Sunday, February 2, 2014

Nightscapes 1

Note to visitors: This multi-part post describes a perceptual dialectic going by many names, day/night being used here.  Should a lengthy post about a perceptual dialectic seem appealing as root canal, readers are urged nonetheless to soldier on.  Songs, images, poems are used throughout, as well as the thinking of Gregory Bateson, a polymath who used perspectives from ecology, psychiatry, cybernetics, epistemology, anthropology (his first marriage was to Margaret Mead).

The post also owes much to the thinking of D.W. Winnicott, especially his fertile concept of potential space (see “The Place where we Live,” from Playing and Reality).

I begin with a quote by Alfred Korzybski from A non-Aristotelian system and its necessity for rigor in mathematics and physics, a 1931 paper delivered to the American Mathematical Society in New Orleans. Bateson cites the quote in Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979), and while I discuss Bateson, the Korzybski quote is freestanding, in part because it is intuitively true, in part because brain regions associated with mathematics and physics are on holiday.

A map is not the territory.
 Korzybski, p. 750

Certain routines kick in when I wake in the morning: I'm out of bed, bathroom bound, then on to coffee pot, computer, demands and habits of the day.  Mostly on automatic pilot, I tend to some things, not others, filtering information not relevant to daytime tasks.

Photo credit:
These habits of attention and activity are mental outfits worn to fit my day-world.  At night though, off come the day-habits and I slip into something more comfortable: stray thoughts, reverie, dreams.  As daytime self gives way to nighttime me my world changes: trees strike poses invisible by day, sensory impressions tug, workaday attention yields to relaxation.

There is nothing unique about day and nighttime perceptual shifts.  We all slide among gradations of focused and unfocused attention, shaping up and suiting up to take the public field, relaxing later to settle into internal fields.  We make sense of things through opposing yet complementary forms of perception: one adapted to outer reality and its institutions, one open to inner reality with its dreams, fantasies, impressions; one using standardized names to describe phenomena, one using less consensual language; one more grown up, one more childlike; one more routinized, one more imaginative.

There is also nothing haphazard about these perceptual shifts, we continually respond to changing environments, contexts, and contextual objects.  Alarm clocks, projects, deadlines, airport security screenings, mornings, all activate a more formal and formed self than the one evoked at day's end, week's end, work-life's end.  Workaday reality calls and we hop to it.  Monday me differs from a TGIF, holiday, nighttime, or retirement me.

Both perceptual leanings are important.  It is necessary to fit in, speak the same language, do as others do in our tribe, but not so much that we lose all individuality, and it is enlivening to have personal and original slants on things, but not so much that we are puzzling, peculiar, and understandable only to ourselves.  (Even were it true that we "never really grow up, we just learn how to act in public,” as country singer Bryan White observed, there is value in learning how and when to pretend.)

Mr. Spock
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
There can be friction between orthodox and imaginative understandings, but seldom are there pure types of daytime or nighttime perception: total orthodoxy would be robotic, total imagination delusional.  I imagine a perceptual seesaw with Orthodoxy at one end, Imagination at the other, and in the middle a blended fulcral area –– such that in ordinary life we are more or less conventional and imaginative, both in how we understand things and in how we communicate our understandings to others.  (Even Mr. Spock in Star Trek was not given totally over to logic; born of a Vulcan father and human mother, he possessed a deeper, if incompatible, emotional side.)

Plaid Bear-Pants
Although pure types of rigorous or imaginative perception are rare, there are those who cluster near the ends of the perceptual seesaw, those who appear unusually conventional, as if permanently tailored, creased, crisp along the edges, versus others –– young children, some teenagers and old people, all manner of artists and off-center types –– who amble freely in Imagination, wearing mental, even actual jammies wherever they please.  The rest of us, uneasy about wearing our plaid bear-pants outside, enjoy reprieves when changing contexts authorize playtimes: holiday celebrations, life transitions (birthdays, graduations, retirements), work breaks (recesses, nights, weekends, vacations).  Released from Orthodoxy, we have the OK to let our child-flags fly.  (This surely is one of the pleasures of Halloween.)

Gregory Bateson collapsed these perceptual contraries into rigor/imagination, a single dialectic we know by many shadings: prosaic/poetic, literal/ figurative, technical/ aesthetic, logical/emotional, conservative/liberal, etc. –– as well as the one profiled here, the metaphoric day/night.

Rigor and imagination can be likened to mental maps, alternate ways to depict the nature of something, orient to what matters.  Ideally they work together, much as our eyes do, bringing depth and enhanced dimensionality to a situation.  (Bateson metaphorically relates this to binocular vision, the way one seemingly undivided image is in fact a synthesis of two retinal images).

Were these maps actual, not metaphoric, the rigorous one would identify a territory in standardized ways (cities, landmarks, highways, distances), while the imaginative one would prove an underground, eccentric guide.  Should both maps blend binocularly into one, a trip through a territory would be neither too routinized nor too chaotic, the conventional accented by the imaginative, the imaginative  structured into an organized, recognizable landscape.  In this happy synthesis, the territory would be depicted in familiar yet new ways, a single map showing usual transit lines, landmarks, restaurants, lodgings, but also offbeat destinations and routes, spots the locals haunt, lively graphics, wit.

Sadly, this synthesis in perspectives is rare.  Tensions arise often between rigorous and imaginative viewpoints, tensions found throughout societal and organizational relations –– in Martian men and Venusian women, adults and children, science and art, numerous cultural, political, academic, religious oppositions.

Suit and Bathrobe: James Maher
Photo credit: James Maher (10-28-13 New York Daily Photo Blog)

A minor example of perceptual tension is found in our response to humor.  Ideally, someone says, "I heard this joke ... ,” and the average listener alters his or her mindset, widening it to receive the unexpected or silly, allowing mind to be tickled.

But not everyone gets the joke.  Some people are hidebound, unable to shift mental gears from Conventional into Playful.  The issue here is not the joke’s content –– which may after all not be very funny –– but absence of a sense of humor, absence of an ability to register "joke" as a contextual signal to lighten up.  Insofar as this occurs, the hidebound show a rigor/imagination imbalance on the side of rigor.

In their defense, of course, what’s the harm in remaining comfortably conventional? in not being open to a joke?  None whatsoever, so long as the issue is limited to jokes.

Things grow serious though when matters are not joking matters; for example, global warming and gun violence.  Because it’s not just a joke the hidebound don’t get, they can be poorly adapted to the world in more consequential ways, lagging behind cultural change and lacking imaginative capacity to alter habituated ways of seeing.  As is currently demonstrated by Congress in the face of grave issues, or by fundamentalists in the face of irony, play, whimsy.

The joke-space then is but a minor example of a wider culture's play-space, that space (weekends, Halloween, art, retirement) in which orthodox understandings take a break.  As with all play, this space supports not-knowing and subsequent tolerance of emergent or off-center realities.

Play-space is expansive and transformative, the province of artistic realization and religious epiphany, the place where angels live and creative Source moves, and it counters the cramped quarters of dogma and bureaucracy where demons dwell.  (It is an old story that we see things afresh when not looking too hard, and that functionaries may be so rule-bound that they function poorly.)

There are times when we know more by knowing less.  Suspension of disbelief permits enjoyment of art, humor, magic, anything aslant, and there is value sometimes in being not in the know, or out of our depth, or not in our right minds.  (For a deep treatment of humor and the joke, see Christopher Bollas's essay "Cracking Up," in Cracking Up; for an engaging 9/10/95 New York Times review of that book, see “Derailing the Train of Thought,” by Sarah Boxer.)

Not knowing is the natural province of small children, who are at sea in phenomena, embedded in and curious about immensity, gradually sorting out baby and mommy, blankie and toast, bow-wow and rain.  As this passage by psychoanalyst Michael Eigen vibrantly conveys:

     In childhood, we tease our minds and souls with not knowing who
     we are or how we got here –– anything, everything, the whole
     universe, life itself, why here, this way?  We tease ourselves into
     oblivion, wonder, and awe and shudder at the discovery of thrills
     and frights not mentioned by anyone we know, pleasures of going
     further and further into unknown, nameless whirls, pools within
     pools, pleasures bottomless, dizzying and unfathomable.

     These are pleasures that might be cultivated but rarely are.  We
     learn to coat this secret boundlessness with names, learning,
     questions, and tasks that aid what we call upbringing and education.
     In adulthood, some of us, some of the time, search for the missing
     unknown with impoverished means to engage it.

     (Michael EigenContact with the Depths [2011], p. 50.)

To not know also dethrones the omniscience of rigid orthodoxy:

     ... living in unknowing leaves room for other people.  Too often
     we presume we know who the other is, we know all about him
     or her, and we become reactive.  Our partial knowledge becomes
     totalized and we saturate the space where another might be.  We
     saturate the mystery of the other with imaginary unknowing.  I say
     "imaginary" because acting on partial knowledge as if it is total or
     more than it is to create a more or less make-believe other, partly
     real but also partly imaginary.  Often, we may not be able to
     distinguish our make-believe other from the being who confronts
     us, and our imagination fuels reactivity.
     (Ibid, p. 52)

This last quote from Eigen is self-evident.  I would add though that “imaginary unknowing” differs from imaginative unknowing: the imaginary forecloses alternative possibilities for understanding, takes a part for the whole, is too sure of itself, whereas imaginative unknowing widens understanding, generates multiple perspectives, is exploratory in spirit.

The overly orthodox are not the only problem here, although it is easy to label traditionalists as fuddy-duddies and dinosaurs.  Endless summer is also problematic.  People in perpetual play-space may not easily gear up to establish stably functioning selves, may not notice "day" as a signal to pull it together to meet the world.  In Disney's The Lion King, the Swahili phrase "hakuna matata" referred to the carefree lifestyle from which Simba eventually had to awake in order to fulfill his responsibilities.

Put differently, there is something seductive about letting go, losing form, not trying so hard to maintain composure and stay between the lines, going into a deeper flow:

     It feels so good to be nothing, to liquefy identity, to be raw identity.
     I pop up again, just plain me, everyday me.  I am aware of my link
     with a deeper unconscious flow that supports me, that throws me
     over.  I dive again.
     (Michael Eigen, Psychic Deadness [1996], p. 142.)

Heady stuff, diving into a Mardi Gras of the mind, but the the tricky part is in coming back –– because if I am going to lose myself in flow and rhythm, it helps to have a self to return to before I dive, an "everyday me" to leave and then re-inhabit.  Simba eventually did come back and his was a temporary and restorative loss of form.

All this to say that the overly fluid are as maladapted to the world as the overly orthodox.  Having the identity structure of hollow tubes, they are not blinkered to new realities but awash in them: contents flow through them but do not metabolize into coherent identity elements.

Again, fluidity is invigorating when we’re merely taking breaks from the ordinary, temporarily adrift in play or reverie.  But fluidity is risky in situations that require a counterbalancing rigor, situations where high expressive energy and low organization tilt toward chaos –– where things get out of hand and aftermaths grow malformed or monstrous: the French Revolution and countless coups, hate crimes and violence, dissenters with reformist fervor but fuzzy steering.  The students occupying the Administration building may prove as functionally challenged as the deans they are ousting.  And sometimes it is simply civil to remember how to act in public.

So it is good to go to the ball but not to overstay our time there, and it is good to come home again to our familiar selves.  Even better perhaps is to combine the two experiences, carry a bit of the ball back with us, blend play into the ordinary, toss an occasional shimmy or pirouette into our daily mix.

Here are four poems that illustrate aspects of rigor/imagination.

The first is a 1915 poem by Wallace Stevens.  It describes a culture in which nighttime no longer refreshes, a culture without its play-space, with too much fibre and not enough juice:

     Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock

     The houses are haunted
     By white night-gowns.
     None are green,
     Or purple with green rings,
     Or green with yellow rings,
     Or yellow with blue rings.
     None of them are strange,
     With socks of lace
     And beaded ceintures.
     People are not going
     To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
     Only, here and there, an old sailor,
     Drunk and asleep in his boots,
     Catches tigers
     In red weather.

Wallace Stevens (1950)
Image: Wikipedia
Worth mentioning is that Wallace Stevens was an attorney by day, who spent much of his work life at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company –– and we can surmise he did not go to work in his dorm pants.  Yet clearly he had access to poetic imagination, which he then formed into a poem.

The very existence of "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" shows the fruit of collaborative day/night synthesis.  The two contraries  –– rigorous ability to make form, openness to imagination –– result in the poem itself.  It is not that Rigor is bad and Imagination good, each informs the other.  Stevens had to work at weaving imaginative elements into a product called a "poem."  It is unlikely that he opened a window to his creative unconscious and out flowed a fully formed poem.

Art takes discipline.  Without it, minds are abuzz with colorful potentialities, but nothing is actually created.  Then again, discipline takes a touch of the wanton to become art, a poem is lifeless without access to novel images and associations.  The difference between evocative lines and unmemorable jingles, between fresh and stale form, is the difference between the imaginative and the conventionally imitative.

Now not all our ten o’clock houses are haunted by pallid remnants of colorful imaginings.  Sometimes our cultures do allow for play-space, the problem being that local conditions preclude our staying there very long.  One thinks of stultifying work places, classrooms, other settings in which organization shades into regime.

Here, for example, is a 1964 poem by David Ignatow:

          The Sky is Blue

     Put things in their place,
     my mother shouts.  I am looking
     out the window, my plastic soldier
     at my feet.  The sky is blue
     and empty.  In it floats
     the roof across the street.
     What place, I ask her.

     (from Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994)

The poem contrasts two ways of looking: dutiful versus dreamlike, conventional versus pre-conventional.  Things in the mother's world are tidied to match a conventional pattern, they belong somewhere. Things in her son's world are less patterned, more autonomous, they belong to themselves.  The boy, still very young, retains a freshness of perception.  He lives in a world where a roof floats in the sky, and he has no idea that a place exists for his toy soldier much less where that place might be.  For him, a toy soldier on the floor is an actor in a personal scene; for mother, the toy soldier is an object that belongs off-scene.  It is all in the looking.

Were the boy older, we would call his fresh perception imaginative, not pre-conventional, but the dialectic tension would remain the same. "The Sky is Blue" shows an early moment in the history of that tension, a moment when a child's looking is colonized by a grownup's looking. Something gets broken up –– a way of seeing in elastic thought-categories, such that a roof, not yet fixed to a "house," can float in the sky, and a toy soldier, not yet belonging in a "place," can stride the floor.

When a toy soldier becomes a "thing" with a "place," it ceases to be an imagination-vessel and dies a little.  By extension, and worse, it is not only movements of a toy soldier that are limited, the world of imagination has now been put in its place: the first line of the poem could be translated “Put your imagination in its place."

Given the universality of this, perhaps it is not surprising that after decades spent subordinating play to seriousness, we may in older adulthood indulge our imaginative sides more, caring less about fitting in, taking up neglected interests, wearing our plaid bear-pants outside.

In this regard, consider Kenneth Rexroth's translation of a poem by Hsin Ch'I Chi (1140-1207):

          To An Old Tune

     In my young days I never
     Tasted sorrow.  I wanted
     To become a famous poet.
     I wanted to get ahead
     So I pretended to be sad.
     Now I am old and have known
     The depths of every sorrow,
     And I am content to loaf
     And enjoy the clear Autumn.

     (from 100 More Poems from the Chinese: Love and the Turning

Here the two ways of looking are located within the same person but at different developmental periods: the poet as old man, the poet as his remembered younger self.  The older poet lazes on an autumn day in the autumn of his years.  His perception is relaxed, reflective, and the clear day he enjoys is similar to a young boy's empty blue sky in which house-roofs float.  Both old man and young boy share an idling free-floating attention.  (An irony of the poem is that the wisdom of old age is child-like, we relearn what we once knew.)

By contrast, the poet's younger self is like the boy's mother in "The Sky is Blue.”  Both comply with perceived standards of their situations: he composes a marketable self, she composes a conventional scene; he organizes an identity (famous poet) around selectively noticed features of his world (sad affect, its marketability), she organizes an identity (conventional homemaker, conventional home) around selectively noticed features in her world (a toy soldier, a place it belongs).

Finally, a poem by Billy Collins, one showing commonplace and idiosyncratic perspectives occurring in the same person at the same time:

        The Brooklyn Museum of Art

     I will now step over the soft velvet rope
     and walk directly into this massive Hudson River
     painting and pick my way along the Palisades
     with this stick I snapped off a dead tree.

     I will skirt the smoky, nestled towns
     and seek the path that leads always outward
     until I become lost, without a hope
     of ever finding the way back to a museum.

     I will stand on the bluffs in nineteenth-century clothes,
     a dwarf among rock, hills, and flowing water,
     and I will fish from the banks in a straw hat
     which will feel like a brush stroke on my head.

     And I will hide in the green covers of forests
     so no appreciator of Frederick Edwin Church,
     leaning over the soft velvet rope,
     will spot my tiny figure moving in the stillness
     and cry out, pointing for the others to see,

     and be thought mad and led away to a cell
     where there is no vaulting landscape to explore,
     none of this birdsong that halts me in my tracks,
     and no wide curving of this river that draws
     my steps toward the misty vanishing point.

     (from Sailing Alone Around the Room)

A magical poem, about which much could be said.  Let’s focus though on how the narrator slips his perceptual chains and imaginatively flows into the painting he is studying, being a velvet rope away from release into a landscape on the wall.  The movement is from conventional reality to play-space: the narrator looks at a museum painting and proceeds imaginatively to take up residence within that painting.

There is such immediacy to his journey that we might overlook the fact that he hasn’t really gone anywhere, that the narrative unfolds in the future tense: the narrator “will” step over the rope, “will” skirt the towns to stand on bluffs, hide in forests.  Yet we feel that he has left the museum floor, has already made his escape; future and present conflate, time seems out of joint.

This is transformational magic.  The landscape painting so captivates this viewer that he drops through its imaginative rabbit hole.  The mood is of release, escape, freedom, the narrator escaping his ordinary self and becoming a tiny nineteenth century figure who wears a hat made of brush strokes.

Plus he is not the only one in two spaces at the same time, we poem-readers are also dislodged from our normal outlooks.  We are simultaneously outside “The Brooklyn Museum of Art” as readers and yet inside that poem’s landscape.  We too do a disappearing act, joining the narrator as he leads us away from ordinary lives into a stranger world, following him into the greenery as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do, not questioning the logic of stepping over a rope and walking into a painting.

The abracadabra here is that of creative illusion.  The scene is so arresting, so visual and dramatic, that the poem seems like a play.  We read the poem and lose ourselves in it, forgetting that we’re sitting in a poetry theater.  (Were this an actual magic act, we might say that Billy Collins has distracted us from the technical workings of composition: we are so wrapped up in what’s going to fly out of the hat, or in what’s under the handkerchief, that we don't notice what the other hand is doing.)

This is pleasantly decentering, this losing of ourselves in a compelling scene, a scene that began a hundred and fifty years ago when Frederick Edwin Church first lost himself in a Hudson River landscape, seized by vastness of forest, hills, and river, and feeling tiny by comparison –– liquefied, in Michael Eigen’s terms, later to pop up again and turn that experience into a creative illusion, one both conventional enough to hang in a museum, yet magical enough to cast a spell and take us away.

For the illusion to work, it helps to have settings suitable for musing and diversion, settings free of disquieting impingements.  A museum space has cousins in a lazy day, easy chair, cinema seat, nighttime bed, all being contexts for reverie, dream, other mind drift.

Times Square
Creative Commons image: Wikimedia
Even given such settings, not all of us will take the trip, or conjure baboons, periwinkles, and tigers in red weather, but we’re more likely to do so in our downtimes.  It would be harder for Frederick Church’s painting and Billy Collins’ poem to entrance us were they posted (inexplicably) on a wall in Times Square.

To ground everything so far in Science, here is a passage from "Playing for All Kinds of Possibilities," an article by David Dobbs in the Science Times section of the 4/23/2013 New York Times (italics added):

     ... When we're quite young, we are more willing to explore, she
     [Dr. Alison Gopnik] finds; adults are more inclined to exploit.
        To exploit one leans heavily on lessons (and often unconscious
     rules) learned earlier –– so-called prior biases.  These biases are
     useful to adults because they save time and reduce error:  By going
     to the restaurant you know is good, instead of the new place across
     town, you increase the chance that you'll enjoy the evening.
        Most adults are slow to set such biases aside; young children
     fling them away like bad fruit.

And later:

        Yet this playlike spirit of speculation and exploration does stay
     with us, both as individuals and as a species.  Studies suggest that
     free, self-directed play in safe environments enhances resilience,
     creativity, flexibility, social understanding, emotional and cognitive
     control, and resistance to stress, depression and anxiety.  And we
     continue to explore as adults, even if not so freely.

Not much to add to this, except that exploit/explore can be added to the list of dialectic variations in the rigor/imagination family.

(This post will continue in Nightscapes 2, currently being edited into submission.)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Colin's ACL Playlist

ACL surgery photo: Spice ACL Surgery 1/08 SpiceInCrate20108.jpg
Spice (January 2008)
Courtesy: Photobucket

This is a dog named Spice recovering from ACL surgery in 2008.  I can't tell Spice's gender from this photo, but gender is perhaps immaterial given Spice's evident level of discomfort.  (ACL stands for anterior cruciate ligament and you can read about it by clicking the link.)

My son Colin just had the same surgery, but I am using Spice's photo because images of post-surgical human knees are just too gnarly.

Here though is a picture of Colin in more ambulatory times:

Colin (March 2013)
I've put together a music playlist to accompany Colin's recuperation.  Most of the songs are about dancing or other motion, and are meant to anticipate a happy future of restored movement and flexibility.  Then again, some songs have nothing to do with dancing or motion; I just like them.  (One of them, 1958's "Everyday Of The Week" by the Students, may sound similar –– the tune anyway –– to 1961's "Bristol Stomp" by the Dovells.)

Finally, Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" is included because Colin likes it, and James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face" because it reminds me of someone dear to him.

I hope Spice is still with us and well and comfortable, and I wish Colin a rapid recovery.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Blinded By The Light

Note to visitors:  This post's title recalls a Bruce Springsteen song of the same name off his 1973 album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N. J.  However, the post is not about that estimable song, but about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus as well as the nature of any significant character change.

There is art and also four music players: two single-track and two multi-track, with the latter nested in a field of maroon.  Most songs describe those not blinded by transformative light, those in the grip of urges, but a few songs (Spotify: 24 - 27, in blue-bordered player) describe those who have found faith and resolve.

Biblical quotations are from the King James Version, and I acknowledge the possibility of scriptural misreadings.  I also acknowledge the opacity of certain verses cited in Romans 7:14 - 23. Forty-seven scholars translated the 1611 Version, with a seven-man committee specifically assigned the New Testament Epistles, and I'm sure they did their best ... plus King James probably understood it.  But for the rest of us, some of it is heavy sledding.

Around 33 - 35 AD Saul of Tarsus was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus, some 135 miles to the northeast.  A Jewish Pharisee, he hated the early Christian church, its message and missionaries, and he zealously persecuted Christians –– this being the purpose of his trip.  (I am not suggesting that persecutory practices routinely informed Pharisaic doctrine in the 1st century, a period of diverse religious sects and amalgams.)

Saul's journey was interrupted traumatically by a flash of light that caused him to fall to the ground.  He then heard a voice (Acts 9:4), asking:  "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"  The voice was that of Jesus and Saul was blinded by the experience for three days, during which time he neither ate nor drank. Afterwards, with the intercession of Ananias, Saul's sight was restored, he was baptized and transformed –– into a Jewish believer in Christ, the promised Messiah.  The conversion proper occurred not on the road to, but in Damascus, at Judas's house (no, not that Judas) on Straight Street.

Michelangelo: The Conversion of Saul (c. 1542 - 1545)
Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain

I will skip the various explanations, theological, neurocortical, psychological, that attend Saul's conversion from hateful Pharisee to the Apostle Paul, to focus on the poetry of the event.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul (1600/1601)
Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain
Here you have Saul, blinded by the light, knocked off his perch, evacuated of that which previously had sustained him –– food, drink, ideology, hate –– after which he sees again, only differently, having been straightened out on Straight Street.

His three days' blindness is a kind of death, followed by rebirth as the Apostle Paul.  That this process took three days evokes Jesus's crucifixion and transformation in the tomb from bodily self to abiding spirit.  And as with Jesus there was no pleasure in the process: Saul's conversion was an affliction, a painful gestation into a new identity.

Paul never forgot the before-and-after of this, who he was, what he became, how hard it was, the imitation of Christ that inaugurated it. Meaning: the replacement of bodily imperatives by a spiritual faith in what he calls the "law of God," a faith always at odds with corporality (Romans 7:14 - 23):

   14  For we know that the law is spiritual: but I
   am carnal, sold under sin.
   15  For that which I do I allow not: for what I
   would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
   16  If then I do that which I would not, I
   consent unto the law that it is good.
   17  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin
   that dwelleth in me.
   18  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,)
   dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present
   with me; but how to perform that which is
   good I find not.
   19  For the good that I would I do not: but the
   evil which I would not, that I do.
   20  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I
   that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
   21  I find then a law, that, when I would do
   good, evil is present with me.
   22  For I delight in the law of God after the
   inward man:
   23  But I see another law in my members,
   warring against the law of my mind, and
   bringing me into captivity to the law of sin
   which is in my members.

It's hard to be good, hard to stay the course.  Willpower wars with an implacable internal enemy and proves insufficient to the task: Paul doesn't do what he should but instead does what he shouldn’t.  In the grip of continuously competing "laws," he easily falls short of the mark, as do we all in Pauline theology.

What helps?  For the most part, we are saved by faith, or in Paul's phrasing a resolute hope in the unseen:

   24  For we are saved by hope: but hope that is
   seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why
   doth he yet hope for?
   25  But if we hope for that we see not, then do
   with patience wait for it.

This is interesting.  Transformational hope is of a special kind, one that exists in the absence of evidence, one that exists because of absence of evidence.  There is no roadmap to salvation that demonstrably and visibly works: no self-help program, no steps or levels, no laws of the Torah which if scrupulously observed will succeed in expunging indwelling "evil."  Paul's Epistle to the Romans is not Dr. Paul's Guide To A Cleaner, Healthier, Holier You.

Rather it is a call to faith, with emphasis more on faith than correct religious practice.  It is as if you've hit a reef, are shipwrecked, find yourself swimming against the tide toward a faraway shore.  You can focus on your strokes and their tempo, your breathing, the resistance of the water; or if you're Paul, you can focus on the certainty of your eventual arrival on land.  This is not just a shift of attention or, cynically, a distraction from immediate peril.  It is a shift of attention that alters the experience of passing time; that is, it becomes possible to patiently wait because you feel confident in the outcome.

Forget shipwrecks.  Say you're tackling some bodily craving, and growing frustrated by the day with your modest progress toward a seemingly unreachable goal.  It's sensible to keep up the good work, follow this or that program –– but wiser still to relegate methodology and rate of progress to the background, while sustaining and making foreground an image of an improved you.  It won't hurt, it will bolster willpower, and time will pass more easily.

I am at best nominally Christian but I like elements of Paul's story: that conversion begins with being knocked silly, shocked out of the habitual; that death of one state precedes rebirth to another; that that rebirth process is painful; that willpower may not be enough; that movement away from blindness rouses resistance from an inertial "law" of familiar, instinctive behavioral tendencies; that faith –– a steadfast vision of a new you –– lightens waiting-time, undergirds patience and dedication; that bonds of cohesive fellowship can maintain one through this process (this, in that Paul was addressing and fostering nascent Christian communities after the death of Jesus).

Finally, should faith waver and dedication flag, we have this spur:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Theocosmic Diagram

Ever heard of Arvid Reuterdahl?  Perhaps not ... me neither until last fall.

He made this drawing:

It is The Theocosmic Diagram, the frontispiece of Reuterdahl's 1928 book The God of Science, and it graphically distills that book's theory –– a Theory of Everything whereby Reuterdahl demonstrates the essential harmony of religion, philosophy, science, and proves the existence of God and immortality.  Deeply interested in religion and "scientific theism," Reuterdahl rigorously explored these subjects in The God Of Science, using as his organizing paradigm forms and transformations of energy, and the overarching concept of "cosmoenergy."

Visitors may want more data than that provided above –– which admittedly is a teaser –– and they are encouraged to click on The God of Science, its full text being available online.

Arvid Reuterdahl (1876–1933)
Photo: Minneapolis Tribune, 4/10/21
Returning to the Diagram, its meaning seems clear enough so it warrants little if any explication from my editor Todd and me.  We concede that aspects of the space-time kinematrix may prove thorny, but in greater measure Todd and I have faith in the analytic faculties of our readers. (We confess also that we ourselves have not read the entirety of The God of Science, and further allow that were we true researchers we would have fully stayed the course on these Theocosmic waters.)

In any event, instead of text explication, we offer relevant songs to accompany your perusal of the Diagram.  In different ways, this music speaks to complexities surrounding the understanding of natural phenomena:

Care to know more about Reuterdahl?  He was born in Sweden and came to America as a boy, subsequently earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Brown University.  An academic, Reuterdahl taught engineering at various universities, eventually heading the Department of Engineering and Architecture at the College of St. Thomas (now University of St. Thomas), St. Paul, Minnesota. Among his publications was an influential 1908 text, Theory and Design of Reinforced Concrete Arches: A Treatise for Engineers and Technical Students.  (Click here for online acccess to the permanent collection of Reuterdahl's papers at the University of St. Thomas. Curious readers will discover that Reuterdahl invented a world alphabet, was founder of the Inter–Church Theistic Alliance, and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1923 by the College of Fellows of the Academy of Nations –– an honor arguably offset by Reuterdahl's having founded and being Chancellor of the Academy of Nations.)

All this notwithstanding, Reuterdahl may be more remembered for having spent years attacking Albert Einstein's theory of relativity –– in 1921 referring to Einstein as the "Barnum" of science and accusing him of being, if not an outright plagiarist, someone whose theory had been antedated by others.

Henry Ford c.1919 
Library of Congress: Public Domain
But here we are sorry to report that Reuterdahl may have been anti-Semitic in his anti-Einsteinism, in part through association.  That is, Reuterdahl was science editor of Henry Ford's anti–Semitic journal The Dearborn Independent –– yes, that Henry Ford, the industrialist who in the early 1920s published The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem: a four-volume compilation that propagated conspiracy theories linking Jews to Russian Bolshevism and control of numerous sectors of American life: finance and the Federal Reserve; the theater, music, and motion picture industries; the so-called Jewish Liquor Trust, etc.  Ford also funded the publishing of 500,000 copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a repellent 1903 anti-Semitic hoax presented as truth by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Now I was thinking it perhaps unfair to judge Reuterdahl by the company he kept ... until I came across Einstein's sceptics: Who were the relativity deniers?, a 2010 New Scientist article by Milena Wazeck, PhD.  Dr. Wazeck is Associate Research Scholar of Environmental Studies, New York University, and below is an article-excerpt that addresses anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  It specifically cites Reuterdahl:

     For a start, someone's views about whether time could 
     be stretched were not defined by ethnicity, nationality, 
     religion or political convictions.  Einstein's opponents 
     included people who held progressive views, and some 
     who were of Jewish descent.  So it would be simplistic 
     to characterise the fight against relativity theory in the 
     1920s as a one-sided nationalistic or anti-Semitic 
     campaign.  Nevertheless, those who opposed the theory 
     were not above attacking Einstein the person--the 
     democrat, the pacifist, the Jew.  Lenard, for instance, was 
     an early adherent of Nazism and a proponent of the 
     nationalist and anti-Semitic "German physics".  By 1922, 
     he was  already ranting about the Jewish "alien spirit"  
     that he claimed the theory of relativity incorporated.
     Aware of their marginalised position, many of Einstein's
     opponents turned to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
     "Our trouble in America is that all scientific journals are
     closed to the anti-relativists through Jewish influence.
     The daily press is almost entirely under the control of
     the Jews," Reuterdahl wrote in 1923.  From this position,
     it was easy for Einstein's opponents to see themselves as
     victims rather than aggressors.  In their interpretation of
     reality, the mere existence of relativity theory and the
     non-acceptance of arguments against it qualified as an
     attack on them.
 (Vol. 208, Issue 2786, p.51)

Reuterdahl's tie to Henry Ford is sobering, but this last passage makes me aware how much happier I was when I knew less.  Because up to this point Todd and I were, frankly, just playing: we genuinely enjoyed the obsessive abstraction and pseudoscience of the Diagram, and goofing with it.  But now we feel as if we had been absorbed in an intricate rock design, only to find something slimy on the other side.

It may turn out –- if we ever get around to thoroughly reading The God of Science –– that the text is merely wacky, and not malignant.  Still, it doesn't seem so amusing now, and maybe Reuterdahl should have stuck to concrete arches.

At least you'll like the music.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Wilbur of Buenos Aires

My wife and I are in Buenos Aires, where we are fortunate to have friends Polly and Marco as close neighbors –– so close that we punched an opening through our kitchen wall into their garden.

Two days ago Marco told me that their old dog Wilbur –– who died months back and is buried in the garden –– used to piss on the flowers of a certain plant (next to which he is buried).  We wondered about this, the peeing on the flowers versus the stalks of the plants, since as Marco observed dogs usually aim for the uprights.

Impatiens Walleriana

The plant Wilbur watered is named Alegría del Hogar (happiness of the home), and a new plant of that species now flourishes atop his spot.  Alegría carries the botanical title of Impatiens Walleriana:  Native to East Africa it somehow found its way to Buenos Aires.

Wilbur c.1998 on a day trip to Puerto Madero
Native to Buenos Aires, Wilbur was far less traveled, but where he went he went with authority for all his sixteen years –– including our house, which was his house so far as he was concerned.  (At birth, Wilbur was the one male of five puppies:  I'm not sure about this but it's possible that a guy growing up with four sisters might possess a certain confidence, and it is a fact that he was one for the ladies and held no truck with males.)

Wilbur was named after the celebrated pig in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.  He was a Schnauzer who kept things close to the vest while seeming to be a deep thinker, so he took his flower watering motives to his garden grave.  Still it should be noted that the flowers on which he peed never died; nor in some sense did Wilbur, as his presence abides.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Note to visitors:  The music in this post is delivered by Spotify, a service that may not be available in Argentina, ironically since the post is set in Buenos Aires.  For this reason, an identical post (Wilbur of Buenos Aires) –– with a different music-delivery system –– follows this one.

My wife and I are in Buenos Aires, where we are fortunate to have friends Polly and Marco as close neighbors –– so close that we punched an opening through our kitchen wall into their garden.

Two days ago Marco told me that their old dog Wilbur –– who died months back and is buried in the garden –– used to piss on the flowers of a certain plant (next to which he is buried).  We wondered about this, the peeing on the flowers versus the stalks of the plants, since as Marco observed dogs usually aim for the uprights.

Impatiens Walleriana

The plant Wilbur watered is named Alegría del Hogar (happiness of the home), and a new plant of that species now flourishes atop his spot.  Alegría carries the botanical title of Impatiens Walleriana:  Native to East Africa it somehow found its way to Buenos Aires.

Wilbur c.1998 on a day trip to Puerto Madero
Native to Buenos Aires, Wilbur was far less traveled, but where he went he went with authority for all his sixteen years –– including our house, which was his house so far as he was concerned.  (At birth, Wilbur was the one male of five puppies:  I'm not sure about this but it's possible that a guy growing up with four sisters might possess a certain confidence, and it is a fact that he was one for the ladies and held no truck with males.)

Wilbur was named after the celebrated pig in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.  He was a Schnauzer who kept things close to the vest while seeming to be a deep thinker, so he took his flower-watering motives to his garden grave.  Still it should be noted that the flowers on which he peed never died; nor in some sense did Wilbur, as his presence abides.

Monday, November 26, 2012

MixPod Playlists Vanished

This is a message I received yesterday from MixPod, whose service I've been using to supply all the music playlists on this blog:

MixPod Logo

The time has come to shut down We'll have some information on exporting your playlist information soon. In the mean time, check out the app below.

Available in the app store 

That's it ... no explanation, no way to contact them, just puzzlement, frustration, and a link to an app that has nothing to do with what has been taken away.

All of the playlists have vanished from blog posts, leaving them half-dressed.  I'm exploring other playlists (perhaps via Spotify).  While I reconstruct alternate music players, these posts will look incomplete.

My apologies to visitors.