The brain can only absorb and process so much strangeness.
Working on history,
I'd say that trying to imagine the past can be as daunting as trying to imagine the future.
It's like sci-fi in reverse.
My image of war's timeline, for instance, is shaped by my memory of the United Nations warning Saddam Hussein he had about a month to withdraw from Kuwait, in the winter of 1990-1991.
I expect they delivered the warning via satellite communication technology?
RIGHT: The Hunters in the Snow (1565), by Pieter Bruegel
So, my brain boggles to learn that George Washington walked back home--leaving behind his starving horse--for about a month, after delivering a warning to the French to withdraw, in the winter of 1753-1754.
The following war wasn't any the nicer for how long it took to get going,
but it did unfold in what looks like slow-motion to my mind.
The most curious things help me imagine what history might have been like. Monty Python movies, for instance,
do a weirdly good job depicting the past.
The reply the French gave George Washington, in fact, pretty much matches their response to the English in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Then, last night I watched Solaris (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, Russia) for the first time.
LEFT: Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) and his imagined wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), on the space station above the planet Solaris.
It was a balm to my boggled brain, because it's all about the limits of human imagination:
We see people and things outside ourselves as mirrors, one of the characters says,
and indeed the movie was like a mirror of my mind.
I'd never watched Solaris because it's supposedly painfully slow,
but I found it riveting:
its pacing matched the time my mind took to enter into the images.
The human brain best absorbs spoken sentences no more than 15 words long, Momo recently told me.
How quickly can we absorb new visual vocabulary?
Solaris is intensely visual. The director Tarkovsky treats film as a visual art, like painting, and he uses paintings a lot in the film too.
He lingers on the snowy Bruegel painting, above, for instance.
And, without giving anything away, I can show you this image from the end of the film, below left, of the son greeting his father.
Tarkovsky doesn't show on screen the Rembrandt painting The Return of the Prodigal Son (below right); but if you miss the allusion, it doesn't matter--you get the idea.
If we look closely in the mirror of art--or history-- we see ourselves.
This is both a limit and a gift of the human imagination.