“The industry does not like uncertainty,” an air-safety veteran has declared, “We will find out what happened.” But uncertainty, at once devastatingly precise and unimaginably vast, is exactly what anybody who has anything to do with Flight MH370 will have to settle for, it seems — at least, for the time being. What can be more particular than the face of a loved one lost, and more general than the depths and expanses of an ocean that baffles every attempt at looking and finding? The coming together of these two poles of loss and bafflement makes the world, and a century sated with information, confront an entity more absolute than uncertainty. Perhaps what floats up in the absence of identifiable wreckage is the unknown itself, as the necessary obverse of knowledge, and the arrogance of knowledge.
To be left — literally — with nothing, in this age of connectivity, of maps and grids and webs, is a predicament that is more easily imagined in the realms of the theoretical, philosophical or metaphysical, and in the outer reaches of fantasy or fiction. But to admit — and admit to — this nothing, in an actual yet imageless form, in the midst of everyday life is what the disappearance of MH370 demands from the modern world. And the fever of speculation and investigation — conspiracy theories, pilot’s heartbreak, photographic reconstructions of the flight’s progress, histories of missing planes since World War II, bits of banal information on the lives of those on the plane — is an attempt, touchingly and sometimes absurdly human, to fill up this nothing at the heart of the story with something, with anything.
There are two directions in which thinking about the unknown could lead the human mind and imagination: outwards and inwards. First, outwards to the apparently expanding limits of the Universe, the place from which gravitational waves seemed to have reached the Earth’s South Pole recently, possibly confirming the hypothesis of the Big Bang. Yet, the time-space that stretches, folds, slides, slips and spirals between this Now and that Bang is riddled as much with the darkness of not knowing as with the half-light of what may be known. Second, the more people get into their own bodies and minds, and the units of the visible get smaller and smaller, the limits of what they know about their own functioning — the relationship between body and mind, for instance, or the causes of what baffles and bothers, like violence, homosexuality or cancer — get drawn more tightly. Empirical knowledge is founded on the idea of visual evidence — hence the living paradox of what is most difficult to see lying closest within. So, trying to understand something as intimate as memory or death is a process larger than the pursuit of science.
To be accosted by the unknown in the midst of the familiar could be pure joy. Think of love or art. But it could also be the purest terror, to which a plane — with thirty artists, among others, on board — now holds the missing key.