INDEX OF TITLES (0084
- 0107 October 2007)
(keywords which appear in the title are not repeated)
0084 - Fairy tales [fantasy film literature]
0085 - Gospel according to Dante [Divine Comedy literature poetry translation]
0086 - Matter over mind [commitment desire discipline talent work]
0087 - Mind over matter [game joy meditation metaphysics]
0088 - Hayao Miyazaki [Art critique fantasy film surrealism]
0089 - Heaven and hell [consciousness existence God Ground of Being hope "I" religion theology time]
0090 - Confessions of a book collector [books collecting obsession]
0091 - Getting there, American style [civilization transportation travel]
0092 - Facilitating the evolution [evil faith good information not-knowing knowledge]
0093 - Dust to dust [cosmology life]
0094 - Heart and brain [desire experience feeling information intellect metaphor]
0095 - Thinking about feeling [being experience explanation language meaning memory rationality sensation]
0096 - Thinking, feeling, desiring [consciousness experience observation point-of-view]
0097 - The case for nonsense [language meaning nonsense]
0098 - De veritatis non est disputandum [existence experience language logic mathematics reality science truth]
0099 - A rare case of humanity? [appreciation kindness service]
0100 - People just want to be happy [brain evil goodness happiness joy rightness worth]
0101 - Tuning in to the universal desire [experience good intentionality joy life thinking value]
0102 - An incompleat catalog of kinds of art [Art art]
0103 - The rewards of wishful thinking [attention absolute desire God hope Jesus law love meditation prayer religion]
0104 - Pessimists are funnier but optimists rule [disaster future hope humor life opression suffering]
0105 - Idolatry in the temple of Art? [Artists critique greatness meaning meta- mystery painting]
0106 - What is Great Art, anyway? [American change critique future idea impact innovation quality society]
0107 - A ghost story [Artists becoming change danger irrational loosing necessity psyche]
10/31/07 (#0107) A ghost story
"Great Art is a 'cataclysmic event' that has lasting effects on an entire civilization". So, are the Theory of Relativity and the Quantum Mechanics Great Art? Maybe Einstein was a Great Artist. His art is purely conceptual so it's hard to appreciate. But it has it all: complexity, depth, integrity, beauty, elegance and a totally new way of looking at the world. And now, a century later, its lasting effects can be fully appreciated. What more can you ask? - the Squirrel.
You may have a point there. Is Art essentially different from Science? Perhaps the difference is only in the materials, technique and the kind of aesthetic involved. - the Ed
Do I believe in ghosts? No, I don't - I know for a fact that ghosts exist. Many different kinds. Some benevolent and some malicious. They are not creatures of our imagination, though we use our imagination to visualize them. But they are a part of us. They may also be parts of others, parts that have impressed themselves on our psyche and became attached to us. We all carry with us a retinue of ghosts and the longer we live the longer grows the line of ghosts trailing us wherever we go.
Ghosts are not memories. Memories are records of facts, accessible to the rational mind. Memories can be analyzed, processed and converted into useful information. Not ghosts. Immaterial, undefined, irrational - they are felt but not understood. That's why they are frightening, even the benevolent ones - we don't know what they are, what they want, where they might take us. They are like alien demons living within us that can possess us at any moment. Especially when our consciousness and our will are in a weakened state, when we are tired, half asleep, depleted of energy. Naturally, they can play havoc with our dreams but they can also keep us in their thrall even when we are wide awake and alert.
We can't escape our ghosts - they are ever with us. But we can resist them by focusing our attention on the task at hand, by staying in reciprocal touch with "reality": acting, observing, responding. Keeping our minds occupied denies the ghosts access to them. An idle mind, they say, is the devil's workshop. At least, it is an invitation to the ghosts to come in.
But ghosts can be useful - even necessary. They can take us into different states, into dreamlands we could never imagine on our own. They can literally take us out of ourselves, make us become someone radically else, utterly change our viewpoint and perspective. I don't think artists could function without their ghosts.
This can be a dangerous game but potentially an immensely rewarding one. If you're thinking of trying it, beware! Many a soul became hopelessly lost chasing ghosts...
10/30/07 (#0106) What is Great Art anyway?
I suppose I should follow up yesterday's rant with some clarification of what it is that I consider Great Art, and particularly Great American Art.
The second part is easier: Truly original American art is hardly half a century old. Prior to 1950s, there were Great Artists in America, with authentic American themes, but their artistic roots were firmly European. There are no doubt Great Artists among the modern (and post-modern) American originals also but the time perspective is still too short for final pronouncements although some names loom large (certainly Pollock and Warhol among them).
What do I think makes art great? First and foremost its impact on humanity in general. This means that Great Art will not be confined in museums and galleries. It will burst out on the world and permanently change it. It will resonate in people's psyches and cast a shadow on all human activities as far as the mind can see. Great Art is a cataclysmic event. But in the short term it is not easy to distinguish art that will shape an epoch from the rave of the moment.
Great Art, as I see it, is an idea. An idea which may already be in the air struggling to be born. Great Artists act as midwives, opening up people's minds to the new possibilities. They also function as society's sensitive antennas picking up on what's coming before it reaches the general public's awareness. But there's more to it besides significant reshaping of the future. I place a further condition on Great Art: it must help shape a future that is closer to our hearts desire, a life enhancing future. Otherwise it is not art but an act of vandalism.
There are many many artists from all historical epochs, including many of my contemporaries, whose work I admire, enjoy and build on - far too many to list. Some of them are renown as Great Masters, many are practically unknown. Except for the amount of publicity they attracted, in terms of the quality of their work I don't see that much difference among them. There are the innovators (who garner most of the fame), the elaborators, and the perfectors - and it's often one of the latter two that really catches my attention and admiration.
10/29/07 (#0105) Idolatry in the temple of Art?
Three American idols in the world of Art (with capital A) are Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning and Chuck Close (who is still with us). All three have been cannonized as Great American Masters, especially DeKooning who is considered by some to be the greatest American artist of all time. There are many others in the pantheon of Great American Masters, but today I want to talk specifically about the work of these three.
I think I understand, if only generally, the demons that possessed Pollock. I love his work though probably for all the wrong reasons. I think it's amazingly beautiful. It is also, of course, completely original and it broke new territory which made it art-historically important but that does not matter to me - I just love looking at his "paintings". DeKooning was also a great admirer of Pollock and Pollock may have been his most important influence.
Chuck Close is a great admirer of DeKooning. In his early years he tried to paint like DeKooning. He quips that DeKooning is the only man who has painted more DeKoonings than he has. Close doesn't do DeKoonings anymore. He now paints "against his nature" (he says) in a very deliberate and methodical way. He paints huge faces (typically 7 feet by 8 feet) from photographs and in recent years he has been disintegrating his faces into grids of "pixels", each pixel being a small abstract "painting" in its own right. From a distance all the pixels add up to a faithful rendition of the face.
I understand Chuck's conscious intent (face as a landscape) and I understand his technique and why he chose it. He is quite eloquent and lucid about himself and his art. Whatever mystery there may be in it is in the subject itself. He is just being faithful to it (while having fun with all those zillions of individual pixel paintings). All this is fine and good, even very good, but what I don't understand is what makes it Great Art?
Unlike Chuck Close, and contrary to the opinion of some critics, DeKooning was essentially non-verbal (as was Pollock). Yes, he did talk about his art, he even wrote and published articles about it, but his statements are not intelligible and often self-contradictory. Any correspondence between what DeKooning was trying to say about his work and what he actually said was in his own mind. So I have only the haziest idea of what he was trying to do. In his most famous works it seems to be, at least in part, about gesture, about paint and ways of applying it to a surface (vis. Pollock). He seemed to be creating "meta-paintings" - paintings about the process of painting, although symbollic and figurative elements do make their appearance in midst of gestural strokes of paint. His paintings are generally highly chaotic both in concept and execution and, with a few exceptions, apparently deliberately ugly. I hate most of them. He was, no doubt, original, but I am at a complete loss why his works are considered Great Art.
I mean no disrespect to either Close or DeKooning. I ask out of genuine, innocent, dumb ignorance: what makes them Great Masters?
By the way, I don't think "Mona Lisa" is all that great either.
10/27/07 (#0104) Pessimists are funnier but optimists rule
Imagine yourself strapped to a cold hard table, naked, under glaring lights. A highly intelligent and monstrously mad sadist is at your side, preparing for an extended feast of exquisite torture. Nothing, short of a miraculous bolt from the blue, can save you. OK, I grant you, under these and certain other such radical circumstances it can be difficult to be optimistic. Otherwise, though, I consider lack of optimism a sin.
Consider: optimists tend to be healthier and live longer and enjoy life more than pessimists. These are certified facts. So why on earth would anyone insist on being a habitual pessimist? Well, there are reasons, legitimate and illegitimate. Mostly illegitimate.
No situation is truly hopeless though there are practically hopeless situations, such as oppressive and exploitative slavery, which includes some familial situations where spouses and children are the victims, and may even be institutionalized on a national scale as a form of governance. And then there are various natural and unnatural disasters which confront one inescapably with death or mutilation leading to permanent disability. All these are legitimate causes for feeling less than optimistic about the immediate and foreseeable future. Yet even these do not provide a legitimate basis for absolute pessimism. As long as one is alive, the one constant of life is change, and the future ever remains incompletely predictable.
Ultimately, pessimism is an attitude adopted by choice. A friend of mine, a professional pessimist, liked to observe that "things are worse than they could possibly be and rapidly deteriorating". Another one noted that "just when we thought we scraped the bottom of the barrel we discovered we only scratched the surface". It's true: pessimists are funnier, which is the only justification for preserving a few of the species. I suspect some alleged pessimists actually cultivate their curmudgeonly attitude simply for sake of the humor of it. Irony thrives on pessimism whether real or pretended.
Many pessimists are disappointed optimists who have irrationally given up on the future. Some fall into the category of those for whom suffering is their chief raison d'etre and source of their sense of importance. A few suffer from clinical depression, but those cases are curable. In any case, I see pessimism as an aberration. Life can be discouraging at times, at times painful, but the future is full of possibilities and as long as we are alive we can act intentionally to make that future closer to our heart's desire. That is the essence of optimism.
10/26/07 (#0103) The rewards of wishful thinking
Accepting the "divine desire" hypothesis of the universe (see Nutshell #101) on pure faith may be wishful thinking, as rationalists like to point out, but there is nothing wrong with wishful thinking if it does not contradict reality. Indeed, wishing is what makes us human. It is the underpinning of human dignity and aspiration. Rationalists who wish for nothing wind up with exactly what they wish for.
If we do accept the "divine desire" hypothesis as true, we become obliged to discover what the divine desire may be, at least with respect to our particular lives. Helping people tune in to the divine desire is the business of religion (from Latin "religare" - to rejoin).
The most straightforward technique for reconnecting with the divine desire is simply to watch and listen attentively, with a quiet and open mind (not as easy as it sounds). The theory behind this is that divine desire is manifest in all that is, including ourselves, and needs only to be observed. This is the technique of prayer and meditation.
More fabulous is the mediation between the divine desire and humanity by prophets (divinely inspired people) and angels (direct divine messengers). Here, the initiative is on the divine side to shake up and wake up people who have become distracted and are not paying attention to the divine desire. For those too coarsened and desensitized to experience the divine desire directly, rules and commandments are given to keep them in line in spite of themselves.
The most sympathetic and appealing means of reconnecting with the divine desire comes from the concept of divine love (an aspect of desire for universal joy) reaching out to humanity. The divine desire as partner, friend and lover is the natural ultimate consequence of acceptance of the divine desire hypothesis. But this requires bringing the divine love down to the level of human understanding. In some religions there are various divine avatars, saints and secondary deities who act as human scale channels of divine love. In the Christian religion, Jesus fulfills that role as divine love incarnate in human form.
As practical human business religion is a perilous enterprise. Besides the danger of becoming overburdened with legalistic and scholarly detail, there is always the temptation to elevate a particular human understanding of the divine desire to the status of absolute and universal truth. In such case a religion becomes anti-religion, a cult.
10/25/07 (#0102) An incompleat catalog of kinds of art
Special today! A random (& incompleat) catalogue of kinds of art:
abstract art antique art allegorical art accidental art
avant guarde art beautiful art bullshit art
calligraphic art classic art commercial art comic art
conceptual art didactic art decorative art
dada art expressionist art ecstatic art erotic art
found art folk art graphic art great art
high art hermetic art historic art iconoclastic art
impressionist art inspirational art ironic art
institutional art juvenile art junk art kitsch art
liturgical art lyrical art lurid art
low art libertine art magical art mystical art
minimalist art metaphysical art modern art
nonsense art nostalgic art op art outsider art
pop art photorealist art propaganda art
playful art postmodern art psychedelic art prophetic art
psychopathic art queer art quirky art
radical art retro art religious art surrealist art
soc-realist art syncretic art symbolic art
satyrical art street art subversive art trashy art
traditional art transcendental art ugly art
universal art unintelligible art visionary art visceral art
wicked art war art weird art
xylocephalic art yogic art zen art zany art
10/24/07 (#0101) Tuning in to the universal desire
Have I got enough
yet to make a book? - The Ed
"...definition of joy: perceiving oneself and one's life as being good and right. Happiness has nothing to do with it" (Nutshell #100). I agree entirely with the second sentence. The first one, however, is an example, not a definition. Nor is it an encompassing example; it's only a sliver of the whole pie.
OK, here is where the rubber meets the road: what is a "good life", and, for that matter, what is "good"? How can we know? Some earlier Nutshells have already expressed views on these matters from various angles. Philosophers, theologians, and, more recently, psychologists have written entire libraries on the subject. Let's see if it all can be fitted into a Nutshell.
"Good is that which enhances and expands life thereby bringing joy" - this is a circular definition which requires that we discover what is "good" by trial and error. Not a promising approach, and one which discounts our innate capacity for knowing and understanding. However, rational thought and logic can only define "good" in utilitarian terms with reference to achieving certain clearly defined and limited objectives. The value, that is, "goodness" of these objectives themselves remains undefined. What, we ask yet again, is the source of value? And the answer is: desire, and conscious intentionality.
This begs the question: what is the source of desire? Also, experience tells us that desire does not always lead to joy, that it can, in fact, be life destructive. Nevertheless, it is desire that puts value on our life's objectives. The problem is, as noted in the last Nutshell, that even though we desire to be good, we confuse "good" with various notions of "happiness". The big question not yet asked is, why do we desire to be good? What is the source of this evidently fundamental desire?
There is no rational answer. But there is an answer that makes sense. It is that joy is the universal objective - that there is a transcendental desire for joy that calls forth and supports the existence of the universe and drives its evolution. Call it "God's will". This hypothesis can't be proven, but neither is there anything in our experience to disprove it. It has an aesthetic and moral advantage over the hypothesis of a universe sans sense or purpose. And then there is the fact of joy which, I argue, is the result and evidence of being in tune with the universal desire.
10/23/07 (#0100) People just want to be happy
Contrary to many popular myths, nobody wants to be evil. What everybody wants is to be happy. The problem is that not everybody knows how to be happy and, though there are plenty of proposed definitions (a warm puppy, being rich, lots of sex, etc.) nobody really knows what "happiness" is, not even when they think they are happy. In our pursuit of happiness we either just wing it intuitively, do drugs, or put our faith in some recipe based on previous experience or divine revelation. As a consequence there's a muddle of ideas about how to achieve happiness including quite a few that involve doing harm to self or others whether intentionally or inadvertently. And when we're unhappy, which for some of us is a chronic condition, we both envy and resent perceived happiness of others. We see it as injustice and we are tempted to even the score. And so, the desire to be happy can make us do evil things.
I distinguish between "happiness" and "joy". It seems very few people do. Happiness is a matter of brain chemistry which, these days, is adjustable. But even if everybody's brain chemistry were adjusted, and we all felt content with our lot, I believe we would discover there is still something missing. We would no longer feel unhappy so it's not happiness. What's missing is a sense of worth, of purpose, of rightness and goodness of our lives. Because, consciously or not, what everybody actually wants is to be good. It's just that happiness is almost universally identified with goodness.
Here is my definition of joy: perceiving oneself and one's life as being good and right. Happiness has nothing to do with it. Nor is it anything like the Pharisaic self-righteousness of those who are absolutely convinced of their goodness and rightness. Joy does not come from any such conviction, it comes from actually living a good life. And what is a good life? That's a topic for another Nutshell...
10/22/07 (#0099) A rare case of humanity?
I had a daughter whom I thought I knew well. But since she died earlier this year I have come across evidence of a life I knew very little about. This point was brought home to me when the Canadian Academy of Audiology - an organization in which she was active - announced the other day at their annual meeting the establishment of a special Humanitarian Award in her name to honor the outstanding humanitarian work she did with the deaf and hard of hearing. On receiving the commemorative plaque her husband presented a biographical sketch tracing the development of her humanitarianism. The response of the attendees was to all rise spontaneously in a standing ovation that went on for minutes. I was astonished - I had no idea my daughter had made such a strong impression on so many lives. I recall being similarly surprised by the tribute paid to my mother on her death. In both cases, what to me had been the everyday norm, to many people was a remarkable experience of rare respect for their humanity, of acceptance, kindness, courtesy and truly dedicated service.
10/18/07 (#0098) De veritatis non est disputandum
I am engaged in a furious debate (with a man for whom furious debate is a hobby) about things that don't exist and how come we can think and talk about them. (IMHO it's a matter of what the meaning of "existence" is, or, as Bill Clinton famously put it, what the meaning of "is" is. If X does not exist, do sentences such as "X 'is' non-existent" or "there 'exists' a non-existent X" mean anything?).
I will forgive you if you think there are more rewarding things to do than argue about such things. I am a pragmatic epicurean myself so I prefer to debate issues which have a practical effect on my enjoyment of life such as the fine balance between enjoying good food and maintaining good health. (In that particular debate it is necessary to distinguish between "enjoyment" and "addiction" and one must be very clear about the meaning of "good" as applied to food and health). In any case, debates are by their nature language-bound and cannot prove anything except the debaters' skill at manipulating the language and their power of persuasion.
There are, of course, formal languages (such as mathematics) with formal procedures of testing for self-contradiction. In such formal languages, arbitrary but completely defined initial conditions, assumptions, and rules of procedure are postulated as absolute givens. Demonstration of non-self-contradiction within the defined system is the only and sufficient proof of the "truth" of a statement.
It all means nothing except that occasionally theorems evolved in this formal way seem to fit the facts on the ground, that is, the actually observed patterns of events in the world of experience. This suggests that the real world may have properties similar to those of the mathematical system that evolved the theorem. This can be tested by using the mathematical construct to make predictions of future events. If these predictions turn out to be close to the actual events, this gives us the right to draw some tentative conclusions about the possible nature of the world of experience. Always assuming, of course, that the nature of the world is stable and not likely to change in the foreseeable future - an article of pure faith that we all subscribe to by practical necessity.
The Nutshell will be back next Monday. Till then,
10/17/07 (#0097) The case for nonsense
It's brillig, and my slithy toves are indeed joyfully gyring and gimbling in the wabe.
What is it about nonsense that wafts so warbfully into our sprittal sprot? Wherein lies its grampic enfeal? Is it that nonsense varstens ingrently our powers of mimperition opening up entire emblistons of possible pervanescence? I will argue that this is inexossintly the case.
For example, let us consider the simple case of fergodivity with diffal girns. Without a healthy dose of nonsense we could not even begin to affere the braffiest mornelling of such an impent. Never mind gostling the gossum, there would be absolutely no way to viterate or at least englode the girns without a major contradiction in lefine syneffry. Clearly we depend on the sorb and sager of nonsense to serplicate and surbilize the infinite amprellines of our sprot.
This is parsly stuff, not to be treated lightly. Could we live in a world without nonsense? What a farrifacious raggel! An adrossing notion that is not even worth delointing. Just think of the consequences: global deframbling, mass borintia, dipsia, geristia, total gramblopsis.
I rest my case.
10/16/07 (#0096) Thinking, feeling, desiring
What we think, i.e. what we believe about the world of experience, affects how we experience it. Not just our intelectual evaluation of the experience but the experience itself, how the world actually feels to us. Two people may be observing the same event but because they have different ideas about the world it is as if they were watching two different events, as if looking at the same light source, one saw red and the other green. And because our thoughts change, how any one individual experiences a similar event also changes in time.
We never observe the whole of an event and this allows thoughts to act as powerful experience filters. Our observations are partial because we observe events from a particular point of view but also because we fail to see all there is to see. In part this is because there is more to see than we can grasp all at once and in part because our attention is directed to certain aspects of the event and away from others. What directs our attention are our thoughts. Our thoughts can cause us to become completely blind to some detail of an observed event, a detail which to someone else might be glaringly obvious and highly significant.
We live in our feelings, in our direct experience of the world, but this experience is strongly shaped by our thoughts. Not, however, absolutely. Thoughts shape our feelings but they are also shaped by them - it is a simultaneous two-way process.
There is a particular feeling which is different from others because its immediate origin is consciousness itself and not any observed event. That feeling is desire and it is essentially a property of consciousness. The object of desire may be some phenomenon in the observed world, but the subject of desire is consciousness. The feeling of desire affects our thoughts more powerfully than any other. Undirected, ambiguous desire confuses and scatters our thoughts, but a well focused desire concentrates and sharpens them. And even though desire may be directed and formed by thought it is inherently independent of it and not infrequently in conflict with it. And when it is, it usually prevails.
10/15/07 (#0095) Thinking about feeling
In the last Nutshell I proposed that we live not in our faculty for rational thinking but in our feelings, that is, in what we are actually experiencing. As I suggested a while ago, Des Cartes put the cart before the horse, so to speak. The logical sequence is "I am (that is, I am experiencing my own being), therefore I think (that is, I am trying to make sense of my experience of being, to give it a meaning)". What Des Cartes really meant by "I think" was "I am experiencing the process of thinking". He could have said, without changing his meaning: "I breathe, therefore I am (I exist)", or more generally "I am experiencing, therefore I exist".
Thought as a linguistic-logical construct (as opposed to the immediate experience of the physical process of thinking) is a pattern in the memory. The pattern, once formed (perceived) and described by the thought process and recorded in memory, may be subsequently directly experienced as an integral pattern by reference to the memory record. With a vast multitude of such memory records of perceived patterns available to consciousness, experiencing becomes associated with a series of "aha!" moments of recognition. This can lead to the illusion that experiencing is a matter of pattern recognition. But experiencing is what we are feeling, not the intellectual process of recognition and categorization. For example, the experience of red does not consist in identifying a color as "red" but in the sensation of redness.
We think in order to explain to ourselves our experiencing, our feelings, by discovering patterns in our experiencing, categorizing them and constructing a theory of the world of experience. In this way we create a meaning for our experience of being. This meaning, in turn, influences what we pay attention to and this actually shapes our experiencing. We live in our feelings, but our feelings are affected and, to some degree, controlled by our thoughts.
To be continued Tuesday,
10/13/07 (#0094) Heart & brain
I am not comfortable with metaphors. As a victim and beneficiary of a mild case of Asperger's syndrome, I have trouble understanding metaphors (I tend to take them literally) and so I don't trust them. Nevertheless, I am going to tackle here the two probably most universal metaphors of all: the heart and the brain.
To me, the heart is the heart, an organic blood pump, and the brain is the brain, an organic computer and controller. But for the moment I will treat them as metaphors, the heart standing for feeling and desire (experiencing) and the brain for intellect (information processing).
Both the heart and the brain are said to understand, but in different ways. While there are people who profess to trust their brain more than their heart, their profession must be taken with a grain of salt because even for them, where decisions really matter (i.e. when they feel strongly about what needs to be done), it is obviously the heart who is the master and the brain, one hopes, a useful and obliging servant. On the other hand, people who trust their heart more than their brain (and they are far more common than the other sort) can be accused of foolishness but not of hypocrisy. In general, while we admire excellent brains, we love good hearts. People of great intellect who are cold hearted are generally (and rightly) feared and even despised. But we easily forgive those of little brain but with a big heart.
It seems, important as the brain may be to managing tasks of life, we really live in our hearts. Heart is where it's at. And this goes for even the most rationalist and intellectual of us - we can't escape being human, and humans (and, for that matter, all conscious beings) are alive by virtue of feeling, of experiencing. Thinking itself is an experience which some find enjoyable (i.e. productive of a feeling of pleasure or joy) and to that extent it is part of living. But it is the heart's desire that determines whether we think and what we think about. More about this later.
10/12/07 (#0093) Dust to dust
Dust is the stuff of the world ground down to a fine flour. It's everywhere, even in the intergalactic space. It's neutral gray because it's a mix of all the world's colors. Dust is the end product of all mechanical processes. But it's not the ultimate end. Dust doesn't stay dust. Gravitational and chemical forces cause it to agglomerate, compact, turn to stone which may be used to build a wall or a house or to carve a monument or to kill.
Out in the cosmic space, there's more dust than anything else except dark matter and hydrogen. With majestic slowness the clouds of dust in space gather in to settle into proto-planetary lumps. Eventually, after collecting enough icy comets to form oceans, some of these lumps will become home to life, an intermediate stage between dust and dust. Except for water, dust contains everything that's needed for life.
10/11/07 (#0092) Facilitating the evolution
Wiggenstein said that? But I agree,
there is no turning back. The new voyage is likely to be of small consequence in
any case, but I do intend to share with the world, whether it wants or not, my
insights and epiphanies along the way. See also the following. - The Ed
Do I really want to leave the world a better place than I found it? And does it matter whether I want to or not?
To begin with, there may be some disagreement about my idea of what makes the world "better". And to end with, it is not always easy to tell if what seems like "better" now may not turn into a nightmare in the future. I have to admit to a certain level of incompetence in the matter of discerning what is "better" for the world as a whole. Still, I believe, and it is a matter of faith, that there are certain absolute "betters". At least in human terms. The most important of them, in my opinion, is reduction of ignorance (both the simple and the deliberate "not-knowing"). Hence Eve is my patron saint - it was she who first broke through the ignorance of good and evil and helped her mate do the same. (If she has not been canonized - along with Adam - it's only because she is a bit of a mythical personage, literalists notwithstanding).
As I noted in an earlier Nutshell, we can't and we don't have to know everything. Ignorance, up to a point, is bliss indeed. But there are some things we do need to know - to survive and to prosper. Since we don't know exactly what it is we need to know, and our need to know, in any case, changes with circumstances, I am an advocate of just making information available to everyone to pick an choose from as needed. This, as I see it, is my contribution to making the world better: spread the facts.
It is also an article of faith with me (backed by some corroborating evidence) that humankind is evolving. Not only that, but it is beginning to take charge of its own evolution. We need information, we need systems for converting it into useful knowledge, and we need to be able to apply that knowledge in our lives. Anything facilitating this is for the "better", not in the absolute sense but in the sense of making possible, without guaranteeing anything, evolution of higher consciousness and understanding. I like to think I can be one of the facilitators.
10/10/07 (#0091) Getting there, American style
You can't get there from here. I mean really - not without breaking your body or your bank or your life.
I need to get to Toronto, Canada, a major North American metropolis about 500 miles from Possum Hollow, USA. I am within a two hours drive of any one of three international airports, two major train stations and three bus terminals. Surely that gives me a lot of options? Yeah, right.
Train: only via New York, a 16 hour trip, and the train leaves at 3:55 AM. Planes? Lot's of them, starting at $700 (and that's at inconvenient hours, with stop-overs and plane changes, not saving enough traveling time to be worthwhile). Other than driving there myself (the direct road hasn't been built yet so I have to either wend my way through backwoods and country roads or else go way out of my way via the toll throughways) the best bet is the bus which a) has the least inconvenient schedule and b) takes "only" twelve hours to get there. It's also amazingly cheap - almost ten times cheaper than the plane. That's less than the cost of driving there myself...
The moral of the story is that effective public transportation and communication exists in this country only within certain densely populated enclaves. You don't have to get much off the beaten path before primitivism rears its ugly head. Yes, we do have sattelite communication now which is indifferent to geographcal location, but moving material bodies is only efficient in high traffic density corridors. Otherwise it's back to the buggy, the only difference being that our buggies are a lot faster and a lot more dangerous and toxic than they used to be a hundred years ago and you can't just nod off while the horse finds its way home.
This is the American way, where cost effectiveness and self-reliance are prized over social utility and general well being. In the more socialized (and more crowded) Europe, you can pretty much get anywhere from anywhere by convenient, comfortable and reliable public transportation. But can the Europeans just hop into their buggies and tear off for wide open country and the big skies? No they can't - they can't get away from their all-pervading civilization. Europe is a nice place to visit but I'm not sure I would want to live there...
10/09/07 (#0090) Confessions of a book collector
I'm way past bibliophilia and well into bibliomania. Or I was, until recently.
Surveying my libraries (that's plural) I have long been aware that there is no time to become familiar with any significant fraction their content before I die. Somehow that fact never seemed to have any meaning for me - it certainly had zero impact on my continuing accumulation of hard copy. Driving my obsessive collection of volumes were two firm beliefs: a) that I absolutely needed to have the item at hand for Future J. Reference, my pet book worm and b) that I would in time absorb the information, the literary values and the wisdom contained in my books by osmosis, simply by living among them.
My motives, however, were not always irrational. Some books I bought for the joy of actually reading and/or re-reading them. Some I bought because they were in themselves beautiful works of art. And many of my books are reference texts and images used in practicing my art. But the great majority fall into such categories as:
- books I felt I should read to ameliorate my inadequate liberal arts education
- books I'd like to read one of these days when I have time
- books needed to complete a set for sake of having a complete set
- weird, odd and unusual books
- ultra cheap books and bargains I simply couldn't afford not to buy
- books which seemed interesting (which doesn't leave out much since I'm interested in everything).
So this year I stopped buying books, cold turkey, and started reading beginning with the classics of the Western literature. I actually have a hope of being able to complete reading the ones already in my library.
Why? Because they're there.
10/06/07 (#0089) Heaven and hell
Miyazaki's films remind me very much of Herge's "Tin Tin" adventures - same meticulous realism combined with highly imaginative plot twists. - The Squiirel
Yes, I think Miyazaki is true heir to Herge except that Herge's plot twists were essentially realistic and Miyazaki's are far out fairy tale stuff. - The Ed
Whatever heaven and hell may be they cannot be even remotely anything like what pop religion uses for the carrot-and-stick approach to keeping the faithful in line.
Without going into technical details, I believe in the continuity of "I", that is, of the consciousness of self, of a definite point of view in the world of experience (not the same thing as "personality" which is the property of a particular body and does not survive it except in the memories of those still living). "I" exists, in any case, as long as anything exists, which may well be forever. I also believe that "I"s ultimate intended destiny is a union with the universal consciousness and the Ground of all Being (the transcendental Reason for all existence). In some mythologies, this union is a return to the original state after dispersion of the universal consciousness into a zillion "I"s. Whether "I" makes it to that heavenly state remains to be seen.
So what are the alternatives? Degradation of consciousness, for one (in a crude analogy, being reborn as a cocroach). That's one form of hell. (Degradation of consciousness can and does occur within a lifetime, whether through disease, neglect or ignorance). Note that total extinction of consciousness is not an alternative. That would require that the universe cease to exist. So in that sense, hell is, indeed, eternal.
However, as I see it, where there is consciousness, there is hope. I do not buy this business of "abandon all hope all ye who enter here" and the deliberate torture of the damned. That has to do with the idea of God's revenge for offense against God's authority which is as blasphemous a notion as any I've heard. It makes God look small and ridiculous. The damned torture themselves, against God's intent. In any case, where there is consciousness, there is existence, however miserable. Where there is existence, there is time. Where there is time there is hope and opportunity for evolution to higher forms of consciousness and greater understanding. And then there's grace, but that's another story.
Until Tuesday (the Nutshell is taking Columbus Day off),
10/05/07 (#0088) Hayao Mizayaki
Hayao Miyazaki is weird. There's something radically oddball about him, something posing as conventionally commonplace but actually transcending all categories. He is the creator of "Spirited Away", "Kiki's Delivery Service", "Porco Rosso", "Princess Mononoke", "Howe's Moving Castle" and several other full length anime cartoon features.
Superficially, Miyazaki is a meticulous and seemingly rather unoriginal anime artist creating highly realistic and conventionally beautiful environments peopled with well observed and sensitively rendered characters. But the work has a deja vu feeling about it - it does not seem to be original but rather a careful, somewhat enhanced for effect copy of nature or of some well known work of art. The characters, too, seem slavishly copied from life (or from another cartoon) rather than invented. There is an aura of conventionality, ordinariness and obsessive realism about Miyazaki's mise-en-scene. This may be a deliberate deceit, a trick.
Into this convincingly commonplace setting, Miyazaki casually injects totally over the top premises as if they were part of that commonplace. A bath house operated by and for ghosts; a flying witch peddling her talents; retro-futuristic (and quite impossible) technologies; a WW I pilot actually turned into a talking pig; etc. And the commonplace is thereby transformed into poetry which, as one critic put it, is "oddly compelling". "Oddly" is the operative word.
It is this paradoxical mix of dogged conventionality and completely off the wall fantasy that's so weird about Miyazaki's films. They have the look of daily routine but they take you someplace entirely else - someplace unimaginably different from the regular life they seem to resemble so closely.
Not all of Miyazaki's films are equally good. He sometimes repeats himself and uses the same, or similar characters and situations. But some of his films (like "Spirited Away") are like nothing else in filmdom.
10/04/07 (#0087) Mind over matter
I think it was Alan Watts who imprinted on the public mind the concept of life as a game. The idea is that we are playing individual games within larger scale social games within a great cosmic game. We set up the rules of our individual or social games with greater or lesser awareness, or perhaps total ignorance, of the rules of the cosmic game. However, what rules we set up matters less than how we play the game. The joy of life consists of playing the game well. Presumably, the greater the harmony between our personal game rules and the cosmic game rules, the greater the joy. This would then constitute our chief clue to what the rules of the cosmic game may be. After thousands of years of experimentation, we have some useable ideas about this (not that mankind, as a whole, makes much use of them - yet).
However, as Timothy Leary (among many others) famously suggested, there may be another way towards greater understanding of the cosmic game. "Tune in, turn on and drop out", radical as it sounds because of its associations with the psychedelic drug culture, is an age old formula used by mystics everywhere and everywhen. The idea is that if you stop the mechanical routine of life for a while, at least long enough for the turbulence to subside and the mind to become quiet, and just look and listen with full awareness and full attention, you may discover surprising things about yourself and the world that you had never noticed. Including further clues as to what the cosmic game may be.
It is perfectly possible, and there are people who practice this, to maintain a quiet and attentive mind even as you go about the daily mechanics-of-life routines. One's entire life then becomes a continuous meditation. There's a joy in this, partly because the job at hand is being well done, but also in the perceived integrity of oneself with the world. It is also a cure for needless suffering and unnecessary stress, and that's good for your heart. In more ways than one.
10/03/07 (#0086) Matter over mind
The problem is I have too many irons in the fire. I can't do it all.
Looking at how I spend my time it would seem I should be able to fit easily a major chunk of my agenda, if not all of it, into my hours, days and weeks. After all, I spend immense stretches of time doing nothing or nothing useful, certainly nothing that's on my agenda. But ultimately it's not about time. It's not even about energy and endurance (serious limiting factors that make travesty of the available time). More than anything it is about desire, about enthusiasm, and about faith in the value of what I'm doing.
I have a reasonable requirement that what I do must be enjoyable. Indeed, it's not possible to do a good job unless one is enjoying the task at hand. It's a symmetrical principle: a job being well done is a joy. Being in the right place at the right time doing what you do best as best you can is a joy, perhaps the greatest joy available to us on earth.
I have no trouble whatever thinking of enjoyable things to do, and that's the trouble. Imagination is to execution what a map is to the territory. Looking at a map and being there are two very different things. Yes, a job being done well is a joy, but when I actually get down to doing it I discover all too often that my talents and abilities are inadequate to the job and it is not being done well, and that is not a joy. My imagination deceives me into thinking I can do great many things that I actually can't, at least not well. Truth to tell, there's nothing I can do really well though I can fake my way through almost anything. And that, too, is a problem, raising the question of the value of what I can do.
A little (actually a lot) of humility is in order here. First, my agenda requires radical pruning. Secondly, I need to accept that what I do is of modest or little value, and be content with this. Finally, simply do the very best I can, take what joy I can in it, and leave it at that.
10/02/07 (#0085) Gospel according to Dante
OK, back to Dante. (What is it with Dante, already? you ask. Well, read on). This isn't my first reading of his "Commedia", but it is my first critical reading. This is the way I'm reading it this time:
First I read the original Italian text. I make out surprisingly well given that I don't speak Italian. I do have the help, right across the page, of the latest and best English translation which I consult only if I can't make sense of the Italian. Then I read the copious line-by-line commentary by Robert Hollander, an eminent Dantologist, supplemented by couple of other commentaries and references to some source material, chiefly Virgil's "Aeneid" and the Bible. Finally, just for pleasure, I read a remarkable Polish translation (by Porebowicz, 1909) which does an amazing job of preserving both sense and sound of the original, including the terza rima form (something that is flat out impossible to do in English without bending the language ridiculously out of shape). Again, as in the case of "Don Quixote", translation from a romance language (Italian in this case) to Polish is far more easily and gracefully accomplished than into English.
So why am I doing this? To find out for myself what the hullabaloo is all about. Dante is held by literary critics to be right up there with Homer (whom I also read in several translations) and actually above Dante's own hero, Virgil (real name Vergilius, but that's another story) and the rest of the revered poets of antiquity.
My take on Dante, so far, is that he is to literature what J. S. Bach is to music. Except that, modern as his mind was, it was not entirely free of mediaeval notions and habits of thought. These "impurities" occasionally spoil the elegance and beauty of his writing for the contemporary mind. The entire "Divina Commedia" is a moral fairy tale with many cameo appearances by historical and mythical characters. It is its very morality that elevates it to literature of highest aspirations. Such literature, unless superbly well done, can be merely ridiculous. "Commedia" is superbly well done. It has the literary cred to go with its philosophical credo. Dante himself dared to compare it to the Bible, especially the Revelation (he had a very good opinion of himself as a poet and a prophet). But he did have the modesty to believe himself to be merely a competent tool of the divine inspiration and gave heaven the main credit for the "Commedia".
10/1/07 (#0084) Fairy tales
I find it difficult to persuade myself to read novels (of a "serious" sort) for reasons I have discussed in an earlier Nutshell. And even though I have great admiration for the craft and the art of film I have equally little interest in movies made from novels (there are, of course, exceptions - "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" comes to mind). What I do love is fairy tales, at least the well made ones.
My love of fairy tales started, naturally, in my early childhood, but it was brought to a high pitch by the Soviet fairy tale films of the 1940s. Russians genuinely care about children and spare no expense or artistic talent to produce the finest possible fare for kids in way of books and movies - at least that was the case under the Soviets. Whatever else you might say about the bolshevics, the kids had it good when they ran the show. In any case, my imaginative powers got a rocket boost by Soviet productions like "Kamyenniy Tzvyetok" ("The Stone Flower") which I believe is still around as a classic of its genre. Not until I discovered (accidentally) "The Wizard of Oz" in the 1950s did I come across anything comparable in sheer magic and enchantment.
Actually, the very first fairy tale film I ever saw was the Polish premiere of "Snow White" around 1938. That was really the start of my love affair with fairy tale films. "Snow White" remains one of Disney's best, although I think he topped it with the very different "Mary Poppins".
In recent years, with the coming of age of the baby boomers and with the inspiration of the infinite possibilities of computer graphics there has been a bonanza of fine fairy tales films - I feel like I'm living in the golden age of the fantasy film. From "Star Wars" (not a science fiction) to "Harry Potter", with the Tolkien Trilogy and such delights as "The Incredibles" or "Looking for Nemo" or the very oddball "Spirited Away" filling the roster, among many others, there's cause to rejoice. How long this trend will last remains to be seen. But I'm loving it.
Before closing this I must pay tribute to Terry Gilliam's several magnificent fantasies, especially the underappreciated "Baron Munchhausen". It broke my heart when his attempt to film "Don Quixote" got wiped out by radical weather and the lead actor's illness. Terry would have done it justice (no one has so far - the finest version extant is the Soviet one from 1950s).