Sacrificing a Thousand Apparent Truths

The brain, as I have said before, needs to acquire knowledge about the permanent, essential and constant properties of objects and surfaces, in a world where much is continually changing. To do this, it must discount all the changes that are superfluous, indeed an impediment, to acquiring that knowledge; it must, in the words of Glees and Metzinger, ‘sacrifice a thousand apparent truths’ 
—Semir Zeki, Inner Vision (185).

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14th & 1st, L line Florist, Victoria Accardi (2016)

The question, what is art? is one of seemingly perpetual interest and discussion. I’m not quite fool enough to attempt an answer, nor to even believe that an answer is possible, but one thing I do believe is that art is the constant. As far back as our human minds can stretch into our history—there is art. I therefore think a better question is, why is that? Semir Zeki, in his wonderful book Inner Vision proposes a possible basis upon which an answer to that question can begin to be understood. Zeki begins, within his field of expertise: the neurology of vision.

[The] proliferation of newly discovered visual areas, many of which are specialised to process different aspects of the visual scene such as form, colour and motion, [raise] important questions about why the brain needs to process different attributes in different compartments […] vision is an essentially active search for essentials (21).

What Zeki proposes is that art, essentially, works the same way, or, shares the same purpose.

The neurological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications (22).

By which he means that our aesthetic likes and dislikes are not covered under his thesis, but do rely upon it, because, “art must, after all, obey the laws of the brain” (125). And the laws are much more complex and fascinating then one might think. It is not simply a straight shot from “seeing” to “understanding,” both of these processes are more complex and more tightly bound to each other than previously imagined. The fun thing about Zeki’s work and passions, is that he looks to other vital areas of life, like love and art, to present evidence which science is newly discovering, but which art has always understood—at least insomuch as art unknowingly (innately?) exploits and reflects the brain’s method of organizing information. On the one hand, that seems obvious—painting (which is Zeki’s focus in this book) is obviously a ‘visual’ art and so it stands to reason that ‘successful’ art must obey visual parameters and preferences of line, color, form, and motion.

The brain, as it turns out, has highly specialized cells that are uniquely interested in single attributes—like color, form, or motion—and these cells are both concentrated in areas of the brain and also widely diffused (most dramatically in the cells concerned with form). More than that:

Recent experiments that have measured the relative times that it takes to perceive colour, form and motion show that these three attributes are not perceived at the same time, that color is perceived before form which is perceived before motion […] This suggests that the perceptual systems themselves are functionally specialized and that there is a temporal hierarchy in vision, superimposed upon spatially distributed parallel processing systems (66).

Fascinating stuff. The book expounds on all manner of visual maladies which have done a lot of work in showing just how specialized the processes are and then goes on to look at art (mostly modern) to point out philosophical consistencies between what artists (impressionists, cubists, modernists, fauvists) say they are trying to explore or achieve with what we know (which is some, but not all) neurologically about what the brain’s visual system tries to accomplish. Zeki’s brilliance is that he conjoins two disciplines for the same purpose. Artistic inquiry naturally has a longer, richer history than neurological inquiry, and yet the former seems to possess what artistic discourse lacks: the promise of quantitative and qualitative comprehension (seems to, at least….). Art has always been a difficult subject to capture in language, as Zeki writes,

Language is a relatively recent evolutionary acquisition, and it has yet to catch up with and match the visual system in its capacity to extract essentials so efficiently. To describe the power of art in words constitutes, in the lines of T. S. Eliot, ‘a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment’ (9).

All the same, sometimes we come out with some hilarious accuracy: Mondrian, for instance, whom we all know had a deep and abiding appreciation for the brain’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines, heroically defended the wisdom of our visual organizing system to Theo van Doesburg (founder of De Stijl group) writing to him:

Following the highhanded manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible. For the rest, sans racune (115).

Well. What more can one say?

 

*painting by my daughter Victoria Accardi. To see more of her work go here.

A Book by Its Cover

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all”
—Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (37)

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I attended a symposium in January in which the head of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA—an excellent resource if you don’t know of it) mentioned a book that he had loved (and had had to wait for as there was an over two-hundred person hold on it at his Boston library). I found the book in my library’s consortium, but also had to wait about a month and a half for it. I had already just gotten involved in another book, so when I got the notification that it was waiting for me, I retrieved the book immediately but was then warned that I had to return it in two weeks time due to other holds—I was a bit panicked and so read it right away.

The story takes place in Naples in a poor neighborhood and is narrated by Elena Greco concerning her friend, and her friendship with, Lila Cerullo. It is a really interesting book. Superficially it is a page turner of typical Italian melodrama. And yet there is more. First of all, it is a book about female friendship, which (as far as literary themes in the western “canon” go) is a johnny-come-lately of  a genre (jane, I suppose). For hundreds of years we got female characters who were mothers, sisters, lovers/wives, or daughters, but unlike the well-mined exploration of man-to-man friendships, the domain of female friendships was inaccessible (or perhaps uninteresting) to predominantly male writers. So, that aspect alone, which is richly examined in Ferrante’s first of 4(?) in the series, is quite wonderful.

What, instead, did [Lila] and Stefano have in mind, where did they think they were living? They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems that I studied in school, in novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults, even the truly intolerable insult that the Solaras were making (273).

The other really lovely subtlety of the novel is the interplay between the poverty of the neighborhood and education. Elena and Lila are both—well, in a word—brilliant, and Ferrante shows the development of their intellects and the struggles which ensue with a thorough beauty. I ended up, in my state of panic, reading the book in two days flat. But that may also be a function of the easy (which I do not mean disparagingly) prose and Ferrante’s ability to suck her readers in. In fact, although I knew going in that it was the first in a series, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed at the forcefulness of the serialization: I feel that I have to read the next book in order to finish the story and that can, and for me does, feel manipulative. But, as I enjoyed reading it, it is not perhaps too burdensome of a manipulation.

Here is my main serious complaint: I really hate the cover. I am glad to be done reading it so that I can be done having to look at the hideous thing. It is tacky and expresses nothing of the depth the novel offers: friendship, humanity, quotidian struggle, familial pressure, coming-of-age, prejudices, and culture. Instead it looks something like what the book is in danger of being misunderstood as: a made for TV melodrama mini-series. I have spent time in Naples (although the above photo of two of my children is in Rome it expresses the visual beauty of the country) I went back and looked at some photos I had taken Italy and Naples. The inner city is sensual and striking and I can not understand why the cover to this novel is so cheesy given the resources. This may be a small matter to some people, but I would argue that it is not. Whether one fully realizes it or not, these things matter. If you are asking me to read a book of some 350 pages, you would be wise to make me want to first hold that book in my hands.

 

 

The Lemon is the Antidote

Reason must know the heart’s reason and all other reasons which are felt from the tip of one’s hair to the extremity of one’s toes
—Leonora Carrington, Down Under (28)

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Portrait of Madame Dupin, 1947

Down Under is Leonora Carrington’s riveting account of being held in a Spanish institute for the incurably insane. How she got there is in itself a fascinating story. She was Max Ernst’s lover and at the outbreak of WWII he was arrested by the Gestapo, but then released. He escaped further arrest (or worse) when Peggy Guggenheim arranged for him to come to the United States. Peggy, I guess, did not arrange for Carrington’s escape and ended up marrying Ernst herself…. Carrington was left bereft, heartbroken. She escaped France by going to Spain, which was where the pressure on her heart and soul cracked her brain. I suppose in the face of the combination of heartbreak and the terror and insanity of WWII, a psychotic break must be a near inevitability. When her friend, who was driving the car to Spain, commented that the brakes had jammed Carrington internalized that word. She was “jammed” the world was “jammed.”

What caused the panic to rise within me was the thought of automatons, of thoughtless, fleshless beings (8)

But things got seriously worse at the institute to which she was taken. She was given a series of shots of Cardiazol which induce seizures (a sort of “shock therapy”). Down Under describes that harrowing experience.

When I came to I was lying naked on the floor. I shouted to Asegurada to bring me some lemons and I swallowed them with their rinds. […] then I went back to bed and, intimately, tasted despair (36).

The psychotic fantasies and delusions that ensue are disturbing and not uncoincidentally surreal in the extreme. After all, Carrington was a surrealist artist (English-born, Mexican/Irish descent). But there is something in the way she tells of the ordeal—the odd details that make it very real. I (perhaps strangely, but none the less) completely understood her random obsession for lemons—she comes to consider lemons as an antidote to the Cardiazol, and believes, in her delusion, that the lemons are the key to the story! Or when, at great effort, she gets ahold of a pencil and piece of paper, draws a triangle on it and passes it to José, one of the orderlies:

That triangle, to my way of thinking, explained everything (28).

You feel her mind trying to grip onto anything to prevent the free fall into an utter disconnect with herself. And she does strategize—she tries to organize her mind in interesting ways. She has a sort of mental visual map that helps her at least name the buildings and areas of the institute she is in (which, when she later gets away, she is able to match against what was actually there instead of what she thought in her confused altered state, i.e. “Down Under,” “Africa,” “Outside World Street,” “Garden Pavilion”). She uses objects in her room or dresser to represent the pieces in her mind:

My red and black refill pencil (leadless) was Intelligence. Two bottles of Eau de Cologne, one flat was the Jews, the other, cylindrical, the non-Jews. A box of “Tabu” powder, with a cap half of which was grey and the other black, meant eclipse, complex, vanity, Tabu, love (41).

In this way she gets them out of her head, outside of herself so that she can make some sort of sense. She also struggles to solve the problems of the world developing a full blown martyr complex on the way. Her sexual passions get wrapped up into her state of being and one gets a real sense of her as feeling, intelligent, sensual woman. It is a brief tale, but the complexity she brings to the story is fascinating.

An interesting aspect of this little book is that it was not actually written, rather, it was “told to Jeanne Megnen” which, I think, alters the telling. In many ways, the mind wanders more freely when it does not have to concern itself with organizing the words and sentences on the page. In the case of this particular book, that quality lends itself to the overall oneiric, nightmarish quality.

I sank, I sank down into a well…very far…The bottom of that well was the stopping of my mind for all eternity in the midst of utter anguish. But will you ever understand what I mean by the essence of utter anguish? (36)

*Published by Black Swan Press, translated from the French by Victor Llona

 

Companions in Distress

“What shall I do?” I said. “It seems a pity to commit suicide when I have lived for ninety-two years and really haven’t understood anything.”
—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (17)

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Described as a Surrealist novel, the 1974 book, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is nothing if not dreamlike. Where the novel begins bears zero relation from where it ends and the matter-of-fact tone with which Carrington relates the hairpin turns and oddness is exactly like a dream in which things just are and you don’t necessarily question how you know—don’t ask questions! the facts are whatever they appear to be.

Then a terrible thing happened to me. I started to laugh and could not stop. Tears poured down my face and I covered my mouth with my hand, hoping they would think I had a secret sorrow and was weeping and not laughing (45).

The most wonderful thing about the book is the innocently curmudgeon of a protagonist, Marian Leatherby. She is very funny and her friend Carmella is the type of friend we all wish we had:

“I will give you a solution in a few moments,” said Carmella, who was rummaging in a large covered basket that she had brought. “In the meantime I had better give you the chocolate biscuits and the port, before anybody comes” (141).

A woman with priorities! And the one who gives the near-deaf Marian a hearing trumpet which causes her to learn that her odious family, whom she did not in anyway miss hearing, are plotting to send her to a “retirement” home which is where the real adventure begins.

The novel is closer, in my opinion, to a sort of a magical realism in that Carrington does not try ones patience with pseudo-psychological-surrealist imagery. Rather than a deep seeded anxiety, the book has a sort of joyful innocence. Marian is very trusting, and for a fellow-trusting fool like myself, it is nice to root for her.

I leapt right into the boiling soup and stiffened in a moment of intense agony with my companions in distress, one carrot and two onions (176).

*image from L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers

 

 

Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)

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The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129

The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)

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I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966

Giving Reality a Relief

To find  trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance. 
—Jean Cocteau, Diary of a Film (50).

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Still from the filming of La Belle et La Bête.

Jean Cocteau’s book Diary of a Film is a lovely little look into the process of making a film. His diary documents the making of the 1946 film La Belle et La Bête. A friend had wanted me to read the book, so I decided I’d better see the film first. The film is fabulous. Not just fabulous as in ‘wonderful,’ but, as my desktop dictionary gives the etymology: Latin fabulosus ‘celebrated in fable,’ from fabula. It is both kinds of fabulous. The artistic conception of the sets and costumes are a wonder, and the earnestness with which the earnest tale is told is nearly flawless (there was one scene which caused an outburst of mocking laughter in me, but I didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed, the hearty laugh).  

But for all that, I’d be mad if I forgot that bad luck has always run through  my life, and that it always has been and always will be, a sheer struggle (77).

“Bad luck” is a serious understatement. Never mind the post-war equipment problems and chronic “current” spasms (in my translation when there was a power outage it was said that they lost ‘current’—and that was pretty much daily). No—it was health issues that seriously beset Cocteau and crew. The leading man suffered boils, the leading woman—feverish illnesses, co-stars—various maladies including a fractured hip, and Cocteau…oh dear man—carbuncles, shingles, fevers, face rashes, eczema, and then this gem on page 189: “Have got jaundice. Yes, that was about all that was missing!” It’s a medical miracle they finished the project. Meanwhile:

Nuremberg trial. The two-and two-make-four’s are judging the two-and-two-make-five’s or even twenty-two (158).

Cocteau is a marvel of succinct truth and he is eminently quotable. Does the above quote not perfectly describe many of our current politician’s logic? And yet….This past summer I bought a wonderful book (it’s a rare occurance for me to actually purchase a book as I neither have room to house books nor discretionary money to spare—but, je ne regrette rien). I haven’t finished it, but this is why I bought it—I knew I would want to take my time with it. (It is in alphabetical order—I’m up to the F’s.) Written by Clive James, Cultural Amnesia is a series of essays (over one hundred) on the heros, villains, and fascinating figures of the twentieth century. Cocteau naturally rates.  And yet, while more than acknowledging Cocteau’s artistic achievements, James, as is his style, does not give Cocteau a pass regarding his questionable forbearance regarding the Nazi occupation of France.

While not exactly despicable—nobody died because of him—his behavior was not admirable (James 131).

Cocteau did not merely stay silent, he was an “air-kissing” attendee of Nazi cocktail parties. I read this essay before I saw La Belle et La Bête and, of course before reading Diary of a Film, but I had to re-read it after the two because….oh man. People are complex and flawed, I know. And—I have children! and I know enough about the Nazi’s and their ilk to know that I can’t say for sure how I would behave—those folks don’t fuck around, they don’t simply murder you! no, they will murder your son, daughter and goldfish too—and that is terrifying. We can not be in Cocteau’s mind, we can not know what aspect of his life allowed or forced his recurring attendance at these Nazi fêtes. All we can know is that we hope we would not. And we hope we will never be faced with the prospect.

I went off to R. in despair of ever finding perfection that can survive its difficulties. It’s always just beyond one’s reach. Sometimes one can almost touch it. But something is lacking (Cocteau 86).

*Title from p. 57: “In films a trick shot is often much more convincing than the real thing, and besides, it gives reality some relief.”