The Perils of Uncertainty (aka, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters)

By Sylvia Steinert, LCSW

Thanks to Google’s wiles, the Italian phrase I came upon this morning (se non e vero, e ben trovato, in English, ‘even if not true, it is well invented’) led to the discovery of the gruesome demise of its author, Giordano Bruno, philosopher of a new science and martyr for free thought. On February 17, 1600, Bruno was hanged, I learned, naked and upside down in a Roman market square (known more lyrically by tourists today as the Field of Flowers) and then burned at the stake for having suggested there might exist a world beyond our own. I wonder whether his body’s second-to-last indignity (the final being that his ashes were thrown, according to Wikipedia–not scattered–into the Tiber River), perversely mimicked the unforgivable nature of the sin Bruno was charged with having committed. He had, after all, turned much of the church’s doctrine literally on its head. Bruno died for viewing the world as he did–its cosmos, religions and people–as plural, rather than singular and properly classified. Discovering today the nature of the ‘crime’ that sealed Bruno’s fate more than 400 years ago sounded a chord, as they say.

Bruno seemed to have, as one modernist poet once put it, disturbed the universe by suggesting mankind wasn’t so special. There just might–Bruno may have suggested–be other (though possibly greener) creatures up there populating the sky. Judging by the thoroughness of his evisceration, Bruno’s ET theorizing definitely threatened the order of things as decreed by the biggest, if not most anal brains of the time. If those guys hadn’t killed him, Bruno might have gone on to teach young children and possibly clerics (in his own way and of course in Italian) that nothing would happen if the peas touched the mashed potatoes or if the crack were stepped on. But, as historians and many psychoanalysts know well, there are among us those who are bound to say…no, no, no! Do not let the vegetables touch! Control, order and negation keep anxiety pretty effectively at bay. Disruption, ambiguity–change itself—may be heralded by some for prompting growth, creativity, and diversification but by others with foreboding and sometimes aggression. The latter might prefer juice without pulp, jam without seeds and everyone in their assigned seats. And so it shall be. Worlds without end. Worlds that must be kept just so. Mrs. Havisham in that dusty, musty dress of hers!Not everyone meets uncertainty with brutality, sure. But we seem often compelled to assign it portentous, prophetic meaning. We fill the vacuum uncertainty creates. We won’t rest until a cause is found to resolve uncertainty and dispel the unknown. Someone or something must be to blame because this uneasy feeling cannot be tolerated. It must be done away with so that the demons our own fears conjure and that we ourselves in turn come to dread, can be expelled and projected onto someone else. It’s they who’ve disturbed our universe. It was always ours. Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Sylvia Steinert, LCSW, currently co-executive director of WCSPP, has been in private practice in Connecticut for 30 years. She received her certificate in psychoanalysis from WCSPP in 2005.


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