member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Thursday, December 13, 2012

More Than Human

This photo, and all others in this post, by Tim Flach.

I discovered a wonderful website today, that of photographer Tim Flach. The entrance page is fantastic, and makes me jealous :)

Please visit the site, as the photos are not large enough here to do them any kind of justice. Also, I'm having a hard time picking which ones to show here... Please click on them for better resolution, at least.

His page is loaded with high-quality images of wondrous portraits of animals--portraits in the sense that each image is loaded with character, shows the artistic eye of the photographer, and displays the grand majesty of the particular emissary of the animal kingdom who is his subject. Details, poses, expressions will all surprise you. And there's a new book from these images, More Than Human, as well as two other of his books, one focusing on dogs and the other on horses.

In an interview with John Parker for the Economist (Summer 2010), Tim Flach stated, “I like to use photography as a way of extending people’s experiences;" he uses a glass floor, the method we see on the entrance page to his website, or x-ray photos of gestating horses, or underwater photos in order to shift our perspective, and he often focuses very tightly on a detail like the neck, the feet, a rush of hair or fur, or as below, an eye:

About the above photo, John Parker notes: "“If you look closely above the Shar-Pei’s right eye, threading finely through the heavy folds of the eyebrow is a tiny white stitch. It is there because the thick bristled skin, bred into this fighting dog as a defence against opponents’ bites, would otherwise push the eyelid inward, scraping the eyelashes over the cornea and producing an infection called entropion. The picture is both an abstract conception and a stark image of what humans do to their pets.”

Flach notes that his study on dogs was an exercise in metaphor, "how we engage with nature." And he went all over the world to follow human interactions with dogs, following sled teams and dog shows and learning about how eye-contact between canines and humans has changed through domesticity, about plastic surgeries that pets are often subjected to, and about the ideas that guide cloning and breeding. He learned through the studies of neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach what may have guided breeders in their selections for lapdogs; Kringelbach feels we are "hard-wired to respond to round faces with big eyes and snub noses," because of the similarity of those shapes to the faces of our own infants; Flach's own lapdog portraits often zoom in on that face to trigger the effect:

Bichon Frise Lapdog (Tim Flach, photographer)

(Below) Form and Function: The peculiar clip poodles wear, which exposes the legs, face and most of the body, dates back to their days as swimming retrievers. They were shaved for ease of swimming, but pompoms were left to protect the chest and extremities. The above pose amongst topiaries seems ideal...

Flach says, “I don’t think making a pretty picture is enough...My interest has moved from just the aesthetic to this idea that photography is a form of evidence, a way of raising questions. What is the significance? What is the context? I’m fascinated by how understanding can transform the meaning. I think you’ve got to be interested in a lot of potential meanings that come from an image.”

“If I take the subject matter of my bats, the series where the image is turned upside down, then I think people are surprised to find how easily they engage with a perceived ‘personality’ in the bat through the turned-around image. At one level it is a simple trick, but it transforms the experience.”

He wants to build on the idea expressed by Bill Brandt: “It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country.” He clearly succeeds.

Discovered via BrainPickings.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Chesterton, Borges, and Your Innate Natural Magic

"Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time." (Napoleon of Notting Hill)

Cathedral of Commerce, by Rob Gonsalves 
(Note: All artwork in this post by Rob Gonsalves or M.C. Escher.)

I have written here before about Borges’ Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, one of my all-time favorite stories.  In it, he describes the gradual and bloodless takeover of the Earth by a non-existent alien population, managed in an astonishing manner by various authors, artists, and all sorts of philosophers. What is particularly interesting about this takeover, other than the key fact that it is bloodless, is that there is no despot, no ruling party which then has all the power and control; no one steps up to impose their perceptions of good and evil onto the population. What happens, instead, is that the population is gradually introduced to an idea, here via language:

“The noun is formed by an accumulation of adjectives. They do not say "moon," but rather "round airy-light on dark" or "pale-orange-of-the-sky" or any other such combination. In the example selected the mass of adjectives refers to a real object, but this is purely fortuitous. The literature of this hemisphere (like Meinong's subsistent world) abounds in ideal objects, which are convoked and dissolved in a moment, according to poetic needs. At times they are determined by mere simultaneity. There are objects composed of two terms, one of visual and another of auditory character: the color of the rising sun and the faraway cry of a bird. There are objects of many terms: the sun and the water on a swimmer's chest, the vague tremulous rose color we see with our eyes closed, the sensation of being carried along by a river and also by sleep. These second-degree objects can be combined with others; through the use of certain abbreviations, the process is practically infinite. There are famous poems made up of one enormous word. This word forms a poetic object created by the author. The fact that no one believes in the reality of nouns paradoxically causes their number to be unending. The languages of Tlön's northern hemisphere contain all the nouns of the Indo-European languages - and many others as well.” (Translation from the linked Title).

The idea here is this: Re-formulate your metaphors. Rethink your language-object associations. Re-see what is in front of you, by naming it, describing it differently. Out of this new way of seeing and describing comes a whole culture, with its own architecture--the molding of shapes and ways of living in that new space--, which then of course can lead to an archeology--an inspired history of how the architecture developed over time. New sciences emerge which make sense from that point of view. These new sciences and maths and cultural histories and literatures then gradually overtake the ones that were previously taught, the ones which had been called Earth cultures and sciences and maths, etc.

In Napoleon of Notting Hill, G.K. Chesterton, one of Borges’ literary inspirations, travels along a similar path, albeit one with large amounts of blood-spilling swashbuckling (although this is somehow rendered with the distance of mythic history even as it is happening in the novel). The opening quote (above) occurs as three clerks make their routine morning walk to work together, one of them--for no clear reason--choosing to walk behind them today, instead of abreast. This is not his only change in habit for the day, by the end of which a whole new world will begin its emergence, with much fanfare and bluster:

“So the short Government official looked at the coat-tails of the tall Government officials, and through street after street, and round corner after corner, saw only coat-tails, coat-tails, and again coat-tails--when, he did not in the least know why, something happened to his eyes.Two black dragons were walking backwards in front of him. Two black dragons were looking at him with evil eyes. The dragons were walking backwards it was true, but they kept their eyes fixed on him none the less. The eyes which he saw were, in truth, only the two buttons at the back of a frock-coat: perhaps some traditional memory of their meaningless character gave this half-witted prominence to their gaze. The slit between the tails was the nos-line of the monster: whenever the tails flapped in the winter wind the dragons licked their lips...” (8)

Chesterton goes on to develop the effects of this bizarre flipping of the rear-clerk’s vision in a truly fabulous language in style, the whole of which reminds me of the characters passing through Borges' Yellow Emperor's mirror, an act which will allow them to stop moving mechanically and start living--another sort of revolution, which in that case is prophesied to be heralded with the glinting, curving line of a fish in the glass-- no longer an automaton limited to the breathing of dry air, but rather a creature who can take on any atmosphere:

“But when first the two black dragons sprang out of the fog upon the small clerk, they had merely the effect of all miracles--they changed the universe. He discovered the fact that all romantics know--that adventures happen on dull days, and not on sunny ones. When the chord of monotony is stretched most tight, then it breaks with a sound like a song. He had scarcely noticed the weather before, but with the four dead eyes glaring at him he looked round and realised the strange dead day.
The morning was wintry and dim, not misty, but darkened with that shadow of cloud or snow which steeps everything in a green or copper twilight. The light there is on such a day seems not so much to come from the clear heavens as to be a phosphorescence clinging to the shapes themselves. The load of heaven and the clouds is like a load of waters, and the men move like fishes, feeling that they are on the floor of a sea. Everything in a London street completes the fantasy; the carriages and cabs themselves resemble deep-sea creatures with eyes of flame. He had been startled at first to meet two dragons. Now he found he was among deep-sea dragons possessing the deep sea.”
by Rob Gonsalves: Note the appearance of the line of ships as well as the posts changing to women or vice versa. 
"They crawled on past the lamp-posts; their mien was so immovable that a fanciful description might almost say, that the lamp-posts crawled past the men, as in a dream." --Napoleon of Notting Hill

In his guide to hyper-lucid dreaming, Frederick Dodson suggests that a person pay particular attention to his/her attention as often as possible. Am I dreaming now? (Yes). He also points out that one of the reasons people so desire to dream lucidly, besides the sense of agency it allows them, is because, in a lucid dream, things seem more real than real. There is a vividness, in every sense, which does not regularly exist when we are awake--unless, of course, we are mystics. Dodgson suggests that “f you can think of or visualize places of beauty and strangeness while falling asleep you change your own energy frequency to a state that is more attuned to lucid dreaming. Also try putting your attention to places you have never been before. To the waking-life-mind lucidity appears beautiful and strange. The idea of this exercise is to "lucid dream" before you lucid dream, that is, to create the state yourself rather than waiting for a lucid dream to deliver results. And as you create the desired state from your own power and initiative, it will be many times magnified in the actual lucid dream. "

By Rob Gonsalves

But the point is to have the feeling that the world you are facing is amazing, and that--and even more amazing--you do have agency in it.

Chesterton suggests an amazingly fantastic example of this in another novel of his, The Man who Was Thursday, a Nightmare. In this scene, Mr. Lucian Gregory, an “anarchic poet” living in the fabulously described Saffron Park is faced with Mr. Gabriel Syme, who we quickly find is an undercover police agent, out looking for anarchists (though, to be specific, he is looking for dangerous anarchists, and he does not seem too concerned with our poet). They have a little language duel, in which Lucian declares that all poets are anarchists, that it is their duty to abolish things, if only for the singularly “poetic” moment of the blaze, the delight of chaos. Otherwise, he says, the Underground Railway would be the height of poetry, with its dull and plodding regularity, its guarantee of sticking to plan. Gabriel says: it is.

“The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it... Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Baghdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!’‘I tell you,’ went on Syme with passion, ‘that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape.’” (4)

So, to note that you have done something immense and magical by defeating all odds to actually arrive in Victoria at the allotted time--and what's more, by way of some strange vehicle which whips around under and over ground at great speeds and with strange noises--well, suddenly, you realize, what power I have! And how much better is this realization than the one we more typically put our energies into: my god, I woke up this morning 15 minutes late, forgot to brush my teeth so my breath tastes like I spent all night gnawing on old bones, and the first thing I did when I stepped outside was drench myself in a puddle. We will go around repeating this all day, to everyone we see, with mounting, poetic exasperation. What is that? It's a litany of the opposite of miracles. We are amazed by how badly things go--no bars on the phone, the text wasn't instant, it took several minutes--but not by how regularly well they go, starting with the fact that you *woke up this morning*. This is something I noticed in school, this fascination with litanies of terribleness. We study war after war, treachery after treachery, disease after disease. The very idea of a class which is centered on lists of the impossibly miraculous--of placebos and fantastic occurrences unrepeatable in double-blind studies-- would meet with scorn, where a class on the particular terrors and daily incidents of human nastiness and failure that occurred during the whole of the existence of Nazi camps, or the particular details of the tortures of the impoverished (or simply opinionated) of Chile under Pinochet--these are intellectual exercises which will somehow grant great understanding and knowledge.

So, it comes as no surprise that most of us feel no agency in our lives.

In “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” Borges gives an example of a strange taxonomy, claimed to have been culled from some ancient Chinese encyclopedia, and in this taxonomy, he delicately displays “the arbitrariness (and cultural specificity) of any attempt to categorize the world.” (Wiki). The taxonomy divides all animals into the following categories:

“Those that belong to the emperor
Embalmed ones
Those that are trained
Suckling pigs
Mermaids (or Sirens)
Fabulous ones
Stray dogs
Those that are included in this classification
Those that tremble as if they were mad
Innumerable ones
Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
Et cetera
Those that have just broken the flower vase
Those that, at a distance, resemble flies”

by M.C. Escher, who said: "I try in my prints to testify that we live in a beautiful 
and orderly world, not in a chaos without norms, even though that is how it 
sometimes appears. My subjects are also often playful: I cannot refrain from 
demonstrating the nonsensicalness of some of what we take to be irrefutable certainties."

Order IS the miracle. Even though all ordering is arbitrary, even though there are a million gorillas passing that you don't see, and a million atoms shivering that you can't perceive; even though you can't hear most of the sounds of the universe, because they don't fall into the small range of hearing that humans possess, *somehow*, we have decided on a shareable image of the world. We have decided that in that world is this city, and through the city will run a train, thus, and it will arrive at each destination at particular times, thus, and that if I get on it now, I will arrive at the place I plan to, thus, and you can meet me there. How is that not a miracle? How, if you think about the chaos of molecules surrounding you and filling your "body,"--how, if you think about the fact that you're all water and bacteria, and some distant memory of a fantasy of your great-great grandmother’s dreams, given flesh--how does any of this happen?
So, it's arbitrary, meaning--you could categorize things in an utterly different way. And yet we don't. And yet, some things fall into those categories, and we see them. The fact that we miss gorillas is astonishing, but so is the fact that we manage to agree to see anything at all.

All of us do this: when you say to someone: I am going to catch the train to Victoria, meet me there at 2pm, and then it happens, that is a miracle. You are a magician. Take a moment and taste this, feel how bizarre and magical it is, and then apply that new knowledge of your own abilities to something you've been convincing yourself can't happen.

Please list miracles below in the comments.

By Rob Gonsalves

Now, back to Napoleon of Notting Hill. After our trailing clerk has begun to see all these odd things about the world around him he generally hasn’t noticed, he tries something else: standing on his head. He does so at the top of a hill, where all sorts of respectable people will see him, thus embarrassing the gentlemen who dared him to do so. As he is standing on his head, ignoring the pleas of his two companions, some officials arrive to announce that he, Mr. Quin, has been chosen--by lottery--as the new king.

He stands on his head, and becomes--not because he stands on his head, surely?--the new king. It is a little blue ship moment, where the fool becomes king, where the rule of the universe is turned upside down, where a change in perspective is everything. Were those gentlemen really already planning to approach him with this news all this time that they have been walking, on this utterly normal day? Or is it because he saw two dragons, went outside at the restaurant in the middle of a very serious discussion to have a laugh about its ridiculousness, and then proceeded to stand on his head, in front of everyone? Is it from that perspective of the world--the one where he’s breathing underwater and upside-down--that he becomes king? And then even gets to enjoy the fact while standing upright?

In fact, Chesterton himself--well, Auberon Quin--states this quite plainly. He speaks of the ritual (all religion has ritual, yes? All magic has ritual? Artists have rituals, and some of them even consider play to be their ritual, which would put them at the *height* of majesty) that he would like to enjoy as a result of his establishment as king. He wants a ceremony upon his entrance into the city, and when the others look embarrassed (at him, not at themselves), and note that there aren’t ceremonies anymore, not in their society, he says,
“‘All ceremony...consists in the reversal of the obvious. Thus men, when they wish to be priests or judges, dress up like women. Kindly help me on with this coat.’ And he held it out. ‘But your Majesty,’ said the officer, after a moment’s bewilderment and manipulation, ‘you’re putting it on with the tails in front.’‘The reversal of the obvious,’ said the King, calmly, ‘is as near as we can come to ritual with our imperfect apparatus. Lead on.’ (24)

As he steps into office, he begins to change everything. He wants the whole world standing on ceremony. At this point, the world has been described to us as being very different from how we see it today: The whole world has been ‘unified’. There are no countries, there are no politicians, and therefore there is no pride of place, special flags or colors, and no arguing over policy. The world is free of war. It is led by one man, a despot, a King, who is chosen at random, by lottery. He makes the decisions, and everyone simply follows them.

Chess Master, by Rob Gonsalves

This King, Mr. Quin, decides to flip all of that on its head. He makes grand speeches, dressed ceremoniously, declaring that we should recall with pride the particular histories of our particular neighborhoods. If we forget, for a moment, what those histories might be, we need only look to the names of the neighborhoods. And then he proceeds to make up some histories, to help people along:

“So long as Hammersmith is called Hammersmith, its people will live in the shadow of that primal hero, the Blacksmith, who led the democracy of the Broadway into battle till he drove the chivalry of Kensington before him and overthrew them at that place which in honour of the best blood of the defeated aristocracy is still called Kensington Gore. Men of Hammersmith will not fail to remember that the very name of Kensington originated from the lips of their hero. For at the great banquet of reconciliation held after the war, when the disdainful oligarchs declined to join in the songs of the men of the Broadway...the great Republican leader, with his rough humour, said the words which are written in gold upon his monument, ‘Little birds that can sing and won’t sing, must be made to sing.’ So that the Eastern Knights were called Cansings or Kensings ever afterwards.” (31)

He then specifies that he only selected these examples because he has personal associations with them, and therefore happens to know about them, not because they are any “more glorious” than any of the other histories out there. He suggests that those of Notting Hill will have to tell us whether their name derives from Nutting Hill, alluding to a history of wooded territory no longer extant, or from some sort of “corruption” of “Nothing-ill, referring to its reputation among the ancients as an Earthly Paradise.”

He suggests that his people (all people) make up new stories and histories which they are proud of, and then protect them as property. He is saying that all boundaries are arbitrary, and that all such stories are a matter of some mixture of perception and embellished, selective memory and creativity anyway, but that what’s most important is that we’re aware that we’re doing it. That we take part in the process. That we not only write those histories ourselves (we do anyway!), but that we pay attention to the fact that we’re writing them. (I read a quote the other day from someone who had been reading eyewitness testimonies in car accident cases who said that after seeing two or three different stories about the same accident--from uninvolved, uninvested parties--he had real reservations about trusting anything called ‘history’.) He’s also pointing out that, yes, we’re making it up, and that the process of making it up and making it real and celebrating its reality matters, but you can’t, simultaneously, take any of it too seriously.

Go forth, and enjoy the next city’s festivities.

PART II Atmosphere

Later in the story, King Quin confides to another:
“I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.” (81) That ability to see something upside down, as he did the day he became king, that is a powerful ability. It is an ability to be cultivated. Another way of cultivating it, besides cheering when your train arrives where it should, when you end up exactly where you planned to, when you tie your shoes properly, is to create. To draw what you want to see, to write the conversations you want to have, to create the characters you wish to interact with, and then interact with them. At a certain point in the story, this game that the King started for laughs becomes oddly serious, and an economic enterprise we often see in the world around us--a desire to build a big, useful road-- is stymied by a particular neighborhood leader who refuses, at any price, and despite the agreement of all other neighborhoods to be razed in this effort, to give up his hill (yes, Notting Hill).  And so that thing, that unthinkable thing which never happens anymore is happening: war.

It is to be a ridiculous war, waged by the many against a few. The neighborhood leader, Adam Wayne, goes out to drum up support amongst his neighbors for his cause, calling on them to take pride in what they do--toy store owner, pharmacist, grocer--he declares lines of poetry describing the magic and ritual and necessity of all that they do. He meets with blank gazes. They encourage him to buy something and leave. When he visits the toy-store owner, however, he gets a big surprise, which I won’t go into here.

The many and the powerful attack with more soldiers than they feel they could possibly need, so that simply seeing them march up the hill, the Nottinghammers will submit, and there will be little or no need for bloodshed, which no one wants. But the unthinkable happens. They are routed.

The situation has now gone from being Quin’s unthinkable to being Wayne’s unthinkable.

By M.C.Escher: "Talent and all that are really for the most part just baloney. 
Any schoolboy with a little aptitude can perhaps draw better than I; but what he 
lacks in most cases is that tenacious desire to make it reality, that obstinate 
gnashing of teeth and saying, "Although I know it can't be done, I want to do it anyway".

The leader of the action goes back to one of his business associates in the project in disbelief, describing the event in terms of a dream:

“But though the little streets were all deserted (which got a trifle on my nerves), as we got deeper and deeper into them, a thing began to happen that I couldn’t understand. Sometimes a long way ahead--three turns or corners ahead, as it were--there broke suddenly a sort of noise, clattering, and confused cries, and then stopped. Then, when it happened, something, I can’t describe it--a kind of shake or stagger went down the line, as if the line were a live thing, whose head had been struck, or had been an electric cord. None of us knew why we were moving, but we moved and jostled. Then we recovered, and went on through the little dirty streets, round corners, and up twisted ways. The little crooked streets began to give me a feeling I can’t explain--as if it were a dream. I felt as if things had lost their reason, and we should never get out of the maze...”

Then, he is suddenly picking himself off the ground, where he has been thrown by a blow, and he is in the midst of it. And he says:

“...when you have had that experience, as Walt Whitman says, ‘you re-examine philosophies and religions.” (86)

But his associate, Buck, is unimpressed. He sees where this occurred on the map, and he sees how they managed to be defeated. He sees, therefore, how it can all be rectified, by a second battle. He brushes off the sensation of the dream as hogwash. He says, it’s not a dream, it’s atmosphere--Adam Wayne’s atmosphere. He says, stay out of that atmosphere, and stick to the facts. It’s all logic. Look at the map. Plan the next attack.

He wins his friend (Barker) around, and they do just that. There is a second attack that very night, which is also routed, and also for a reason clear enough in hindsight. Buck actually took part in that one, and was wounded, and comes back from the doctors furious that there hasn’t already been a third attack, using the hindsight as preparation. Barker tiredly explains to him exactly why not, and suggests that they put the whole thing away. Forget it. Listen to logic yourself, he says: this is costing us, money and lives--more than we had hoped to gain by the venture itself. But Buck won’t let it go. And so Barker turns his own words upon him:

“ were quite right in what you you said the other day... that we had all got into Adam Wayne’s atmosphere and out of our own. My friend, the whole territorial kingdom of Adam Wayne extends to about nine streets, with barricades at the end of them. But the spiritual kingdom of Adam Wayne extends, God knows where--it extends to this office, at any rate. The red-haired madman whom any two doctors would lock up is filling this room with his roaring, unreasonable soul. And it was the red-haired madman who said the last word you spoke.” (100)

Now, there is a thought: Galvani’s juice, the electricity that gives us life, could be atmosphere, created (undoubtedly) by someone. Who, though? Who provides us with the motions and behaviors we mimic as mirrors? This is not only a question of being bored, this issue of automatism--a question of missing joys and possibilities and magic. It is also a question of destroying yourself, as did all those soldiers. Interestingly, though, this is how the artist has more power than he thinks: an artist creates atmosphere. An author, or a painter, or a movie director or actress draws you in, to live in that atmosphere, to build your memories there. That is how an author can save the world--your world, at least. She gives you a memory you desperately needed, a memory of the time that the lampposts fought to save Notting Hill, a memory of the time they turned into elephants. The “suspension of disbelief” everyone likes to talk about is this: you experience the events of a tale as if you were there. Otherwise, there is no point to reading the book, to gazing into the heart of the painting, to sinking into the seat at the theater. Remember in Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, when he describes epileptic attacks that are triggered by certain types of music? He explains that the music simply being there doesn’t matter. The seizure--the momentary loss of connection to this world experience--results only if the patient feels the music, pays attention to it, sinks into it. Something about that music disconnects them from this reality, and dumps them into another experience, which can be a memory from their own experiences or an experience (often repeated) which has nothing to do with this life at all. The connection, here, is that feeling of sinking in. When you watch a movie, you stay here or you go there. If you “go there,” something happens to your own makeup as a person. You have new, significantly emotional, memories. And even if they aren’t “truly” yours, your brain treats them as if they are. And the more often you sink yourself into those memories, the more they become a part of your personal make-up.

Written Worlds, by Rob Gonsalves

But what experience are you giving yourself to?

After the battles are fought and Nottingham Hill is left alone, everything changes. People, instead of rolling their eyes at the required fanfare the King has implemented, become invested in it. Quin goes to visit the grocer that Wayne had gone to in his initial rounds in search of support, and he finds the man “dressed in a long and richly embroidered robe of blue, brown, and crimson, interwoven with an Eastern complexity of pattern, and covered with obscure symbols and pictures, representing his wares passing from hand to hand and from nation to nation. Round his neck was the chain with the Blue Argosy cut in turquoise, which he wore as Grand Master of the Grocers. The whole shop had the sombre and sumptuous look of its owner. The wares were displayed as prominently as in the old days, but they were now blended and arranged with a sense of tint and grouping, too often neglected by the dim grocers of those forgotten days. The wares were shown plainly, but shown not so much as an old grocer would have shown his stock, but rather as an educated virtuoso would have shown his treasures...” After Quin has eyes all this thoughtfully, he turns to the Grocer himself, who tells him:
“‘I thought nothing of being a grocer then,’ he said. ‘Isn’t that odd enough for anybody? I thought nothing of all the wonderful places that my goods come from, and wonderful ways that they are made. I did not know that I was for all practical purposes a king with slaves spearing fishes near the secret pool, and gathering fruits in the islands under the world. My mind was a blank on the thing. I was as mad as a hatter.’” (120)

Towers of Knowledge, by Rob Gonsalves

Really, who is not a King? NOTHING is logical: the way to make something real  is to invest past sanity in its atmosphere, to insult logic with the amount you invest in it.

“Only those who attempt the absurd...will achieve the impossible. I think ...I think it's in my basement...Let me go upstairs and check.”
- M.C. Escher (1898 – 1972)

For a post more concentrated on the artwork of Rob Gonsalves (and some others), see “Mutual Consent, or Reality, Part II”. (

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas

Note: All artwork in this post by Rene Magritte.

Time Transfixed, Magritte

There are two events that set the ball rolling in Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr. Y. The first is a great rumbling of the earth as the building near Ariel Manto’s office at the University collapses. This is an earth-shaking event which ends up--in a bizarrely acausal way--pushing her life down a totally unexpected path.  The surprise of the others as they watch the building buckle is bland in a way that is difficult to understand until we discover what the others already know: this is the second time the building has collapsed, because it was built atop an old, clearly unstable, railway tunnel.  But that’s just the first event we see. After that, we discover that she has come to this campus to study a particular 19th-century author’s work under a particular professor who mysteriously disappeared only a week after her arrival, and whom she agreed to come and study with after one brief discussion over drinks following a lecture he’d given, an act which changed the direction of her previous plans significantly.

There’s this moment after her soon-to-be professor’s lecture, in the midst of their strange conversation in which he walks away for a moment to get drinks: “I looked at the vast image beyond him, painted on the back wall. The scene showed what seemed to be a king descending from heaven, alighting on some reddish, carpeted stairs. The stairs almost appeared to be part of the room rather than the painting, and the figures in the image looked like they might be using them to step into reality; into the present.”

(Musee Magritte, Brussels.Photo Source)

So, here we are, just after--no, a year before--something like the great rumbling of the ghost of an old, 19th-century train, has shaken the foundations of the university and started her on the journey that will turn her life and the world upside down (and wait till that tunnel comes back in the story again, later--no, earlier, but no spoilers, here), at some lecture she attended with three whole other people in the audience, and she’s noticing, in another moment of strangeness bordering on dream, that people from some other universe could, if she tilts her head so and shuts off her reason, be using a painted stair to jump time and join her, thus collapsing the function of the walls in front of her and belying the stability of matter in the universe.

This whole opening recalled to mind the train image above by Magritte, and reminded me of a story his friend Scutenaire told about Magritte’s first experience of the “sensation of mystery” as a child:
“When a tethered barrage balloon crashed on the shop where the family were living, it had to be got down from the roof, and this ‘long soft thing’ that stern-faced men in leather clothes and helmets with earflaps had to drag downstairs seemed very extraordinary to him” (12: Jacques Meuris, Rene Magritte).

Museum in daytime. Same Source.

Now, back to the novel’s earth-shaking, and Ariel is forced by circumstances to walk home, which she has never done before, and then forced by cold to stop in a little used books shop, where she discovers a copy of the out-of-print, exceedingly rare book by Thomas Lumas, The End of Mr. Y, at an accidentally semi-affordable price. The book, generally believed to be cursed, is so rare that it was thought all the way up until she held it in her hands that there was only one copy, and that that copy had been sitting in a German vault for many years. Thomas Lumas is the author whose work led her to this place--the author she came to study, under the missing professor.

Lumas prefaces his End of Mr. Y with the idea, also, of illusion :

“When one looks at the illusions of the world, one sees only the world. For where does illusion end? Indeed, what is there in life that is not a conjuring trick? From the petrifactions that men find on the seashore to the Geissler tube recently seen at the Royal society, all about us seems filled with fancies and wonders. As Robert-Houdin has built automata with which to produce his illusions, I shall here propose to create an automaton of mind, through which one may see illusions and realities beyond; from which one, if he knows how, may spring into the automata of all minds and their electricity. We may ask what illusion is, and what form it may take, when it is so easy to dive into its depths, like a fish into a pool, and when the ripples that emerge are not ripples of illusion nor ripples of reality but indeed the ripples made by the collision of both worlds...” (p 25; italics mine)

This paragraph of the preface is where Thomas connects everything that threads through her novel of the same name: First: the illusions created by the artist, which serve a purpose, which is “training the mind” to be able to see impossible things, so that it may not miss those very impossible things when they appear in front of it. Remember that with the guiding blinders of normalcy, you will not take note of the various wormholes you pass on the street, of the mind of some like-minded soul sitting next to you on the train suddenly being very open to a perfect meeting with your mind, of the impossibly gorgeous bird that just vibrated its way out of the chest of the girl across the street and took flight, singing a tune you will later hear again when it is launched, an instant classic, by some seemingly unrelated musician, to become the very anthem of a generation you will only understand as united in some way when you look back, a long time from now. These illusions can also be shaped by words, meaningful words, words that hold a massive symbolic heft: the tale of another’s life, described in such a way that you are carried inside her mind, or rather her mind becomes overlaid with the transparency of your mind (a metaphor Scarlett Thomas presents in her novel). That is the illusion of fiction: you become someone else, without completely losing awareness of yourself.

Magritte: Attempting the Impossible

Magritte: The Human Condition

But are these really illusions? Once you jump into them, they are not, they become a meeting of illusion and reality, a path veers off of the one you were previously traveling. Your future will now contain the echoes of, influences of, this mind you have agreed to travel in (think about that when you’re reading some tear-jerking nonsense that makes you feel suicidal). Your brain does not know the difference between imagined acts and real ones: scientific experiments abound in which great athletes, dancers, and musicians can make huge leaps of advancement in their technique through mental exercise, imagining themselves practicing, which has the added benefit of not exhausting the body, pulling muscles, or irritating carpal tunnel syndrome. So it is not illusion, what I have experienced while traveling through this book.

Here’s the trick which makes that the case: emotion. I feel what the character feels. I think about her after I close the book. I have arguments with the other characters, in my head (the same way you do with teachers that infuriate you, or your mother, or politicians on the television), via her world-view and mine overlaid. I experience the world as the two of us. And I go to sleep, and my dreams have some activities that the next day I recognize as similar to events from the book, rather than from my “real” life (most likely because all I did until I finished the book was read it--what “real” life?). All of this is cementing the reality, in my mind, of the events I experienced through that book. Synapse trails are made, and the more they are used, the more “concrete” they become, and it’s not more than a few days before, if I were to pay attention, (see St. Fevronia, and the fact that paying attention is the very thing which makes us not automata, not machines), I would see that my life is not the same life that was being lived before I read the book. Different possibilities have arisen. Different people come around. Different events arise. These things may seem to be “out of my hands,” or chance, but are not. They are there because I can perceive them. They were always there, just not for me. Until now.

How important is that emotion? When a book or a piece of art leaves you flat, nothing happens to your brain. It’s emotion that connects you, that makes you know something of what living in the 19th century was like (is this where “past lives” come from?), makes you know something of things you would otherwise know nothing about (and now you can empathise, can’t you? The world is bigger.). The emotional connection you experienced which led to the changes in synaptic patterns which led to you being someone else with different options, (although you still see yourself as yourself, still remember some of the same things you would have before--though not all, remember that memory is selective, and you might also remember things you wouldn’t have remembered before, and who knows if those things had actually happened in your past until you read that book?)--that emotional connection is precisely what allows us access to time travel and other earth-shattering life changes. And I mean this literally, not like the time travel we associate with a brief fictional jaunt. Remember eidetic visions, and hypnosis, and how you can change physical reality by focusing on an image and then sinking yourself inside it. It’s the sinking in, allowing the emotion of it to wash over you, so that all senses are triggered, that makes this action work. That’s why Tesla was able to run entire experiments in his head, without physical props: he was invested on all levels. Why do you feel pain when you’re being cut open by a doctor? Because you’re emotionally invested in the body being cut open, in the story of that surgery happening. If you were hypnotized--not even anaesthetized by drugs--, and therefore no longer invested in that particular storyline, you would feel nothing. Nothing. Being able to refocus your emotional investment, then, allows you to do amazing things.

In fact, the author seems to posit that telepathy would be exactly this: if you listened to someone talking with the same attention with which you sank (deeply) into a character of a (beloved, exciting) book, your mind would grasp things as your interlocutor’s did. Which means that you would be able to access that person’s impressions and memories and plans as if you were him/her, because you are, at that moment. And from there, it is a difficult step, but still just a step, to guiding those thoughts towards particular memories or plans, to dig inside that person’s head for particular knowledge or information. This telepathy is not even far from an ancient Japanese art called shinyo, which some term as mirroring, in which you listen so closely to (for example) a patient, that you can mimic his rhythms, cadences, body language. You begin to move in the same way, speak in the same way, sound the same way. The moment that a certain level of rapport, of comfort, is reached in your patient’s mind (that overlay snaps into place), you begin making small alterations, leading him away from the self-destructive behavior and towards a different one. How does this work? He feels he is listening to himself. He feels he is doing exactly as he wants. And, if you are not a crook, he is: he is doing what he wants to do, but what the habits of his subconscious mind would not allow him to do without your nudging, as they had been trapped in a different pattern. In Thomas’ novel, this intense level of listening and empathy is not necessary. There is an herbal concoction which takes your mind to a metaphorical place called the troposphere, and from there, as you come into proximity of another, if he is even momentarily “vulnerable”--meaning that they are feeling an emotion you can connect with--you can jump straight into his mind to experience what he is experiencing.

At one point, Ariel Manto recalls:

“Emotion could simply be termed ‘motion.’ Indeed, I remember that this word used to simply mean movement, or a transference from one thing to another. In this world-made-of-language, meaning never really becomes obsolete. In this case, the motion is of something that has no mass (motion itself) and so the meaning it carries can travel at incomprehensible speeds: speeds fast enough to take you backwards. All you have to do is get on a train and find the right station.” (305)

In The End of Mr. Y, in the troposphere, one can travel rapidly across time and space in any direction by riding an emotion train. The main character here walks bravely towards the train marked fear, because that is the emotion she was feeling at the moment she needs to return to in her own life, in order not to die. (p306: “I am left in no doubt that I am now climbing into fear itself.”)

But me, I had enough of that train during her ride. That is not the place I want to return to. I choose a different train--and think how many there are!

“When will you stop talking about paradoxes? Your whole world is a paradox. Officially it has no beginning and no end. Nothing about it makes any sense, but it’s what you seem to have created.”--Apollo Smintheus

There is a point when Ariel raises the objection (in response to a request from Apollo Smintheus, the mouse god), that she can’t just go messing around in the heads of people from the past in order to change their behavior and avoid a future event. She mentions the grandfather paradox (If you go back in time and kill your grandfather, how are you ever born to go back in time to kill him?). Apollo responds by saying that he doesn’t think anyone will notice: it won’t cause the million paradoxes, deaths, total changes that she thinks it will. If she’s hanging on to this life, it will simply be this life with no ‘X’. No one will even notice. The problem will simply be solved. At another point, she moves backwards in her own life by capturing the train of emotion to a certain moment in which she was feeling it. This action did not cause her to lose the knowledge she had gained after that moment, the first time around. How would this be possible?

I think the paradox resolves itself because of the different definition of time being used here: time is simply the way we unroll the story of self we are telling. Spoken language has given us a method of storytelling that is very different from image. Image, a painting, can tell a whole story at once, and the viewer goes along noticing little details, symbols which ‘speak’ the language of our subconscious. We take in so much information from an image. And that image’s story can change--you can give a different narrative to the same image, even using all those same details, depending on your emotional state, and on the different things which have led you to that emotional state. Perhaps it is spoken/ written language which has changed the way we perceive time as well as the way we perceive our own agency in life. To tell a story, you must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The action follows in that order. But all a story is, in the end, is a pulling together of various symbols (in action or in matter--remember that matter is energy!) which say what you want them to say. Technically speaking, you are leaving mountains of information out when you give the history/story of something, and you are putting your own slant on the information you put in--you have seen what you were able to see, given your own limitations as a being, and you have not seen whatever thundering gorillas didn’t happen to trigger your perception alarms--therefore your story will always simply be a story. Even if it’s the story of your life. Not only could the same story be told differently, it could lead to a different end, a different now, without being a lie, and if you were emotionally invested in the process that brought the story to that different end, reality would, in fact, have changed.

Scarlett Thomas works with this idea, as well, by moving different images into different places, especially computer imagery, which she peppers through the book in various creative, distinctive ways. So, to think about our lives in a way that gives us agency, it helps to use metaphor, symbol, visual representation. In fact, this is what the troposphere is, Apollo Smintheus tells her: metaphor.

Magritte: Empire of Lights
(It is day AND night. How?)

Part III
There are, of course, a million other things happening in the story. I leave you with an image she made of words in a discussion where we first become familiar with the feel of Thomas Lumas’ writing. In this fantastic segment, she gives a brief summary of one of his stories, The Daguerreotype:

“In The Daguerreotype, a man wakes up to find a copy of his house in a park across the road, with a large group of people gathered around it. Where has the house come from? People immediately accuse the man of losing his mind and arranging to have a copy of his house build in the park overnight. He points out that this is impossible. Who could have a whole house built overnight? Also, the house in the park does not seem new. It is in fact an exact copy of the ‘real’ house, down to some scuffing on the door panels, and some tarnish on the brass knocker. The only thing that’s different is that his key doesn’t work, and the keyhole seems to be blocked by something. The man initially tries to ignore the house, but soon it takes over his life and he has to try to work out where it has come from. Because of the house in the park he loses his job as a teacher, and his fiancee runs off with someone else. The police also become involved and accuse the man of all sorts of crimes. The house has some strange properties as well, the main one being that no one can get into it. It is possible to look through the windows at the things inside: a table, a vase of flowers, a bureau, a piano; but no one can smash the windows or break down the door. The house behaves like a solid shape, as if it had no space inside.
One day, when the man in the story has almost lost his wits, a mysterious old man comes to his (real) house with a box full of equipment. He tells the man that he has heard of his predicament and thinks he know what has happened. He takes out a velvet-lined folding case and explains to the man about the daguerreotype, and how it works.  The man is initially impatient. Everyone knows how daguerreotypes work! But then his visitor makes an impossible claim. If humans, three-dimensional beings, can create two-dimensional versions of the things around us, would it be too impossible to assume that four-dimensional beings could make something like a daguerreotype machine of their own, but one that produces not flat, two-dimensional copies of things, but three-dimensional ones?
The man is angry and throws the photographer out of the house, thinking that there must be another explanation. However, he is unable to find one and later comes to the conclusion that his visitor must have been right. He finds the man’s card and resolves to call on him immediately. But when the maid lets him into the man’s house, he finds something very strange. The photographer seems to be standing in the drawing room, holding the daguerreotype machine. But it’s not the real man; it’s a lifeless copy.”