January 25, 2011 § 12 Comments
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” my mother used to say; meaning, “Don’t question a gift.” (You can tell a horse’s age and much about it’s health by its teeth.)
A fair enough expression — it’s only right to accept a gift without asking the price or inspecting it for defects in front of the giver, after all — but what about trojan horses? Could our predisposition towards certain issues make us too “good” for our own good? In other words, will we let government institutions implement whatever policies they like without question, just so long as they appear to be for a good cause?
I remember watching a myth buster TV show once, where the hosts dressed up as official-looking recycling agents who went around to people’s suburban houses and pretended to be implementing new, improved recycling options. It started out reasonably enough, with the addition of a new beige bin for colored paper. “Would you mind implementing this in your daily routine?” they asked. “No, not at all,” the well-meaning citizens replied. People were all too happy to do whatever they could. The purple bin for “plastics which have come into contact with food products” didn’t bother anyone, nor did the yellow bin for organic waste like old banana peels. Who, after all, would complain about a little inconvenience when our world is at stake? How could you say no to the world?
Well, as the colored bins began to mount up on these unsuspecting suburbanites’ driveways — from the regular two to five to six and finally eight — you could see them growing more uncomfortable, yet still they insisted, “I don’t think that would be too much of a hassle.” Right down to the last bin, for “lightly soiled toilet paper,” (“They’ve had tremendous success with this in Japan,” the fake recycling authorities assured them, which elicited smiles and nods of recognition and approval,) it was clear everyone felt that to say no would make them bad people.
My point is not about recycling, but just that with the right banner, the right cause attached to your mission, you can manipulate people into accepting almost anything.
The most powerful, untouchable sacred cow at the moment is, understandably, the environment.
Why wouldn’t we want to save our world? Our beautiful planet earth? Our home? What more emotionally charged, unarguable, universally appealing cause exists? We would do anything to save it.
But big businesses and the world elite know that, and don’t think they won’t use it to further their own agendas. Under the guise of planet-friendly missions, we could easily be talked into giving up any amount of freedoms. Sure, the gag I described earlier with the recycling bins doesn’t amount to giving up freedom, only convenience, but the cow is so sacred — and for good reason! — nothing would surprise me. What cunning businessman or would-be-world leader wouldn’t utilize such a perfect, perfect trojan horse to storm the city of their liking?
Don’t misunderstand my point; I am a bona fide tree hugger for whom nature is a source of sanity and inspiration. I come from a family of environmental activists (my father has a park named after him, in honor of saving it from developers; my grandfather helped ban DDT and spread environmental awareness in the 70′s before the phrase “carbon footprint” had even been coined). I am all for preserving our beautiful natural landscapes, all for preventing and reversing environmental contamination — for Godssake, who wouldn’t be? But that’s exactly my point; it’s the one cause that can not be argued. The one cause that’s always right. And that makes it ripe for abuse.
Just take a look at this future scenario video, “Planned-Opolis,” created by self-proclaimed environmental watchdogs Forum for the Future, funded by Bank of America, the City of London Corporation, PepsiCo UK, Time Warner, Royal Dutch Shell and Vodafone. This is not a satire or a joke; this is a serious presentation whose absolutely harmless and positive-sounding mission — “working to create a green, fair and prosperous world” — belays the creepy Orwellian proposition below.
“It makes so much sense doesn’t it? Switch off your brain and go to work!” Are these seriously the catchphrases they are using to sell the idea?? Calorie cards, rations and government-allocated jobs, digital socializing replacing human contact (“It’s much easier to meet up with friends virtually now, so many cities have banned cars in essential areas”) …
And if you don’t want to live in this mechanized, micromanaged, smiley-face-masked tyranny of Planned-Opolis … well, there are always the “Cry Freedom Ghettos,” according to our animated host, for those stubborn fools to whom liberty and individualism still mean something. (On the downside, the Cry Freedom Ghetto dwellers don’t have access to jobs…)
Am I saying climate change is a hoax? Not at all. Our contamination of the planet – junk heaps that pile skyward, exhaust fumes that pollute the air, sewage systems that run into the sea — is obvious, heartbreaking and alarming; prevention, education, action and attention are all of utmost importance. Am I saying don’t care, stop recycling, don’t trust anyone? No, no and no (although question-asking and research of who’s behind what is encouraged.)
What I am saying, is there may come a time when The Powers That Be present you with the choice of saving our planet (and accepting their agenda) or supposedly rejecting environmentalism and retaining certain rights. Just be sure they’re not setting up a false dichotomy. Do your homework, and don’t be afraid to touch the sacred cow, or look the gift trojan horse in the mouth. I don’t want to live somewhere like Planned-Opolis. Do you?
January 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” – Chuang Tzu
There is a basic unease to the human condition, the vague and gnawing sense that there must be something we are missing, something we have not been told; a feeling rooted, no doubt, in the fact that we are born into a world where the most burning questions have only theoretical, subjective answers.
Religion has attempted to fill this void with meaning, but even in its answers, more questions arise.
How solid is our reality? Science, so often pitted against the mystical, has the most mystically fraught of answers: not solid at all. On an atomic and subatomic level — as we all learned in school, though most likely didn’t grasp the full implication of at the time — there is space and movement between atoms. The so-called solid wall is teeming, pulsing, dancing — molecules full of wide open space.
If I put my hand on the wall, the sensation I experience as touch is the interaction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of the wall; on an atomic level, there is a point where the difference between my hand and the wall become indistinguishable.
In other words, it has been scientifically proven in our lifetime that the reality we behold is — to some degree, anyway — illusory.
The idea that the nature of form is misleading and ultimately unreal, of course, has been in existence for centuries — perhaps most famously put forth in the Eastern concept of Maya, (found in Buddhism and Hinduism,) a word derived form the ancient Sanskrit, ma, meaning “not,” and ya, meaning “that.” Though the details differ, Judeo-Christian philosophy reiterates the same basic idea: that things are not as they appear, and this world is but a pale echo of a brighter, truer place.
There are more sinister shades, more paranoid potential, to this question of reality. The possibility that, as in The Matrix — wherein most humans are grown by sentient machines and kept imprisoned in a virtual computer-generated world – we are living in an unperceived prison of sorts. As the character Morpheus says:
“What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”
It’s hard, of course, not to feel like there’s something wrong with the world, as our eyes can clearly see there are many things wrong with it — war, hunger, violence, hatred. Easily, that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it-feeling of unease can find its root in quite tangible phenomena. Perhaps it is a form of escapism to look elsewhere than the obvious issues — wishful thinking that there is some explanation which would make the world’s horrors somehow more comprehensible. And yet, true though this may be, it doesn’t hurt to probe, question, and dig for underground contributors in the pursuit of understanding.
Th Matrix premise borrows heavily from the Gnostic tradition, wherein the world was created by imperfect gods (though within the spectrum a perfect one exists.) These flawed creators are described as a race of inorganic beings local to our solar system, called Archons. Agents of error, they feed off human misery and hence work to deceive the mind towards darkness. Pretty trippy stuff, considering the ancient texts date back to the 3rd and 4th century.
The fact that our experience of stimuli in the world is actually an experience of our brain’s interpretation of that stimuli (rather than the thing itself) does make a Matrix-like gap between reality and perceived reality plausible. After all, the smell of a rose is simply information recognized through sensory organs and registered as “rose.”
The light waves we see when we perceive the rose are in our eyes, not the thing seen; the molecules we smell are in our nose, not the thing smelled. They are not the thing itself, but a relayed message or impression of the thing.
In the language of philosophy, this is known as the “brain in a vat” thought experiment.
How can we assume this world is as it seems, when nightly dreams themselves can seem so real? What deeper, truer, more expansive identity and truth might be revealed to us about the cosmos and our place in it upon leaving or waking from this reality?
I’m not in any hurry to get there, and as Tom Hanks says in Joe vs. The Volcano, “Some things take care of themselves,” but I do — after many a dark night of the soul wrestling with doubt — have a good feeling about it. After all, the world minus man’s debacles, is a place brimming with potential and inspirational phenomena.
I’ve heard the life-as-dream/world-as-illusion theory described as angst-producing, proof of pointlessness. I don’t see it that way. Does an inspiring nocturnal dream enrich our spirit any less because it gives way to a deeper, fuller reality upon waking? Is a great novel any less meaningful because it didn’t really happen? When you start subdividing it, the word “real” itself begins to lose meaning.
We can knock on a table and feel reassured by its bright, solid sound. But even the table is like Magritte’s pipe — both what it seems to be and also not at all. Reality ripe with paradox and potential, lots of wide open space for us to take a tip from the molecules and dance, even in the smallest spaces.
January 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
“Madness is to think too many things in succession too fast, or one thing too exclusively.” Voltaire
“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.” Nikos Kazantzakis
“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams
French thinker Michael Faucault’s seminal work “Madness and Civilization” claimed that psychoanalysis and psychiatry use the language of positive science to camouflage the bourgeois values that are being imposed on social deviancy.
Vincent Van Gogh, famous for his sunflowers, wheat fields and ear-chopping, acknowledged that, “It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill — it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”
Survival depends on some kind of social acceptance, evolutionarily speaking, so its natural that our drive would be towards avoiding stigmatization. But when your very dreams burn you awake and the fierce, sometimes unbearable beauty of existence seizes your imagination, compelling you to create, most dreamers can’t avoid their destiny, and gladly sacrifice herd acceptance for the satisfaction of creative expression. Still, there is the ever-present, if subconscious, awareness that if you go too far, you could lose liberty. If you act too differently, you could be institutionalized.
Once deemed clinically insane, the individual’s rights become blurry, as with criminals. The incarceration of psychological dissidents acts as a kind of warning, whether as an intentional or incidental means of social control, to wayward thinkers; a cautionary tale not to let your mind run away with you too far into the fanciful woods.
“Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence–whether much that is glorious–whether all that is profound–does not spring from disease of thought–from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Edgar Allen Poe
In the Renaissance, the mentally ill were considered to have gotten too close to “the Reason of God.” Tribal cultures throughout the world consider madness the first sign of a shaman’s birth into his power, marking him as one who can communicate between the physical and the invisible worlds.
From 1927 to 1943 Dr Adele Juda, researcher at the Institute for Psychiatry of Munich, interviewed over 5,000 people, finding neurosis and personality disorder in 27% of the artists and 19% of the scientists and statesmen studied, against the general rate of 10-12%. The highest rates of psychic disruption were seen among poets (50%)
As French poet Arthur Rimbaud writes:
“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men… Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone, he attains the unknown.”
The lowest rates of neurosis were found among architects (17%).
A good friend of mine once worked as a personal assistant for an Oscar-winning talent who shall remain nameless. She has shared moments with me wherein the successful entertainer barreled through the living room in boxer shorts, a newsboy hat and cowboy boots, a manuscript of papers clutched to his chest, saying, ”I’m going mad!” after dumping his papers in a pile to play a beautiful fit of piano music and jumping up to scribble in a notebook.
He smiled of course when he said it, because he had managed to play the most beautiful hoodwink upon society that a creative mind can play: he made money being slightly mad.
And that is the art of insanity: valuing creative chaos and giving it room to unfold without premature critique or analysis. Order and reason can come later. As Nietzsche says:
“You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star.”
Creative process doesn’t have to make sense, and some of the world’s greatest visionaries have proven that its better if it doesn’t. Far-fetched processes yield unusual thoughts, and novel ideas garner more attention than pedestrian ones.
Am I suggesting that one can not be brilliant without being insane? Certainly not. But in order to have great thoughts, ones mind must certainly be opened to a broader scope than the average thinker, and when a mind is broad in expanse, the impressions therein will be unusually varied.
Madness and art are not mutually exclusive, but they do go well together, and often turn up as a pair to the same party. If you’re one of those who dreams awake and finds yourself an “outsider” like van Gogh, consider yourself lucky: you’re in good company and that much closer to doing something original.
So use your madness to your own advantage. Rather than stuffing it in a drawer, take it out to play.
“Imagination,” Einstein says, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
“There is no genius free from some tincture of madness.” Seneca