We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster, not some ephemeral and casual creature like the chimæra or the catoblepas.
♦ Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings
In conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, we began to speak of the impulse to be seduced by the suggestion of a master code lying just below the surface of all the information constantly generating, and already generated, out of the interminable human project. When you look at the sheer volume of the manifest content in existence—details recorded, interpretations disseminated, queries logged, hypotheses enumerated, conclusions inscribed—it is no wonder that our inclination is to try and mobilize everything in our field of view into a comprehensible, interrelated structure. We are particularly suited to such projects. The human mind is, above all else, a preturnaturally adept pattern recognition machine, often to the point of fault.
The Theory of Everything remains the holy grail of the physical sciences: a master rubric to unite all other suppositions within a grand paradigm, capable of drafting every natural structure legibly and in totality; and this is an accepted, if improbable (perhaps impossible), goal. This is not to say that the human sciences have not taken aim at detailing complete systems to account for the sum of experience—they most certainly have—but the results are often transparently reductive once analyzed. Every armchair philosopher can usually pinpoint the limitations of any supposedly comprehensive explanation of reality in short order. The beautiful and theoretically immeasurable variations of human expression are bounded by very real limitations, but are, in fact, effectively infinite. For example, the number of possible games of chess exceed the number of particles in the known universe. This staggering fact gives a very real sense of perspective on the potential productivity of human ingenuity.
Yet we make sense of the patterns that emerge form our activity, just as we do from the movements of the universe. Theories abound and facts continue to be detailed in our repositories of knowledge. Information exists, and if you mobilize that fact in a certain way, it is evident that everything that comprises human experience is, quite essentially, information. Contending with this actuality meaningfully is something that everyone has to do, sooner or later.
It is evident, if you take pause and survey the transmissions that connect our lives in a vast and complex web, that we are all attempting to wrestle with this dilemma. If we are not formulating then we are trying to learn strategies to deal with the cosmos of data that churns about us, carrying us along as we wonder endlessly where it is that we are going.
It takes a heroic sort of bravery to acknowledge that we are, each of us, motes in the currents of history, and that totality is, in fact, beyond the comprehension of any individual mind. As beings of recognizable finitude, contingent and impermanent, the Absolute remains unimaginable by definition; but this radical state of mortality does not console, nor does it imply any comprehensive or potent type of universal agency.
What does the dragon mean? It has appeared, seemingly independently, in multiple cultures, across multiple points of recorded time. To suppose that some master force generates this primeval icon with purpose and significance is to tap into the source of mystery. To know how and why this monster guards its horde throughout history is to decode a piece of the puzzle, to reveal part of the mechanism of an intelligent design. To suppose that there is a comprehensible secret waiting to be uncovered musters a terrible sort of hubris: one that might create the illusion of mastery over the morass of cultural manifestations, but one that constrains the possibility of perceiving the awesome beauty of a pointless synchronicity.
Looking into the treasured and constantly evolving network of human expression to be amazed and inspired is an approach diametrically opposed to the jaded adjudication of the conspiracy theorist. Teleological narratives, and neatly sewn up summations, that account for every admissible iota of detail presume a world bounded by limitations that offer no egress, and foreclose the possibly of surprise; which is the precursor of delight. Any answer that does not harbour within it the seeds of another question is a terminus. The pride that comes from reaching the end is also the surety that there is nothing left worth exploring, and that there are no longer any frontiers left to exceed.