The Weird: Interview with J.F Martel
Exploratio Incognita Ɪ
Thank you J.F Martel, for letting me interview you. I found it fruitful beyond measure. I have left the transcript unedited, except for putting the questions and answers into numerical order and cleaning up formatting. It was a text interview, which resulted in the longer quotes.
J.F Martel is an author and filmmaker from Ottawa, Canada. He is a co-host of the Weird Studies Podcast (of which I am a huge fan).
(My writing will be denoted with an “A”, J.F Martel’s writing will be denoted with a “J.F”)
A: First question: what is the Weird to you?
J.F: That's a tough question! The weird, for me, is the revelation of a reality that defies thought while at the same time demanding to be thought. Something is happening that shouldn't happen on the basis of what we were told was possible. The weird is a tear through which we glimpse a reality that is immeasurably, maybe infinitely richer and more complex than what we normally believe is the case.
A: Second question: what does verification look like to you within the realm of the Weird? To me, the Weird seems to defy description, and even moreso deny explanation. However it always feels like there's something tantalizing thats just out of reach
J.F: That's a nice way of putting it. I think we need to recognize two kinds of weirdness, epistemological and ontological. When something is epistemologically weird, it is weird because it defies our current model of reality. It challenges us to revise this model in order to come up with a new model, one able to encompass the weird phenomenon. Take UFOs, for example. Clearly something is going on, and this something defies a widely shared model of reality. Now, you could imagine a new model able to incorporate UFOs if more information on what they are could be obtained. If, for instance, we learned that UFOs were the vehicles of extraterrestrial visitors, or if we figured out that they, as Carl Jung proposed, "psychoid" emanations of an archetype, then it would just be a question of revising or expanding an epistemic model for UFOs to go from weird to not weird. But what if UFOs were, in themselves, something that thought couldn't encompass? What if they couldn't be made sense of at all? In that case, UFOs would be an example of ontological weirdness, weirdness that in itself defies any possible understanding. My tendency is to believe that, at bottom, everything is ontologically weird -- not just UFOs.
A: Third question: Jumping off your answer to question one, I can't shake the feeling that Weirdness demands to be felt moreso than thought. It seems to me to cross fluidly from aesthetics to religion to philosophy to science, while always feeling uncanny. As a result, trying to contain via thought both specific examples of Weirdness, and Weirdness in totality, seems to always come short. Perhaps the Weird escapes the frame of reference? So, does the Weird have a sense of agency? Is it playing with us, giving breadcrumbs but never conclusions?
J.F: I think we should resist the tendency to categorically oppose feeling and thought, as though they were antithetical. I think that the distinction between the two is largely artificial, having to do with how you chooses to look at your inner states Every thought carries with it a feeling, and every feeling is laced with thought. While it is true that the weird is associated with feelings of dread, uneasiness, wonder, etc., those feelings come precisely from the fact that I do not know what I am looking at, that I can't wrap my head around it, i.e. that I can't think it. Things that are weird for us -- epistemologically weird things -- can theoretically be incorporated into our mental environment, provided we learn more about them. Things that are weird in themselves (ontologically weird) simply can't be thought, and it's the fact that they can't be thought that generates uncanny feelings.
A: Fourth question: Jumping off your second answer, can beings such as humans survive true contact with the Weird? I am reminded of your Mothman chronicles episode. It seems to me that the Weird wants to draw us down the rabbit hole. If we follow, it seems to me that the Weird will try to yank at threads of sanity and understanding in order to make us unravel. Exploration has always come into tension with safety. Clearly humans can survive epistemological weirdness. Could one survive contact with the ontologically Weird?
J.F: There's no doubt that a violent encounter with ontological weirdness can have devastating effects on those who are unprepared. This is why the forms of exploration that lead one into weird territory (psychedelics, magic, mysticism, art, etc.) tend to come with fairly strong caveats. The very notion of ontological weirdness suggests a reality that eludes any rational grasp. A person who believes that the rational overlay that we impose on reality is all of reality is in for some potentially unpleasant surprises. That said, I don't think the weird is out to get us -- not anymore than the crevasse that swallowed the mountaineer was out to get him. On the other hand, I believe that the universe includes weird entities -- beings who inhabit domains which we understand badly, if we understand them at all -- that may not have our best interests at heart. And it seems to be the case that engaging in certain practices can open the door to things that might otherwise have left us alone.
A: Fifth question: I quite agree with your answer to 3, reminds me of lovecraftian horror and the terrible/terrific scale of the universe. I am wondering how we as humans ought to systematically study the Weird, if at all. This gets at one of my earlier gestures about exploring the bounds of science. I am often filled with an awe at the universe, a sense of some grand order or logos. There at times seem to be principles of connectivity and grandeur that almost feel like touching a god. Einstein described something like this, where the more he saw mathematical expressions built into the fabric of the universe, the more he became convinced of some kind of pattern to it all. Clearly not every experience is reducible to text, and as later Wittgenstein would say, there may be use to some nonsense (things that defy description, perhaps divinity). So, what is the relation between science, systematization, and the Weird? How do we differentiate a true greater understanding from pareidolia, if there is even a difference?
J.F: I'm glad you went there, because you're touching on the whole other side of the coin. Here I am going to be more speculative than perhaps I should be. The genius of Lovecraft lay in his ability to show us the limits of a purely immanent understanding of reality. What is horrific in Lovecraft, if you really look at what he's doing, is the sudden irruption of transcendence in a thought-world that has rejected the transcendent. How transcendence -- the pattern behind all patterns, the Logos, etc. -- is experienced will largely be determined to one's openness to it. People like Einstein and Spinoza nurtured the ability to sense, in the deep structure of the immanent world, the suggestion of a pattern that cannot be accounted for on purely immanent terms. What kept them safe, I think, was their knack for thinking about Logos in a purely formal way -- as something abstract, something immeasurably large or small, something outside themselves even though they intellectually included themselves in it.
The really challenging stage of contemplative practice begins when the pattern reveals itself as more than form and becomes a force or process that sweeps up not just the idea of the universe but the most intimate elements of the self: feeling, ego, memory, soul. This is the proverbial dark night of the soul. When this happens, turning off the signal becomes impossible because the signal encompasses everything, even what is most personal. The outcome will partly depend on the preparedness of the experiencer. And so, if the literature is any guide, two people can experience the Logos -- which may ultimately mean the fact of ontological weirdness at its deepest and most immediate -- in totally different ways. The first might find herself in a kind of paradise, the other in a living hell. This is what the great mystic Isaac the Syrian meant, I think, when he wrote that "those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love." Hell and heaven, illumination and darkness, are the same thing experienced differently. The great hope is that the heaven/illumination experience is more adequate to the Real than the dark and hellish alternative. That's the wager that the spiritual traditions makes.
A: Sixth question: In your answer to 4, you said "That said, I don't think the weird is out to get us -- not anymore than the crevasse that swallowed the mountaineer was out to get him." I think this analogy is really important in how it applies not only to the Weird and paranormal, but also to all the mundane paths toward vice and ruin (addiction, greed, etc). I had an opportunity to enter a lifestyle of exploration, intrigue, and danger. Turning it down was the best decision of my life (although if I had accepted it, I think there's a fair chance that alternate universe me would say accepting it was the best decision of my life!). In avoiding crevasses, I found my way into a life too mundane (COVID certainly kneecaps most methods of spicing things up!). So it seems to me that exploring the Weird is like exploring anywhere else. Exploration asks "What are you willing to give up?", and your answer determines the rest. At the same time, stability and routine are both crucial. Even though they are as boring as brushing your teeth, as there's no adventure, no running away from falling boulders, they nevertheless have an immense value. Tying into your answer to question 5, I entirely agree with your thoughts on Lovecraft, what kept Einstein and Spinoza safe, and the way contemplative practice and exploration opens into a life-consuming direction. Again, "What are you willing to give?". Stability promises a high likelihood of enjoyment, aging, and the comfort of routine. It leaves open spaces for glimpses into the exploratory, but I think it ties into risk-averseness (not necessarily a bad thing!). Regarding exploration, the mountaineer may be swallowed by the crevasse. The war reporter may be shot. The Astronaut may burn up in the atmosphere. The mystic may lose themself forever in an act of revelry.
Perhaps a good framing is to focus on what one returns with (if they return at all). So the question: How should one decide between stability and exploration, and do they even have a choice? Is one's decision between favoring one or the other simply an outcropping of their dispositions and urges?
Surely one could problematize a dichotomy between stability and exploration, but I think they can be looked at on something of a weighted spectrum, where the poles tend to collect people
J.F: Yes, there is a balance to be found between stability and exploration. The good thing about the established traditions is that they are designed with this balance in mind, and are equipped to deal with situations where adjustments need to be made. Speaking personally, I did some reckless exploring before coming to realize that I needed structure. Imposing some order on my life did not have the stifling effect I was afraid it would have. On the contrary, it gave me beacons and a safe haven, someplace to come back to, and this in turn allowed me to deepen the exploration, I think.
A: Seventh question: What does studying/experiencing/exploring the Weird mean to you? Do you have goals that you strive to achieve, or is it more fluid?
J.F: Ever since I was a child, I've been fascinated by philosophy, religion, the weird, the paranormal, altered states, and so on. Exploring this stuff is just tremendous fun for me. But as I've grown older, it's become harder to ignore the fact that all this fun amounts to a lot of dancing at the edge of the abyss. Consequently I've begun to understand what the ancients meant when they described philosophy as a preparation for death. The goal, I guess, is to live as full and honest a life as possible, and in the end, to die as well as I can.
This interview has given me so much to think about. Again, I must thank J.F Martel for the thoughtful and evocative responses. I plan to unpack this interview, perhaps writing a blog post on each pair of questions and answers.