Friday, July 1, 2016

Cartoons, Art, and Identity

Note to visitors: This post revamps and replaces an earlier 2010 post.
It concerns cartoons, art movements, and identity, and is informed by Im Ex, Impressionism-Expressionism, Art at a Turning Point, a 2015 exhibit at the National Gallery, Berlin –– an exhibit my editors and I did not attend but for which useful proxies exist via review articles in The EconomistArtwis.comThe New York Times.

A central section pairs five sets of thematically similar Impressionist-Expressionist paintings, some pairings drawn from that 2015 National Gallery exhibit, some being my own.  There is also a section that skims art movements in the century and a half prior to Impressionism and Expressionism.  Because it is a gloss, it gives the illusion of linear step-wise development, when in fact these movements overlapped and blended.

All images of paintings are of works in the public domain.  A playlist of French Impressionist music is supplied to accompany your reading and viewing. (See green box.)



Readers, can you guess what these images are?

If you guessed myself and layout editor Todd, you are correct.  We are here not in our usual guises but as abstractions. Copy editor Cyril is noticeably absent, partly because he is not by nature a joiner, partly because he is above this sort of frivolity, mostly because he tends toward conservation of familiar forms, including his own.

What happened here?

Well, Todd had been researching cartoons when he came upon an appealing website, myWebFace.com –– a website with the encouraging, albeit peculiar, instruction to "Turn yourself into a cartoon!”  While this is something we should all think about, Todd, seized with the idea of becoming a cartoon, had no time for thought.  Off he went pell-mell, exploring myWebFace.com and coming upon something called PhotoFx, with an "artistic" option called "Worms.”

Not long after, Todd became an artist and we became abstractions of ourselves.

"Abstraction" is perhaps a vague descriptor for our altered conditions, but it is intentionally neutral.  You see, I initially tried to locate our abstract selves somewhere within two art-world categories, Impressionism and Expressionism, or possibly their offshoots, Post-Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.  But doubting my knowledge of art history, I went googling for websites that might clarify these terms.

Among sources I found, mentalfloss.com offered this pithy distinction:

     If [the art] looks like something recognizable but not too
     detailed, it’s Impressionism.  If it doesn't look like much
     of anything, it's Expressionism.  If it really doesn’t look
     like anything, it's Abstract Expressionism.
     (Editors of Mental Floss, Mental Floss: What's the 
     Difference?, HarperCollins Books, 2008, p. 149)

There's more to it than that, of course, but it's a start.

Both Impressionism and Expressionism were movements associated with the late 19th and early 20th century, Impressionism preceding Expressionism while overlapping it.  Both rendered reality more subjectively than, say, the veridical detail of a still life vase painted in the studio; and by standards of the time, both were off-center and unconventional.

Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854)
Gustave Courbet (French)
Which is to say, both broke from 19th century Realism and its portrayals of "objective" reality –– instead offering visions of reality that reflected the subjectivities of the artists.  But before we define and contrast these movements, here is a gloss of what preceded the Realism they both rejected. (See Gustave Courbet's realism, opposite.)

We'll keep it simple and not enter an infinite regress.  Our aim is to contextualize the world in which they developed.

Briefly, and loosely, the Age of Enlightenment (1700s) begat Romanticism (c. 1800-50), which begat Realism (b. mid-1800s), which begat Impressionism (c. late 1800s), which begat Expressionism
(c. early 1900s).

Venus Induces Helen to Fall
in Love with Paris (1790)
Angelica Kauffman (Austrian)
The Enlightenment era was known for the scientific method, the encyclopedic cataloguing of knowledge, the primacy of reason over dogma.  It was an era that systematized understanding of the natural world via classifications of flora and fauna; also an era fond of Neoclassical art, with its reworking of Classical antiquity's clean lines and sense of order; also an era keenly aware of social inequality and injustice.  It coincided with the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, factory systems, mechanization of agriculture and, in due course, the American and French Revolutions.

It was a pot coming to boil –– within greater society and within the narrower art world.  The pot's contents?  That soot in the air, that class inequality and servitude; also the natural world, with its forms squeezed into taxonomic data, its countryside commodified as a means for production; also those art-renderings of Classical gods –– heroes, nymphs, satyrs –– graven in eternal poses, some cavorting, some suffering, all at odds with the stark realities of the age.  (See Angelica Kauffman's neoclassicist image, above.)

Liberty Leading the People (1830)
Eugène Delacroix (French)
It was time to cause a ruckus, break the mold, let it all out –– a time for revolution, idealization, passion, nationalism, the sublime.
It was time for Romanticism.

Where we'll stay only long enough to glance at these romantic images (opposite) by Eugène Delacroix and Caspar David Friedrich.  And from which we will immediately
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog 
(1818)
Caspar David Friedrich (German)
spring to Realism, which was an artistic correction to the perceived extravagances of Romanticism.

Realism pruned these excesses, stripped the pomp from the hyper-dramatic circumstances of Romanticism.  Naturalistic rather than idealistic, it brought riotous and mystical portrayals of nature down to earth.  It favored the mundane over the heroic, the contemporary over the historic, and it bared the raw details of social conditions.  It almost certainly was influenced by the rise of photography. (Contrast the romanticism of Delacroix and Friedrich with Gustave Courbet's realism.)

The Stone Builders (1849)
Gustave Courbet (French)
Sounds pretty good.  What's wrong with that? you might think.  Well, in depicting reality in concrete, "photographically" recognizable ways, Realism nonetheless rankled a group of artists and prompted the rise of Impressionism which, in its turn, later triggered Expressionism. (Proving that nothing stands still for very long.  Movements beget other movements, the latter being partial identifications with or elaborations on the originals, or maybe disidentifications and rejections, or maybe something else entirely.)

As for Impressionism, it saw Realism as too mannered, too much a studio-product.  A depiction of laborers at an outdoor worksite, for example, might be concretely detailed, yet seem dioramic and staged. Impressionism wanted to inject a kinetic feeling of being there in the lived moment.  The subjects in its images seemed less solid and more blurry, less stationary, more in motion.  Impressionism was less interested in slice-of-life depictions than in the fugitive nature of those slices.

Expressionism felt similarly about Realism, but spurned Impressionism for lacking visceral juice, for being a bit insipid, a bit too pretty.
Expressionism wasn't interested in capturing the optics of fleeting life scenes, but in infusing renderings of those scenes with the emotions evoked by them.  The result: a novel hybrid of external and internal, of beach scene or domestic interior with the feelings aroused in the artist by those settings.  We'll expand on this contrast below, but it's worth noting that both Impressionism and Expressionism saw the natural world in alternative, para-realistic, mind-expanding ways –– far in advance of mid-20th century Abstract Expressionism, or the psychedelia that came after.

Now as just noted, in breaking from Realism, Impressionism and Expressionism broke differently.  Although sharing interests in color, light, movement, and subject matter, they did so antithetically.  For while Impressionism played with surfaces, Expressionism dove beneath them.

Haystacks (sunset) (1890-91)
Claude Monet
Impressionism depicted the effect of light on swirling dancers, flowing water, landscape scenes, cafe life, domestic interiors –– often using pastel colors to heighten that effect. It had an unfocused fuzzy look. With soft, congenial color palettes and gauzy brushstrokes, it's easy on eye and mind.  The play of light on natural settings is prominent, but depicted as if seen through sleepy eyes.  It's dreamy, peaceful, sunny.  The scenes shown are often painted outdoors, en plein air, versus the formalism of academic studio painting.

Impressionist art gave rise to a sonic spin-off, Impressionist music –– which typically had spare instrumentation, a hesitant quality, and emphasis on surface ornamentation more than pronounced melody.  It's easy on the ear, not in a formulaic "easy listening" way but through its suggestion of delicate atmospheres, as though we are bathing in a wispy mood-pool while notes flit about our heads.



Portrait of the Artist's Wife 
with Hat (1909)
August Macke (German)
As touched on above, Expressionism depicted emotion-laden images of the same subject matter dear to Impressionists. Scenes of seashores, landscapes, city life, interiors, these look very different in Expressionist hands. For example, in August Macke's painting of his wife, Elisabeth (opposite), we see –– or better, feel –– the Elisabeth in Macke's mind more than the "real" Elisabeth.

Imagine this: we attend a gallery opening in Berlin, it's the early 1900s, we round a corner and are startled by a bathers-at-the-shore painting.  The image is neither Realistic nor Impressionist but something else.  Color palettes are harder and intenser, brushstrokes more etched.  The image seems dimensionally flatter, as if it weren't even trying to be particularly representative of a natural setting.  It is more dark than sunny, almost garish.  It is punchy, less easy on the eye, more agitating to the mind; it seems to get inside us, we feel a bit hijacked.  (Just such a beach scene will appear shortly.)

Intriguingly, Impressionism and Expressionism sprang from different geographic wellsprings, Impressionism being principally French, Expressionism mostly German and Austrian.  I'm no cultural anthropologist and can't explain this difference, and it would be simplistic to fall back on stereotypes of a Gallic laissez-faire ethos versus Teutonic angst: wine and baguettes versus gloomy Danes.  It isn't hard, though, to find parallels to Expressionism in Sigmund Freud's early 20th century researches in Vienna –– in his probings into what lies beneath the surface, his conviction that more is at play behind the scenes than the scenes we see, his suggestion that it is always recess behind our schooled perceptions of life.

See for yourselves.  To more exactly contrast Impressionist with Expressionist aesthetics, look at the following images.  Five similar scenes are paired –– Impressionistic paintings to the left, Expressionistic ones to the right.

Milking Time (1892)
Walter Frederick Osborne (Irish)
Cows, Yellow-Red-Green (1912)
Franz Marc (German)
 
Bathers at the Shore (1913)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German)
Boys Bathing (1898)
Max Liebermann (German)
 
The Cheval Glass (1876):
Berthe Morisot (French)
Girl Before a Mirror (1915):
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (German)
 
Reading "Le Figaro" (1878)
Mary Cassatt (American)
Girl with Book (1909)
Hermann Max Pechstein (German)
Potsdamer Platz in 1894 (1894)
Hans Herrmann (German)



Potsdamer Platz (1914)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German)
 



Now let's revisit the abstract images of Todd and myself that began this post.  Because just now, I'm thinking our abstractions may reflect neither Impressionism nor Expressionism, but Post-Impressionism.

Post-Impressionism?

Le Chahut (The Can-Can) 
(1889-90)
Georges Seurat (French)
This was an art movement contemporaneous with Impressionism, and also essentially French, but a movement whose images were more structured and solidly "there" in the frame –– less dreamy and romantic than Impressionist ones, less evocative of unconscious currents than Expressionist ones.

Post-Impressionism is hard to define and seemingly an umbrella term for a number of styles, including Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism. But just to take a stab at this, Post-Impressionism seemed to grasp the fugitive movements and light shadings of Impressionism and freeze them in time.  (See "Le Chahut" by Georges Seurat, above.)

Rather than attempt any further definition, I quote this snippet from Wikipedia:

     Post-Impressionists extended Impressionism while rejecting
     its limitations: they continued using vivid colours, often thick
     application of paint, and real-life subject matter, but were
     more inclined to emphasize geometric forms, distort form for
     expressive effect, and use unnatural or arbitrary color.

Breton Women at a Wall (1892)
Émile Bernard (French)
As in Seurat's "Le Chahut" above, and these works by Émile Bernard and Édouard Vuillard.

By Wikipedian measures, might the abstractions of Todd and myself be seen as Post-Impressionist renderings?  Our colors are vivid, our paint thickly applied, our real-life selves geometrically distorted
Girl Wearing an Orange Shawl
(1894-95)
Édouard Vuillard (French)
for expressive effect.  And since Pointillism is considered a Neo-Impressionist subset of Post-Impressionism, might not Wormism be as well?

Maybe, but at this point a problem emerges.

We may like our Impressionisms straight or Post-, or instead prefer Expressionism, or perhaps like them all, but art in these styles should still look like something we've seen before, should be a riff on reality. Bathers at the shore, cows in a meadow, street scenes –– these should resemble, however abstractly, bathers, cows, and street scenes.

And this raises the question, are the abstractions of Todd and myself figurative?  Do they more or less resemble us?

I confess the answer is probably no.  Our geometric distortions seem too buckled, too deformed; I fear we've crossed over into another art-classification, one I'd hoped to avoid.  I didn't see it at first because I work closely with Todd and know him.  I look at his image and am reminded of his real self within the wormy abstraction –– recognizing that what appears to be a ball of brown yarn is, in fact, Todd.  And vice versa.  Todd knows me, has an inner Kit-template, can translate wavy lines into a dogiform image.

But for the rest of you, many may find nothing here but squiggles, not Impressionistic squiggles, not Post–Impressionistic ones, not even Expressionistic ones, but Abstract Expressionist ones.

There, I've said it, "Abstract Expressionist," the adjective I'd hoped to avoid.  What can it mean?

Woman V (1952-53)
Willem de Kooning (Dutch-American)
Abstract Expressionism was a post-World War II movement with a strong New York presence.  It encompassed many styles but in general was a mix of abstract, non-representational, and surreal styles –– resulting in a kind of hopped up German Expressionism with emotional intensity, deep subjectivity, and pronounced, sometimes splashy spontaneity. Figurative elements, if any, were nearly unrecognizable.  (The De Kooning image, opposite, is more figurative than most.)

And Readers, even were you to co-edit this blog with Todd and myself, work alongside us and know us well, there's no guarantee you'd see our abstractions as Impressionistic or Expressionistic.  For all your knowledge, we might remain as Abstract Expressionist squiggles.

Because perception is idiosyncratic.  Take cases where universally we share knowledge of the same thing –– the outline of a human face, say, arguably the first image any of us has.  It still doesn't follow that we will all see a man's or woman's face in the canvas of a full moon.  Some will, but many will see a scattering of blotches.

So, Readers, you'll likely classify our abstractions quite variously.  As forms of Impressionism or Expressionism should we seem figuratively rendered to you, as Abstract Expressionism should we impress as visual gibberish.



Kit in Green Field (2016)
Todd LeGrand 
(Pleistocene-American)
Recall that Todd originally transformed our photos using a cartoon website. Yet our abstract images are decidedly not cartoons, not as we ordinarily encounter them.  This is obvious and requires no discussion.  And in any event, it must be true that Todd and I are not cartoony because were that not the case ... well, this entire post would be only a sad attempt to gussy ourselves up into fine art.

Interestingly, the original meaning of cartoon was specific to the world of art.  Prior to the 19th century, a cartoon was an initial drawing by an artist, a preliminary design that prefigured the final painting, fresco, tapestry, or stained glass.  An artist had an idea and made a drawing of that idea, which drawing was seminal, primary, full of potential detailings.

The term itself derives from charta (Latin: paper, writing) and is part of a family of paper-related words (card, cartography, cartouche, carton, cartridge, chart).

The modern cartoon isn't a prefiguring at all, it's the finished product, a whittled, stripped down graphic; also an instrumental one, guiding our attention down given paths, usually for humorous or satiric ends.  By isolating and highlighting parts of someone or something, it telegraphs a message, often using set props and text as adjuncts.  Donald Trump's hair, Huge Hands, the American Flag, the word "Great," these are distilled conduits.

True, a cartoon of any vintage is inherently sketch-like, not overly filled in, but that is its only similarity across history.

Anyway ... uh, hmm, that's it, I guess.  An abrupt ending here, nothing else comes to mind.  At the outset of this post, I had imagined these musings on art might arrive at a Point.  Still, I needn’t feel so bad.  I am an abstraction of my former self, after all.

Self-Portrait (2016)
Todd LeGrand
(Pleistocene-American)
Plus, aside from being abstracted I became distracted along the way by Art History learnings, wisdom I will happily share with my layout editor when he returns from wherever he's gone to.  For it appears that Todd has left the premises.  Besotted with a burgeoning artist within, he slipped off some time back to go shopping for a beret.  He left a note to that effect, adding that he has changed his name to something more fitting, and casually dropping that his provenance dates to the Dawn of Art –– to a time when his European-mammoth cousins were posing in the Lascaux caves in southwestern France.

Self-Portrait (2016)
Cyril LePrécis
(Franco-American,
née Anglo-American)
I think I see him returning now.  Wait, too small to be Todd.  Looks familiar, though.  No, it can't be ... why it's Cyril!  With uncharacteristic abandon, he has transformed into an abstraction.

Turns out he's the most Impressionist of us all.



Monday, April 11, 2016

Mr. Dog, St. Crispin's Day, and How I Found My Qiviut Scarf

Note to visitors:  This post describes the search for a misplaced object. I cite a passage from Mr. Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself, by Margaret Wise Brown –– renowned for her classic children's book, Goodnight Moon.  Mr. Dog features cozy, striking illustrations by Garth Williams, and our layout editor, Todd, has scanned in two of them. Meanwhile, copy editor, Cyril, wishes to assure Random House, Inc. that our use of quotation and illustrations complies with fair-use doctrine.

Three songs are included: "Am I Losing You," Coco Montoya (1995); "Missing You," Pine Hill Project (2015); "You Don't Know What You've Got," Ral Donner (1961).




Musk Ox
The return of winter this April week, a bit anyway, and I am looking for a scarf my wife knitted me years ago.  The scarf is made of qiviut, the soft, warm wool which comes from the densely fibred undercoat of the musk ox. ("Qiviut," or "qiviuq," is an Inuktitut word, and musk ox live mostly in Arctic Canada and Greenland.)

Looking first in the front closet, on the upper shelf, in the plastic basket that holds my hats and scarves, I can't find the scarf.  Over the years I've accumulated hats and scarves so I look carefully, but I'm not seeing it.

Qiviut Wool
I know it's somewhere.  I begin looking through my wife's plastic basket of hats and scarves, which sits next to mine on the upper shelf.  I don't find it there either, not that I expect to given the surety of our boundaries. Her Basket, My Basket, that sort of thing: good fences do, in fact, make good neighbors.

I widen my search to other parts of the house.  In a room I optimistically think of as my study, I notice my favorite childhood book, Mr. Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself, by Margaret Wise Brown.  Mr. Dog –– full name, Crispin's Crispian –– would have known exactly where his scarf was, because he lived an orderly life with each thing in its place:

        Crispin's Crispian was a conservative.  He liked
     everything at the right time ––
        dinner at dinner time,
        lunch at lunchtime,
        breakfast in time for breakfast,
        and sunrise at sunrise,
        and sunset at sunset.
        And at bedtime ––
     At bedtime, he liked everything in its own place ––
        the cup in the saucer,
        the chair under the table,
        the stars in the heavens,
        the moon in the sky,
        and himself in his own little bed.

(Margaret Wise Brown, Mr. Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself, a Little Golden Book [1952], unnumbered page)

Mr. Dog in the morning
Mr. Dog would not have mislaid his scarf in the first place, but had he done so he'd have had a plan for its recovery.  Mind you, looking at his morning mien –– sleepy, disheveled –– we understand his need for orderly habits so as to pull himself together for the day.

But hold on, is Mr. Dog really a "conservative"?  Say it isn't so, Margaret Wise Brown.  I do cherish Mr. Dog, but "conservative" is an identifier I recoil from, even while I understand the need for order, routines, schedules, laws, the general preservation of what works to meet the day and live among others –– like sensible shoes, coherent sentences, not fondling supermarket fruits.

Returning from the butcher shop
After all, aside from childhood, weekends, holidays, downtimes, retirement, most of us must maintain a public face, must package ourselves each day to fit our world.  We ought not drift away in reverie when we're supposed to be paying attention.

Mr. Dog himself, when engaged in a task, is not half-conscious, nor wearing robe and slippers.  He dresses for the occasion.  True, his attire is spare but it suits his setting –– when in the kitchen, an apron; when out and about, a straw hat, red bow tie, and accessory pipe.

Thinking on this, I see how Margaret Wise Brown's definition of "conservative" makes sense and is one I can live with, indeed must live with if I am to successfully trim my mustache or go through airport security.  This is not the imbecilic conservatism of the 2016 Republican presidential follies.  It's more that sometimes we need to attend to our surround and to certain boundaries, whereas other times we can sink into that surround and shade boundaries.  Sometimes we focus so as to steer the ship, other times we drift away in our bunks.  How tightly packaged versus dreamy-associative we are depends very much on context and societal cues.

(See Nightscapes 1, an essay on how we see things and express ourselves –– an essay organized around Gregory Bateson's dialectic of rigor/imagination and its guises: conservative/liberal, rigid/elastic, literal/figurative, technical/aesthetic, logical/emotional, letter/spirit, orthodox/unorthodox, prosaic/poetic, adult/childlike, consensus reality/subjective reality, etc.  Too rigid an orientation yields the party line; say, the peremptory rejection by Congress of Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee.  Too elastic an orientation yields a lack of core structure, witness Donald Trump's Gumby-like policy shifts. Ideally, we enjoy the flexibility of "binocular vision."  We blend familiar, codified ways of seeing –– our default settings –– with a receptivity to novel alternatives.)

   Am I Losing You: Coco Montoya

How might Crispin's Crispian manage retrieval of a vagrant scarf?  He'd conduct an orderly, observant search –– a "conservative" one –– more focused than willy-nilly.  And while I think I am doing that now, there is something I'm missing.  My orientation is off, it was probably off when first I misplaced the scarf.  Perhaps I was too casual when last putting it away –– on automatic pilot, like Crispin's Crispian in the morning.  No wonder I can't find it now, I wasn't paying attention to begin with.

Readers, before we resolve this suspense, I've a worthwhile historical digression.

Crispin's Crispian, an interesting name, isn't it?  It evokes Saint Crispin's Day, especially the Shakespearian reference to that day in Henry V –– when on Friday, October 25, 1415, the real Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt.  In Shakespeare's telling, "King Harry" gives a stirring speech before the battle, ending with:
     
     This story shall the good man teach his son,
     And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
     From this day to the ending of the world
     But we in it shall be remember'd,
     We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
     For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
     Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
     This day shall gentle his condition.
     And gentlemen in England now abed
     Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
     And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
     That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

     (Henry V: Act 4, Scene 3, ll. 56 - 67 [c. 1599], in William 
     Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Oxford University Press, 1991)

The speech is famous, and anchored in history:
  • There is a St. Crispin's Day, which honors Saints Crispin and Crispinian, brothers who were martyred in the third century.  Cobblers, possibly twins, they became after martyrdom the patron saints of shoe-makers and leather workers.  
  • There was a Battle of Agincourt, a pivotal battle midway during the Hundred Years War between England and France, and apparently won through successful use of the longbow by Anglo-Welsh archers.
  • King Henry V did give a pre-battle speech, which Shakespeare fictionally rendered and ennobled to great effect.  
What Margaret Wise Brown intended by giving Mr. Dog a name so redolent with history, we can't say.  Still, we can surmise one thing: Saints Crispin and Crispinian, Shakespeare's King Harry, Crispin's Crispian, all share qualities of faith, commitment and competence. Purposeful figures, they know they have jobs to do and procedures to follow, and they know that –– like Odysseus ––they must work past distractions, stay the course, reach Ithaca.

   Missing You: Pine Hill Project

With this in mind, and in this spirit, I redouble efforts to locate the scarf.  And I do this by retracing my steps afresh –– as if I were not retracing but actually taking first steps into an unknown land, exploring these rooms and closets for the first time, a stranger in my own home. My approach is binocular, a Batesonian blend of systematic and imaginative, traditional and novel.

And guess what?  I found it!

It was in the front closet, on the upper shelf, in the plastic basket where I keep my hats and scarves, the one next to my wife's basket of hats and scarves.



   You Don't Know What You've Got:
   Ral Donner

It was there all the time, of course. House fairies didn't hide the scarf and then return it.  I didn't even misplace it, I just didn't see it.  The good news, aside from my scarf's reappearance, is a feeling of achievement.  I reached my Ithaca, and did so without being martyred, or going to war with France, or living in a storybook with Mr. Dog –– although this last eventuality has its charms.

The better news is that I reconnected with more than a scarf.  It is a truism, but there is nothing like loss of something dear to spark awareness of its history and meaning.  "You don't know what you've got until you lose it," sang Ral Donner in 1961.  For the brief time in which I couldn't find my qiviut, I appreciated it keenly, thought of its nature, valued its wifely origin.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Lost Annals of Psychoanalysis: The Case of Flopsy B.

Note to visitors: This posting comes after a two-year lapse, the reasons for that being less important than the fact that my editors and I are back to writing.  As regards this post, we had some difficulty locating primary source material, and I apologize in advance for any fuzzy theorizing. Two songs are used: "I've Got To Sleep With One Eye Open," Lurrie Bell & Mississippi Heat (2005) –– Inetta Visor, vocals –– which appears in an appropriate paragraph; "Dixie Chicken," Little Feat (1973), which closes the post.



I have no idea where the eggs come from, and I have no idea why I feel 
a compulsion to hide them.


This is a rare, possibly only photograph of Sigmund Freud at work in his office.  Dr. Freud is sitting with his patient, Flopsy B., who is narrating a dream –– a dream whose manifest content is a single image: a profusion of colorful eggs.  In Flopsy B.'s telling, the eggs are slowly swirling, like windblown snowflakes or the moving colors in a teleidoscope.  Curiously, the eggs are distinct and indistinct at the same time –– and Flopsy B. has an uncanny sense that they are both arresting yet repulsive.  She feels a strong urge to avert her eyes, even hide the eggs.

Teleidoscopic analogue of
dream-eggs
 
How do I know this?

Well it turns out I've actually read this case –– which admittedly is little known, appearing but once in an unpublished monograph by Freud's biographer, Ernest Jones.

In Flopsy B.’s narration, her compulsion to hide the eggs seems, on the surface, a reasonable course of action given that Flopsy B. is a bunny, not a chicken.  She has no species-specific capacity to lay eggs, and professes no interest whatsoever in eggs.  So it makes sense that she would be ambivalent about the riot of eggs in her dream –– viewing them as interesting, yes, but fundamentally a not-me phenomenon, something with which she disidentifies, something to be put out of sight.

Accordingly, her comment –– “I have no idea where the eggs come from, and I have no idea why I feel a compulsion to hide them” –– represents a secondary revision in which the illogical and puzzling is given a certain, albeit vague, coherence.  In this way, Flopsy B.'s pulsing dream-signal is downplayed, vitiated, and ultimately dismissed as a random, silly image.  After all, not every dream signifies.

Dr. Freud, however, views her comment as likely a defensive construction, comprising denial and reaction formation.  The lady protests too much.  Her statement obscures what Dr. Freud thinks may be her true desire, which is to gladly bear and lay eggs in the manner of a chicken, and to celebrate that fact through the swirling bounty of eggs and their colorful nature.  Behind her wish to disclaim is a covert claim.  Behind her difficulty seeing is an urge to look.

At this point in Flopsy B.'s treatment, Dr. Freud has not yet made this "chicken" interpretation; he remains thoughtful, silently formulating his hypothesis.  What, he wonders to himself, might bearing and laying eggs like a chicken mean?  What exactly is Flopsy B. disclaiming? or secretly claiming?

Dr. Freud then has an association to what his colleague Sandor Ferenczi calls the feminine principle –– the relatively passive urge to bear, contain, suffer with, and support –– this principle, standing in contrast to the more active pleasure principle, which emphasizes tension-reduction.  Where the pleasure principle (itself, a Freudian concept) concerns discharge of libidinal and aggressive tensions in socially acceptable ways, the feminine principle concerns modes of containing those tensions.

Fortified by this Ferenczian association, Dr. Freud eventually offers his interpretation to Flopsy B.  He tells her that, all protests to the contrary, she may in fact desire to bear and lay eggs like a chicken.  What comes to mind about that? he wonders aloud.

Huh?  That's it? you may be thinking.  This interpretation doesn't seem to add much to what we already suspect, that deep down Flopsy B. probably does know where those eggs come from, and probably does have a keen curiosity to look at what they may connote.

But here is what is significant about Dr. Freud's interpretation; it is not meant to answer a puzzlement but to tickle something not yet evident, to tacitly give permission for a shut door to open.  And Flopsy B. does respond straight away to this interpretation by hunkering down with her dream image.  Over the course of this and subsequent sessions, and via associations, stray thoughts, memories, further dreams, she gradually carries to term a single compelling awareness.

   I've Got To Sleep With One Eye Open:
   Mississippi Heat (Inetta Visor, vocal)

Which is this: the sexual union employed by roosters and hens involves a surprisingly brief coupling (about 5 to 15 seconds)*, in contrast to the actual coital relations which Flopsy B. continually experiences –– in her words, "unremittingly" –– with Peter R., her hare-brained and libidinous partner, a mate who is, disturbingly, also her brother.  She comes to realize that the swirling, colorful eggs do indeed represent a libidinal investment, but not in the standard way.  Her interests lie not in sexual fireworks and tension-release but in what comes after: the egg-bearing, the brooding.  *(An unexpected aspect of rooster-hen coitus is that for all that plumage, posturing, and prefatory strutting, the foreplay tends to dwarf the play.)

At bottom, Flopsy B. is beset by unconscious conflicts around two related aspects of procreation: 1. performing her role-bound duty to ceaselessly breed, versus her aversion to the quantity, instrumental nature, and incestuousness of coital experiences with Herr R.; 2. on-call sexual availability versus quiescent needs to bear, sit with, and care for her eggs.

Let us return to Sandor Ferenczi, a Hungarian analyst and close associate of Sigmund Freud.  Freud and Ferenczi did not always agree and their relationship grew strained over time.  Whereas the Freudian story privileged learning to discharge tensions and be appropriately frisky, competitive, and ambitious within a patriarchal social order, the Ferenzcian story privileged the containing and salving of tensions within a maternal orbit.  The feminine principle was Ferenczi's corollary to Freud's death drive: it posited that suffering and tolerance of unpleasure need not be expressions of a death drive toward an originary inorganic state, but a separate and inherent drive-like component of humans.  (For Freud, the death drive solved a theoretical problem: why people compulsively repeat unpleasant experiences, in fact or in mind, as seen in war-trauma victims, self-destructive behavior, certain instances of children's play, and masochism.  For Ferenczi, occasions of willingly bearing suffering could exist apart from, and not be reducible to, the death-drive.)

Aside from theoretical disagreements, the two men's treatment methods increasingly diverged as well.  The Freudian patient had a bulging inner life, and the therapist alleviated that pressure by staying out of the way as a real person, being instead a neutral, dispassionate figure who worked to decode fantasies and behaviors, and thus facilitate understanding.  It was all done in words.  The Ferenczian patient may also have had a bulging inner life, but it was a turmoil caused by real hurts at the hands of real parents.  The Ferenczian patient suffered not from fantasized horrors and seductions but from real ones.  The Ferenczian treatment was more here and now than there and then, with the therapist acting in demonstrative and self-revealing ways.  It was done in actions as well as words; shared and reparative relational experience outweighed interpretation and understanding.

Ironically, The Case of Flopsy B. reveals a typical Freudian interpretation (spare, neutral, "abstinent") triggering a Ferenczian response.  Make no mistake, this was a Freudian treatment –– it is unlikely, say, that Dr. Freud ever so much as shook Flopsy B.'s paw.
Again, everything in words.  But the material uncovered in the treatment was Ferenczian.  For it was Flopsy B.'s true desire to be not a boisterous bunny but a "holding" hen.  Although born a bunny, her true desire was to brood, and her deepest identifications were with another species.

Her solution? –– to, in unconscious fantasy, metamorphose from bunny to bird, a species which she associates with taking it easy, sitting around the nest all day, brooding comfortably, and communing with other hens.  In Flopsy B.’s era, such yearnings would have violated the deeply patriarchal mores of the time, mores that defined and enforced female roles to such a degree that even incest was downplayed.  If in 2016, it is commonplace for Flopsy B. to have a room of her own, a peer group of her choosing, a right to her bodily functions, it was not so a century back.

At the conclusion of Ernest Jones’ monograph he makes a penetrating observation.  He notes, almost offhandedly, that Sigmund Freud’s brief "chicken" interpretation –– a kind of quickie –– nonetheless fertilizes Flopsy B.’s insight-ova in a manner analogous to rooster-hen coitus, oviparous fertilization, and its broody aftermath (typically 21 days).  An awful lot is generated by a little bit.

Moreover, Jones continues, the treatment as a whole (the couch, the tranquil ambience, the unobtrusive analyst, the permission to freely associate) replicates a form of, and setting for, a social intercourse more enjoyable to Flopsy B. than a more interpretation-laden treatment would have provided  –– the type whereby an "expert" doctor delves into a "naive" patient's dream material, then translates it into conventional reformulations (eg., "What you are really telling me, in your reluctance to think about your eggs, is that you are in fact reluctant to explore pregnancy").

This is perhaps a credit to Dr. Freud himself more than to any specific treatment type, because in lesser hands Freudian treatment can devolve into just such an interpretation-laden examination of the patient, or alternatively, one in which the patient experiences the analyst as too remote.  Worth adding is that similar caveats would apply also to a Ferenczian treatment –– because in the wrong hands, the result is not reparation but a mushy attempt to replace early-life deficits with a present-time substitution.  Too much action, not enough understanding.

In The Case of Flopsy B., the treatment is productive.  Dr. Freud mostly keeps his distance, doesn't inject too much of himself into Flopsy B.'s gestation process, doesn't have his way with her.  The interactional edges between Flopsy B. and Dr. Freud are softened: he, sitting to the side; she, easing into a couch versus sitting face-forward on a therapeutic witness stand.  It is an atmosphere suitable for daydreaming about a nightdream.  And Flopsy B. appears to have been quickened by both the office milieu and by Dr. Freud's psychoanalytic stance, one more cock-like than leporine.  She can sink into this milieu, muse, and brood.



   Dixie Chicken:
   Little Feat

Readers, would that I could provide you an exact reference to the Ernest Jones monograph drawn upon so heavily in this post.  I saw it only once, buried in a Jones archive that
I found online and downloaded as a PDF file.  Unfortunately, and inexplicably, I can now locate neither that PDF file nor its originating website (which I should have bookmarked, but did not).  This is doubly troubling because the Jones monograph documents the only historical instance of cross-species psychoanalysis.

It seems the only surviving remnant of The Case of Flopsy B. is that photograph of Freud and Flopsy B. in his office.  And even that looks snowy.



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 dialectic seem appealing as root canal, readers are urged nonetheless to soldier on.  Songs, images, poems are used throughout.  The song-selections are, in order of appearance, "Everything Familiar," by Meg Hutchinson (2004); "Puff, the Magic Dragon," by Peter, Paul and Mary (1963); "Autumn Nocturne," by Lou Donaldson (1958).

The post owes much to two thinkers: Gregory Bateson, a polymath who used perspectives from ecology, psychiatry, cybernetics, epistemology, anthropology (his first marriage was to Margaret Mead); and 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: pixdaus.com
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 are cued by 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).

   Everything Familiar:
   Meg Hutchinson

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
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 buzz 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.

   Puff, the Magic Dragon:
   Peter, Paul, and Mary

When a toy soldier becomes a "thing" with a "place," it ceases to be an imagination-vessel and dies a little.  Worse, it is not only movements of a toy soldier that are limited, the world of imagination has itself 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.

   Autumn Nocturne:
   Lou Donaldson

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
     Year)

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 his autumn years.  His perception is relaxed, reflective, and his clear autumnal day 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.  But let’s focus 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.  His 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, freedom, the narrator escaping his ordinary self to become 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, simultaneously outside “The Brooklyn Museum of Art” as readers, yet inside that poem’s landscape.  We too do a disappearing act, joining the narrator as he leads us out of 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 arresting, so visual and dramatic that it enfolds us 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 his compositional technique: 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 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 that 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.)