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Creative Non-Fiction: 'UltraMundane: Or, what’s in a word?'

Written by Kate Evans

I came across the word during my degree, someplace on the ragged trajectory between insouciant waster and self-conscious, earnest overthinker. I can’t remember where I found it – probably in the depths of an academic text that I understood only as a heavy kind of music. At that time, for me, meaning was constituted by tone rather than any discernible or structured whole. Fragments of insight would stand out, a theme or refrain, and then tumble back in a discordant maelstrom. Coherence felt impossible and unrealistic. I did not read for (or expect to discover) coherence. I read for rhythm and tone and moments. Perhaps that’s part of poetry’s enduring appeal – it does not need a central thesis in order to communicate.


And there it was: UltraMundane. Winking like a sort of joke, a paradox suggesting amplified domesticity, an electrification of the abundant and absurd minutia of day-to-day life. At once poetic and boring. UltraMundane seemed to me, then, a beautifully apt encapsulation of the experience of living. A monotonous rhythm punched through occasionally with the almighty shine of the Ultra. The sensory implications of the word appealed - I had always found things that fell under the umbrella of Mundane to be soothing. Necessary, dependable tasks that signified a commitment to material reality. Staying tethered, head screwed on, taxes filed: a foil for internal turmoil and incomprehension. 


There is something abject in the cultural act of ascribing certain phenomena to the category of the Mundane. As though the ‘extraordinary-boring’ binary is somehow also an axis of meaning – Ultra; extraordinary; meaningful / Mundane; boring; meaningless. Think of that which is designated Mundane: the day-to-day, unspectacular, never-ending, repetitive tasks that do not appear to stem from inspiration or insight. They are essential acts of worldmaking that are inherently devalued. I’m thinking of housework, whether paid or unpaid. A pervasive assumption that those who can bear to do necessary, repetitive, easily-reproduced tasks lull themselves into a meaningless kind of waking sleep that renders them passive, inattentive, thoughtless. Mundane life in the TV light. 


In my twenties my answer to chaos - a mind untethered to discernible or structured meaning - was cleaning. I cleaned compulsively and thought – only thought – about writing. I liked to imagine my cleaning was subversive. I cleaned and thought about life lived within clearly defined parameters and predictable routines. Evading and doing as a way of staying. Making good. The texture of the mundane was comforting, a rejection of the over-cultural assumption that meaning had to be extraordinary to be worthwhile. I coveted the mundane. But the knowledge that the Mundane could be Ultra helped me attend to those moments that carried a certain kind of charged (in)significance: UltraMundane moments (or, as I would come to understand them later, unrealised poems). They had to be fragmentary: that was all the meaning I could synthesis. I wanted to elevate the Mundane in my own clean quiet. Land the lightening, in the kitchen.


As I weathered chaos, UltraMundane moments would blaze brief and unpredictable among the flow of other happenings which passed by almost unnoticed, lived and filed into the untextured past. Like the special state of cultivated indifference necessary for recalling a fast-retreating dream, UltraMundane moments happened when I was not chasing the extraordinary. When ownership (or even agency) was not in question. I was part of everything and everything was happening anyway, with or without my intention or will. UltraMundane moments insisted I pay attention in my life. The light on a trail of ivy pushing through the rotting window of my bedsit. The techno beat of windscreen wipers. Illogical unshifting superstitions. Reflections in a spun laundry drum. Sentence scraps. Flotsam in the road. I assumed the word’s meaning for myself and felt content with what it opened out – a regular, attentive, decentred space where I could live in the wonky present without future-oriented thinking or fuss.


It never occurred to me to look up UltraMundane in the dictionary. Strange now, as someone increasingly driven by a search for meaning, or meaningful experience. But the word was already so instructive and evocative that I felt I didn’t need to know specifics: my relationship with it overrode the importance of its consensual meaning. A poet’s greed for personal association. The word lived with me, was mine. I incorporated it into myself and what I stood for, almost as a touchstone, apex, personal philosophy, suspended wilfully in the everyday. 


Then One Day I looked it up. Whims often indicate more than just an action: a gesture towards, a rupture, a portal. An unbricked railway arch or a thicket leading suddenly to unexpected new rooms, attics, basements, clearings. More space. The subconscious, the Ultra, breaking through. One Day it occurred to me that I could handle knowing. Beyond instinct and personal association, could participate in knowing. So I looked it up. To my joy, UltraMundane means: “existing outside the known world, the solar system, or the universe.” The opposite of the (in)significant everywhere; a supreme inversion of what I’d taken it to signify. In reality, UltraMundane means something so intangible and incomprehensible as to be off-world, impossible to reach for or describe, an unknown unknown. Beyond the sphere of reckoning or language or even matter. Beyond meaning. From the Latin ultra, meaning beyond, and mundus, meaning world. It was a spectacular redefinition of something I had held to be so simple, and yet so sacred. 

That a word can attempt to contain a concept so inexpressible broke something open for me in the tumbling chaos-space. Words try. In confusion and wilderness, words try. Meaning can be accretive and malleable. It is not subject to capitalistic logics of achievement or linear milestones. Words contain correspondences, cadences, layers. The personal and cultural interacts with temporality and capacity. I had wanted a philosophy of the everyday to offset a chronic bewilderment. A philosophy of Mundanity. Of waste management. Of repetitive ritual. Of what is ascribed to the ‘ordinary.’ I still do. But in a time of redefinition, words began to expand, silhouetted against a textbook acceptance that life is, ultimately, beyond comprehension. Uncontainable and unclean in its own shining and poetic way. Which is so obvious as to be extra ordinary. And, comfortingly, there’s a word for that.

About the Author

Kate Evans is a boat-dwelling poet and researcher currently based in London. She has an MA from Royal Holloway and her work explores feral life, unruly thoughts and the texture of dreamscapes and the everyday. She has been published by Perverse, Lucent Dreaming, The Crank and elsewhere and is working towards a first collection.

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