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

(Slideshow is of 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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Nature of the Absurd: the End of the World and its Beginning

"Lullaby of Uncle Magritte"
(All images in this post by Michael Cheval)

"Existir debe ser una imagen, en la que flotamos para no hundirnos." --Gabriel Pacheco
Which, loosely translated, is: "Existence is an image in which we float to protect ourselves from drowning." Drowning, perhaps, in the frightful chaos that is endless possibility. If the physicists are right, and everything is occurring all the time, and every possibility is played out somewhere, and nothing is either created or destroyed, but simply always is, then the thing that would define life as we experience it might simply be an image. Let me back up a few steps:

We know that the world is teeming with atoms, that in each sliver of each nail curving over the tip of a finger, we carry thousands of atoms. The air around us is not empty; it is packed with jostling objects. Probably, when we are born, we can see all of them. I imagine it takes us days and then weeks and months to learn to ignore certain atoms and group together others, coming to see them as one object as opposed to many. What I'm saying is, we learn what to see and what to ignore. I think that the other thing we develop in those first few years is a latent image, a picture that symbolizes what we come to call the world. An image which defines not just what's visible, but what's possible.

"Terra Incognita"


In the book Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami writes about just such an image. He divides the book into alternate chapters, the first set being about a young man navigating a mysterious world of scientific intrigue, conspiracy, and personal danger, and the second set describing that young man's experiences in a seemingly idyllic but very isolated community. The community is surrounded by a high wall, to which the gatekeeper holds the only key. Beautiful, golden-furred unicorns are let out to the fields beyond the wall every day and brought in to sleep every night. As winter descends upon the population, the beautiful horses lose their vibrant color and begin to drop from starvation and cold. There are some hard, fast rules to living in this community--which one is not permitted to leave--, rules which especially include doing the job assigned to you when you arrive and minding your own business. In these rules, one begins to see the connection between the alternating chapters, the thread that holds the two seemingly unconnected stories together.

There is, of course, a lot more going on in the story, but this is the part I want to think about here: the strange, isolated locale is his latent image; it's how he defines the world. The existence of the place, how he got there, the larger meaning of why he's there, the reason he can't leave and the particular job he's been assigned, these things all just are; there's no real explanation for any of it, none of it makes too much sense, things just are a certain way, and you don't question them. When, in his "other life," he passes a stranger on the street who might need help or who might be trying to get his attention, he tells himself: none of your business. He has no lasting relationships, mostly visits prostitutes, lives alone. He does his job because it's his job--he doesn't even understand the larger purpose of that job, mainly because he doesn't ask about it. All of his behaviors in the world of scientific intrigue, the "waking" world, are explained by the slow, quiet chapters set in that idyllic community. Because of this image he carries, because of that view of the world, his options in life are severely limited, and are, at the time of the story, about to come to an end altogether.

The golden unicorns are the beasts of the earth who carry the suffering and the weight of our sins. Each year, with the coming of winter, they die slowly and miserably, and each year in the spring they are somehow replenished. This (death and resurrection) is a motif present in every single manmade myth I can think of. This is a motif that explains for him, satisfactorily at first, why some people suffer and others don't. As the story progresses, he begins to realize that the unicorns exist because he asks no questions, because he chooses, in essence, not to care about the people around him. Because he isolates himself, because every aspect of his world is a discrete, unconnected bit in its place which has nothing to do with anything else. He slowly begins to feel responsibility for those creatures, for the stories, dreams and memories (the untold stories, dreams and memories of those around him which needed somewhere to go, somewhere to be held) that they carry with them to their graves.

As the narrator discovers the stories held in the skulls of these beautiful beasts, he also discovers love. Love comes to him at first as a simple curiosity: who is this woman working next to me? What makes her so silent, and what would make her laugh instead? He wonders. Love is wonder.
That simple curiosity changes a main attribute of his latent image. He no longer feels bound by the rules and idiosyncrasies of that strange, isolated landscape and its brutish gate-keeper. He begins looking, not for an escape for himself, but for the story of this woman who has changed the way he views the world: the story she has somehow lost, a loss which haunts her, which binds her to the place. He begins to care more about what another needs than what he himself simply wants. As a result, his life in the outside (scientific, waking) world begins to change.

At the end of the novel, it is not clear what will happen; it is only clear that things have changed drastically, and with those drastic changes comes the possibility of an entirely new life, instead of that End of the World which had been hovering above his head throughout the novel.
And now we come to the point of all this here.

"Covert Fruits of Enlightenment"

"Heritage of Future"

This is art; this is why we paint, why we tell stories: to expand the possibilities of the image we live in, to make more things visible, thus making them possible. To create and explore the feeling of wonder. Art comes out of dissatisfaction, out of some desperation to change what we see around us and the ways in which what we see limits us. Art comes out of hope for something else. It is a form of magic, but it is a totally logical magic. Because, returning to the science at the beginning of this post (and in other posts here), what we see is not all that's in front of us; it's simply what we have chosen out of all that's in front of us. What we've chosen to believe, what we permit ourselves to see. Art is a refusal of limitations, it is an exploration into the absurd, into absurdities which through familiarity become normal, not only possible but plausible, not only plausible but mundane.

"A la Guerre Comme la Guerre"

In Michael Cheval's paintings, we see moments of time colliding; threads from one world seeping into another as a path you might follow to change life story-lines; life on its stage with the fine strings controlling our actions caught, momentarily, like a photo somehow capturing the hand of God. He paints using the language of dreams, juxtaposing things that "shouldn't" exist together in an often otherwise realistic style, making it easier to accept.

"March of the Lonely Hearts"

"The Little Mermaid"

The language of dreams makes sense here, as dreams are essentially re-workings of our latent images. Each dream that we have is a moving image that provides a metaphor for our belief systems, the belief systems that control us like little puppets during our "waking" hours. When we analyze those dreams, we put those images back into words, and then we have three things to work with: what happened to me yesterday; the images in my dream last night; the particular words I used to describe those images this morning. When we hold those three things next to each other, patterns emerge. We become more aware of our unconscious belief systems, we begin to "see" the strings controlling our every move.

"Art of Diplomacy II"

"Art of Diplomacy III"


In her book Sleep On It, Jane Theresa Anderson tells us:

"Consider the Colorado experiment where Dr J. Stoyva fitted volunteers with spectacles that turned the world upside down. They had to wear the glasses for several days, and, during that time, they gradually saw the world the right way up again. The brain could not match the incoming visual information with other incoming information (such as touch or sound), or with its ‘internal model’ of what the world should be like, so it simply changed its perception and turned the images upside down again. When the volunteers’ spectacles were taken off again, guess what? They immediately saw the world upside down again, this time with their own ‘bare’ eyes. Within a short time, the brain adjusted by inverting the incoming messages to make everything fit in with the expected view.

This is, in fact, what happens after birth. The physics of the eye is much like the physics of the camera. The retina, at the back of the eye, is like the photographic film in the camera, and the world’s image appears inverted on this screen. The message sent to the baby’s brain is one of an inverted world. Trial and error soon gives feedback to the brain that what it sees is not, apparently, what it feels, hears or moves around in. The brain turns the image round accordingly.

So it is seen, from our earliest days, that our brain works to alter incoming messages about its sensory environment if they do not fit in with its expectations. The great magicians and illusionists rely on the brain’s stubborness in seeing what it expects to see, rather than what it actually does see! Such is the art of deception. We cannot necessarily trust the brain with what it deciphers and concludes about the waking realities of our environment. It does an incredibly good job, but it does not always get the picture right. It may perceive alternative realities that are not there at all. Just as often, though, it may apply rational restraint, and cause us to discount its genuine experience of dimensions beyond those of waking life. Can we, then, ever trust our neurophysiological wiring to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’?"

"Zenith of Time"

"Cock'n'Bull Story Tellers"

"Perfect Stranger"

And then comes the trick of painting, or, for those who don't paint, the trick of visualization, or of story-telling.
Here's some science that turns the above experiment from bad news into good:According to Lynne McTaggart in The Intention Experiment,

"Research with EEGs has shown that the electrical activity produced by the brain is identical whether we are thinking about doing something or actually doing it. In weight lifters, for instance, EEG patterns in the brain that would be activated to produce the actual motor skills are activated while the skill is simply being simulated mentally. Just the thought is enough to produce the neural instructions to carry out the physical act.
When an athlete performs, the nerves that signal to the muscles along a particular pathway are stimulated and the chemicals that have been produced remain there for a short period. Any future stimulation along the same pathways is made easier by the residual effects of the earlier connections. We get better at physical tasks because our signaling from intention to actions has already been forged. It is not unlike a train track laid down through wild, inhospitable country. Future performances improve because your brain already knows the route and follows the track already laid down. Because the brain does not distinguish between doing something specific and just thinking about doing it, mental rehearsal lays down the tracks just as well as physical practice does. The nerves and muscles create a pathway just as sound as one produced through repeated practice.

Nevertheless, there are a few important differences between mental and physical practice. With physical practice, when you practice too much, you become fatigued, and fatigue causes electrical interference and blockage along the tracks. With mental intention, no roadblocks ever appear, no matter how much you practice in your head."

Later she continues,

"In 1961, Neal Miller, a behavioral neuroscientist at Yale University, first proposed that people can be taught to mentally influence their autonomic nervous system and control mechanisms such as blood pressure and bowel movements, much as a child learns to ride a bicycle. He conducted a series of remarkable conditioning-and-reward experiments on rats. Miller discovered that if he stimulated the pleasure center in the brain, his rats could be trained to decrease their heart rate at will, control the rate at which urine filled their kidneys, even create different dilations in the blood vessels of each ear.
Hypnosis is also a type of intention--an instruction to the brain during an altered state. Hypnotists continually demonstrate that the brain or body is susceptible to the power of directed thought [and that directed thought is most powerful when presented in image form, as opposed to word form].
One dramatic example of the power of mental suggestion concerned a small group of people with a mysterious congenital illness called ichthyosiform erythroderma, known disparagingly as fish-skin disease because unsightly fish-like scales cover most of the body. In one study, five patients were hypnotized and told to focus on a part of their body and visualize the skin becoming normal. Within just a few weeks, 80 percent of each patient's body had completely healed. The skin remained smooth and clear.

Through hypnotic intention, spinal-surgery patients about to undergo their operations have reduced blood loss by nearly half, simply by directing their blood supply away from the site of the surgery. Pregnant women have been able to turn their babies from breech positions, burn victims have sped up their healing, and people suffering hemorrhages in the gastrointestinal tract have willed their bleeding to stop. Clearly, during an altered state, roughly corresponding to the hyperalert state of intense meditation, conscious thought can convince the body to endure pain, cure many serious diseases, and change virtually any condition."

How does this relate? Say you have a dream where you are trying to get somewhere, but everything on the planet seems to be intent on interfering. You have trouble walking, you keep getting phone calls, your car won't start, there's traffic, the crowds at the airport are unmanageable, your confirmed seat has been given away, the plane left early. This dream is the type of latent image I've been talking about here: it is a metaphor for a belief system, for the belief that you'll never get to your goal, because the world is against you (or something similar). After a dream like this, you might use a visualization technique in which you re-enter the dream, using all your senses (hearing, smelling, touching, etc), and unravel each problem. Traffic looks insane, but as you're approaching the knot, a policeman appears and quickly alleviates the situation, creating an opening that clears the scene almost instantly. Your seat's been given away, but at the last minute, someone else cancels, or a clerical error is discovered which opens up a seat for you. The pilot realizes he forgot his lunch and taxis back to his parking spot, where you get on. The point is not that each action which unravels the problem make sense; in fact, it probably won't, because it's the very absurdity of the new act which lets you know that the possibilities available in your world view (and waking life) are being expanded.

"On the Way of Destiny"

"Bouquet of Metaphors"

Painter Michael Cheval defines absurdity as a "“game of the imagination, where all ties are carefully chosen to construct a literary plot.” A plot he himself has created. An intentional plot.

Lethebasher describes Cheval's paintings thus: "The shape of a dress or a faucet will become another object, a surreal object, such as a table or a horn instrument; but it will retain the original shape of the dress or the faucet. Such are Cheval’s games of the imagination; we do not always know what we are looking at. The eye must adjust to the picture object-by-object as it simultaneously takes in a new chessboard of reality."
That is to say, instead of instantly recognizing the logic which unites the parts of the painting, one has to investigate, piece by piece, discovering and entering another world as one goes. Objects that one recognizes are shown in at first unrecognizable situations or uses, which after that initial moment make some sort of (absurd) sense.

"Cavalier of Flitting Past"

You can, after all, see how the connection was made between the wide (isn't it actually absurd in itself?) ruff (collar) and a seashell. And we all know that the seashell carries the sound of the sea...the voices in that sound..the lost souls, the mermaids, the siren calls... Perhaps the man is merely the anthropomorphizing of a sea gull--maybe that explains the aviator cap and goggles, the empty bird cage in his hand the titular "flitting past". Perhaps not...

"Down to Earth"

So: to expand the boundaries of the possible, to begin anew, we must give in to wonder, be curious, explore. We must invest in absurdities, feel and smell the impossible, concentrate on dreams, and perhaps...
simply ignore reality when it interferes...
One step in this process, for me, is enjoying art like this.

"Echo Hunting"

“Absurdity, like any other genre, has its own rules. But it implies everything that is outlying of common rules and boundaries.”
Michael Cheval


  1. Wow. Now that was worth waiting for.

    You are an amazing writer and a great thinker.

    I love this post and it was a real pleasure to read it.

    Thank you.

    Love Renee xoxo

  2. Great to see you flexing your intellectual muscle with this post Zoe. It's an illuminating canter through the worlds of perception and creativity. Well done. Much to think about.

    One of the things that strikes me about this obsessive/compulsive disorder (?) that pulls me and millions of other artists with an irresistible force to the easel every day, is the desire to order a chaotic world into something that makes sense. I have an example.

    The lead up to my father's death was distressing both for him and for those who loved him. His unexpected decline was so fast that it was hard to make sense of what was happening. He was eighty-six, but he'd enjoyed good health throughout his life and the turn for the worse took him and everyone else by surprise. (There had been signs, but he'd ignored and possibly concealed them.)

    I took my notebook and pencils to the hospice, intending to draw him while he was deep in his coma. But I couldn't. The notebook lay untouched in my lap. I couldn't drag my eyes from him for as long as it would take to make even a fast drawing. I held his hand, moistened his tongue with swabs and I watched. Waited. There were terrible moments when he came round and thrashed about like a drowning man, until the intravenous drugs could be adjusted so that he could subside once again into oblivion. When he died it was both a horror and a relief.

    After the funeral was over and life had resumed its usual pace, I began drawing. Huge, turbulent and obsessive drawings in which the chaotic threads of the experience were transformed, processed through the filter of creativity. Each day relief grew more palpable in my chest. The tensions untangled. I stopped feeling sick. I don't know where I would have put all the grief and helplessness in the face of Trevor's death had it not been for being able to empty myself and all my doubts, dreads and disappointments into the work. People who don't paint or draw must have other means to deal with loss. But for me it all happens at the easel. A couple of the drawings done after my father's death were included in the first post you did about my work. One, 'Tend', shows him sitting in his pyjama's as I shave him, with death in the form of the Mari Lwyd approaching from right of frame.

    Lovely, thought-provoking post my friend. Congratulations.

  3. renee, those are really kind words, and they mean a lot to me..i'm so glad you enjoyed it!

    clive, thank you for sharing that...i agree that the artistic process is a powerful tool to create order out of chaos and beauty to overwhelm suffering. i am excited by the ability of that process to pull things together which before had seemed too disparate--to make a better order than the one we've got. :)

  4. Truly great post, zoe!

    I love the Michael Cheval's paintings along with your lovely explanations and views.

    As for Haruki's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, I would say that the novel or fantasy science-fiction is too elaborate and experimental, however, I found it pretty thrilling. If the human psyche herself told her story, it would be something like dreamscapes......

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