Ideas Over Coffee

On fleeting visions of wondrous import.

Hey, here’s an idea. Do you think––

There it goes. 

What? 

This other thing I was noticing. Do you think if it comes back, I will recognize it, or do they change forms?

Well, did it have one when it left?

That’s not helpful. Not really. I mean, it was sort of, you know –– [stretches arms sideways, tilting. wiggles fingertips]

Well. There you go.

It was right there a minute ago. I was sitting here with this coffee, and there it was, in front of me.

On the space heater?

No, higher. Like, see? You have to look here. Come here.

Oh, through the window. Well, the cat’s there now. So you can’t see much.

Maybe the cat saw it, too?

Hmm. What now?

More coffee? Or do you want me to try to move this cat?

Beyond Optical Vision

Happy birthday, Paul Klee.

On this day in 1879, Paul Klee was born. This morning’s post is adapted from Klee’s “Ways of Studying Nature,” and uses found phrases from Klee’s writing.

How can an artist not study nature when they are part of it? The method is going to vary with changing perceptions of one’s position in space, time, and the cosmos. I don’t mean to disparage the delight of novelty, but a clear view of history should save us from seeking it at the cost of an honest view of nature. For yesterday’s naturalists, the focus was on the precision of optical appearance, but the art of seeing on other planes was neglected. Today’s artist is a creature on a star among other stars, with a sense of totality of space. To witness the appearance is to meditate on what is beneath it. Anatomy becomes physiology, but there are other ways to behold, as with contact through a cosmic bond. All ways meet in the eye to synthesize an inward vision vastly different from the original image, yet without contradiction. Those blind to nature will label such depictions degenerate, but here is a new naturalness, the image of divine work in translation. 

***

Paul Klee: The Thinking Eye. The Notebooks of Paul Klee, Vol.I, ed. Jurg Spiller, London and New York, 1961, pp.63-67.

Also featuring Paul Klee: What They Said While They Were Leaving

Matters of Transformation

Wisdom from the dung beetle.

If you are going to transform dung into treasure, it is best to act quickly and move in a straight line, away from the hordes. None of us move easily in straight lines unless we can see where we are going, but the beetles move backwards, each propelling a relatively massive ball with their hind legs, reading the shadows and the light. When the sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows, they read the wind. Nocturnal foragers take cues from the polarized light of the moon, and when the moon is not visible, they follow the Milky Way. These agents of transformation and rebirth tend to ignore cues from the ground, keeping their focus far above their grounded bodies. For their size, they are among the strongest creatures on the planet. Up here, we don’t like to touch what they treasure. We prefer to draw hopes for rebirth in soft pastel hues, and this may have something to do with the puzzlement of the researchers. Brain the size of a poppy seed, they say, but we still don’t understand.  

***

Inspired by “How Dung Beetles Steer Straight” in the Annual Review of Entomology

Sounding Branches

On phantoms, limbs, and being an instrument.

The phenomenon of the phantom limb, the doctor explained, was once regarded as a purely psychic hallucination, the sort of thing the mind does when it is grappling with loss, denial being a well-trodden pathway for managing grief. The sense of moving fingers even after the arm is gone was compared to the way that you might see a loved one in their bathrobe and slippers muddling down the hallway looking for the light switch, in the days and weeks after their death.

But it turns out there is more to it, they realized, as the tools for observation expanded what researchers were willing to see––and listen to, for that matter. A pianist long versed in playing music through the body will continue to do so even after the loss of an arm. The music runs through the musician as practiced, even as only some of it reaches the keys.

The discovery raises certain questions about the nature of what was considered phantom and suggests that the idea of limb might also deserve some expansion. I am wondering about the word instrument, too––how immediately we tend to assume that these are what the musician uses to create the art, that the point is somehow mastery of a tool and not instead the long practice of erasing the old ideas of the boundaries of a body, smoothing its distinctive forms and shaping hollow wells of space, tending it daily so as to leave it well enough and ready to be moved.

***

This post was inspired by something I heard over ten years ago on a radio interview with the late Oliver Sacks. I found a related anecdote in his chapter “Phantom Fingers: the case of the one-armed Pianist” in his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

The New Science

On signs, symbols, and the origins of meaning.

Trace it with me: age of gods, age of heroes, age of men.

Our first language was born of knowing its poverty. 

We relied on signs and symbols. Then came metaphor, 

and then our measly letters, where we pretended 

to be saying precisely what we meant. 

Hieroglyphs suffice when observance 

is more important than discussion, 

as with religions and the like. 

Which came first, I wonder? Letters or language, 

chickens or their eggs? 

Attempting to separate one from the other is folly.

The first speakers, by necessity of nature, were poets. 

Here is the key to any meaningful science worth following: 

the source of all poetry is poverty of language, 

catalyzed by a need to express.

The point? To learn the language 

spoken by some eternal history, 

across time. Another: to name 

the beginnings of learning. 

To our unseen source, knowledge 

and creation are one 

and the same. We 

are mind and spirit; 

intellect and will, but 

it’s the function of wisdom 

to fulfill both.

Children of nascent mankind 

created things according to their ideas, 

which are not to be confused with God. 

But usually are. 

The role of fear 

should not be discounted here, 

in stoking robust ignorance, 

corporeal imagination. 

Frightened men, 

in their infinite vanity, 

no sooner imagine than they believe.

Natural curiosity, the daughter

of ignorance and mother

of knowledge, gives birth:

to wonder.

By Jove, the thundering sky.

***

Adapted from The New Science of Giambattista Vico, translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch.

Apologies for Presentation

Remembering Aphra Behn.

The following is adapted from Aphra Behn’s preface to The Lucky Chance, which strikes me as emblematic of the fraught balance she and others like her (mostly unknown, we must assume) had to strike, to hold her own as a writer of serious power while treading very carefully around the prejudices and biases of her detractors. I don’t know what moved me to revisit Behn this morning, but I am grateful for its nudge.

***

I reject old Horace’s idea of literature as some tool to instruct and delight. You want a morality lesson, read the holy books. This is something else. However, it seems like a long walk to go from my avoidance of moral instruction to the assumption of the innately corrupting influence of my work, a stance that seems so popular among my critics. I think that those attribute the capacity of my work to offer vile offense to “feminine sensibilities” do significantly underestimate what the average woman is exposed to on a regular basis, living and moving through a world of men. I daresay her daily movements should afford her plenty that is amply more objectionable than anything I can deliver. But somehow, the taint seems to come from the inherent corruption on my part. Any woman so bold as to demand an audience, must, after all, be possessed of something that some men may wish to permanently prevent others from having contact with, lest it be catching. Considering the self interest in their malice, I challenge any person of common sense not so willfully bent on ill nature that they will read some double entendre in anything, to resist the impulse to charge what frightens them with alternate blows of scandal and pity.

Sense and Sensibilities

Considering the shaking words.

Given certain habits, the act of writing seems so intuitive that we may forget the necessary combinations that work to move the pen, those complicated motions of transmission by volition. Any number of circumstances might impair the original purpose. Consider shaking the words as a method of execution. Keep in mind, some are better interpreters than others. The wily and cunning require caution, but those among them know there is no deception here. Some will put a certain constraint on words, but this is a difficult part to play. It is easier to write like a fool than a madman. The habit of division into camps of sane and in––is mischievous. A closer look at almost any certainty will reveal strong connecting links between the given state in question and its imagined opposite.

***

Inspired by, and with borrowed phrases from G. Mackenzie Bacon’s On the Writing of the Insane (1870).

A Word Beyond

Learning by signs.

Inspired by this morning’s reading, from Augustine’s The Trinity, as translated by Stephen McKenna.

All things are learned by signs, and every sign is also a thing. Each thing must be understood just as it is, but a sign may only be known by appreciating how it signifies something else.

Smoke needs no special will to signify fire, neither do the tracks of an animal to point to its presence. Same goes for naked expression of emotion on the face. Words, on the other hand. Also consider sounds of trumpet, flute, harp, and drum, each with its own layered invocations to nuanced representation.

A vibration in the ear passes quickly; hence, a need for letters. Here is where pride limits those who would build a tower to claim the heavens as their own. In retribution, voices and signs in the rubble of Babel are dissonant. We can neither hear nor read each other, fully.

Allegory, enigma, parable, irony. Recognition of these tropes may reveal what is hidden––and yet, never more than through a glass, darkly. Some thoughts are speeches of the heart. It is what leaves the mouth, not what enters it, that may defile or edify.

Speech is one thing, sight another. To reflect is to make these one. How will you understand those words that belong to no language?

Gathering

Consider what is cloaked in story.

My bread prepared, time calls. The ship is leaving port. Consider the surface like a poet’s fable.

Consider also what is cloaked in story: truth behind the ornament of fiction, Orpheus’s lyre taming nature as wisdom over the cruel heart.

Then consider discovery, the possibility that a reader might know transfiguration. Last, beyond the senses, what a soul may know when it leaves: no womb beyond the elements, no warmth without cold, nor word without silence of the beginning and the end.

No single sense, but senses. No goat song, foul at the end. Give me instead a tragic beginning, the known world all fire. Then, let me follow and welcome me home.

***

Inspired by (and borrowing phrases from) Dante’s Il Convivo, as translated by Richard H. Lansing.

An Elegant Intelligence

Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?

The following is a meditation culled from ideas and phrases emerging from time spent this morning with Plotinus, namely with his treatise “On the Intellectual Beauty” from his Fifth Ennead, written between the years 300-305 A.D. Plotinus was of the group of Neoplatonists that located reality “in a transcendental spiritual realm that gives meaning to the visible world” (from the Norton Anthology introduction).

***

Plato may have distrusted the storytellers, but I’d rather hear them than any new ideas.

Rather than pale imitation of more perfect forms, art is the access point for transcendence.

Nature is an emanation from a higher realm, its source the same as art. Here we are, between the worlds.

Let’s go to the realm of magnitudes. Suppose two blocks of stone, side by side: one untouched, another wrought by an artist’s hands into a fine statue, concentrating all loveliness of form. Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?

The form is not the material, but the design, held not by crude equipment, but participation. Revelation happens when the resistance of the materials is subdued. The resistance? Stone, yes, but also these hands, these eyes, this stubborn heart. Every prime cause, indwelling, more powerful than its effect. What is musical comes from music itself. You may call it God, although I won’t.

Also note how the elegance will not depend on magnitude. Where does it come from, if not an original power? All gods are august in grace beyond our speech, and why? All there is, is heaven. Truth, then, is mother and nurse. All transparent, light running through light, all only mirrors.

Eyes in the divine, no satiety to call for its ending: to see is to look at greater length. Wisdom is not built of reasonings, but primal, complete from the start.

Powers of fire and the like may be thought great, but it is through their failure in true power that we see them burning, destroying, wearing things away––slaving toward production, they destroy because they belong to the realm of the produced.

There is no beauty outside being. Only in self-ignorance are we ugly. Light upon light, shine.