Unreal Nature

August 31, 2013

The Whole Intricate Business

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… I wish I had a wart right now …

This is from the essay ‘On Warts’ in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas (1979):

Warts are wonderful structures. They can appear overnight on any part of the skin, like mushrooms on a damp lawn, full-grown and splendid in the complexity of their architecture. Viewed in stained sections under a microscope, they are the most specialized of cellular arrangements, constructed as though for a purpose. They sit there like turreted mounds of dense, impenetrable horn, impregnable, designed for defense against the world outside.

In a certain sense, warts are both useful and essential, but not for us. As it turns out, the exuberant cells of a wart are the elaborate reproductive apparatus of a virus.

You might have thought from the looks of it that the cells infected by the wart virus were using this response as a ponderous way of defending themselves against the virus, maybe even a way of becoming more distasteful, but it is not so. The wart is what the virus truly wants; it can flourish only in cells undergoing precisely this kind of overgrowth. It is not a defense at all; it is an overwhelming welcome, an enthusiastic accommodation meeting the needs of more and more virus.

The strangest thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, and yet, inexplicably and often very abruptly, they come to the end of their lives and vanish without a trace.

And they can be made to go away by something that can only be called thinking, or something like thinking. This is a special property of warts which is absolutely astonishing, more of a surprise than cloning or recombinant DNA or endorphin or acupuncture or anything else currently attracting attention in the press. It is one of the great mystfications of science: Warts can be ordered off the skin by hypnotic suggestion.

… I have been trying to figure out the nature of the instructions issued by the unconscious mind, whatever that is, under hypnosis. It seems to me hardly enough for the mind to say, simply, get off, eliminate yourselves, without providing something in the way of specifications as to how to go about it.

I used to believe, thinking about this experiment when it was just published, that the instructions might be quite simple. Perhaps nothing more detailed than a command to shut down the flow through all the precapillary arterioles in and around the warts to the point of strangulation. Exactly how the mind would accomplish this with precision, cutting off the blood supply to one wart while leaving others intact [as in the hypnosis experiments], I couldn’t figure out, but I was satisfied to leave it there anyhow. And I was glad to think that my unconscious mind would have to take the responsibility for this, for if I had been one of the subjects I would never have been able to do it myself.

But now the problem seems much more complicated by the information concerning the viral etiology of warts, and even more so by the currently plausible notion that immunologic mechanisms are very likely implicated in the rejection of warts.

If my unconscious can figure out how to manipulate the mechanisms needed for getting around the virus, and for deploying all the various cells in the correct order for tissue rejection, then all I have to say is that my unconscious is  lot further along than I am. I wish I had a wart right now, just to see if I am that talented.

… This is not the sort of confused, disordered process you’d expect at the hands of the kind of Unconscious you read about in books, out at the edge of things making up dreams or getting mixed up on words or having hysterics. Whatever, or whoever, is responsible for this has the accuracy and precision of a surgeon. There almost has to be a Person in charge, running matters of meticulous detail beyond anyone’s comprehension, a skilled engineer and manager, a chief executive officer, the head of the whole place. I never thought before that I possessed such a tenant. Or perhaps more accurately, such a landlord, since I would be, if this is in fact the situation, nothing more than a lodger.

Among other accomplishments, he must be a cell biologist of world class, capable of sorting through the various classes of one’s lymphocytes, all with quite different functions which I do not understand, in order to mobilize the right ones and exclude the wrong ones for the task of tissue rejection. If it were left to me, and I were somehow empowered to call up lymphocytes and direct them to the vicinity of my wart (assuming that I could learn to do such a thing), mine would come tumbling in all unsorted, B cells and T cells, suppressor cells and killer cells, and no doubt other cells whose names I have not learned, incapable of getting anything useful done.

Even if immunology is not involved, and all that needs doing is to shut off the blood supply locally, I haven’t the faintest notion how to set that up. I assume tha the selective turning off of arterioles can be done by one or another chemical mediator, and I know the names of some of them, but I wouldn’t dare let things like these loose even if I knew how to do it.

Well, then, who does supervise this kind of operation? Someone’s got to, you know. You can’t sit there under hypnosis, taking suggestions in and having them acted on with such accuracy and precision, without assuming the existence of something very like a controller. It wouldn’t do to fob off the whole intricate business on lower centers without sending along a quite detailed set of specifications, way over my head.

Some intelligence or other knows how to get rid of warts and this is a disquieting thought.

It is also a wonderful problem, in need of solving. Just think what we would know, if we had anything like a clear understanding of what goes on when a wart is hypnotized away. We would know the identity of the cellular and chemical participants in tissue rejection, conceivably with some added information about the ways that viruses create foreignness in cells. We would know how the traffic of these reactants is directed, and perhaps then be able to understand the nature of certain diseases in which the traffic is being conducted in wrong directions, aimed at the wrong cells. Best of all, we would be finding out about a kind of superintelligence that exists in each of us, infinitely smarter and possessed of technical know-how far beyond our present understanding. It would be worth a War on Warts, a Conquest of Warts, a National Institute of Warts and All.

My previous post from Thomas’s book is here.



August 30, 2013

In Your Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:39 am

… you don’t feel as though you have died while a likeness of you has been put in your place.

This is from the essay ‘Personal Identity’ by Deborah Knight found in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film edited by Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga (2009):

… In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit asks you to imagine the following: You have a meeting on Mars, and one way of making it on time is to go by teletransporter. You have never been teletransported before, but those close to you who have been teletransported before assure you that everything will be fine, so you decide to go ahead. The teletransporter works in the following way: when you enter it, you press a button and fall immediately unconscious. A scanner records everything physical about you down to the exact nature of each of your cells, and then it destroys you. The information it has recorded is sent to Mars (“at the speed of light,” as Parfit nicely notes). On Mars, a replicator produces a new version of you from entirely new material. When you wake up on Mars — or when the replica of you wakes up on Mars — you, or more precisely your replica, can detect nothing out of the ordinary about your body and remembers everything that you would have remembered up until pressing the button in the teletransporter. Your situation is thus rather like that of Captain Kirk when he asks Scotty to beam him up. Perhaps the flow of the narrative in Star Trek prevents us from asking a main question about the use of the Enterprise‘s transporter, something highlighted by Parfit. In Kirk’s case, he tells Scotty to beam him up, and seconds later he emerges from the Enterprise‘s transporter. It all appears so seamless in Star Trek that we might be forgiven for overlooking the fact that, in one sense, Kirk has been destroyed and replicated. If you pressed the button in Parfit’s teletransporter and put the scanner to work, you would be destroyed, and later, on Mars, a different individual would be created.

Parfit’s point is that although you have been destroyed, both body and brain, this experience somehow manages to go unrecognized. Your replica wakes up on Mars, and your replica’s experience seems to be your continuing experience. But the “you” on Mars is in an important sense not you. It is a perfect duplicate, to be sure, but a different individual. Nevertheless, in Parfit’s thought experiment, you don’t feel as though you have died while a likeness of you has been put in your place. In this version of teletransportation, things are experienced as seamlessly as they are when we watch Kirk arrive back on the Enterprise. Because, as Parfit notes, you (on Earth) “do not co-exist with [your] replica,” it is “easier to believe that this is a way of travelling.” But Parfit offers another version of teletransportation to tweak your intuitions. He asks you to imagine that the technology of teletransportation changes so that after you press the button on Earth, everything else goes as before, except you are not destroyed. Rather, you wake up in the same teletransporter where you last recall pressing the button, while your replica wakes up on Mars. You learn that you will die very shortly, and that your replica will continue on in your place. But for a short period, you and your replica will coexist as distinct individuals.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] You might even talk to your replica, or see your replica by means of a video telephone call. Parfit’s question, the point of the thought experiment, is this: In this second scenario, should you (the one on Earth) care that you are about to die and that you will be survived by a replica who is both physically and psychologically a perfect copy of you? In a bold move, Parfit will argue that having a replica is “about as good as ordinary survival,” in other words, that we should not look at your situation on Earth as “almost as bad as ordinary death.” Personal identity, for philosophers who subscribe to this notion — which David Hume notoriously did not — is for Parfit of considerably less importance than survival, and on both versions of the teletransporter thought experiment, Parfit argues, you survive. True, you survive as your replica, but aside from the fact that on the second scenario you do not have the subjective experiences your replica enjoys during those few days when you both exist, what matters about you continues with your replica, and Parfit argues that this sort of survival should be good enough.

The teletransporter thought experiment vividly illustrates a problem that can be easily overlooked by those caught up in the narrative flow of Star Trek. Certain films, by contrast, draw our attention to just the sorts of issues that can otherwise be developed by means of philosophical thought experiment. Just what is the relationship between narrative fictions of the sort we find in fiction films and the sorts of philosophical thought experiment that proliferate in the philosophical study of personal identity?

How can you know what it is to “feel as though you’ve died”?

Parfit’s teletransporter is different from the Star Trek process. In the latter, one is given to believe that the ‘matter’ of the person is somehow transported along with his ‘person-hood’ ( = life force, memory, identity). There is no body left behind; no death. If, in Star Trek, they ever showed a dead body anywhere in the process, I guarantee you it would not be overlooked.

The other theories of personal identity that Knight discusses in this essay (those of Locke, Hume, and Dennett) seem to me to go to mistake an effect for a cause/source. They claim that identity is a story or stories that we weave about ourselves, with no solid (necessary) foundation. However, who is it that does the weaving (or in Locke’s case, the remembering/ not remembering)? Identity seems to me to belong to the author, whatever the tales he does or does not make or remember.

Knight ends her essay with this:

… Cinema restricts access to first-person experiences; so, at best, filmic examinations let us see how personal-identity issues might look from a third-person point of view. Perhaps we should adopt the idea that, whatever we are talking about when we talk about personal identity, it cannot be something answered, as it were, entirely from the inside, but needs outside corroboration. If this is right, then films that closely track central characters can help us to understand the enigma of personal identity.

I can’t see any need or even possibility of “outside corroboration,” though I agree that film does help us investigate, observe, think about, the nature of our own personal identity from other perspectives. Though I disagree with Parfit’s theories, I’ve greatly enjoyed his thought experiment. For me, personal identity is the “first-person” as source; that is identity. Personal identity is where “here” is. First person singular. It is the owner of the first person singular. Whether I may be copied once or multiple times, there’s still going to be only one “here” and one first-person singular that is mine.

My most recent previous post from this collection is here.



August 29, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… Will I have time to realize it in the form I envisaged before I change myself?

Continuing through The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes (2003). These are from Barthes’s lectures given between 1978 and 1980 at the Collège de France:

… To go from the Projected Work to its Fabrication: where’s the difficulty? — in the Planning, which means, specifically, this is the Project I’ve selected; I’m going to set to work → What shall I work on tomorrow? Which operation? Sit at my desk, remain there, with my arms folded, thinking? It’s a truth test: sometimes a project is exciting, appealing, but when your back’s against the wall you have no idea how to divide it up into the multiple operations that will gradually advance its realization: it’s a question of coming up with a daily procedure, an agenda of things to do, which cashes in, converts the Project.

I don’t  have the recipe because the possibility of conversion is the seal of a project’s validity; which means that the actual planning of it is of the nature of kairos,* of the Good Project → I shall pick out, perhaps, two types of project which give rise to two types of planning, of working practice.

Alternative that Valéry puts very clearly; two possibilities for the creator of a work: “in the first, the work is answerable to a predetermined plan, in the second, the artist fills in an imaginary rectangle.” → So there are two different kinds of plan: (1) the plan that proceeds by logic, unraveling, deduction; (2) the plan that proceeds by filling in a grand fantasized (“imaginary”) form: an activity that has more to do with aesthetics than with logic (cf. the Oriental painter or writer).

… One of Flaubert’s most singular remarks is his calm announcement that the book he must write will take him six years. Now, how can anyone know where they’ll be in themselves, in their relationship to the world, in six years? The book, a fixed object, since it’s finished, structured, premeditated, is produced by a subject who can never guarantee his own immutability. Once the Planning Stage has come to an end, and the slow work of Writing begins, there’s therefore a concern. Proust: Will I have time to finish it before I die? = Will I have time to realize it in the form I envisaged before I change myself? Sort of Einsteinian problem: the non-identity of the self has to produce an object that’s defined by its identity → Non-identity formulated by Pascal in the following way: “I feel in myself a malice that prevents me from agreeing with what Montaigne says, that vivacity and firmness weaken in us with age. I would not wish that to be so. I am envious of myself. This self at twenty years old is no longer me.” Whence the impatience to finish the work as soon as it has begun: precaution against yourself. Frequent feelings of revulsion, of disarray, because I no longer fit the work and yet I have to see it through, in the way it was planned → Unless, of course, the variability of the subject and the parameterical variations of the Work is factored into the Plan of the Work; …

… I want to point out in passing that “changing” is an act that presents the Doxa with a great deal of problems; fickleness is never well regarded — I’ll say: even when it can be called a “conversion”; what the Doxa admires is immutability, the persistence of an opinion (Why? Perhaps left over from feudal morality) → Possibility of a typology of intellectual “changes”: (1) Never change = Militant; (2) Change but dogmatize each change = Clovis’s complex: worship what you have hitherto burned, and vice versa; (3) Change, vary, but in a nondogmatic way, like the shimmering of mottled silk (that is to say, without fanfare) on the curtain of life (Maya): cf. the “versatility” that Nietzsche speaks of in Ecce Homo.

… These brakings → often and in a more contingent manner; writing stalls , breaks down, → for Flaubert, this would translate, bodily into “marinades”: abandoning his desk (whose “sacred,” fetishistic nature I’ve discussed), he would throw himself onto his couch and lie there limply (this is why you should always — or never — have a couch in your study).

… When it’s a matter of a breakdown caused by the Other’s (the Great Other’s) Imaginary Gaze being fixed upon what you’re writing, the sense that your writing is being monitored (anxiety of being watched while doing something difficult), the Imaginary provides a solution: you artificially divide writing up into Pleasure and Fear (of the Other); you write (pleasure) but tell yourself (pure imaginary) that you’re not going to publish it: this frees writing up (so you tell yourself).

[ * kairos – “the right or opportune moment” … “a time between, a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens.” — from Wikipedia ]

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



August 28, 2013

The Genius

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

This is from The Birth of Presence by Jean-Luc Nancy (1993):

… “The mother,” Hegel writes, “is the child’s genius.” The mythological figure of the Latin Genius designates “the selfhood and totality of spirit insofar as it exists for itself,” outside an individual “which is only posited externally as an individual.” The Genius is the “compact condition” or the “intensive form of individuality.” It is the same thing as what is also called “the heart” or the “disposition” (Gemüt, which in this sense also means “soul” or “heart”). The Genius is the heart of identity, insofar as the affective soul is really the kernel of all the determinations and all the dispositions of the subject.

… The Genius represents this identity outside the individual, as another individual, because this identity is precisely this other identity — trembling or shuddering, nonindividual — whose more than originarily female nature is really nothing but nature itself, or the “property” of trembling, of shuddering, of splitting, of feeling, of being affected. Passivity is not individual: one can be active alone, but one can be passive only in company. Passivity is what trembles and draws away from the individual, drawing the individual away from himself …

… the Genius is the difference of the individual, without being the individual himself. Birth takes place in a community of impartation — that of the mother’s womb, that of love, that of being-together-among-many.

… This is how difference comes to identity: it occurs to identity. Identity itself does not let itself be identified, and it gives identity. Identity is given by the difference that is not its own.

… it is the stranger, it is the friend, it is you and I. Identity for itself is indifferent, but a singular and different identity is always given, always occurs.



The Fool

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… Under the dissolvent influence of his personality, the iron network of physical, social, and moral law, which enmeshes us from the cradle to the grave, seems — for the moment — negligible as a web of gossamer.

This is from The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith (1997). This week’s ‘rhetoric’ is ‘Frivolity’:

… This chapter could be entitled “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Weber, 1930) and be about the role of both religion and the work ethic in the denigration of play as a waste of time, as idleness, as triviality, and as frivolity.

… The frivolity of playfulness, which seemed at first to be just a mildly amusing relic of Puritanism, takes on a much more serious purpose when we view it as an implicit form of political or scholarly denigration. Much of the time most of us continue unwittingly with our frivolous play pursuits, unaware that we are despised by others except when the hegemony of those others suddenly makes itself felt as forms of rudeness, censorship, banishment, annulment, or cancellation.

[ … ]

… In many cultures and subcultures, the person known as fool, trickster, Frech, leprechaun, clown, harlequin, or comedian is held to be quite central to the theatric side of public affairs. All of the seriousness of regular play, or of regular play rhetoric or regular play theory, is susceptible to being made ludicrous by this inversely playful person, who trivializes all things most devastatingly, including trivialization itself. The true trickster is so frivolous he can invert frivolity. While in modern society one can still find the “official” fool in various places on the fringe of society, there have been times and there still are places where the fool has almost the position of the wisest person.

… Enid Welsford, in her classic of 1935, The Fool, struggles to explain why the most frivolous of modern persons, the fool or the comedian, though the “lowest” of us all, is yet in some way inversely the most serious of us all. She says that unlike the rest of us, who are all losers in most of the conventional senses, and most surely in the mortal sense, the fool transcends triviality:

For the genius of the Fool is manifested by his power of deluding us into the belief that he can draw the sting of pain; by his power of surrounding us with an atmosphere of make-believe, in which nothing is serious, nothing is solid, nothing has abiding consequences. Under the dissolvent influence of his personality, the iron network of physical, social, and moral law, which enmeshes us from the cradle to the grave, seems — for the moment — negligible as a web of gossamer. The Fool does not lead a revolt against the law, he lures us into a region of the spirit where, as Lamb would put it, the writ does not run.

Both the fool and the playful person live in the place where the “writ does not run”: a world where bad people are harmless, where stupid people are merry, where Fate is transformed into “Puck-like Chance.” Perhaps the spirit of playfulness, never entirely foreign to all kinds of serious play, is ultimately the guarantee that all forms of play potentially promise that one can never quite lose while still at play. The promise is that the greater the frivolity, the greater the transcendence of the common writ. Which is to say that frivolity is potentially the most sacred play of all, a condition once recognized by the appointment of sacred tricksters and holy fools.

My most recent previous post from Sutton-Smith’s book is here.



August 27, 2013

The Supreme Mediator

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… We realize, with a thrill of misery and loathing, that we confront, in these images, the embodiment of an infinitely displaced, attenuated, and soured aestheticism.

… All photographs converge, whatever the motive that first prompted their making, in an aestheticism that ought to be, by now, notorious.

This is from ‘Fictcryptokrimsographology” (1975); found in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton edited by Bruce Jenkins (2009). Where I begin, he’s talking about the same crime scene photographs as in last week’s essay:

Language decreed that they be made. Some person unseen and unknown had caused to die five (named) creatures inhabiting London, all human beings; had committed (repeatedly, with abominable trimmings) murder, an unlawful act; had, that is, seriously trespassed in the zone (the only one, in our culture) where language actively engages with social fact: The Law … which is a subset within language that quintessentializes its tendency, persistent at the inflectional level, to seek or designate instantiations of Causality, and prohibit some of them.

The axiomatics of the situation seemed simple enough. They affirmed that every act, every ephemeral Cause, implodes and imprints itself upon static Reality as a residue: an Effect. For those skilled to read the Signs — detectives, for example — the process was reversible. Deciphering such glyphs might take long, long; in an age without refrigeration, the photograph was a kind of formaldehyde, superior even to words, serving to immobilize Reality until Culture should inexorably metabolize it into Knowledge. Our own psycholinguistic community still persists in behaving as though the prior assumption of our object amounted to thought … and we are not even ashamed. In 1888, the name of the game was phenomenological Innocence.

But it is not only through their alleged “transparency,” an ontogeny shared between photographic text and pretext, that these particular images must horrify us. Like the good citizens of every imperium since the Aztec, we have acquired a certain taste for ritualized or mediated horror — a debased appeal to catharsis serves as armature for our apologetics — and we have even super-imposed upon that taste a kind of tremulous patience with the most appalling sexual atrocities. Rather, we come to read within the sequence of photographs, within their bland record of a geometrically escalating ferocity, that these are radically other than the leavings of passion … that Jack the Ripper was no mere invisible tiger or angelic machine. We recognize at last, in the methodical precision with which he mutilated and disemboweled Mary Jane Kelly, that this killer composed … not for himself alone, but for that most generalized of spectators: the camera; that he might was well have called himself, in his cruelty and madness, the Master of Whitechapel. We realize, with a thrill of misery and loathing, that we confront, in these images, the embodiment of an infinitely displaced, attenuated, and soured aestheticism.

Now to aestheticize the world, and one’s experience of it, is to embrace, as if unknowingly, a peculiarly insipid and perverse notion of that dynamic mode of conscious activity that we call generically, art: it is to hold that art refines (that is, simplifies and adorns) and seeks to render beautiful. In a fully aestheticized universe, the artist can do no more than “select,” representing from among a welter of appearances, recording endless variations upon that failed moment when, in an access of monstrous Innocence, thought and its object commingle into mutually inextricable opacity. Aestheticism distances experience, objectifies it, simplifies it (even murder is, after all, a kind of ultimate simplification) in the furtherance of a passivity that we understand to be symptomatic of alienation … and alienation, like freedom, is indivisible, occupying the mind from horizon to horizon. We recall Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, aestheticizing in his diaries the bombing of the blameless Ethiopians: the lovely great fire bursts, he writes, bloomed in the desert like incandescent roses. …

The history of still photography (and that history, we remember, must include all the photographs that were ever made, for whatever purpose) has been a history of aestheticism. The photographic sign, in the instant of its apparition, snatches its referent from the fires of time. Mutability, process, context: all are annihilated when sign and referent collapse together to form a unique single object, self-establishing, self-sustaining, self-perpetuating — a confusion wherein imagination shares a precise boundary with all that beckons to it across the immeasurable distance of resemblance. All such objects (“photographs”) resemble one another, because a photograph really is nothing more than a disposition of tonalities (the standard epithet — and it is accurate — is “exquisite”); and every such photograph, because it aspires to show no trace of facture, resembles our universe … to any stronger interaction with which it remains absolutely impervious.

Because all photographs look alike (but are, nevertheless, believed), they set all experience at an equal distance from consciousness, submerging every distinction to a microscopically inflected rhetoric of — miserere nobis — “shades of gray”; even the sort of simple binary syntax that might divide sense from nonsense, what is recognizable from what is not, is bizarrely contaminated and somehow confounded by the fluctuation of our own perceptions. Curtis’s truly beautiful and terribly embattled Kwakiutl or Hopi … Hine’s little boys and girls, destroyed alongside power looms … the breasts and flanks and cunts and eyes that Weston refused to exclude from his monumentally concupiscent lifework: all these images, made to teach or move or delight, are as remote from us as the Great Wall of China, which casts its intricate system of shadows (how closely we have studied the pictures!) over lands I shall never see. All photographs converge, whatever the motive that first prompted their making, in an aestheticism that ought to be, by now, notorious. Why, then, do we tolerate their presence among us? They are, surely, better than nothing; but so is everything else … and the answer is simpler than that anyhow: they are, or are about to be, all that we have.

But they are, in an exact sense, all that we ever had: there can be no mourning, because nothing has been lost. What we have called Innocence, and identified in that sad moment when the mind abandons its encounter with a world that includes itself, clearly belongs among the humiliating inventions of senescence; that childhood from which we all recede is brightened by Experience, which we take to be an enterprise of discovery that defines, and creates anew, consciousness itself: the supreme mediator.

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



August 26, 2013

I Am Not Who I Was

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am


Early Poems
by Donald Justice

How fashionably sad those early poems are!
On their clipped lawns and hedges the snows fall.
Rains beat against the tarpaulins of their porches,
Where, Sunday mornings, the bored children sprawl,
Reading the comics before their parents rise.
— The rhymes, the meters, how they paralyze!

Who walks out through their streets tonight?
No one. You know these small towns, how all traffic stops
At ten, the corner streetlamps gathering moths,
And mute, pale mannequins waiting in dark shops,
Undressed, and ready for the dreams of men.
— Now, the long silence. Now the beginning again.



These are the first four and a quarter lines (out of forty-four) from:


The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, …

[ … ]




That Upon Which We Live

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

…  I believe that a ruthless accumulation of structure reworkings leads to one meeting one’s motif. One’s life-motif, so to speak. That which one has and does not know that one has it.

This is from ‘It’s Not So Easy to Paint a Nose’ by Emilio Vedova (1948):

… Painting — acting means … going beyond the conventions that have lost their hope; it means constructing, in a primordial sense, a reason to believe.

… They think we are in a state of crisis. But we prefer living the temptation of every day, rather than fall victim to the idleness that makes life a series of cowardly acts.

The following is from ‘Words Are No Help’ by Alberto Burri (1955):

… For years pictures have led me, and my work is just a way of stimulating the drive.

I can only say this: painting for me is a freedom attained, constantly consolidated, vigilantly guarded so as to draw from it the power to paint more.

Finally, this next is from Bravura by Per Kirkeby (1982):

… I believe that painting, in our meaning, is structures. Each application of paint to a surface is a structure. This is, of course, self-evident, but a superstructure of meaning can occur. One can have various motives for doing it. And here that difficult motif comes in. I believe that a ruthless accumulation of structure reworkings leads to one meeting one’s motif. One’s life-motif, so to speak. That which one has and does not know that one has it. A sort of geology, as when, in a constant process, sedimentation and erosion makes the earth we live on like it is now, without any meaning in itself in a rational sense, but accepted as that upon which we live in this life.

[ … ]

… each new layer, however furious, is always infected and colored by the underlying one. Even when it is slates where the previous layer is completely removed physically, wiped off.

Thus it is with all pictures, there are many layers, and with good reason an analysis nearly always deals only with the last. The last layer in a superficial sense. But how then can one talk of what one cannot see, the overpainted or wiped-off layers, how to go about for example, photographs that are like slates with layers which no longer exist. The answer is that they exist nevertheless, taken up into the visible layer by a rubbing-off, but the problem, on the whole, is how one deals with the visible layer. The angle-sure, viewpoint-seeking and in the worst sense “analytic” intercourse with the picture. This method does not call up the invisible layers. The invocatory tone of intercourse is the “synthetic,” which does not seek results immediately but treats the picture sensually and then allows the apparently most unreasonable associations to grow. In this way invisible layers in oneself are invoked, and this is the only kind of invisible layer in the picture which allows itself to be invoked. This is “unscientific” and apparently uncontrollable and subjective. But the subjective is to a large extent the common; the invisible, subterranean layers are fertile soil for the great common pictures.



August 25, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… We need only, so that the miracle may be accomplished, apply our lips to the magic orifice and invoke …

… “Is that you, Granny?”

This is from The Oak in the Acorn: On Remembrance of Things Past and on Teaching Proust, Who Will Never Learn by Howard Nemerov (1987):

… whatever we believe about the nominalist or realist views of the matter, names remain for us entities of supreme importance even if they are ghosts. Persons who habitually speak of their own and the world’s troubles as identity-crises and feelings of anomie and alienation will not dispute this proposition. The English writer Nigel Dennis, in a most entertaining essay prefaced to his Two Plays, says that if one examines critically all the possible bases for believing one is oneself one ends with the flimsiest-looking foundation of all, one’s name — that breath of peculiarly shaped air — as the sole survivor. To give but one instance of the power conferred by names even in the modern world: if you know someone’s name you can get his number and telephone him, thus compelling  him at least to contemplate doing things he would not have been thinking of; and our innocent-sounding expression “call someone up” may indeed conceal in a metaphor the thought that in using the telephone we are evoking someone’s spirit, for name and voice are equally identified in primitive thought with soul. Indeed, for a writer so sensitive as Proust, who is also faced with the telephone when its use is new and unexpected, the most relevant and revealing ideas come up when he uses the telephone for the first time, to phone his beloved grandmother from Doncières:

One morning Saint-Loup confessed to me that he had written to my grandmother to give her news of me, with the suggestion that, since there was telephonic connexion between Paris and Doncières, she might make use of it to speak to me. In short, that very day she was to give me a call, and he advised me to be at the post office at about a quarter to four. … Like all of us nowadays I found not rapid enough for my liking in its abrupt changes the admirable sorcery for which a few moments are enough to bring before us, invisible but present, the person to whom we have been wishing to speak, and who, while still sitting at his table, in the town in which he lives (in my grandmother’s case, Paris) under another sky than ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and worries of which we know nothing, but of which he is going to inform us, finds himself suddenly transported hundreds of miles (he and all the surroundings in which he remains immured) within reach of our ear, at the precise moment which our fancy has ordained. And we are like the person in the fairy-tale to whom a sorceress, on his uttering the wish, makes appear with supernatural clearness his grandmother or his betrothed in the act of turning over a book, of shedding tears, of gathering flowers, quite close to the spectator and yet ever so remote, in the place in which she actually is at the moment. We need only, so that the miracle may be accomplished, apply our lips to the magic orifice and invoke …

… And, the moment our call has sounded, in the night filled with phantoms to which our ears alone are unsealed, a tiny sound, an abstract sound — the sound of distance overcome — and the voice of the dear one speaks to us.

Observe, please, that when I spoke of “calling someone up” as of an evocation of the spirit, even of the dead, you thought of it as a joke, though not a very good one. But you are allowed so to regard it only out of habit, that sinister manager of our affairs, which in making you comfortable in your lives has also made you somewhat insensitive. Proust, however, sees the making of a phone call as a great mystery, which it is, and speaks of it in fitting terms of (slightly parodied) dread: it is sorcery, a miracle, magic … the voice of the beloved is “a real presence” which is, however, being disembodied, “a premonition of an eternal separation” And when he is cut off he feels he has lost “a beloved ghost,” and reminds himself of Orpheus repeating the name of Eurydice. The incident ends, also, with one of Proust’s ludicrous horrors: Marcel is paged, the call has been put through again: “Is that you, Granny?” and a woman with a strong English accent answers: “Yes, but I don’t know your voice.”

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



August 24, 2013

That Cell

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… The mere existence of that cell should be one of the great astonishments of the earth.

This is from The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas (1979):

… A short while ago, in mid-1978, the newest astonishment in medicine, covering all the front pages, was the birth of an English baby nine months after conception in a dish. The older surprise, which should still be fazing us all, is that a solitary sperm and a single egg can fuse and become a human being under any circumstance, and that, however implanted, a mere cluster of the progeny of this fused cell affixed to the uterine wall will grow and differentiate into eight pounds of baby; this has been going on under our eyes for so long a time that we’ve gotten used to it; hence the outcries of amazement at this really minor technical modification of the general procedure — nothing much, really, beyond relocating the beginning of the process from the fallopian tube to a plastic container and, perhaps worth mentioning, the exclusion of the father from any role likely to add, with any justification, to his vanity.

… the real amazement, if you want to be amazed, is the process. You start out as a single cell derived from the coupling of sperm and egg, this divides into two, then four, then eight, and so on, and at a certain stage there emerges a single cell which will have as all its progeny the human brain. The mere existence of that cell should be one of the great astonishments of the earth. People ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours, calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell. It is an unbelievable thing, and yet there it is, popping neatly into its place amid the jumbled cells of every one of the several billion human embryos around the planet, just as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do.

If you like being surprised, there’s the source. One cell is switched on to become the whole trillion-cell, massive apparatus for thinking and imagining and, for that matter, being surprised. All the information needed for learning to read and write, playing the piano, arguing before senatorial subcommittees, walking across a street through traffic, or the marvelous human act of putting out one hand and leaning against a tree, is contained in that first cell. All of grammar, all syntax, all arithmetic, all music.

… No one has the ghost of an idea how this works, and nothing else in life can ever be so puzzling. If anyone does succeed in explaining it, within my lifetime, I will charter a skywriting airplane, maybe a whole fleet of them, and send them aloft to write one great exclamation point after another, around the whole sky, until all my money runs out.



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