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

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Manual of Detection: How to Stop Time



"In one of the best tales of the Arabian Nights, Maruf the Cobbler found himself daydreaming his own fabulous caravan of riches.  Destitute and almost friendless in an alien land, Maruf at first mentally conceived--and then described--an unbelievably valuable cargo on its way to him. 
Instead of leading to exposure and disgrace, this idea was the foundation of his eventual success. The imagined caravan took shape, became real for a time--and arrived.
May your caravan of dreams, too, find its way to you."
--Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams

Buster Keaton studies to be Sherlock Holmes Jr.


At the beginning of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, Unwin is bicycling through the rain to the Central Station, in a mad dash to be in place in time to watch a lovely young stranger wait for the train at 7:26 AM, as he has every day since he first saw her eight days prior. Every day she waits, but whoever she is waiting for does not arrive, and he follows her out of the station and goes about his day. On the day the book opens, he is following her out, and something changes:
“Unwin willed with all the power in his lanky soul that time, like the train at the end of its track, would stop. 
This morning it did. The woman in the plaid coat dropped her umbrella. She turned and looked at him. Her eyes--he had never seen them so close--were the clouded silver of old mirrors. The numbered panels on the arrival and departure boards froze. The station announcements ceased. The four second hands on the four faces of the clock trembled between numbers. The insides of Unwin’s ever-wound wristwatch seized.”



Kafka says that “by believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is that which we have not sufficiently desired.”  Our desire must be such that we are, ultimately, able to believe in the impossible. This suggests more than mere wishing. Giving desire muscle means rediscovering our lives, the world, possibility. The oft-cited example of the mother who lifts a car off her child to save his life is instructive--it is an act which shows how much further we can reach into ourselves given the proper motivation. In that example, however, the muscle her desire required was easily determined. The fact that it was, until that moment, impossible for her to call on such strength meant nothing once the moment came. She desired it sufficiently. So it happened. 

Of course, it isn’t always so clear which steps must be taken in order to attain that which is so desired. Without the car sitting on top of your child, how do you know what needs to be done? You, after all, are facing this question from the position of a normal day--hopefully--without the impetus of such an emergency that removes all question of what must be done.


Bound as it is to its ultimate goal of revealing the previously nonexistent, genuine desire requires removal, distance, a new perspective. It always requires a shift and it is always disruptive. It brings you into the realm of the impossible, the realm of its ultimate fulfillment by wrenching you from that which you considered the limits of the possible.

So, you must step outside of your perspective. And here we find instruction from history's greatest detective. In Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova notes that one of the striking things about Holmes’ intensely focused personality is that it still allows him to walk away from something, briefly, once continuing to work on it will no longer get him anywhere. When he’s waiting on information, he turns to something else, seemingly forgetting entirely about the problem at hand. What does this achieve?:




“Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision making. It can come in many forms: temporal, or distance in time (both future and past); spatial, or distance in space (how physically close or far you are from something); social, or distance between people (how someone else sees it); and hypothetical, or distance from reality (how things might have happened). But whatever the form, all of these distances have something in common: they all require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back. 
Trope posits that the further we move in distance, the more general and abstract our perspective and our interpretation become; and the further we move from our own perspective, the wider the picture we are able to consider....the closer we remain to our egocentric view, the smaller and more limited the picture that confronts us.”

She gives several examples of Holmes doing this: he wanders into the next room to work on his monograph about music; he leaves the building (his ‘office’) and goes elsewhere to do something unrelated; and, in The Valley of Fear, he decides to spend the night--alone--in the room where the murder took place:

“Holmes doesn’t actually think that he can re-create events by being in the room where they took place...He wants to trigger a change of perspective by a literal change of location, in this case a very specific location and a very specific perspective, that of the people involved in the crime at hand. In doing so, he frees up his imagination to take not the path of his own experiences, memories, and connections, but that of the people involved in the events themselves. What associations might the room have triggered for them? What might it have inspired?”

Changing Perspective: Sherlock Holmes Explores Femininity


Holmes uses these techniques to examine what has already occurred, and especially to decipher crime scenes. But their utility is not so limited. These methods can be used effectively in many other situations. Specifically, you can use them to drastically change the universe you inhabit: to pick up the car. These methods of perspective change are steps toward locating an angle of looking at the universe from which your imagination is stimulated to see a new path. A path that is already there, just unused. Impossible. Invisible.

“Our vision is highly selective as is--the retina normally captures about ten billion bits per second of visual information, but only ten thousand bits actually make it to the first layer of the visual cortex, and, to top it off, only ten percent of the area’s synapses is dedicated to incoming visual information at all....What that basically means is that we ‘see’ precious little of what’s around us, and what we think of as objective seeing would better be termed selective filtering--and our state of mind, our mood, our thoughts at any given moment, our motivation, and our goals can make it even more picky than it normally is.” (Note that she goes into fascinating details about this, priming--details worth the entire book just in themselves. You will never smell hot chocolate the same again.)

All this is important because what you want is a matter of detail. Don’t think that what you are trying to do is create something that isn’t there. It’s there; you just don’t normally see it. It’s not within your perspective. So if you alter your perspective, you can see, suddenly, the straight path to that thing you thought wasn’t even there.


Back to our Unwin: he is a Clerk for a Detective at the Agency, and he is well-known for his meticulous and exacting work. He allows nothing into his reports which is not relevant to the solution of the case at hand--no stray detail, no stray comment or musing from the Detective himself, no mention of an emotional response, or any tangent which the thoughts of the case invoked but which did not help to solve it ever makes it into his files. He is complimented for this throughout; indeed, it is what makes him such a stellar Clerk, a top Clerk, perhaps the Top Clerk. 

But as he travels underground, with no real idea what he is doing, or why, or how to make it stop, he begins to think that this meticulousness has not been an asset after all:
“Miss Burgrave had been right about him: he left matters where no doubt could touch them. But that had been his flaw, to bind mystery so tightly, to obscure his detective’s missteps with perfect files. Somehow Unwin had made false things true.”

How? That which is definitive is untrue. There are always secret passageways, alternative perspective points... By keeping everything so clean, without flaws or unresolved questions, or useless emotions, ideas and thoughts, all those other possible solutions were erased from anyone’s view. But they were still there. And someone still saw them--namely, the criminal element. 

At this point in the novel, his methods begin to change. He learns new methods, and those involve, amazingly, a secret strategy for entering into the dreams of others and having a look around at the structure of their minds--especially the dark corners and shut closets. Right here, as he’s realizing what the rigidness of his perspective has done to “the world,” he begins to learn how to see through the eyes of others. 

To get to this point, he has traveled where the rules forbid him to travel, taken a drink with someone he’s forbidden to talk to, and descended into a hole to travel through dark underground passageways, all the while fleeing both agents of the law as well as the bad guys. Crossing the line into a completely new paradigm is no picnic. But here’s where he comes to the goods:

“At last his hands found something solid. He felt around the wall, found there the cool roundness of a doorknob and beneath it the gap of a keyhole. He knelt and peered through.
At the center of a vast, dark room were two velvet chairs set on a round blue rug. A blue-shaded floor lamp was set between them, and in its light a phonograph was playing. The music was all drowsy strings and horns, and then a woman began to sing. 
He knew the melody.

It may be a crime,
But I’m sure that you’re mine
In my dream of your dream of me.

The doorknob turned in his hand, and Unwin entered the third archive of the Agency offices.
...
A distance of perhaps fifty paces separated him from the chairs, one pink, the other pale green. Unwin felt drawn to the warmth of the electric light, to the languid music playing there, to the voice that could only have been Miss Greenwood’s. ...It looked to him as though a cozy parlor had been set down in the middle of a cavern. He went toward it, feeling alone and insubstantial. He could not see his arms or his legs, could not see his own shoes. All he could see were the chairs, the lamp, and the phonograph. All he could hear was the music.
...
He stopped at the edge of the blue rug and stood very still. Here was a boundary between worlds. In the one were chairs, and music, and light. In the other there were none of those things, nor even the words for chair, or music, or light.”

He also learns, here, what the real conflict between the Agency (the detectives) and the Carnival (run by the criminal at large) is: Law and Order versus Chaos. And that’s what your perspective is for, too, to keep you balanced between order and chaos. But once you become rigid in a perspective, you grow old and die. To stop time, to begin fresh, to not be a walking habit, you must be willing to venture into chaos, briefly, grab something new, and refashion it as a part of solid reality. You must be willing to walk paths that meander, to lose control on occasion. To go off on tangents. Fall in love.


Now, back to sufficient desire: to your motivation, versus that acceptance, which is our standard brain “setting,” of what’s in front of us as the only way.  You have to be truly motivated--you have to, as Kafka points out, really want the thing you’re attempting to make real. That means that you must be able to step away from what already is long enough to allow a new path to appear. Ten minutes of focus on what’s in your own mind; on your own imagination, your own ideas; even just on the scenery around you, including smells and sounds and the texture of the air--ten minutes is a small thing. And yet, how many of us take that ten minutes? The difference, Konnikova points out, between Scotland Yard’s Lestrade and Holmes, is sometimes simply that Lestrade refuses to stop and think. He wants to act, to be constantly moving towards the goal--to be able to demonstrate that he is working. But if the real work must be done first inside your mind, in order that you are able to realize what your caravan of dreams looks like, so you may recognize it when it comes rolling in, then really-- you’re not doing anything, yet.

But how hard it is to step back and trust that something which doesn’t “exist” yet will emerge from the shadows! How hard it is, in this multi-tasking society, to take the time to really focus on just one thing. Konnikova gives us yet another trick, though, in the description of the visualization methods of electrical engineer Jacob Rabinow, a prolific inventor with 230 U.S. patents to his name:
“...whenever a task proves difficult or takes time or doesn’t have an obvious answer, ‘I pretend I’m in jail. If I’m in jail, time is of no consequence. In other words, if it takes a week to cut this, it’ll take a week. What else have I got to do? I’m going to be here for twenty years. See? This is a kind of mental trick. Otherwise you say, ‘My God, it’s not working,’ and then you make mistakes. My way, you say time is of absolutely no consequence.’”

You focus your will, you focus your intention, you focus your mental energy, and the world cracks open.

And ALL this comes back to the event that started this little tangent: not the only--probably, to most, not even the most significant-- important event bringing together the ending of this Manual of Detection, but still a spoiler, so make your decision now (I recommend going and reading the *amazing* book, then coming back for these three silly sentences): Unwin feels forced by circumstance to walk away from the girl who dropped her umbrella, despite his desperate wish to talk to her,  in order to tackle the most difficult problem of his life. He twists his whole world around, focuses deeply on that problem, gets farther and farther away from his own routines, though always in an attempt to return his life to its previous, regular state, and then, as he comes back via train to the city, in his own way successful--though not in the way he set out to be!--he makes a startling discovery:

She’s been waiting for him all this time. 
And how Berry pulls that off is magic, indeed.

Footnote:
**Examples quoted from How Stuff Works:
“In 2006 in Tucson, Ariz., Tim Boyle watched as a Chevrolet Camaro hit 18-year-old Kyle Holtrust. The car pinned Holtrust, still alive, underneath. Boyle ran to the scene of the accident and lifted the Camaro off the teenager, while the driver of the car pulled him to safety.
In 1982, in Lawrenceville, Ga., Angela Cavallo lifted a 1964 Chevrolet Impala from her son, Tony, after it fell off the jacks that had held it up while he worked underneath the car. Mrs. Cavallo lifted the car high enough and long enough for two neighbors to replace the jacks and pull Tony from beneath the car.”
...
“Some theorize that we normally use only a small percentage of our muscles' capabilities. When we are confronted with danger, we transcend the limitations of our muscles and simply act. The rush of adrenaline, which accounts for a sudden increase in strength, helps to facilitate a person lifting a car. In other words, when confronted with extreme stress, we involuntarily use our muscles beyond the limitations of their normal voluntary use.
This theory is supported by what happens when a person is electrocuted. Someone who is shocked can be thrown a notable distance from where the shock took place. But this is not due to the electric shock. Instead, it's a sudden and violent contraction of the person's muscles as a result of the electrical charge flowing through the body. This demonstrates a potential for muscle contraction that isn't utilized under normal circumstances. In much the same way that people can't throw themselves across the room, they also can't normally lift a car -- the resources aren't available without the threat.” [Of course, I’m arguing that there are ways around that initial threat...]