Monday, January 30, 2006

Personal Conversation

E. leaves everything behind to pursue her passion. She has left a formidable career behind to pursue a rigorous craft, in Japan, to devote herself to the perfection found in the minute. She has met someone whom she considers a fellow soul. She has surprised us all and yet, upon reflection, it is not so surprising at all.

E: I have left everything behind. Here is my new life. I am not coming back.

A: You are inspiring.

E: I must say, I gained a lot of strength from literatures and other peoples' experience on this move. I feel that a match in spirit is more important than a well-served mundane life. Everyone around me had awakened in some way. And I think we are fortunate that we are not in a more conservative society.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Goblin Market

Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
"Lie close," Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
"We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
"Come buy," call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
"Oh," cried Lizzie, "Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men."

-Christina Rosetti, The Goblin Market, 1862

Friday, January 27, 2006

San Francisco in Jell-O Liz Hickok: "My project...

San Francisco in Jell-O

Liz Hickok: "My project consists of photographs and video, which depict various San Francisco landscapes. I make the landscapes by constructing scale models of the architectural elements which I use to make molds. I then cast the buildings in Jell-O."

I had gone to the San Francisco ASW party at the St. Regis at the invitation of A. The people are everything the press makes them out to be - so much so that they are a parody of themselves. This small cocktail party was hosted by a man whose title was "Prince", of some mumbled principality. He waves his fingers and cocktails appear in our hands. I wander off just as A. is chatting with the Prince about a recent sailing trip of hers in the Antilles.

Just outside, as I am walking by the SFMOMA, a homeless woman approaches me and asks for money. I reach into my pocket and hand her a couple dimes.
She looks reproachfully at me. "Thats not enough!" she says.
"How much is enough?" I ask her.
"More! More!" she yells as I walk away.

The eccentrically lit gardens of Yerba Buena lead right up to the urban mall that is the Sony Metreon. The gardens have always struck me as a poor representation of their kind, less a garden than a wild intrusion on concrete, a waterfall that brings to mind the sorry weeds that emerge through concrete fractures. The conjunctions here of buildings and space, of grass and stark walls combine to form an urban composition that is not so much aesthetic as aleatoric.

I follow the lights and walk up towards Market, through crowds of young Asian partygoers, of Scandinavian tourists. I am not walking towards anything. I am walking along, allowing the current of lights and people to guide me across streets and around corners.

Predictably, I end up at The House of Shields and check to see if Schlomo is around tonight - to say hi, to talk about our shared love of The Frog. A band is playing madly in the corner. I order my usual, a Perfect Manhattan, and sip it slowly. The Jazz is passably good, but also makes me long to run home and immerse myself in an old standard. In that way that a hint of beauty - the sniff of a lover on forgotten clothing - makes you ache for the whole thing. Perhaps Sonny Rollins' "Kiss and Run."

I meander back to my obligations, back to the strange, new, and overly stiff St. Regis (an attendant in the bathroom hands me a cloth napkin) sliding through the crowd, looking for my friends. I can see A. greeting a woman and exchanging kisses on the cheek. F. is off in another corner, waving his hands in the midst of some explanation.

I am the only one in the crowd who is not holding a drink. A waitress notices this and walks over. "Would you like another?"

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The I is not dreaming As I am falling asleep, I c...

The I is not dreaming

As I am falling asleep, I can feel my consciousness dissolving. The thoughts of the moment - pondered memories, considered ideas - start to fade in clarity. I can feel myself trying to shape them back, give them form, but its useless. Soon, the memories of only five seconds ago have dissappered. Fighting against sleep is protesting against a suffocating current.

I've always thought that dreams are inventions that we create at the moment of waking, and not before. We, the "we" that thinks and ponders, does not exist at the moment of dreaming. A sleeper, with her eyes shaking wildly is not dreaming at that moment. The remembered dream comes later, as we are waking, as our consciousness is being assembled, and as this flood of nonsense from the play of the nighttime brain comes flooding in. The conscious brain assembles all of it into a story and shoves it into the past to try to convince itself (as it is so good at doing) that it has always existed.

The neuroscientist Giulio Tononi has been exploring a theory which fits in well with this. Here is an excerpt from an article which discusses his work:

Consciousness, his theory holds, emerges when a system integrates information, such as when the different parts of the brain talk to each other. As sleep sets in, those parts stop talking among themselves, thereby dissolving the state of consciousness that emerged from that communication network.

Scientists used to think that consciousness vanishes during non-dreaming sleep because the brain rests and stops working. Researchers showed that was wrong when they discovered that during slumber the brain is still electrically and chemically as active as during wakefulness.

Consciousness fades away not because the brain takes a nap, Tononi speculated, but because its different parts stop communicating. To test his prediction, he and his colleagues performed an ingenious experiment: When they electrically stimulated an area of the awake brain, that part quickly sent out conference calls to many other parts. But in the sleeping, non-dreaming brain, stimulation produced no conference calls. The area of the brain that was dialed up by the small jolt of electricity sat on the message.

"It fit exactly the key prediction of the information-integration theory," Tononi says. "The effect was very clear-cut."

Consciousness, then, the "I", is not something which sits, like a ruling tyrant, at some central place in the brain, dispensing orders. It does not sit anywhere at all. In the network of communication inside the brain's different parts, we are the network itself. When the network shuts down, as it does during sleep, we cease to exist. just as Yourcenar's Hadrian observes.

The idea of consciousness as an abstraction, as the network itself, is something I first encountered in Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. There, the conscious brain is presented as something much greater than the sum of its parts and Hofstatder illustrates this by an anteater whose best friend is an ant hill - not ants, he eats them of course, but the ant hill itself who as a larger entity sometimes even allows the anteater to have some of its ants.

Hofstadter also conjectures that the Mind is a consequence of introducing recursion in the universe. Imagine this: Minds have always tried to understand and make sense of the outside world. But what happens when a Mind tries to think about how Mind itself works? We may have crossed this threshold when we developed the survival ability to model the minds of others ("What are the intentions of my enemy? What would I do in his place?") and then took the drastic turn of looking back into ourselves. The result perhaps was consciousness. Arguably we went too far and became so enraptured with this new ability and tried to assign human motives to everything - The rain has been so strong and persistent that He who controls the rain does not regard me well.

Finally, there is Julian Jaynes and his radical theory of consciousness: The development of consciousness took place in historical times. The men in Homer's Illiad, for example, were pre-conscious beings. And the voices of the Gods were the voices in their own brains. We call it having a conversation with ourselves but for them this experience of internal voices was new - the early stirrings of the communications network, of the Mind.

If so, we should be reading Hesiod's Theogony as a neurology textbook.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Memoirs of Hadrian

Like Claudia, I find Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian to be irresistibly quotable. I am reading it much more slowly than other books, going forwards then backward to re-read entire pages or passages. Hadrian is writing long letters to the young Marcus Aurelius, conveying both his own intimate amazement of the world and also a wisdom arrived at by tireless observation.


Of all our games, love's play is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body's ecstasy.


What also reassures is that sleep heals us of fatigue, but heals us by the most radical of means in arranging that we cease temporarily to exist.

And, the search for truth:

Like everyone else I have at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of self, which is the most difficult and most dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide their secrets from us ... and books, with the particular errors of perspective to which they inevitable give rise.

Historians propose to us systems too perfect for explaining the past, with sequence of cause and effect much too clear and exact to have been every entirely true; they rearrange what is dead.

When all the involved calculations prove false, and the philosphers themselves have nothing more to tell us, it is excusable to turn to the random twitter of birds, or toward the distant mechanism of the stars.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Gnostics, the ultimate pessimist 1. I had picked ...

By all evidence, we are in the world to do nothing

1. I had picked up LaCarriere's book on the Gnostics based on a brief glance inside. Expecting a historical treatment, I was suprised to find that Lacarriere was more interested in exploring the feelings of Gnosis, of a deeper worldview (still relevant) about approaches to the world as puzzle. Much different than say, the treatments from scholars such as Elaine Pagels.

2. I had started reading Pagels because she was the wife of the physicist Heinz Pagels whose book The Cosmic Code presented an elegant, informed, deeply poetic view of the quantum universe. Heinz Pagels died in a hiking accident and, afterwards, Elaine Pagels' Gnostic treatments became more spiritual, more comtemplative - she became closer to what she was writing. But, I digress

3. I also picked up Lacarriere because it contained a Foreword by Lawrence Durrell. Careful readers of this oft-neglected weblog will know the significance of that. If not, I offer this:

"She turned her sullen mouth now to the discussion of meaningless matters with Count Banubula, who bowed and swung as gallantly as Scobie's green parrot ducking on its perch."
- from Balthazar by Lawrence Durell

Balthazar, the title character of this particular volume, is a Gnostic teacher living in Alexandria. Durell often describes him as goat-like. Hints of the teachings of Balthazar can be found throughout the Durell novels. Justine, one of his disciples, attempts to wield the aphorisms she has heard, like a shaky sword, in an attempt to unravel the tangles of her romantic life and of her own self-inflicted pain.

4. In the foreword, Durell, surprisingly, dismisses LaCarriere:

"All that we need to know about the author is that he is a wanderer and a poet; he is neither a scholar nor a journalist."

and a passage from LaCarriere will provide a better flavor for this book and reveal Durell's opinion as justified:

"To know our true condition, to realize that we are condemned to live under a fantastic mass of darkness, beneath oceans and successive circles; to know that man atrophied and infirm, vegetates in submarine lairs like the proteus, that blind eel-like creature that lives in subterranean waters, naked and white (or rather albino, since white is still a color after all)... to know this is the first step in Gnostic thought"

5. With phrases such as "To look at the human eye is to grasp the patterns of the entire Universe" perhaps LaCarriere missed a career as an aphorist. His book is populated, though, with quotes from two other authors he clearly admires: Marguerite Yourcenar and Emile Cioran

Cioran is what I call the pessimist's pessimist or the ultimate pessimist. In his worldview we are like writhing worms, with no purpose cast into a struggle which is ultimately meaningless. The only reason not to kill oneself is the mild curiosity about what happens next. I would classify him as nihilist except that I think he does indeed care - at the bottom of that deep well of negativity is a sparkle of hope.

Better to be an animal than a man, an insect than an animal, a plant than an insect, and so on. Salvation? Whatever diminishes the kingdom of consciousness and compromises its supremacy.

Each of us must pay for the slightest damage he inflicts upon a universe created for indifference and stagnation, sooner or later, he will regret not having left it intact.


I'm simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?

By all evidence we are in the world to do nothing.

6. What would the nihilists say if I told them that I am cheered by reading their writings. That this frantic banging against the universe is perhaps the most human of activities.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ring of Letters

The Men of Ideas, in the early part of the twentieth century, formulated and exchanged many of their ideas through written correspondence. These took the form of a series of long, articulate letters sometimes spanning years or even decades.

While reading some of the most dedicated correspondences (much of it online, much of it in books) I noticed two things: First, the fertile exchange between the physicists who founded both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity and the twin giants of psycho-analysis, Freud and Jung. Second, was that the most voluminous and dedicated correspondences formed a chain, actually a nicely closed ring. The Ring of Letters.

The Einstein-Freud Correspondence
Einstein, a champion for peace, famously worked to assemble a group of intellectual leaders to bring pressure on politicians. Here, he works on bringing Freud into the fold. The exchanges between them are wonderful to read.
As Einstein writes, "I am convinced that almost all great men who, because of their accomplishments, are recognized as leaders even of small groups share the same ideals. But they have little influence on the course of political events. It would almost appear that the very domain of human activity most crucial to the fate of nations is inescapably in the hands of wholly irresponsible political rulers."
And Freud shares his ideas, "You are amazed that it is so easy to infect men with the war fever, and you surmise that man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction, amenable to such stimulations. I entirely agree with you. I believe in the existence of this instinct and have been recently at pains to study its manifestations. In this connection may I set out a fragment of that knowledge of the instincts, which we psychoanalysts, after so many tentative essays and gropings in the dark, have compassed? "

The Freud-Jung Correspondence
It appears that Jung struggled to get out from Freud's shadow. Their relationship, as seen through their letters, comes across as both fertile and diseased. They exchanged nearly 400 letters in the course of seven years.
As Trilling writes, about one episode, in the New York Times "A few days later Jung wrote Freud, coolly but with amenity, even with the avowal of his wish to continue in personal if no longer in intellectual closeness. Freud replied in kind; he commented on the fainting episode, about which Jung had enquired, and contended by saying, "A bit of neurosis that I ought really look into." The minimizing phrase seems to have put Jung into a state of hysterical rage. He insolently replies that "this 'bit' should, in my opinion, be taken very seriously indeed because it leads 'usque ad instar voluntariae mortist ('to the semblance of voluntary death']. I have suffered from this bit in my dealings with you. . ." and more to the same effect and in the same tone."

The Jung-Pauli Correspondence
Pauli was one of the founders of Quantum Mechanics and author of the Exclusion principle which dictates how like particles behave. Without it, for example, we wouldnt understand the behavior of Neutron stars. Jung was the proponent of Synchronicity, a mystical view of the world with creative notions of cause and effect.
And yet these two were close collaborators - exchanging numerous letters, collaborating on exotic ideas.
In the preface to a collected volume of letters, we are told:
"In their joint volume, Jung and Pauli presented the synchronicity principle. It presumes that indestructible energy has a dual relationship to the space-time continuum: on the one hand, there is the constant connection through effect--that is, causality; and on the other, there is an inconstant connection through contigence, equivalence, or meaning that is itself synchronicity. For a physicist, equations are not objectively accurate reflections of material reality but structurally accurate relationship-connections. For Jung, synchronicities are meaningful only when an individual experiences them. This creates another "relationship of complementarity between the occurrence or cessation of synchronistic phenomena and the relative state of unconsciousness or consciousness of the individual who experiences it."

The Pauli-Heisenberg Correspondence
Pauli was Werner Heisenberg's closest scientific collaborator. Between them, they exchanged hundreds of letters in which they worked to resolve the conundrums of Quantum Physics. Heisenberg is best known to the scientific layman as the author of the Uncertainty Principle, which dictates limitations on complementary properties in subatomic particles.
In fact, Heisenberg first outlined the Uncertainty Relation in a letter to Pauli. The Pauli-Heisenberg letters have not yet been made available to the public. But there is much speculation that they will reveal that Pauli had an even greater role to play in the development of the fundamental principles of quantum physics than is currently believed.

The Heisenberg-Bohr Correspondence
The correspondence between Heisenberg and Bohr has become famous for one key reason: the questions around whether Heisenberg was helping Nazi Germany to build an atomic bomb.
From the Bohr letters:
"At that time I had no knowledge at all of the preparations that were under way in England and America, and when I did not reply and perhaps looked doubtful, you told me that I had to understand that in recent years you had occupied yourself almost exclusively with this question and were certain that it could be done. ...There was no hint on your part that efforts were being made by German physicists to prevent such an application of atomic science. alarm was not lessened by hearing from the others at the Institute that Weizsäcker had stated how fortunate it would be for the position of science in Germany after the victory that you could help so significantly towards this end."

The Bohr-Einstein Correspondence
The conversations between Bohr and Einstein were about the fundamental nature of reality. Einstein, a disbeliever in quantum mechanics, kept pushing Bohr and Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and the man responsible for our modern view of the atom, kept pushing back.
These two giants, in their long debates, sketched out many of the puzzles of modern physics and consequently much of the legacy that modern scientists have to confront. I have linked to a picture of the two men, deep in talks, architecting the Universe.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Alphabet of Smells

Nez du Vin

One of my favorite Christmas gifts was a Nez du Vin kit. This kit, packaged like a book, contains numbered vials inside accompanied by sheets containing diagrams and descriptions for each of the scents contained in the vials. The scents include fruit and vegetable and floral scents. Here is a menu of scents from 12 of the vials:

1. Fraise
2. Framboise
3. Cassis
4. Mure
5. Cerise
6. Violette
7. Poivron vert
8. Truffe
9. Reglisse
10. Vanille
11. Poivre
12. Note fumee

Since I am the type of person who likes to grab a bottle of vanilla, open and sniff it just for the pleasure of it, this was a great gift.

The creator of these kits, Jean Lenoir, has created an olfactic alphabet. In this case, these are smells often found in red wines. And, by training our nose to identify these smells, we can increase both our appreciation and enjoyment of the complex bouquet that is wine. Lenoir created another kit for coffee lovers.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Rothko and the saddleblankets

- Navajo Saddle Blanket, circa 1900.

The paintings of Mark Rothko have the power to elicit an almost religious feeling. The paintings seem to vibrate, to emit a low hum which dominates the surrounding space. This is especially true of his larger canvases, the vast colorfields typical of his later work.

This sacred aspect becomes explicit at the Rothko chapel in Houston, Texas. Here, the paintings hang in bare rooms, like vertical prayer rugs.

What gives the paintings their power? One explanation is that the composition of figure and ground recalls an older aesthetic. That Rothko was both creating and also re-inventing, summoning up ancient memories, speaking using the words of a universal language.

I doubt, however, that Rothko was the first to utter these phonemes, these antediluvian words. More likely, I believe that as we trace the past, we discover that even our aesthetic discoveries are a sort of unconscious plagiarism.

The blankets woven by the Navajo, for example, seem to possess some of that same calm. The buyers of these blankets referred to them as "windows" and as "ghost blankets" They were woven to accompany a journey and each blanket contained some of the weaver's hair, a token to ensure the rider's return.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

- Taken at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood "S...

Hotel Standard in Hollywood

- Taken at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood

"Like an animal clawing for shelter, she puts her face and hands against the glass. What if he were to wake up now, she thinks, and see me here, standing like a ghost? What if I were to scream? What if I were to walk inside and bite his hand?

The humid window is like a small kaleidoscope and within it she can see his hair, his legs, the lights from the canal, the shine of her own eyes, together, shifting, a swirl of small images. It is as when she was a little girl and she played for hours with her small mirrors, her toy carousels - these miniature worlds. As the glass becomes opaque, the images disappear and all she can see is the bright reflection of the lights. The cold now makes her feel more naked than when she first stepped out, and she feels like one of those small creatures with shiny eyes, peering out from the dark.

When she walks back inside, she grabs his arm and gently bites it. He moves his body and looks at her, not fully awake, still inside half of a dream. The bite stings like frost. He lifts his hand and puts it on her shoulder. She lays down and curls up her body, as if in instinct, as if following a cue, she curls up and falls into a dream."

-An excerpt from a journal written when I was about 16, grabbed from my parents house