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Terra Incognita: The Unknown as a Perpetually Possible Paradise


On why giving yourself to the unknown is a fascinating and, in essence, perfect act.

Entering a door that separates our world from the unknown is perhaps the most genuine gesture of courage (that ‘crossing the veil’). The most audacious navigators, the born explorers, those avid makers of puzzles or those literary types that used to name what the imagination had yet to discover, all are noble figures that nobly illustrate that bravery.

In the art of medieval cartography those regions of the globe that had yet to be deciphered were designated terra incognita. That which is over there, on the other side of the ocean, and which begins just where our world ends. There where the mist dictates its inaudible laws.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” H.P. Lovecraft said, suggesting a biological origin or the archetypical character of that attitude. But, it must be said, the unknown is a kingdom that we have historically been taught to fear –and even the terra incognita myth was on occasions replaced by hic sunt dracones, assuming that those territories that remained intact were nests of dragons and other monstrous creatures.

This cultural fear that the unknown provokes, and which perhaps has its origins in the biology of survival, does not only act at a societal or species level, but also at the micro level.

We all have our own terra incognita, that which inhabits us but which we prefer to avoid, and what Jung called “the shadow.” Another good example of that unknown land occurs in the field of knowledge and, in particular, the scientific one. Scientists work, in real time, to gain ground on the mysteries of the universe and thus extend the limits of the familiar – let’s not forget that they are the real treasure hunters.

It would appear impossible not to empathize, as we have all experienced it, with the fear that the unknown imposes upon us. After all, virginity is intimidating. However, it is precisely from those unknown lands that much of human reality has come: all discoveries imply embarkation and the ‘conquest’ of something until then inaccessible, and almost everything we know today was once unknown to us. In fact, utopia is founded on these lands.

From this perspective, the development of our species found its greatest ally in terra incognita, as our growth is proportionate to the space we are given. What we do not know presents a challenge, and one that in good measure provides our existence with meaning; it is a call to visualize, to name and to trap that which until that moment we only partially co-existed with. It is the opportunity, par excellence, to grow. The unknown is simply an invitation, but perhaps the most exciting of all: to know something. No more and no less.

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