wouldn’t be ranting against it, you’d be recognizing in it some of the folksy wisdom your grandparents dispensed about not structuring your life around something just because it’s a fancy story that sounded good.) But since we like to have stories in which we follow a clear path from A and go to Z and make overall sense of everything, we are very resistant to the idea that there is no path, there is no such thing as following, “clear” is our imagination, and “we” aren’t a single coherent unchanging entity either. It’s all… beyond our ken.
Hence the “dark side”: the dreadful feeling of emptiness and void, when in fact it’s just nothing – or, well, not nothing either, but not something; there is no intrinsic quiddity. And then there’s that ken, as in ‘knowledge’; it just by coincidence happens to have a sound-alike in Japanese. A synonym for satori, you see, is kenshō. That means ‘seeing the true essence’ or ‘seeing nature’. Ken means ‘seeing’, which is a bit of a pity since shō (‘nature, essence’) sounds like show, which is the other side of seeing.
Imagine, a viewing of understanding: a ken show. But can’t we make a fancy single word of that? Well, how about pulling in the Greek φαίνω, ‘I shine, I appear’, whence –phany as in epiphany and theophany? From that we get kenophany.
Oh, but the ken in kenophany is not from Japanese ken – that wouldn’t work. And it’s not from English ken (meaning ‘understanding, awareness’) either. No, it’s from Greek κενό, which means ‘void’ or ‘emptiness’. So kenophany is a showing – or a coming to see – the emptiness, the lack of an actual overarching structuring narrative. It’s the moment of the carpet being whipped out from under your feet, and it turns out that there is neither a floor nor not a floor beneath it.
I think we all have had our kenophanies, moments where the storyline we were following is just gone, and nothing is there to replace it. It’s like in the song “La marée haute” by Lhasa de Sela: “La route chante quand je m’en vais; je fais trois pas… la route se tait. La route est noire à perte de vue; je fais trois pas… la route n’est plus.” (“The road sings as I set out; I take three steps… the road is silent. The road is black as far as I can see; I take three steps… the road is gone.”)
It seems inevitable to me, this word kenophany; it’s so neatly suited to this meaning and this moment.
But it doesn’t exist.
Yes, it does. It just didn’t exist until now. You won’t find it in a dictionary or anywhere else as such. I assembled it from the appropriate bits. That’s a thing one can still do with these classical Greek and Latin Meccano pieces. That’s not to say that I invented it; it was already there, just waiting to be put together. And it’s not to say that I didn’t invent it; no one else put it together. But who, then, is this “I” anyway? You won’t get the same results if you check back in a minute.