R.I.P Cy Twombly, one of the great ones! I hope you are sailing along the Wilder Shores of Love.
R.I.P Cy Twombly, one of the great ones! I hope you are sailing along the Wilder Shores of Love.
Art is a thought experiment that is communicated through some physical means to other people.
BODHIDHARMA left his robe and bowl to his chosen successor; and each patriarch thereafter handed it down to the monk that, in his wisdom, he had chosen as the next successor. Gunin was the fifth such Zen patriarch. One day he announced that his successor would be he who wrote the best verse expressing the truth of their sect. The learned chief monk of Gunin’s monastery thereupon took brush and ink, and wrote in elegant characters:
The body is a Bodhi-tree
The soul a shining mirror:
Polish it with study
Or dust will dull the image.
No other monk dared compete with the chief monk. But at twilight Yeno, a lowly disciple who had been working in the kitchen, passed through the hall where the poem was hanging. Having read it, he picked up a brush that was lying nearby, and below the other poem he wrote in his crude hand:
Bodhi is not a tree;
There is no shining mirror.
Since All begins with Nothing
Where can dust collect?
Later that night Gunin, the fifth patriarch, called Yeno to his room. “I have read your poem,” said he, “and have chosen you as my successor. Here: take my robe and my bowl. But our chief monk and the others will be jealous of you and may do you harm. Therefore I want you to leave the monastery tohight, while the others are asleep.”
In the morning the chief monk learned the news, and immediately rushed out, following the path Yeno had taken. At midday he overtook him, and without a word tried to pull the robe and bowl out of Yeno’s hands.
Yeno put down the robe and the bowl on a rock by the path. “These are only things which are symbols,” he said to the monk. “If you want the things so much, please take them.”
The monk eagerly reached down and seized the objects. But he could not budge them. They had become heavy as a mountain.
“Forgive me,” he said at last, “I really want the teaching, not the things. Will you teach me?”
Yeno replied, “Stop thinking this is mine and stop thinking this is not mine. Then tell me, where are you? Tell me also: what did your face look like, before your parents were born?”
There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscapes of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing that he likes to think about. –G.K. Chesterton
I have been searching for years for this story that’s been half-submerged in my memory, and I just found it in an old journal entry from June 8, 1985. It was cut out of a newspaper, but I have no idea which one, and I can’t find this exact version of the story anywhere:
One day Einstein was asked by a pesky reporter to describe his theory of relativity in a few simple words. He responded with the following story:
“A man was asked by a blind man to describe the color white. The man said, ‘White is the color of a swan.’ The blind man said, ‘What is a swan?’ The man said, ‘A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.’
“The blind man asked, ‘What is crooked?’ The man was becoming impatient. He grabbed the blind man’s arm, straightened it and said, ‘This is straight.’ Then he bent it and said, ‘And this is crooked.’
“Whereupon the blind man quickly said, ‘Yes, yes, thank you. Now I know what white is.’”
So there’s the first clue why I could never find this story online — I had thought it was one of John Cage’s zen stories, but it’s actually a story told by Einstein. This in itself is a good illustration of the fallibility of memory. Here is another version I just found, and this fits the pattern of all the references I found to this story:
Einstein and his blindfriend. This story shows how complex Einstein could be. Not long after his arrival in Princeton he was invited, by the wife of one of the professors of mathematics at Princeton, to be guest of honor at a tea.-Reluctantly, Einstein consented. After the tea had progressed for a time, the excited hostess, thrilled to have such an eminent guest of honor, fluttered out into the center of activity and with raised arms silenced the group. Bubbling out some words expressing her thrill and pleasure, she turned to Einstein and said: “I wonder, Dr. Einstein, if you would be so kind as to explain to my guests in a few words, just what is relativity theory ? ”
Without any hesitation Einstein rose to his feet and told a story. He said he was reminded of a walk he one day had with his blind friend. The day was hot and he turned to the blind friend and said, “I wish I had a glass of milk.”
“Glass,” replied the blind friend, “I know what that is. But what do you mean by milk?”
“Why, milk is a white fluid,” explained Einstein.
“Now fluid, I know what that is,” said the blind man. “but what is white ? ”
” Oh, white is the color of a swan’s feathers.”
” Feathers, now I know what they are, but what is a swan ? ”
“A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.”
” Neck, I know what that is, but what do you mean by crooked ? ”
At this point Einstein said he lost his patience. He seized his blind friend’s arm and pulled it straight. “There, now your arm is straight,” he said. Then he bent the blind friend’s arm at the elbow. “Now it is crooked.”
“Ah,” said the blind friend. “Now I know what milk is.”
And Einstein, at the tea, sat down.
Here is a similar version of the milk story, retold by one Omar Kureishi, with Einstein now completely out of the picture:
A blind man asks a young girl to describe milk. The young girl is astonished that someone can be so foolish that he doesn’t know what milk is. “Milk is white,” she tells him. The old man tells her that he is blind and doesn’t know what white means. The young girl tells him that this is very easy to explain and tells him that a swan is white. The old man tells her that a swan may be white, but he has never seen a swan. “It has a curved neck,” she tells him. The blind man says that he has no idea what ‘curved’ is. She lifts her arm, bends her wrists forward like a swan’s neck. “Feel it,” she says, “that’s curved.” The old man feels the girl’s arm, touches the girl’s wrist and exclaims joyfully: “Thank God. Now at last I know what milk is.”
What of this strange connection between the “white” things called “milk” and “swans”? Turns out that goes back to Hinduism and Sanskrit, according to the swan page on Wikipedia:
Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan’s feather does not get wet although it is in water. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddess Saraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramahamsa (“Great Swan”) on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds. In the Vedas, swans are said to reside in the summer on Lake Manasarovar and migrate to Indian lakes for the winter. They’re believed to possess some powers such as the ability to eat pearls. They are also believed to be able to drink up the milk and leave the water from a saucer of milk adulterated with water. This is taken as a great quality, as shown by this Sanskrit verse:
Hamsah shwetah, bakah shwetah, kah bhedah hamsa bakayo?
Neeraksheera viveketu, Hamsah hamsah, bakah bakah!
(The swan is white, the duck is white, so how to differentiate between both of them?
With the milk-water test, the swan is proven swan, the duck is proven duck!)
I guess the ancients required empirical evidence to distinguish a swan from a duck, a task the many modern humans can perform with relative ease.
Of all the versions of this story that might be floating around the universe, I like the original one I clipped from an unknown newspaper 25 years ago, because to me the idea of describing the color white to a blind person is much more abstract and interesting than describing what milk is, since milk, after all, is a substance that can be discerned by other senses. But how can you possibly describe “white” without referencing other things? Such is relativity.
“I soil the paper to prepare it for hallucinations. I reverse the day’s attempt to assassinate me.” –Matta [Via Clayton Eshleman]
Brian Eno / John Cale, “In the Backroom”, from the 1990 album Wrong Way Up:
When Señoritas walk at night,
Habañeros on the move,
It’s music to their ears in the backroom.
If there’s money to be made,
And it’s a hundred in the shade and in the backroom,
She’s sentimental like the last
Of the foreigners running past her to the backroom.
And if things aren’t sweet in Mecca
She’ll be begging for forgiveness in the vacuum.
They’re taking pains with California,
And they’re guaranteeing boredom for the monsoon.
And apart from what was offered
There were mothers buying orphans at the auction
Youre much better off in Twos
If you’re coming to see the carnage in the backroom.
Doubled over on the table
I was concentrating harder in the backroom.
Weaving in and out of consciousness
Hiding out behind the entrance to the backroom.
It took longer than expected:
They had difficulty swallowing capsules.
We had a keener nose for trouble
Than the sniffer-dogs at Heathrow –
You’d be trousers down in no time in the backroom.
Almost nothing in the papers…
Told me it happened when they emptied out the backroom.
A great song of incidents.
A wonderful thought from Boris Vian, quoted in A half-century homage to France’s master-prankster, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the author / jazz musician / artist’s death:
[Vian's] heightened sense of the absurd reached its apotheosis when he joined the CollÃ¨ge de pataphysique, a prestigious circle of French writers and academics studying pataphysics, a virtual science invented at the end of the 19th century by the author Alfred Jarry.
They held absurd honours ceremonies with strange decorations. Vian was promoted to Transcendent Satrap, in charge of the Extraordinary Commission on Clothing. Along with illustrious French names like Raymond Queneau, EugÃ¨ne Ionesco and Jacques PrÃ©vert, they engaged in serious, scientific discussion of stupid ideas, such as crossing Paris using land tides in a boat made of small holes.
“I am applying myself to thinking about things that I think people will not think about,” Vian said in a radio recording…
Emphasis mine, because it’s a great credo to live by. Thanks to Tosh Berman for the tip on this article and for turning me on to Boris Vian. We should all be so lucky as to cross Paris using land tides in a boat made of small holes.
Brian Eno: “possessions are a way of turning money into problems.” From a New York Times editorial, Five Scenes, One Theme: A True if Unlikely Story, by Bono, November 14, 2009.
Leave it to science to transform dada into data. A new study suggests that the experience of nonsense, “may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large,” according to a recent article in the New York Times, How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect.
The article continues:
“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”
Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.
In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.
When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.
That right there almost seems like a neurological explanation for the invention of religion (and art): The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.
“There’s more research to be done on the theory,” said Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, because it may be that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance. But he added that the new theory was “plausible, and it certainly affirms my own meaning system; I think they’re onto something.”
Read the full article — it goes on to cite a study where a group of test subjects who first read “The Country Doctor” by Kafka performed a letter-string matching test 30 percent better than a control group that read a more linear non-Kafka story.
This latest quest by science is trying to show that “nonsense makes sense”, which, paradoxically, would make it non-nonsense, right?
Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories [or religion -- a weeping Virgin Mary statue, anyone?], for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.
That’s too bad — John Cage should be added to the school curriculum regardless of the prematurity of these findings.
Uh-oh, I feel the grip of the uncanny overcoming me as I type. Will the urge for odor satisfy itself with me?
Still, the new research supports what many experimental artists, habitual travelers and other novel seekers have always insisted: at least some of the time, disorientation begets creative thinking.
I’ll think to that, ye uncanny drinkers!
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.
I just stumbled upon a great essay by Philip K. Dick, written in 1978, a few years before he die: How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. It is longish, but an entertaining read. Here are some excerpts:
It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe — and I am dead serious when I say this — do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.
…In Plato’s Timaeus, God does not create the universe, as does the Christian God; He simply finds it one day. It is in a state of total chaos. God sets to work to transform the chaos into order. That idea appeals to me, and I have adapted it to fit my own intellectual needs: What if our universe started out as not quite real, a sort of illusion, as the Hindu religion teaches, and God, out of love and kindness for us, is slowly transmuting it, slowly and secretly, into something real?
…Just about the time that Supreme Court was ruling that the Nixon tapes had to be turned over to the special prosecutor, I was eating at a Chinese restaurant in Yorba Linda, the town in California where Nixon went to school — where he grew up, worked at a grocery store, where there is a park named after him, and of course the Nixon house, simple clapboard and all that. In my fortune cookie, I got the following fortune:
DEEDS DONE IN SECRET HAVE A
WAY OF BECOMING FOUND OUT.
I mailed the slip of paper to the White House, mentioning that the Chinese restaurant was located within a mile of Nixon’s original house, and I said, “I think a mistake has been made; by accident I got Mr. Nixon’s fortune. Does he have mine?” The White House did not answer.
…The summation of much pre-Socratic theology and philosophy can be stated as follows: The kosmos is not as it appears to be, and what it probably is, at its deepest level, is exactly that which the human being is at his deepest level — call it mind or soul, it is something unitary which lives and thinks, and only appears to be plural and material. Much of this view reaches us through the Logos doctrine regarding Christ. The Logos was both that which thought, and the thing which it thought: thinker and thought together. The universe, then, is thinker and thought, and since we are part of it, we as humans are, in the final analysis, thoughts of and thinkers of those thoughts.
Early afternoon yesterday, before the news broke about the plane ditching into the frigid Hudson river, I made this larger drawing from a chunk of words I first entered in the small book on Jan 7th (click the pic for a larger version):
Is it megalomaniacal of me to think that I might be God, controlling fate with my words?
In a feat of amazing piloting by heroic captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, All 155 Escape Jet’s Plunge Into Hudson after a flock of geese take out both engines of the Airbus A320.
Here’s a great cell phone photo snapped moments after the jet hit the drink by a tourist who was Twittering away at the time on a ferry bound from Manhattan to New Jersey that was one of the first on the scene to help rescue passengers (click for a larger version):
Here is the photographer, Janis Krums’ succinct caption: “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.”