Sunday, February 2, 2014


Note to visitors: This post describes a perceptual dialectic which goes 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, and poems are used throughout.  The song-selections are "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 this 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 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.

     (from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens [1954], p. 168)

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 one 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 our 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
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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 Times Square wall.

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.


Elizabeth said...

This post was a little beyond the intellectual capacity of both Elizabeth and Buster. However, I did like the poem by David Ignatow who once came to give a talk to my poetry group at SUNY Stony Brook circa 1989.
I also admired the bear pants - my husband has similar for slopping around in when he does not have to be seen in public. All best wishes.

Unknown said...

Bear pants are fine, don't you know, but how many people have penguin pants, which constitute sartorial perfection.

Kit said...

Thank you Elizabeth and Douglas for your comments. As it turns out I no longer have my (polar) bear pants, but I’ve a fine pair of dog pants that show black labs in silhouette, as well as chocolate labs wearing red bandanas and looking pensive, all in a field of blue-grey similar in hue to the background color of this blog.

Suzanne mcb said...

Looking forward to part two. As a recent retiree, trying to get used to more night than day (which is not in my nature...I thrive on routines). I'm finding your post most fascinating. Thank you!

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