Unreal Nature

June 30, 2011

More Balls

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:02 am

… It is true that you can become a mediocre pool player by mastering the geometry of the game …

… something in us instinctively recoils — literally and symbolically — from a linearly deterministic world in which our ongoing participation has no part.

This is the second of two posts today from Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics by Ira Livingston (2006). This particular essay is “How Bad Facts Make Good Theories”:

It is a truism that a “higher truth” than the merely factual is evoked in literature. What this usually means is that by not getting bogged down in the facts (understood as particular historical details), a work of fiction or poetry is better able to paint a “big picture” of how the world works and what kind of world it is; it misses the trees in order to see the forest.

… To the hierarchizing function of such metaphysical “higher truth” claims we can oppose a related but more horizontal claim focused on kinds of knowledge rather than degrees: that literature has been privileged to think through the self-referentiality banished from science and that science fiction ‘s hybrid and marginal location gives it a special privilege to rethink epistemological questions even as this privilege seems to come with the apparently high price of a loss of legitimacy. [the subject of the essay that precedes this one and from which, in today’s other post, I have only quoted the brief Burroughs extract]. Ideologies function to push out onto their subordinates the contradictions that would otherwise compromise them (that is, so as to seem themselves seamless and internally consistent). To bear these contradictions is not automatically to know them, and knowing them is not the same as reactivating them, which may be a question not of throwing them off but of learning how to use them to push back. This kind of partial leverage is what we try to gain by reading science fiction (in the past section), tabloid journalism, and even madness (in this section).

The example of “partial leverage” that Livingston uses here is “Richard Kopperdahl’s account (‘Crazy in New York’) of how a curious obsession developed into madness.”:

… When shooting pool, Kopperdahl became obsessed with what is called body English, where after taking a shot, a player will jerk and twist his body as if magically to communicate some motion to the ball, to make it spin more in the desired direction. Reasoning generously that people would not so commonly expend so much energy on body English unless it had some real usefulness, Kopperdahl asked himself whether there might not be some context in which body English would really work. This question generated the “eureka” moment that was to be Kopperdahl’s decisive step toward madness: body English would work underwater, where a twisting motion would generate eddies that could really affect objects just out of reach. Humans must have lived for eons as aquatic creatures — during the time of the biblical Flood — and body English must be a behavioral remnant of what was once an effective practice. From here, Kopperdahl somehow decided that he could still breathe underwater. This led to some dangerous experiments and, soon after, to the locked ward at Bellevue.

There is an elegant and compelling logic to Kopperdahl’s obsession. Pool and billiards have been — since their rise to popularity among European elites in the rationalist eighteenth century — the classic examples of linear, mechanistic cause and effect (object A strikes object B, which in turn strikes object C, and so on). One’s ability to influence the course of events is limited to a single stroke, a momentary touch of the cue stick on the cue ball; after that, one can only stand back and watch the result, which is supposed to follow in a mechanical and completely deterministic way from the single touch that set the ball in motion. In this model, the player resembles an absentee god who sets a clockwork universe in motion and then withdraws, a narrative that opposes older accounts of a world in which God or gods participate continuously and remain accessible to human interaction.

… It is true that you can become a mediocre pool player by mastering the geometry of the game, which accounts for a lot of what happens. But the effects of friction — the continuous feedback loop between the ball and its environment (table surface, rails, other balls) — are what push the game into the realm of physics and nonlinearity, and English takes advantage of this. Topspin causes the cue ball to follow the object ball after striking it; bottom English (“draw”) will cause the cue to stop dead or recoil after striking the object ball; left and right English spin the cue ball off its otherwise straight course. The effect of spin can also be changed by adjusting the speed of the ball or by hitting it off a rail; in some cases spin can also be effectively transferred from the cue ball to the object ball. The further from the original stroke, the more nonlinearitites are amplified: as anyone who has played pool knows, shots in which A hits B, B hits C, and C hits D are monstrously difficult because the margin for error gets smaller and smaller, rapidly exceeding human visual acuity, computational ability, and hand-eye coordination — and reaching the point where even perfect accuracy in these could not override the effects of tiny irregularities in the playing surface, cue tip, and more. The more balls involved, the more difficult or impossible it becomes to predict where each will end up: this is why even the best players cannot with any consistency hit a particular ball into a particular pocket on the break shot, which involves all fifteen balls. It is easy to see that the linear, determinist model of the game had to have been developed from billiards, played with only two object balls, rather than pool, with fifteen.

Aha! ‘Straight’ photographers think there are only two balls.

The use of English pushes the game more into the realm of nonlinearity, but it is also a big part of what distinguishes a good player from a mediocre one — or as another writer put it, in a game between a Newtonian and a non-Newtonian player, “The only deterministic, Newtonian event observable would be the arithmetic reduction in the thickness of [the Newtonian’s] wallet.”

… Remarkably, Kopperdahl’s crazy scenario of human evolution very precisely reproduces the anthropologist’s story: once upon a time, humans participated mystically in the world; we seemed to be connected in some subtle way with the things of the world (as the player who uses body English seems to identify with the ball) and to be able to influence them, ritually, through this connection.

… If body English is efficacious insofar as it preserves at least the memory of what the determinist account has not been able to eradicate, it is also counterproductive in allowing nonlinearity to be reduced to a convulsive afterthought. If the player could reintegrate nonlinearity into his model of the game, if his strokes were fully informed in the first place by such a model and not the impoverished linear one, perhaps he would forego the ritual tic of body English.

Or, even better if, after the fact, we had Photoshop…. Oh, wait, we do have Photoshop. Sorry Ira, I’m digressing. Please continue:

But this scenario seems too optimistic given that it is not only the model of the game but the game itself that has worked systematically to exclude nonlinearity. We can at least say that something in us instinctively recoils — literally and symbolically — from a linearly deterministic world in which our ongoing participation has no part.

My most recent previous post (before today’s) from Livingston’s book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

“Let . . . It . . . Come . . . Down.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:57 am

… “art leaves the frame and the word leaves the page.” “One rent in the fabric is all it takes for pandemonium to sluice through.”

The following brief description is the first of two posts today from Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics by Ira Livingston (2006):

William Burroughs’s short narrative “Apocalypse” (1990) starts with the premise that the god Pan was declared dead at the birth of Christ. Until then, Pan had induced “the sudden awareness that everything is alive and significant,” and though he “lives on in the realm of imagination” he has been “neutralized, framed in music, entombed in books.” Thus, when the collective realization that “nothing is true” begins to take hold, it leads to “a basic disruption of reality itself” in which “art leaves the frame and the word leaves the page.” “One rent in the fabric is all it takes for pandemonium to sluice through”: machines come alive, “graffiti through glass and steel like acid races across the sky in tornadoes of flaming colors,” crowds panic as the earth breaks free of its orbit, and, finally, Pan “pulls down the sky” as the narrator chants, “Let . . . It . . . Come . . . Down.”

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

June 29, 2011

Carrying the Past Forward

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:12 am

… the past can be carried forward in this fashion only if it has attained a certain consistent selfsameness in the wake of the perishing of the particulars by which it had once presented itself.

Continuing through Remembering: A Phenomenological Study; Second Edition by Edward S. Casey (1987 and 2000), today’s chapter is “Commemoration.” He describes this, at the beginning of the chapter, as follows — though he will contradict some of this by the end of the chapter:

… in acts of commemoration remembering is intensified by taking place through the interposed agency of text (the eulogy, the liturgy proper) and the setting of a social ritual (delivering the eulogy, participating in the service). The remembering is intensified still further by the fact that both ritual and text become efficacious only in the presence of others, with whom we commemorate together in a public ceremony.

… One can recollect, quite fully and successfully, in a spirit of insouciance or levity regarding that which one remembers. In certain situations one can even recollect more completely in such a spirit — that is, when one is just “going over” events in one’s mind without allowing oneself to become involved, emotionally or otherwise, in this re-view. Also, a given part of the past may rise up before one’s mind, unbidden and in a strictly spontaneous presentation. Contrast either of these situations with the circumstance of commemorating. In the latter, it is just because the past has been considered to be worthy-of-commemoration that we take it seriously. This taking seriously consists not in doting on the past or becoming morbidly preoccupied by it, but in acknowledging its importance to oneself or others. It is a matter of letting the past matter — of giving it its due weight, its full impact and import.

With those descriptions in mind, I skip the first 34 pages of the chapter to settle, near the end, on the parts that interest me:

… If commemoration has everything to do with participation — if its functional essence is to solicit and sustain participation between commemorators and that to which they pay homage, often by means of coparticipation in special communities and just as often by sharing in commemorabilia through which the commemorandum is made present — then by the same token commemoration has to do with overcoming the separation from which otherwise unaffiliated individuals suffer. Still more radically, commemoration suggests that such separation is a sham. If it is true that “to be is to participate,” the beings who participate cannot be atomic entities who are merely gathering to commemorate out of a motive of repetition, guilt, piety, or fellow feeling. The commemorators are already deeply conjoined, bonded at the most profound level.

… It is, indeed, our conscious conviction that minds are discrete entities and that remembering is an individual affair alone. But at a preconscious or unconscious level we know how shallow (and how vicious) such separatism can be. Separatism itself presupposes collective roots of various kinds: from language to class, from gender identity to personal identity, from shared history to shared tradition. And it is just because of the reality of such deeply interpersonal roots that commemoration assumes unusual importance in our culture — and doubtless in every culture. For commemoration promotes participation even as it thrives on it. Commemorating calls upon us not as separate beings but as always already intertwined; it calls on us in our strictly social being.

But more than this is at stake. Commemorating also creates new forms of sociality, new modes of interconnection: between past and present, self and other, one group and another, one form of thinking or acting or speaking and another, one sex and another, one art form and another. … It constructs the space, and continues the time, in which the commendably inter-human will be perduringly appreciated. Rather than looking back only, commemoration concerns itself with “what, lasting, comes toward us.”

If body memory anchors human existence and if place memory locates it, commemoration connects it.

… Couldn’t we say that much of the motivation for commemoration derives from having to confront “separation anxiety” — for which death merely provides the most acute occasion? Could we not even say that commemoration of origins themselves is somehow about ends — about events (or persons or ideas) that, precisely as origins, have come to an end, or that are still engaged in a process of ending?

This last-named possibility is an important one. Even when commemoration bears straightforwardly on something that is ending — e.g., “the end of an era” — it still may not be directed at anything simply terminal. On the contrary, the commemorating may itself serve to prolong the ending, giving to it (and to its origin) a species of after-life. If “what has been brings about futural approaching,” this is all the more true in the case of commemorating, which is capable of transforming something “frozen in the finality of rigor mortis” into a re-living presence, alive in the minds and bodies of its commemorators. In mourning, the dead or absent other is transmogrified into an active internal presence; thus something that has come to an end in terms of world-time acquires an ongoing ending in and through commemoration. Insofar as such ending is not yet concluded, it will be going on in the future. Commemorating here exhibits its Janusian ability to look at once forward and backward: or more exactly, to look ahead in looking back.

… If commemoration is indeed a way of coming to terms with ending and it succeeds to the extent that it refuses to succumb to the sheer pastness of the past — its facticity, its “frozen finality,” its severe “It was” — then it must consist in an action of carrying the past forward through the present so as to perdure in the future. But the past can be carried forward in this fashion only if it has attained a certain consistent selfsameness in the wake of the perishing of the particulars by which it had once presented itself. This selfsameness is what Whitehead calls “objective immortality”: “actual entities ‘perpetually perish’ subjectively, but are immortal objectively.”

… Ultimately, we remember through such a memorialization, which defies reduction to the separatist categories of ‘matter’ or ‘psyche’ — indeed, to ‘self’ and ‘other,’ or even to ‘past’ and ‘present.’ In this memorialization all such metaphysically determined dyads begin to dissolve, and the inner connection of their respective members — their intimate participation in each other — becomes apparent.

… Memory is always memorializing — however fleetingly, inconsistently, or inadequately on a given occasion. To remember is to commemorate the past. It is to redeem the perishing of particulars in a selfsameness that conspires in the present to persist into the future.

Whitehead cites a Latin inscription on ancient sundials: Pereunt et imputantur, “the hours perish and are laid to account.” Commemoration can be considered the laying to account of perishings, the consolidating and continuing of endings. It is the creating of memorializations in the media of ritual, text, and psyche; it enables us to honor the past by carrying it intact into new and lasting forms of alliance and participation.

I’m not sure how much memorializations are primarily about the past, rather than the past being a pretext for rituals that serve other participatory purposes. However, I don’t think that doubt detracts or even necessarily conflicts with what Casey is saying.

My most recent previous post from Casey’s book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

June 28, 2011

Dissolved In It

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:32 am

… a fact is not a concept, not an idea, it is a text, i.e. it always has an actual material embodiment; it is an event which is considered meaningful, and not, like a parable, a meaning which is given the form of an event.

… It floats up from the semiotic space and is dissolved in it as the cultural codes alter.

This is from Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture by Yuri M. Lotman (1990):

… The fact which the historian has to deal with is always a construct, conscious or unconscious, of the text-creator. For instance, in ancient Egyptian frescoes of the birth of Queen Hatshepsut she is shown as a boy in accordance with the rules of the genre, and if there had been no inscription or if it had not been preserved we would have had ‘realistic’ proof of her maleness. The ‘facts of an epoch’ form a complex and heterogeneous picture. Each genre, each culturally significant kind of text, makes its own selection of facts. a fact for a myth is not one for a chronicle, a fact on the fifteenth page of a newspaper is not a fact for the front page. So from the point of view of the addresser, a fact is always the result of selecting out of the mass of surrounding events an event which according to his or her ideas is significant.

But a fact is not a concept, not an idea, it is a text, i.e. it always has an actual material embodiment; it is an event which is considered meaningful, and not, like a parable, a meaning which is given the form of an event.As a result, a fact selected by the addresser is wider than the meaning ascribed to it in the code; it is consequently unambiguous for the addresser, while for the addressee (which includes the historian) it has to be interpreted. The historian reconstructs the sender’s code in order to explain the sender’s attitude towards the facts being communicated, but also has to re-establish the entire spectrum of possible interpretations which the contemporary receivers of the text gave to what they thought were facts and the significance they gave them.

… From a certain point of view, even the gestures of a scenario can be a ‘fact’ for the researcher. But whether these details are seen as an element in the poetics of the given text or as evidence of a visual memory of a scene which actually took place, is a question for further interpretation.

… in the sphere of culture a fact is the result of a preparatory analysis. It is created by the scholar in the research process and is never something absolute. A fact is relative in relation to the universum of culture. It floats up from the semiotic space and is dissolved in it as the cultural codes alter. Yet because it is a text this semiotic space does not wholly determine it: with its non-systematic elements it revolutionizes the system, prompting the system to become restructured.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

To Discard

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:30 am

… What once was valuable is worthless; the desirable now offends; the beautiful now is seen as ugly.

This is the second of two posts today from the chapter “The Propagation of Things” in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things by George Kubler (1962):

… The decision to discard something is far from being a simple decision. Like each fundamental type of action, it appears in the experience of every day. It is a reversal of values. Though the thing once was necessary, discarded it becomes litter or scrap. What once was valuable is worthless; the desirable now offends; the beautiful now is seen as ugly.

… In the subjective order an act of discard relates to the ends of durations, just as an act of invention initiates them. … The act of discard corresponds to a terminal moment in the gradual formation of a state of mind. This attitude is compounded of familiarity and discontent: the user of an object knows its limitations and its incompleteness. The thing meets only a past need without corresponding to new needs. The user becomes aware of possible improvements in merely noting the lack of correspondence between things and needs.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Lapse of Propriety

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:28 am

… For most persons inventive behavior is a lapse of propriety surrounded by the frightening aura of a violation of the sanctity of routine. They are so carefully schooled to convention that it is nearly impossible for them to fall even by accident into the unknown.

This is the first of two posts today from the chapter “The Propagation of Things” in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things by George Kubler (1962):

… Inventions, which are commonly thought to mark great leaps in development and to be extremely rare occurrences, are actually one with the humble substance of everyday behavior, whereby we exercise the freedom to vary our actions a little.

… The more we know, the more new knowledge we can accept. Inventions lie in this penumbra between actuality and the future; where the dim shapes of possible events are perceived. … An invention may appear to meet the edge of possibility, but if it exceeds the penumbra, it remains a curious toy or it disappears into fantasy.

… How does artistic invention differ from useful invention? It differs as human sensibility differs from the rest of the universe. Artistic inventions alter the sensibility of mankind. They all emerge from and return to human perception, unlike useful inventions, which are keyed to the physical and biological environment. Useful inventions alter mankind only indirectly by altering his environment; aesthetic inventions enlarge human awareness directly with new ways of experiencing the universe, rather than with new objective interpretations.

… Aesthetic inventions are focused upon individual awareness: they have no therapeutic or explanatory purpose; they only expand the range of human perceptions by enlarging the channels of emotional discourse.

The late medieval invention of a pictorial language capable of representing space in two dimensions, in northern Europe (Pol de Limbourg) and in Italy, was an aesthetic invention different from the technical invention of oil painting.

… It does not follow that aesthetic invention is less important than useful invention because it concerns only an infinitesimal portion of the universe altered by useful invention. Human sensibility is our only channel to the universe. If the capacity of that channel can be increased, knowledge of the universe will expand accordingly.

… For most persons inventive behavior is a lapse of propriety surrounded by the frightening aura of a violation of the sanctity of routine. They are so carefully schooled to convention that it is nearly impossible for them to fall even by accident into the unknown.

Many societies have accordingly proscribed all recognition of inventive behavior, preferring to reward ritual repetition, rather than to permit inventive variations. On the other hand no form of society ever can be devised to allow each person the liberty to vary his actions indefinitely. Every society functions like a gyroscope to hold the course despite the random private forces of deflection.

… If the difference between useful inventions and artistic inventions corresponds to the difference between changing the environment and changing our perceptions of the environment, then we must account for artistic inventions in terms of perception.

… Unlimited variation is a synonym for chaos. The number of ritual acts in Everyman’s life greatly exceeds the few variant or divergent actions permitted in his daily round. Indeed the cage of routine binds him so closely that it is almost impossible for him to stumble into an inventive act: he is like a tight-rope walker whom vast forces so bind to the cable that he cannot fall, even if he wishes, into the unknown.

Every society binds and shelters the individual within an invisible many-layered structure of routine. As a single entity he is surrounded by the ceremonial duties of physical existence. Another less dense shell of routine binds him and protects him, as a participant in the life of a family. The group of families makes a district; the districts make a city; cities form a county; counties make a state; states compose civilization.

Kubler has a sort of ambling, circular way of progressing through his ideas. I am resisting the urge to shuffle the above into what seems to me to be a more sensible progression.

My most recent previous post from his book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

June 27, 2011

Dotty

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 1:09 pm

This illustration was in last month’s National Geographic Magazine (June 2011):


[click image to enlarge it]

Note the text on the lower left:

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Living Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:41 am

… it may now seem that the extremely esoteric and specialized work which meets with the approval of the few is so lacking in fundamental humanity that it will die of inbreeding. This is a tenable view, but I believe it to be mistaken. Whether or not the more specialized forms of modern art are permanently valid, we can hardly doubt that the living art of a period must reflect the ideas of the more active spirits, and not the indifferent masses, for whom art is, at best, a mildly satisfying social convention.

Last post from Landscape Into Art by Kenneth Clark (1949). The chapter is “Epilogue”, and in the middle of it, Clark, in speculating about the future of landscape art, says that he is writing “with the greatest diffidence and with the consciousness that I shall soon be out of my depth: or, perhaps I should say, splashing about with our more exuberant philosophers in the shallow end of journalism.” But before that, he recapitulates some of the history of landscape art:

… Man first shows his consciousness of nature when his art is still symbolic; and since nature is so vast and inapprehensible he continues to treat her symbolically even after he has achieved an almost scientific realism in the representation of plants and animals. Flowers, leaves, individual trees, are all ‘things’ which can be thought of in isolation. A mountain is a ‘thing’ when its form is sufficiently egregious to mark it off from the range. From these individual elements the first landscapes are put together.

In the landscape of symbols the details are combined decoratively or as expressive pattern. The fusion of these elements into a total impression is achieved through the perception of light. From Leonardo to Seurat painters, as well as critics, have maintained that the rendering of light is part of the science of painting; but Hubert van Eyck, John Bellini, Claude, Constable and Corot, show us that the representation of light owes its aesthetic value to the fact that it is the expression of love. ‘As the air fills everything and is not confined to one place, as the light of the sun overfloods the whole earth, so God dwells in everything and everything dwells in Him.’ Now it was this mystical sense of the unity of creation expressed by light and atmosphere which, however unconsciously, provided a basis of pictorial unity for the Impressionists; and the claims to science, which they sometimes felt called on to make in defence of their intuitions, were only a nineteenth-century way of stating the same belief, for at that time science was still based on the assumption of some underlying natural order — a belief that, as Pythagoras said, nature is sure to act consistently in all her operations.

So landscape painting, like all forms of art, was an act of faith; and in the early nineteenth century, when more orthodox and systematic beliefs were declining, faith in nature became a form of religion.

… Although this faith is no longer accepted so readily by critical minds, it still contributes a large part to that complex of memories and instincts which are awakened in the average man by the word ‘beauty.’ Almost every Englishman, if asked what he meant by ‘beauty,’ would begin to describe a landscape — perhaps a lake and mountain, perhaps a cottage garden, perhaps a wood with bluebells and sliver birches, perhaps a little harbor with red sails and whitewashed cottages; but at all events, a landscape. Even those of us for whom these popular images of beauty have been cheapened by insensitive repetition, still look to nature as an unequalled source of consolation and joy. Now if this appetite is still so widespread and so powerful, have we grounds for thinking that landscape painting will continue to be a dominant form of art? This question involves another of even greater difficulty, how far can an art form retain its vitality when it rests on the passive consent of the mass of uninformed opinion, but is not supported by the active conviction of an informed minority? The difficulty of this question arises from the fact that never before has there been such a complete divorce between popular and informed taste. And, although in the past popular taste has ultimately always conformed to that of the minority, it may now seem that the extremely esoteric and specialized work which meets with the approval of the few is so lacking in fundamental humanity that it will die of inbreeding. This is a tenable view, but I believe it to be mistaken. Whether or not the more specialized forms of modern art are permanently valid, we can hardly doubt that the living art of a period must reflect the ideas of the more active spirits, and not the indifferent masses, for whom art is, at best, a mildly satisfying social convention.

… towards the end of the nineteenth century museums began to admit works of all ages and countries; and artists, instead of finding in them a consistent language, began to look for those works in each style that could give the shock of pleasure which had come to be called aesthetic. Museum art, therefore, in the sense in which I am using it, implies the existence of the pure aesthetic sensation. It implies that the value of art depends on a mysterious essence or elixir which can be isolated, almost tapped off from the body or husk of the work; and this elixir alone is worthy of pursuit.


Gauguin, (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Now dangerous as purism is to all the arts, it is particularly troublesome in landscape painting which depends so much on the unconscious response of the whole being to the world which surrounds him. It is curious that the greatest disciple of nature should have foreseen the danger of museum art as early as 1822, when Constable wrote to Fisher: ‘Should there be a National Gallery (which is talked of), there will be an end of the art in poor old England. The reason is plain: the manufacturers of pictures are then made the criterions of perfection instead of Nature.’ Constable’s statement is a little exaggerated … We may amend it, and say that when painters began to pin up in their studios photographs of Romanesque carvings, negro masks and Catalan miniatures, a direct response to nature became extremely difficult. Once we have developed a craving for an aesthetic essence we find it in its purest and most concentrated form in the early middle ages, or in the work of primitive peoples; and it is significant that the first artist to state that he was aiming directly at ‘pure’ aesthetic response was Gauguin. In a letter of the 80s, he said: ‘I obtain by arrangements of lines and colours, using as pretext some subject borrowed from human life or nature, symphonies, harmonies that represent nothing real in the vulgar sense of the word; they express no idea directly, but they should make you think as music does, without the aid of ideas or image, simply by the mysterious relationships existing between our brains and such arrangements of colours and lines.’ It was Gauguin, too, who succeeded in giving to an exotic style the vitality of a new creation.


Gauguin, (image from Wikipedia Commons)

In addition to Gauguin, Clark cites Henri Rousseau as exemplary of what he’s talking about, though I’m not going to quote him.


Henri Rousseau, (image from Wikipedia Commons)

… Let me take … the idea of pure aesthetic sensations which I have mentioned several times. This is clearly part of a general movement, which has manifested itself in every department of life, from philosophy to filing systems, during the last fifty years; and it may be called the doctrine of essences, or the differentiation of function, depending on how we look at it. No doubt specialisation became inevitable as soon as increased populations and speedier transport made the problems of life more complex.But the real parent of specialisation was, of course, science.

… in art, more particularly in architecture and music, where we may sometimes imagine that we have been able to isolate a special state of receptivity, which we call aesthetic, it was inevitable that theorists should strive for the same kind of purity [as science]. In the words of a most intelligent and learned historian of modern art, Mr. Alfred Barr, ‘Since resemblance to nature is at best superfluous and at worst distracting, it might as well be eliminated.’

… It may even seem a weakness that the wonderful creations of engineering have not influenced art more deeply. Such was the opinion of the Italian futurists, and in that absorbing document, the First Futurist Manifesto, published in 1909, Signor Marinetti declared that ‘A Racing Motor Car, its frame adorned with great pipes, like snakes with explosive breath, a roaring motor car that seems to be running on shrapnel, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.’ Whether or not we agree, it is evident that a picture of the motor car will not necessarily be beautiful — the motor car, as Signor Marinetti claims, is itself the work of art. And this, I suppose, is the reason why the very striking combinations of straight lines and curves, cones, spheres and cylinders, which go to make up an engine, and which would no doubt have delighted Socrates, have had a disappointing influence on art. All the creative skill which occupies itself with that kind of design has gone into engineering.

[ … ]

… the creation of great works of art must rest on something more than [the] salutary animal accommodation to the response of the moment.

And in the last few years nature has not only seemed too large and too small for imagination: it has also seemed lacking in unity. To anyone but a higher mathematician, nature no longer seems to act consistently in all her operations. In the last few years we have even lost faith in the stability of what we used hopefully to call ‘the natural order’; and, what is worse, we know that we have ourselves acquired the means of bringing that order to an end. Leonardo da Vinci, who used to sign himself ‘disciple of experience,’ left among his latest writings the sentence, ‘Nature is full of an infinity of operations which have never been part of experience.’ And he illustrated his consciousness of the infinite, unknown destructive powers of nature in [a] series landscape drawings …


Deluge; Leonardo da Vinci

… Can we escape from our fears by creating once again the image of an enclosed garden? It is a possible way of life: is it a possible basis for art? No. The artist may escape from battles and plagues, but he cannot escape from an idea. The enclosed garden of the fifteenth century offered shelter from many terrors, but it was based on a living idea, that nature was friendly and harmonious. Science has taught us that nature is the reverse; and we shall not recover our confidence in her until we have learnt or forgotten infinitely more than we know at present.

Clark concludes on a hopeful note:

… As an old-fashioned individualist I believe that all the science and bureaucracy in the world, all the atom bombs and concentration camps, will not entirely destroy the human spirit; and the spirit will always succeed in giving itself a visible shape. But what form that will take we cannot foretell.

My most recent previous post from Clark’s book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

June 26, 2011

Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:37 am

… the profoundest and plainest ‘beauties,’ those of the order of the stars and of solitude in darkened and empty land, come at least partly of awe, and such in a simple being is, simply, unformulable fear.

This is the third of three posts today from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (text) and Walker Evans (photographs); first published in 1941. We are still in the “Education” chapter:

… ‘Sense of beauty’: Is this an ‘instinct’ or a product of ‘training.’ In either case there appears to be almost no such thing among the members of these three families, and I have a strong feeling that the ‘sense of beauty,’ like nearly everything else, is a class privilege. I am sure in any case that its ‘terms’ differ by class, and that the ‘sense’ is limited and inarticulate in the white tenant class almost beyond hope of description. (This quite aside from the fact that in other classes, where it is less limited, it is almost a hundred percent corrupted.) They live on land, and in houses, and under skies and seasons, which all happen to seem to me beautiful beyond almost anything else I know, and they themselves, and the clothes they wear, and their motions, and their speech, are beautiful in the same intense and final commonness and purity: but by what chance have I this ‘opinion’ or ‘perception’ or, I might say, ‘knowledge’? And on the other hand, why do they appear so completely to lack it? This latter, there seem good reasons for. Habit. No basis of comparison. No ‘sophistication’ (there can be a good meaning of the word). No reason nor glimmer of reason to regard anything in terms other than those of need and use. Land is what you get food out of: houses are what you live in, not comfortably: the sky is your incalculable friend or enemy: all nature, all that is built upon it, all that is worn, all that is done and looked to, is in plain and powerful terms of need, hope, fear, chance, and function. Moreover, the profoundest and plainest ‘beauties,’ those of the order of the stars and of solitude in darkened and empty land, come at least partly of awe, and such in a simple being is, simply, unformulable fear.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Education

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:35 am

… The ability to try to understand existence, the ability to try to recognize the wonder and responsibility of one’s own existence, the ability to know even fractionally the almost annihilating beauty, ambiguity, darkness, and horror which swarm every instant of every consciousness, the ability to try to accept, or the ability to try to defend one’s self, or the ability to dare to try to assist others; all such as these, of which most human beings are cheated of their potentials, are, in most of those who even begin to discern or wish them, the gifts or thefts of economic privilege, and are available to members of these leanest classes only by the rare and irrelevant miracle of born and surviving ‘talent.’

 

This is the second of three posts today from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (text) and Walker Evans (photographs); first published in 1941. This is from the chapter “Education” that immediately follows “Clothing.” It begins:

In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again …


Untitled Walker Evans photo in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

What follows (from three pages into the chapter) is all one sentence, so take a very deep breath before you begin:

… Or again on the curriculum: it was unnecessary to make even such search into this as I made to know that there is no setting before the students of ‘economic’ or ‘social’ or ‘political’ ‘facts’ and of their situation within these ‘facts,’ no attempt made to clarify or even slightly to relieve the situation between the white and negro races, far less to explain the sources; no attempt to clarify psychological situations in the individual, in his family, or in his world, no attempt to get beneath and to revise those ‘ethical’ and ‘social’ pressures and beliefs in which even a young child is trapped, no attempt, beyond the most nominal, to interest a child in using or in discovering his senses and judgment, no attempt to counteract the paralytic quality inherent in ‘authority,’ no attempt beyond the most nominal and stifling to awaken, to protect, or to ‘guide’ the sense of investigation, the sense of joy, the sense of beauty; no attempt to clarify spoken and written words whose power of deceit even at the simplest is vertiginous; no attempt, or very little, and ill taught, to teach even the earliest techniques of improvement in occupation (‘scientific farming,’ diet and cooking, skillful trades), nor to ‘teach’ a child in terms of his environment, no attempt, beyond the most suffocated, to awaken a student either to ‘religion’ or to ‘irreligion,’ no attempt to develop in him either ‘skepticism’ or ‘faith,’ nor ‘wonder,’ nor mental ‘honesty’ nor mental ‘courage,’ nor any understanding of or delicateness in ‘the emotions’ and in any of the uses and pleasures of the body save the athletic; no attempt either to relieve him of fear and of poison in sex or to release in him a free beginning of pleasure in it, nor to open within him the illimitable potentials of grief, of danger, and of goodness in sex and in sexual love, nor to give him the beginnings at very least of knowledge, and of an attitude, whereby he may hope to guard and increase himself and those whom he touches, no indication of the damages which society, money, law, fear and quick belief have set upon these matters and upon all things in human life, nor of their causes, nor of the alternate ignorances and possibilities of ruin or of joy, no fear of doubtlessness, no fear of the illusions of knowledge, no fear of compromise — and here I have scarcely begun, and am confronted immediately with a serious problem: that is: by my naming of the lack of such teaching, I can appear too easily to recommend it, to imply, perhaps, that if these things were ‘taught,’ all would be ‘solved’: and this I do not believe: but insist rather that in the teaching of these things, infinitely worse damage could and probably would result than in the teaching of those subjects which in fact do compose the curriculum: and that those who would most insist upon one or another of them can be among the deadliest enemies of education: for if the guiding hand is ill qualified, an instrument is murderous in proportion to its sharpness.

You may now resume breathing. Jumping ahead eleven pages, by which time Agee has somewhat calmed down:

… Mrs. Gudger can read, write, spell, and handle simple arithmetic, and grasps and is excited by such matters as the plainer facts of astronomy and geology. In fact, whereas many among the three families have crippled but very full and ready intelligences, she and to a perhaps less extent her father have also intellects. But these intellects died before they were born; they hang behind their eyes like fetuses in alcohol.

… The ability to try to understand existence, the ability to try to recognize the wonder and responsibility of one’s own existence, the ability to know even fractionally the almost annihilating beauty, ambiguity, darkness, and horror which swarm every instant of every consciousness, the ability to try to accept, or the ability to try to defend one’s self, or the ability to dare to try to assist others; all such as these, of which most human beings are cheated of their potentials, are, in most of those who even begin to discern or wish them, the gifts or thefts of economic privilege, and are available to members of these leanest classes only by the rare and irrelevant miracle of born and surviving ‘talent.’

Or to say it another way: I believe that every human being is potentially capable, within his ‘limits,’ of fully ‘realizing’ his potentialities; that this, his being cheated and choked of it, is infinitely the ghastliest, commonest, and most inclusive of all the crimes of which the human world can accuse itself …

[ … ]

… It would be hard to make clear enough the deadliness of vacuum and of apathy which is closed over the very nature of teaching, over teachers and pupils alike: or in what different worlds words and processes leave a teacher and reach a child.

… they simplify their own ear,without nearly enough skepticism as to the accuracy of the simplification, and with virtually no intuition for the child or children; then write or teach to satisfy that ear; discredit the child who is not satisfied, and value the child who, by docile and innocent distortions of his intelligence, is.

… Children are, or quickly become, exquisitely sensitive to social, psychological, and physical meanings and discriminations. The war is bloody and pitiless as that war alone can be in which every combatant is his own sole army, and is astounded and terrified in proportion to the healthfulness of his consciousness. What clothes are worn, for one simple thing alone, is of tremendous influence upon the child who wears them. A child is quickly and frightfully instructed of his situation and meaning in the world; and that one stays alive only by one form or another of cowardice, or brutality, or deception, or other crime. It is all, needless to say, as harmful to the ‘winners’ (the well-to-do, or healthful, or extraverted) as to the losers.

… It is hardly to Louise’s [one of the sharecropper children] good fortune that she ‘likes’ school, school being what it is. Dressed as she is, and bright as she is, and serious and dutiful and well-thought-of as she is, she already has traces of a special sort of complacency which probably must, in time, destroy all in her nature that is magical, indefinable, and matchless: and this though she is one of the stronger persons I have ever known.

… No equipment to handle an abstract idea or to receive it: nor to receive or handle at all complex facts: nor to put facts and ideas together and strike any fire or meaning from them. They are like revolutionaries who must fight fire and iron and poison gas with barrel staves and with bare hands: except that they lack even the idea of revolution.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

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