Saturday, January 7, 2017

Just before sunrise

In my very early morning drive to campus along the north edge of the Tennessee River the sun was rising behind me and the low clouds clinging to the tall mirrored downtown buildings looked surreal.  "The Magic Flute" was playing on the radio.   I had a waking dream: I saw my car turned over on a strip of land between the road and the river, wheels still spinning, some wisps of smoke. The radio's sound coming back into focus as the Queen of the Night was singing her great aria.   Sickle moon reflected in the river's very slightly rippling waters. The music soars over the river. Then in the sudden silence after the Queen of the Night makes her plea there is a calm, an immense but ominous peace.  Did this scenario cause or was it caused by my recalling an idea in Thomas Merton's "Confessions of a Guilty Bystander."

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace."  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Power of integrative perception.

Power of integrative perception.  An article about promise & disappointment in genetics (because new discoveries were so limited) by      David Dobbs in Slate (Oct 27,2013). catalyzed thinking about resonating ideas in Art & Organism:  Tiny fragments (or figments) of information of slightly more credibility than whatever preceded them promise huge empires of understanding, building on our love of conspiracy theories.  ("we tell the best story we can with the best evidence we have.") Dobbs was impressed by conversation with a genetics post-doc at Cambridge over a few pints at the Eagle.  His Michelangelo’s David metaphor struck a responsive chord (of course confirmation bias always helps).   He had only seen photographs & felt that while some showed a tentative youthfulness in David others showed a transformative movement … His perceptions differed depending on very slight differences in perspective, like an optical illusion --  And being in the presence of the masterpiece provided yet another perspective:  both realities could be seen at one: “the flickering microsecond in which a youth becomes an adult.”  For me, this resonated deeply with a half-forgotten experience of mine: after years of seeing pictures, and being appropriately impressed and then bored, I went to Galleria dell ‘Accademia in Florence and saw David in reality. I felt I knew Michelangelo's work from dozens of comments and photographs encountered as an art major dutifully including Renaissance history in my studies, but seeing the real thing brought David to life in a twinkling – the various frozen views of “objective” photos came to life: the several perspectives converged in my mind. As I approached it, something new and far better emerged.  ...  Michelangelo’s Prisoners, "works in progress" arrayed on either side of the corridor leading to David were less familiar but conveyed a comparable epiphany as in each Prisoner I saw the artist and his medium as a single holistic entity-- as a process not an object.  I have ever since felt the latent potential in any medium when seen in the right frame of mind.     ref:

Sunday, March 20, 2011


“PARTS and WHOLES evolve in consequence of their relationship, and the relationship itself evolves. These are the properties of things that we call dialectical: that one thing cannot exist without the other, that one acquires its properties from its relation to the other, that the properties of both evolve as a consequence of their interpenetration” (Levins and Lewontin 1985:3).

It is the eloquence with which such bias is expressed that makes it so compelling ... that is, corroborates my belief ... that is, the belief that enables my mind, in its relentless inquiry into self, other, and their boundaries (if any) to enjoy repose and the unique satisfaction of binding together diverse ideas in a unified package. Well, unified? Or at least cinched up with the "thread that runs so true" so that in at least some little corner of the growing global thermodynamic chaos, my personal "maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal" has a thought. That is, my brief seeming local negation of entropy enjoys a unique state for a few seconds (and that's all it takes) that I am one with the truth I seek. That is, I experience a hypergnostic surge of confidence that I am or were or will be. All vanity.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Keenan’s quest, O’Carolan’s companionship

Brain Keenan, a teacher from Belfast working at the American University in Beirut, was abducted by Muslim terrorists in 1986 and released in 1990. As a hostage, Keenan later reported, he felt he was being stripped “of every sense and fibre of body and mind and spirit that [makes one] who we are” (quoted by Richard Hutch in SOUNDINGS, 2001). During the isolation of his incarceration, Keenan imagined he was visited by several people, most particularly Turlough O’Carolan, the legendary, 17th century father of Irish music. He later wrote that “If [O’carolan] hadn’t been in the cell, I might still be locked up. It’s somebody to talk to, it’s somebody to focus your mind on, it’s something to keep yourself sane or insane …” (p122). These seemingly pathological experiences helped Keenan sustain his identity. BUT isn't pathology supposed to compromise or erode one’s competence, not sustain it? While we play with words, Keenan sought to survive, to maintain creative control while enduring brutal incarceration. This spontaneous experiment with the boundaries of reality might resonate with those who undertake a spiritual quest.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

CLUTTER, c'est moi

Life seems stuffed between two great holidays ... entre les fĂȘtes ... the interlude between semesters has been since childhood signified and celebrated by Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, the annual family feast table was cleared, we got to reviewing Christmas stuff to scatter around, mount on the tree ... faded photos of children as infants, crusty old souvenirs, some glistening artsy ornaments, and the family decorates the tree.

And this calls my attention to stuff I've taken for granted: I look around as though in a stranger's house (a touch of jamais vu) ... at stuff on bookshelves, corners, the garage ... these artifacts depend on me! Only I see the connections ... the coherence I see  breathes life into them. Soon enough we --the stuff and I-- will be redistributed according to some apparent law of nature throughout the universe, only a little different than perhaps 50 years ago. Again I think, maybe I can make sense of things this year. If they were in just the right order, I would be in just the right order, and then the universe, and I can rest, untroubled by this impending disintegration.

THIS clutter is my extended phenotype, less a wunderkammern than one of those crabs (Macrocoeloma trispinosum nodipes) that covers itself with living camouflage from its environment: the serendipitously encountered sponge, or coral, or anemone. Each piece of clutter is a little house some vulnerable part of me lives in. To this point I might be a pathological collector, good at rationalizing my place in the spectrum of dysfunction ... not quite fatally retentive or so encrusted that I'm paralyzed ... but a little like that miniscule creature that creates and then becomes part of its own geology ... like corals and foraminifera –the stuff of white cliffs or the Parthenon or Michelangelo’s PietĂ  -- or Ernst Haeckel’s radiolaria (icon for this post).

OK, so maybe they're simply the bricks of a little house that shelters me, at least for a while … or (speaking of dwelling in dreams) each is one of the thousand points of light that collectively constitute an imagined memory … or a dream … and losing any one could unravel the whole ... like a subtle memory loss … loss of self! Is that why I’m so enchanted by some arcane words … “redintegration” --the pulling together of vast collections of memory precipitated by a single key recollection, or “pareidolia” -- a tendency to perceive meaningful patterns in the midst of random or ambiguous stimuli.

OK, I’ll clean up the damn garage, but in my heart am I really making room for new stuff? Is giving stuff away disloyal? Maybe I'm giving the best old stuff more room to breath. Am I thinking about this too much? Is my confidence in my intuitive impulses waning?

But wait! There’s more! (a favorite line from 3AM TV commercials)

“Disorganization” is a formal term for clutter in some circles (seems oxymoronic but I appreciate the power of alternative perspectives here) and there is actually a National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, according to a New York Times article last Nov 3 [link] .

Even better!
Their research director, Catherine Roster, related the relevant fact that “professional organizers frequently urge clients to photograph objects they have trouble letting go of, as an assist to “dispossession.” Aha! We can exchange the image and the object ! I’ve been leaning towards a new camera … this seals the deal.

(I do appreciate the resonance between picking and choosing words for a problematical post and reorganizing the garage)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Gateless Gate

For a few years now I've had the pleasure of following Joel Weishaus' growing digital journal, THE GATELESS GATE, glorifying the complementarity of word and image as he creates a context and the conditions for emergence. Another installment of poetry, science, image, and spirit just arrived (pp 41-50; illustration from p50) ... has this journal grown in grace and poise as it walks the line between chaos and insight ? or is it resonating with previously unknown circuits within me. (the best journals, said Wordsworth, create the taste by which they will be relished). Braque once said that art disturbs while science reassures ... so Joel gives us the (deceptive?) safety of science enabling a greater adventure than we might have otherwise undertaken.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Not Just Beautiful, but Real

Wednesday, January 27, 2010. In the procession of subsequent approximations that give us confidence, New Scientist, a favorite resource for the cutting edge, reported that “E8,” the beautiful symmetry discovered in the late 1800s is more than a pretty theoretical abstraction – it actually represents something in the real world.

As they put it, when a crystal made of cobalt and niobium was chilled to almost absolute zero its atoms arrayed themselves in in long, parallel chains. “Because of a quantum property called spin, electrons attached to the atom chains act like tiny bar magnets, each of which can only point up or down.” Then, a powerful magnetic field was ‘applied perpendicular to the direction of these electron "magnets". Patterns appeared spontaneously in the electron spins in the chains – in a simplified example with three electrons, the spins could read up-up-down or down-up-down, among other possibilities. Each distinct pattern has a different energy associated with it. The ratio of these different energy levels showed that the electron spins were ordering themselves according to mathematical relationships in E8 symmetry.”

The E8 symmetry also shows up in string theory, a beautiful idea awaiting experimental validation,... but the more real-world traits string theory has in common other domains does not hurt its prestige...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Multitasking = Attention Deficit ? Learning Therapy

Okay, so I'm sad today ... I always get sad when I can't do something as well as I expect ... I let go and mindmap to relax ... free associate and come what will ... I stay with it until I learn something ... anything(?) new. I know I'm overextended, I let it happen ... things become disconnected ... brain cells die of loneliness ... so make some new connections, renew even as I disintegrate, evaporate ... I'm crazy for connections:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” -- Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

So stop, center, focus ... I can't center everything, and yet "Centering [is] that act which precedes all others on the potter's wheel. The bringing of the clay into a spinning, unwobbling pivot, which will then be free to take innumerable shapes as potter and clay press against each other. The firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts." --Mary Richards, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person.

Okay, so learn something ... make connections: "The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers by base minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you." --Terence H. White, The Once and Future King

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Art & Organism: POETRY AT WAR

I find the social / political significance of art is as compelling as any more intimate or even uniquely personal significance. Such power is often neglected in thinking about how the experience of art affects our ability to meet our (real or perceived) needs. The mind bending powers of propaganda art and music are better known than poetry ... but then there's Kipling ... and Muhammad Abdille Hassan, known now as then to the Somalis as Sayyid, or "Master" and to the British as "The Mad Mullah."

Every educated Somali, Jeffrey Bartholet writes, knows what happened at Dul Madoba in 1913: “ Some have memorized verses of a classic Somali poem written by the mullah [that prevailed over the British there]. The gruesome ode is addressed to Richard Corfield, a British political officer who commanded troops on this dusty edge of the empire. The mullah instructs Corfield, who was slain in battle, on what he should tell God's helpers on his way to hell. "Say:
'In fury they fell upon us.'/Report how savagely their swords tore you."

“Many Somalis would come to think [the mullah] mad in another sense—that he was touched by God.... “It's impossible to gauge the impact the poem had on the thinking of Somali fighters [then and now]. … In an age before television, the Internet, and streaming video, the mullah used poetry as a propaganda tool, both to gain sympathy and to terrify his foes.

Today poetry is also written and recited by bin Laden and just about every other Qaeda leader with a following. The poems proliferate on jihadi Web sites.” (from his essay, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (Newsweek, Oct 12, 2009;