The philosopher’s no-fear guide to Witching Hour

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The inaugural Witching Hour festival commences Friday, Nov. 6 -- image by Jordan Sellergren
The inaugural Witching Hour festival commences Friday, Nov. 6 — image by Jordan Sellergren

Witching Hour

Downtown Iowa City — Friday, Nov. 6 & Saturday,Nov. 7

We’re now one week away from Iowa City’s upcoming Witching Hour festival, an event that promises encounters with the capital-U unknown — a tantalizing promise, especially since most festivals engage with the familiar. (That’s the more lucrative option.) Now and then we’ll travel to a new place, read a new book, try a new beer — but mostly this is a mere twist on the ordinary. So: What does it mean to confront the unknown, much less hang out with it for two days?

Usually we’re merely ignorant of the unknown. To paraphrase Marilynne Robinson: “Usually we don’t know what we don’t know.” We avoid the it, ignore it, or resolve it through Google, and most of us feel secure in our ability to eliminate certain curiosities, like forgotten facts (What was the name of Mark Twain’s hometown, again?), that intrigue or irk us. These are not the kind of unknowns featured by the Witching Hour. To cite the well-known distinction offered by Donald Rumsfeld: We have the known unknowns, and the unknowable unknowns.

Google offers the former, the Witching Hour the latter.

Witching Hour promises to show why these unknowable unknowns are essential fuel for generative thinking — the stuff that drives creativity and it’s handmaid, wonder. And here’s the thing: We can only explore the unknowable unknowns by leaving what is familiar and comfortable behind. Familiarity conceals from us what is near. As Heidegger wrote about the useful things we ignore, they have “so little nearness that it is often not even to be found at all initially … That is also true, for example, of the street, the useful thing for walking. When we walk, we feel it with every step and it seems to be what is nearest and most real about what is generally at hand, it slides itself, so to speak, along certain parts of our body — the soles of one’s feet. And yet it is further remote than the acquaintance one meets while walking at the ‘remoteness’ twenty steps away ‘on the street.’” Accepting the unknown allows us to re-encounter what is familiar as well as expose us to what is unfamiliar.

The problem with our good old familiar surroundings is that they lure us into trusting our assumptions. Everything is given in a world we think we know and, by assuming we know all about our everyday world, we deprive it of the capacity to surprise us. We think too little about what we know too well.

Lovers of suspense and horror know that a confrontation with the unexpected — a brief companion to the unknown — liberates us. For a moment, a new possibility creeps into our awareness. We accept a freedom from the mundane rigor of our lives by suspending our knowledge concerning the impossible. What if magic is real? What if a house is haunted? What if some little god lurks beneath a bridge? Lacking answers to these (sometimes life-or-death) questions forces us to do a double-take and peer into the depths of shadows we otherwise wouldn’t see.

What distinguishes Witching Hour from other festivals — Mission Creek, for example — is its emphasis on discussion. At the heart of Witching Hour beats questions, not answers, and the festival features presentations as well as performances, discussions as well as displays. Featuring musicians, magicians, authors, comedians, astrophysicists and more, the festival presents a unique opportunity to see how the unknown drives each speaker and performer to explore and create.

Witching Hour is a chance for those who generally go to readings to take in live music, for example, and for for those who like music to see a film or participate in a talk about beer instead. There’s no reason to ignore a favorite band or comedian, but don’t fill your schedule with your favorite things. Taking full advantage of the festival requires becoming bewitched. Let go of the illusion of mastery our habits offer. Be drawn, instead, into the twilight zone where the unknown lurks. Go behind the scenes (figuratively — please don’t actually try to go behind stage at the events) to witness what usually remains out of sight.

For those willing to be perplexed, here’s a guide to helping the unknowable unknowns linger a bit longer:

1. Be curious.

Show up with a willingness to be pushed out of your element. The only hope the Witching. Hour has of disclosing the unknown is with an audience prepared to encounter it. Another word for this is curiosity. Curiosity, even in children, isolates specific questions about what is known from a direction that allows its strangeness.

2. Notice what you notice.

To become curious, figure out what is familiar in a situation, and then move past it. We can always return to the familiar, but aren’t always invited beyond it. Moving beyond the known generates confusion, which is uncomfortable: that’s why mobile devices are so popular. Feeling confused, or lost, threatens us. As adults, we instinctively avoid such situations instead of playing at such times. Too often, we forget that we still can have the courage children have in such regard. The benefit of braving forward is a chance to dance with the unknown. You can’t see the unknown without being willing to be lost — at least for awhile.

3. Embrace change.

Explorers find that their time in the unknown has changed them. You can’t trace your steps backward to a space of familiarity. Exits require creativity. We need to take what was gleaned from the unknown and graft it to the world that we find on the other side. Creativity ultimately comes after we have allowed ourselves to become new, appropriating what had been unknown into the essence of ourselves.

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