In this picture by Hans Holbein the Younger entitled “The Ambassadors,” an odd shape floats at the bottom. It is a skull or “Memento Mori” (reminder of mortality) drawn in the style of anamorphosis.

Anamorphosis is an artistic technique that distorts an image unless one views it at the proper angle or perspective. If one were to see this picture in person, and look at it from the anamorphic angle, the skull would come in to focus and become undistorted, at which point, the rest of the picture would be hard to make out. An almost miraculous effect!

The skull, which represents death, is an unknown factor when looked at straight ahead. Death, too, is the ultimate unknown. Yet in our mania for knowledge and figuring things out, we demand to know what death is, we demand to know what the unknown is.

But do you see the paradox here? How can we know the unknown? Once something is known, it is no longer unknown. We can never catch up to this because as soon as we get there, it is not what we’re looking for. How absurd it is to demand to know the unknown! The known and the unknown are radically different categories, and you cannot understand the one from the perspective of the other.

Knowledge can be defined as true and justified belief. Let us filter death, the ultimate unknown, through this algorithm. We believe that death is material become unanimated. Ok, check. It may very well turn out to be true, that death is material become unanimated. Ok, check. But are we justified to say that death is material become unanimated? For that, we would have to actually die, see what it was like, and report back. You go first.

All knowledge was originally unknown because for something to be known, it first had to be unknown. This implies at least an equivalent relationship between the known and the unknown. Now imagine all the things that will one day be known, but are unknown today. This implies an endless supply of the unknown. Now factor in all the things that could potentially be known, but perpetually remain unknown. Logic implies that there is more that is unknown than is known.

So from where we sit, all that is known was once unknown and all that we will know is currently unknown. With this in mind, we can say that the natural, default state of the universe is the unknown. Similarly, from where we sit, the anamorphic skull is distorted. It merely requires the proper perspective to come into focus. The unknown, like death and like the anamorphic skull (metaphorically speaking) is the perspective of the universe, not the human.

At this point we must admit that our theory of death is merely a hypothesis. It seems to be justified but that is because we have already worked our conclusion into our definition. We say that death is material become unanimated, and it is true precisely because we have defined it ahead of time.

But what we are actually defining is not death. It would be more proper to say that we are merely assigning the word ‘death’ to the phenomenon of material becoming unanimated. We are still not saying what death actually is. Our conception of death is too straightforward and without perspective.

Our working definition of death is purely from the perspective of the living human. We need the perspective of the dead in all of this. Has anybody thought to ask the dead what it is actually like to be dead? Our scientific hypothesis is not complete until we have secured this very important data.


Death is not material become unanimated. This is too obvious and verging on tautology. Death is a loss of spirit, a loss of purpose, meaning, values, and mission. In a word, it is a loss of perspective. If death is merely and strictly defined as material become unanimated, then life becomes death, animated. We become the walking dead.

Much like the picture, death is a matter of perspective. The problem is, unlike the picture, we have no “death-perspective.” Who knows what death is actually like until you are dead? Dead people probably think life is quite an odd phenomenon. The dead are probably petrified by life.

With all of this in mind, we can say that material death is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a man and knowledge is hardly the worst thing to be lacking. To be alive, with no purpose, with no mission, and with no destiny is the worst fate of all. This is a much more fitting definition of death. This is true poverty.

Death and life have a symbolic dimension beyond the material. When death has no symbolic meaning, it becomes merely a word, when life has no symbolic meaning, it becomes merely a sentence. At this point we shall define life as: having a purpose and a quest. So how does one rise from the dead and live again?

The medieval technique of anamorphosis almost seems like a magical phenomenon, yet there it is for all to see. Although mathematically and rationally derived and explained, it creates an ultimate end effect of bewilderment. It is just like the stick in water. The stick appears bent, but it is not. It can be mathematically and rationally explained, but the end effect is still bewildering.

Obscurantism has received a bad rap in intellectual circles, but it is actually the opposite idea, what we might call “obvious-ism,” that could prove to be much more fatal. We can rationally and mathematically explain away everything by way of knowledge. Knowledge is a fine tool but it is not a purpose and all the knowledge in the world won’t necessarily give you a purpose.

You say you want meaning? You say you want a mission? You want a purpose beyond your human life? You say you’re dying to get in here and fight it out? Here is an opportunity: fight on behalf of the unknown, the universe, and the anamorphic skull. Do not rationalize. Make things enigmatic like the medieval technique of anamorphosis. We need no more knowledge. Let us work on behalf of our greatest ally and most abundant resource – the unknown!

This essay and hypothesis is an anamorphic message from the Land of the Dead. Our foe is the obvious. Let us relegate knowledge to its proper perspective. For every one thing that is known, there are ten things that are unknown. Let us admit and propose that the ultimate, end effect of reality is actually bewildering and mysterious.

Let us do away with rationalizing reality. When our theories of reality are made more mysterious and more bewildering than initially thought, man, himself, will have no choice but to act in a more mathematical and rational way.

What we don’t know could go on forever and ever, because how can we know something until we know it? The unknown is so vast that one cannot even conceive of what we don’t know. In fact, what we don’t know grows every day, probably at an even faster pace than what we do know.

Human life becomes distorted and anamorphic against a supposedly easily explainable universe. However, when the universe becomes mysterious, humans have no choice but to get their act together. Man is really not at his finest when he basks in knowledge. Man’s finest hour is when he confronts and challenges the unknown.

After all, the unknown is what brings out the best in man.

12 Responses to “Anamorphosis”

  1. Loretek says:

    Nice piece Ted, it think this touches on what I was talking about in my reply to the “revolt of imagination” and how we need to accept life’s biggest questions as pure mystery and bask in is magnitude, while trying to take what we know and use it effectively. Maybe even coming to understand a little bit more of the mystery along the way. You talk about death as your main point but I would also like to add in birth. To know what came before you is imposible. You have some clue from history books and what people who’ve been alive a few more years than you have said. Aside from that the past might as well be as unlimited as the future. To pretend to know the answers to anything that is not of your own creation is faulty.

    This applies to religion, arguments of nurture vs. nature, psychology, ect.

    I am a little unsure about what you are calling for however. I think you are saying that we strive to learn all that there is to learn and attempt to bask in it, but instead we should use what we know to go forward into the unknown. If this is the case I completely agree.

    We need to bask in the magnitude of the unknown and attempt to mine it for NEW knowledge that could help better our world. What is known to us already hasn’t been working and hasn’t stopped the rise and decay of any nation thus far.

    I think to blindly deny knowledge and live purely in the unknown is too apathetic and is the way every liberal, rave head, drug addict, and devout religious person lives. Living like this does nothing to change the country or world and only allows for you to be swept up by someone with a cause, right or wrong.

    The most intelligent people should lead, the ones that already know the known and have nothing more to learn from it. Knowledge broadens your perspective. If a person did not have the knowledge of how anamorphosis worked they would never be able to see the skull. Forever closing the door to its form even if it is right infront of them.

    Your piece is a good analogy of our current parties in government. One hold knowledge as god and is unwilling to amend his views based on unknowns becoming known. So much so that it has become a sign of weakness to change your mind. However, any wise man will tell you that being able to admit you were wrong in light of new information is a sign of strength. And the other party has no respect for knowledge. So much so that they will use bits and pieces of it to fit their will until it sounds right. Totally disregarding what is known for a couple shots in the dark at the unknown.

    Both these views are horrifically incorrect. A leader should lead like a scientist. To a scientist nothing is known, we only have clues. We make natural laws for things that seem to be consistant but is understood it is only for ease of use. A scientist is not afraid to amend his views based on new evidence; in fact to refrain from doing so is neglect. If a leader led like a scientist he would use, but not worship, the knowledge that has gotten us this far. He would tackle the unknown systematically and with scientific method. They would not follow in histories cyclical footstep and fall to the whims of common person (like it or not intelligence fall on a bell curve; why have the bottom 50% dictate the smartest course of action?). If a problem is identified and change is needed, it is done so willingly but with extreme caution. Only ONE variable is tested at a time, because to a scientist it is abundantly clear that changing multiple things at once will ALWAYS have unforeseen consequences, and many times the equation is not reservable.

    Sorry for the long winded responses, it is only because if feel I have found an intellectual home with this blog and its writers. I only wish to insite thought filled debates and to help reason out the best explanations to present to the world when the time comes.

    How far are you willing to go into the unknown? Stem cell research? Genetic manipulation? What about just to end disease? Do we stop there or do we modify future generation for intelligence and hardiness? Is that too far into the unknown?

    • Ted Swanson says:

      I’m hesitant to explain things too much because what I’m after here, is an end effect. Some of the best writing I’ve come across did not make total sense to me at first, but kept me wondering. It induced me to rise to the challenge. I think you basically get it, but let me take you to task on a few things.

      You wrote: “If a person did not have the knowledge of how anamorphosis worked they would never be able to see the skull. Forever closing the door to its form even if it is right infront of them.”

      This may have been a typo, but a lack of knowledge of how anamorphosis works would not keep you from SEEING the skull, at all. It would be more proper to say: if a person did not have the knowledge of how anamorphosis worked they would never be able to DRAW the skull. You don’t have to have knowledge to see the skull, you just need your eyes and the right angle. In fact, an interesting story I read floated the possibility that the picture “The Ambassadors” could be placed at certain position on the wall in relation to a staircase. As you walked down the staircase and turned the corner, the first thing you would see was the skull! Only once you walked past and turned around, would see the actual picture.

      You ask “how far are we willing to go into the unknown? Genetic manipulation? etc.”

      I would not say that is “too far into the unknown.” I would say that is “too far into the KNOWN.” That is really not a duel with the unknown, that would be a duel with knowledge. Genetic manipulation, in my opinion and instinct, sounds like a misapplication of knowledge with potentially disastrous results. It actually smells like fear of the unknown. I actually believe my articles “The Immune System” and “Generational Nurturing” touches on just how far we ought to go with regard to creating future generations in the here and now. Genetic manipulation is like the exact opposite of a free-for-all, and I would encourage falling somewhere in between. You create incentives for the good and disincentives for the bad (application of knowledge) but after that you let the chips fall where they may (respect for the unknown).

      It’s like a card game. The rules never change, but every time you shuffle the deck and deal out the cards, you don’t know what cards you’re going to get. So you have known factors but also a factor of the unknown. If you get dealt a great hand, great! The best card players don’t rely solely on luck, but they sure as heck will take it; when they are unlucky they minimize and when they are lucky they maximize, and they never fear the unknown.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      “I am a little unsure about what you are calling for however.”

      I think what I’m calling for is just for knowledge to be put in proper perspective. Knowledge is one category removed from manifest reality.

      • Loretek says:

        You are right, my use of the picture was too simple I think. I meant more like you have the picture in your hand, and although you could see the skull by accident, you would not normally think to look at the picture that way without prior exposure.

        After thinking about it some I think I need a third category of information. So you would be right we need to put knowledge in proper perspective because knowledge is how we interpret the information given to or discovered by us.

        I was reading through your other articles, specifically the one on manifest reality. When you say Knowledge is one category removed, I take it like it is one step away from. ie by following knowledge alone you border on creating your own manifested reality based solely on how you alone perceive the world. Is this correct? Or do you mean it is one category taken from all of manifest reality?

        I guess it depend on how you define manifest reality as an internal psychology or as our social reality we have created for ourselves as a country/world.

        We should strive to learn all the information about the world we live in as possible and hope we have enough wisdom and courage to use the subsequent knowledge to appropriately navigate the unknown.

        Then I would call the outcome of such use the “unknown”. As with poker you don’t know which cards you will get, but that is less important because you have no input anyway, and as soon as you fold the corners over that unknown become known. The real unknown you should be worried about is the outcome of how you use that information, combined with your knowledge of how poker works, in hopes your hand works out in the end.

        This caries nicely over into life. The cards you’re dealt equates to the circumstances and body you were born into and combined information in the form of knowledge about the game equates to the life and society. (notice each step is more ambiguous as information is compounded with variables creating knowledge of how the variable have played out in the past, hierarchy of science, math ->biology.) Life and subsequently Death are the ultimate unknowns but are in reality unimportant, because as with the cards in poker you have no input. And no matter what the time come when you die and find out for yourself.

        This is why think religion is pointless for my person other that the knowledge that it nicely answers these questions of life in death for people who can’t live in the unknown, and teaches spot on morals. Holding a population of believers together perfectly.

        It is also why I enjoy this blog so much. I feel the outlook I share with Marcus Aurelius on religion is generally accepted here. That it is my duty and goal to live a moral life and the hope that if a religion is truth then it’s God will be just and judge me on the morality of my life, and if not then I did everything I could to live noble. This is my religion and I appreciate the acceptance here in a world that resents a person like me. It is hard to find a political home where one side wants me to break all moral beliefs for the “good” of all and the other wants me profess my faith in something I cannot know.

        So I thank you all.

        • Ted Swanson says:

          Thank you too, Loretek.

          Your are correct in the first instance about manifest reality. It is “one step away from” as you put it. In order to have knowledge, you first need reality. But in order to have reality, you do not at all need knowledge. Knowledge is reliant on reality, but not the other way around.

  2. Bafflement and consternation.

    I find it encouraging that so much mystery exists in the world. It is too confined otherwise.

  3. crow says:

    People often say they know something, and that, apparently, makes it so.
    But really, the assigning of the idea of knowing, to something, pretty much ends, for good, any chance of actually knowing it.
    To approach knowing something, it is necessary to let it be whatever it is, without subjecting it to the thinking interpretation that obscures what it really is.
    I know quite a bit about the Sun, for example. But do I know the Sun?
    I consider it quite unlikely.

    Lao Tzu noted this phenomenon all the way back in prehistory.
    Confusion reigns in those who think they know.
    Notice, please, the word think.

  4. Max Bloodworth says:

    I like the picture on this article.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      I’ve had several synchronistic encounters with this picture over the past year or so. It’s like the damn thing’s following me around!

      • crow says:

        That simple perspective-shift is the difference between the quick and the dead.
        Same reality, different interpretation.
        Or perhaps: interpretation vs. no interpretation.

  5. Elijah says:

    Ted, the modern period seems to have a surplus of masks, or outright lies, masquerading as reality. Yet man seems to be naturally contented with what is only skin-deep – disgusted by the sight of blood and internal organs, yet aroused by lumps of fat and muscle tissue covered with a thin veneer of tissue. Moderns merely took this a step further, slapped some makeup on a leper, and called it the highest form of beauty.

    Now the skull symbolizes some profound truth beyond appearances, in death all these masks fall off. And so we see moderns avoiding death with a fervor, worshipping youth and distractions from this reality. So we see both the problem you discuss, man worshipping limited knowledge over profound mystery, and the essential avoidance and fear of mystery. Man is hiding behind his mask as much as he is showing it off.

    Yet this mystery remains a fundamental problem. How is man to guide his life by the unknown? To reject false knowledge, but to replace it with a mystery? How is one to find guidance in unknown-ness? Isn’t meaning by definition a known-ness? And so purpose follows – we must know and hold on to some piece in order to accept the mystery (e.g. accepting Christ as savior with salvation remaining a mystery, or a similar life-encompassing belief system).

  6. […] Finally, with regard to Ref’s conduit system being called witchcraft, we must remember Arthur C. Clarke’s thought that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Ref is an expert carpenter and master of ingenuity; to others this appears as magic. […]

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