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Gas and the uncanny

Reality is uncanny. The tendency is exemplified by gas and the Second World War. If you look at any photo of British civilians in WWII, you will notice that they usually have a box by their side that contains their gas mask. Gas had been widely used in WWI. It had been used, sprayed from aircraft, by the Italians in Abyssinia—the British had contemplated the same to quell an Arab revolt. The principle that mass air attacks on cities were crucial to war had been established in the Spanish Civil War.

Hence it seemed entirely likely to presume, now aircraft had advanced beyond their primitive state in WWI, that mass aerial gas attacks would happen in WWII. That was what the authorities assumed (hence the evacuation of children from British cities and the gas masks issued to all) and that is what intellectuals like HG Wells assumed—being very into science and also a neurotic man, Wells assumed aerial gas war would happen and the cities would be destroyed.

In rational and linear thought it all makes sense. Gas was used in WWI, used between the wars in the air, and the aircraft were now advanced machines. Yet it never happened. When people say “gas” and “WWII” today it means the holocaust—itself not what people expected at all, even the Jews who faced persecution (although Hitler did reference that he would like to gas Germany’s enemies very early on, just in passing, so the idea was in genesis—and, psychologically, it should be noted that Hitler was himself gassed and blinded in the latter stages of WWI; so there is some element in this idea, I think, that he wished to do unto others what had been done unto him).

So reality is uncanny. Except that opinion, from the British government to journalists to intellectuals, held that it was very likely we would be gassed; it was just what everyone thought—it was the rational conclusion; except reality does not work that way—it was not common sense because common sense works like fairy tale logic, and fairy tale logic is uncanny. You see this thought mode all the time in the media, “We have X, so Y, so Z.” Sometimes they use this reasoning to tell us why everything will be “okay” in the end, sometimes it’s to tell us that inevitable “doom” awaits—what is more to the point is that reality is not like that.

To apply the same criteria to today: it is widely assumed that a nuclear exchange is impossible due to MAD; but we should withhold our assumptions—MAD came from a think-tank, and think-tanks are reliably wrong. You have to minimise assumptions and work with what has happened (it’s not happened until it’s happened; to use ancient chinee wisdom, “We’ll see…”). People always think that “it will go on forever”, whether it’s the Soviet Union or the British Empire, and yet it never does; and yet it never ends in the way people expect if they do expect it—for example, if you asked people to imagine how Russia would be governed after the USSR fell, they would have imagined the Romanovs would have been invited back; it doesn’t work like that—although in a cultural sense the Romanovs have been invited back.

To pick on a favourite right-wing topic: the right likes to look at immigration and make predictions about “Britain in 2030”, “America in 2060”, and so on—the assumption is always “it will just go on”; yet if you examine history it really doesn’t “just go on”—and that is not to say it will be interrupted because there will be a change where there will be a “total anti-immigration government” but because there will be a change in a direction that will be uncanny. To return to the fairy tale and Brothers Grimm—that is more like how reality works and history unfolds than a linear extrapolation from known facts in the present.


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