Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Uncanniness of Solipsism

I have been collecting for a while now instances of a particularly distressing form of uncanniness. Or, rather, since recognizing this category of uncanniness, I have been going back through my memories and marking all those instances of it which were already present.

I recognized the category while watching Woody Allen's 2011 movie Midnight in Paris. Gil, Owen Wilson's present-day writer, finds a magical contrivance which, at midnight, takes him back in time to the Paris of the 1920's, a period of cultural fertility which he idolizes. The movie is supposed to be a comedy, but it is not only that. Here Gil walks with Adriana, a 1920's Parisian played by Marion Cotillard:

Do you see anything wrong with this picture?

I do. There's nothing in it. A city is full of life, movement, people. Here the streets of Paris are oddly deserted. The stage is set and the crew have switched on the lights, but the actors are nowhere to be found.

This eerie underpopulation persists in all the 1920's sequences. Here Salvador Da and Man Ray meet up with Gil in a restaurant:

A few extras are artfully placed - but not enough extras to convince us that this is a real, functioning restaurant. The present-day sequences are full of noise and urban vitality. The 1920's sequences look like the 1920's, but apart from people speaking directly to Gil, they are nearly unpeopled and silent.

The effect becomes even more overbearing during a brief jump-within-a-jump to the gaslit 1890's:

Ignore the large number of people in the frame, they fall away as the scene progresses. All that remains are the dim lights, and a stifling velvet darkness.

Gil does not notice this spooky etiolation, so besotted is he with talking to his heroes - to Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the style of the filmmaking tells us that these are not his heroes. They are almost convincing imitations of them, set in motion to advance some unstated purpose. For my part, the menacing staging was reminding me of something, and I quickly remembered what it was: the hideous pollen in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In this bewitching book, the main character, Toru Okada, repeatedly enters a dreamlike alternate Tokyo centered on room 208, a hotel suite:

The room is dark. A vase holds a massive bouquet of flowers, and the air is heavy with their suggestive fragrance. ... In the bed at the back of the suite lies a woman. I hear her moving in the sheets. The ice makes a pleasant clinking in her glass. Minuscule grains of pollen suspended in the air shudder with the sound, like living organisms. Each tiny ripple of sound passing through the air brings more of them to sudden life. The pale darkness opens itself to the pollen, and the pollen, taken in, increases the density of the darkness. 
(pp. 393-394)

This upsetting pollen reappears in further dreams of the room:

...a familiar sharp smell of pollen struck my nostrils. I was in that strange hotel room. ... All of a sudden, the phone began to ring. My heart froze like a frightened cat. The air's sharp reverberations woke the floating grains of pollen, and the flower petals raised their faces in the darkness. 
(pp. 550-551)

I'm not sure if the awful threat of the pollen translates in these brief excerpts. They intimate not only sex, but violence, in the book; they bode bloodshed. But worse than that, they suggest that this entire world does not exist when Toru Okada is not present. His entrance awakens a latent reality, it brings the Tokyo of room 208 lurching into a kind of half-life, a grisly mimicry of independent being. The longer he stays, the closer this world draws to an explosion of violence. He must keep entering the world, and awakening the awful pollen, and trying to reach his goal before the pollen finishes waking up.

We are now approaching this fresh category of uncanniness. Consider another instance of it, Coraline, book and film. In Neil Gaiman's story, a little girl discovers a passage in her house to a second house, with a second set of her parents waiting for her. They seem like her real parents at first, but better - more loving and more exciting -  and with buttons for eyes. As Coraline spends more time in this other world, it becomes increasingly phantasmagorical. In the film, she observes an intricate dance of blank-eyed circus mice which, for my part, made me want to run screaming from the theater:

Again we are confronted with a world which springs into being only as a single real character enters it, and which falls silent again when he or she leaves.

Coraline provides the most explicit key of these three instances to the uncanniness involved: the other world is a construct designed to delight and distract Coraline. It is a trap. Over time, everything in it softens and blurs, and the other mother clarifies - she is an arachnid, some kind of predatory soul-eater:

She's been out to catch and consume Coraline the whole time.

This completes the concept of the uncanny false world. Not only does it spring into being in response to the presence of a single real consciousness - a very close model of philosophical solipsism - but it proves persistently impossible to shake the feeling that a second consciousness created it to trick the target consciousness. It is as if one were stuck in the mirrored interior of a disco ball, and had a sense of something moving in the darkness outside. The uncanny menace of this type of world is as follows:

1. Because it exists for a single individual, it reeks of falsehood.
2. The texture of its falsehood is of a kind with intentional manipulation.

Here we have a good example of hopefulness in horror. What I mean is this - as children, some of us worry that the entire universe may be an illusion, that we alone can be said to exist. This is an instinctive formulation of the solipsistic argument. The urgency of the anxiety tends to diminish over time, but it is one of those peculiar arguments which cannot be dismissed; its claims are larger than all sets of contrary evidence can encompass.

For all that, the fact that all actual instances of the solipsistic universe are attended by this uncanny sense of falsehood and the unseen second consciousness provide some of the most powerful evidence available for the existence of an actual universe independent of ourselves. It is a kind of counterfactual proof: to suppose the truth of solipsism seems inherently to invoke this mood of the uncanny. The mood of the uncanny is a visceral, pre-rational evaluation of the solipsistic universe as utterly impossible. It folds obscenely.

This is no kind of analytic proof, but analytic proofs are posterior things. They come after fundamental things. The question of the independent existence of the universe is a fundamental question; we are scraping along the very bottom of the world when we ask about this. In this murky realm, intuition is elevated above its ordinary place. It is nearly all we have left. We are so constructed as to be unable to buy into a true solipsistic universe. This is some of the most powerful evidence we are going to get that our ordinary working assumption is correct: there is a universe. There are people in it. We are not alone.


Let me add here an excerpt from a conversation between Paul Éluard and André Breton.

left to right: Paul Éluard, André Breton (photograph by Man Ray)

ÉLUARD: How do you reconcile your love of women and your taste for sodomy?
BRETON: The question of reconciliation does not arise. I prefer sodomy for moral reasons and above all through considerations of non-conformity. No chance of a child with a woman one does not love, and that a woman one does love can so abandon herself seems to me infinitely arousing.
BRETON: From the materialist point of view, in the case of a woman I love, it is infinitely more pessimistic (shit's law) and therefore more poetic.
ÉLUARD: But why, for example, does not the idea of conception through coitus appear more pessimistic to you than shit?
BRETON: Because it is in conformity with growth which is mingled in my mind with the idea of well-being.

Oh, P.S., Éluard and Breton co-founded surrealism. This excerpt is from the Research into Sexuality, as quoted on page 91 of A Book of Surrealist Games. It took place in a part of Paris in the 1920's which Woody Allen somehow failed to include in his movie.

I am well aware that in a metaphysical sense, I consistently advocate for the principle of well-being sketched out, and rejected, by Breton. Philosophically speaking, I am Mr. Vanilla.

I am afflicted with a sense that this makes me very bland. There are all kinds of dark pleasures - whatever Breton would be into if he were around today - which, like two north magnetic poles pushed toward one another, I bend away from. While Breton and his friends have the whiff of brimstone about them, I myself am not sexy. I am not adventurous; I am neither wild nor mysterious; I am in favor of rendering good to the good, and bad to the bad; death has got no part of me.

I have spent a good deal of time considering evil, and I think in some ways I have the hang of it. I believe Socrates has it wrong about evil. It is possible not only to do evil, but to choose evil - to do evil in the context not of confusion, but of clarity. And though I can see my way to this, and to its awful strength, I cannot choose it. I believe that lacking even a tincture of the choice of evil makes me some way duller than I need to be, less daring and less great. But I cannot bear the stain.

This series of thoughts came up when I reached my set of conclusions about the uncanniness of solipsism. Why? Because I find it almost unbearably tedious that I can reason my way clear around the circumference of the universe and what I come up with is, "The universe exists. You are not alone." I am utterly unsurprised that this is the chipper conclusion I reach. It is in character for me, it is mundane, it is an obvious conclusion which did not require so much effort. I feel that the Breton crowd would snub me once they got to know me. I would not be cool.

While this is disappointing, there are compensations to the uncool position. Although I cannot get as much of hate and pessimism as I would like, I have so much love and well-being that I can give them away to other people. I can even write them down and make pictures of them. So, fine: we are all constituted in such a way as to have some nature which is our own nature. This is mine.

Thus do I assert myself.

I will never cease in praising the virtues, and though they are obvious, boring virtues, that does not diminish our happiness when we make a life in them.


Instances of the uncanniness of solipsism not discussed here:

A Maze of Death (novel), by Philip K. Dick (and most of the rest of his books)
They (short story), by Robert A. Heinlein
The Muse (short story), by Anthony Burgess
The Third Expedition (chapter), The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
The Shining, as filmed by Stanley Kubrick
The Polar Express, as filmed by Robert Zemeckis

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Therefore Laugh and Regret Nothing

The Living and the Dead, Begging

Weather permitting, my wife and I like to walk long distances inside of New York City. On one of New York's many bridges, there is a man. I used to think I ran into him a lot; only lately do I realize he hangs out on that bridge. He has a boom box of odd design, always playing, and it seems he is always there. "Why do you suppose he does that?" Charlotte asked. It seemed to her counter-intuitive, a waste of resources, to hang out on the bridge: exposed to wind and sun, unable to sit or lie down, not asking for change among people not disposed to pass it along. But it seemed obvious to me. By establishing this habit, this man saves himself, in some small way, from being nobody. He is not just another homeless crazy, interchangeable, disposable, and forgettable. By virtue of his habit, he is somebody: he is the guy with the boom box who hangs out on that bridge. Many people would spend many resources to be this much of a somebody. It makes no sense to Charlotte, but it makes sense to me.

Consider another instance of people who have found a successful scheme to distinguish themselves from their fellow men:

This is inside of the Strand, at 12th St. and Broadway, a used bookstore beloved of New York residents and tourists alike. While we're on the topic, let me share a trick to Strand shopping which is not obvious at first: if you go in looking for something specific, they will not have it and you will be disappointed. But if you go in looking for nothing in particular, you will find the most wonderful books you didn't know you had to have.

I took this picture because, looking at these books, I realized that if everything goes absolutely right for me, and I wind up as a book in the Strand, this is where I'll go. Not bad company, right? Matisse, Michelangelo, Morandi, Mantegna, and Metsu are certainly not nobody. Consider two possible truths about the man on the bridge: either he stands on the bridge in order not to be nobody - or he uses his somebody-ness to teach us a lesson about something worthwhile. I hope to learn from things, and so I hope I've learned a lesson from his efforts. But in himself, it is more likely the man on the bridge is like most men: a slave to the cravings of his vanity. That is, he probably does not think of himself as some kind of sage teaching a lesson. He probably just wants to be somebody. This does not make him a low person - I am like that more often than I would prefer, and I do not think I am a low person - but in such a case the maximum virtue of his somebody-ness is lower than that of artists Ma- through Mo- at the Strand.

Why? Because these artists have used their somebody-ness the way it is meant to be used: as a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of something greater than themselves. Their work, obviously, is the point. What do we care that Michelangelo was a grump, Morandi a hermit, Matisse a bit of a letch, but certainly not more of one than I? These are charming details written on the box, but the prize inside the box is the work. The value of the name is that it saves the work from oblivion. And the work can save each soul it touches. This is the proper use of somebody-ness.

But consider another fearful reversal. We come to the shelves of the Strand as if making a pilgrimage to a holy place, to spend some minutes or hours in the august company of the mighty of the arts. But how does it look to them, living as they do a half-life as discounted books? To the extent they have any self-knowledge left, they must conceive of themselves as hollowed-out, dulled, beggars. They are groaning for our attention, we are the only vehicles that remain for them to continue living. They are absolutely helpless, and if we will not spend some time with them, they must hurry along at last to that house of shadows their cleverness allowed them to escape for some decades or centuries. Nobody who lives and dies escapes it forever; one day the name of Michelangelo must also be forgotten, and he, loudest of mouths, will at long last be silenced.

What a strange situation this is! We approach these artists in awe and supplication, and they in turn approach us in desperation, the breath of oblivion hot on the back of their necks. We the living can afford to approach them in all innocence. They, so much closer to death, cannot afford innocence. Things have clarified for them, that this is a struggle for survival. Have they repudiated the magnificence of their own work? I hate to think so.

Everything Will Be Made and Forgotten Again

There is one answer to this awful dilemma. I grasped the answer once, and wrote it into a script for a long-abandoned film. This part of the script is set in an edenic society on the shores of the oceans of Europa. One of the people there makes the leap from the continuous forgetful present into awareness of self and time. This leap gives her two understandings which elude her fellows: hope for the future, and fear of death. Distraught, she goes apart from human company. At the bottom of the sea, she discovers the native Europans, which are telepathic sea fans (you can see why this film didn't get made). She presents her woes to these sea fans. The sea fans have already endured what she is only now suffering: they remember eden, and they remember the turbulence of mortal life and hope. They have long since made their way back to the eden consciousness wins for itself. They say to her, "Everything will be made and forgotten again. Therefore laugh and regret nothing."

This is extraordinarily difficult to accept. Not for everyone, but for me at least. And I recognize that when I do finally accept it, it will be very easy to accept. But until then, it will remain difficult. Matisse, who kept drawing on the wall with a stick when he was a sick old man lying in bed, grasped the principle and made a picture of it, a picture which is a door wide open to enlightenment, to celebrating what we can have and letting go the burden of wanting things we cannot have:

Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1910, oil on canvas, 102"x154"

This picture, in fact, was in my folder for the visual design of the Europa sequence. And the idea I assign to it, of "laugh and regret nothing," is an idea I turn to nearly so much as I turn to my furious ambition and my thirst for immortality. Perhaps I will argue every idea and its opposite, so long as they are interesting ideas. In the meantime, though, I am in a "laugh and regret nothing" mood - it is a sunny day in the unusually cold spring of 2013, and there is good cheer enough for the man on the bridge, and for Gabriel Metsu on the shelf at the Strand, and for me and you. I am painting like crazy lately, and I hope you too have a wonderfully productive summer.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Platypus

Let me share with you a doubt. My doubt is that visual art has all that much of an impact on history.

I have written many of the essays you've been reading as if art had something to say, and as if it were important. And I believe, more or less - on good days - that something like this is true.

If you've read Citizens, Simon Schama's magnificent history of the French revolution, you will have come across chapter four, "The Cultural Construction of a Citizen." This is the first chapter in which Schama advances in detail the jarring thesis that pre-revolutionary and revolutionary visual arts, from high painting to low propaganda, helped to inspire and guide the revolution. I have thought about this thesis for a very long time now. On the one hand, he draws convincing links. But on the other hand - come on. We're talking about prints, pamphlets, and 18th century French painters.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Girl Making a Dog Dance on Her Bed, 1760, Oil on canvas, 35" x 27.6"
a masterpiece from the pre-revolutionary French genre of fannies-and-puppy-dogs

Usually, my thinking on this odd chapter is that Schama himself is devoted to the visual arts, and overestimates their active role in history to match their active role in his own life. Confusions proliferate from this contrary conclusion as well: if the visual arts are, by and large, of little interest - are they at least of interest to interesting people? Do they shape the lives of the people who shape history? Do these people actually shape history? Should we care what they think?

Consider a modern example of the phenomenon Schama describes.

Shepard Fairey, the "Hope" poster, 2008

Everyone would recognize this iconic poster, but I think almost no one would say that its impact shifted the course of the election. It shows correlation, not causation - or at most, it was one of a thousand factors. And yet, in fifty years, when the confusing tangle of antecedent circumstances has faded from memory, and the poster remains as powerful as ever - what role will people imagine it had in the election of 2008?

What do most people know of Barry Goldwater today, apart from Lyndon Johnson's commercial, which bluntly implied that the election of Goldwater would lead to nuclear war?

the "Daisy" commercial, 1964

I have read it argued that this television commercial tipped the balance. Could this be true? I doubt it, just as I doubt that Fairey's poster tipped the balance 44 years later.

I am inclined to believe that the visual arts in the west were most influential in the Middle Ages, when the images hosted by churches helped to describe and explain religion, theology, and philosophy to a largely illiterate populace. This is what I am inclined to believe, but who can accurately reconstruct the hearts of the dead from the documentation they left behind? The documents are the visual arts themselves, and the writings of people to whom the visual arts were important. The reconstruction is impossible, and the documents are skewed. So I have beliefs, but I do not know.

Here's what I do know: whether or not the visual arts make a bit of practical difference to anyone, they do encode intellectual history in complex and sophisticated ways. This makes them a part of our intellectual heritage. Apart from the beauty of art objects, this is one of their key values. They are statements in the great conversation which has gone on since first we spoke until today. History consists in events, but it also consists in ideas. In this second sense, the visual arts do not sway history, nor do they record history. They are the very materials of history.

All this by way of background considerations for a remarkable painting I stumbled across the other day at the Brooklyn Museum. It's among the European paintings in the Beaux-Arts Court, if you want to go see it for yourself.

Carlo Crivelli, Saint James Major, 1472, tempera and gold on panel, 38.3"x12.6"

I had never heard of Carlo Crivelli or Saint James Major. But I'm pretty good at guessing about things. So what do we have here?

The painting has many Medieval trappings: the narrow, centered, vertical saint image - the patterned gold leaf - the stylized angularity of the figure, in whom curves are built up by arpeggios of broken straight lines - and the use of tempera, a pre-oil paint medium.

But the date is early Renaissance. Many of the leaps toward naturalism had already been made by 1472, and Crivelli, working in the cities of Italy, would have encountered them. In fact, though James Major's face is of a Medieval type, it is depicted using many of the tools of Renaissance realism. It is no longer a caricature, as Medieval faces are, but a realistic portrayal of a funny-looking man, like those computer-generated photographs you sometimes see of Charlie Brown or Bart Simpson as if they were real people. The pretense of Medievalism gives way entirely in the extremities, which are state-of-the-art. Consider these hands:

These are lovely hands, naturalistically rendered with regard to structure and light, and subtly observed down to the level of tendons and vascularity. Renaissance hands. Or consider the feet:

The texture of the sole of the foot is glimpsed on the left foot. Bones and tendons are represented with the exaggerated anatomical detail of the early Renaissance, when artists were still reveling in their ability to pull this kind of stunt at all. The foreshortening of the right foot is plausible and smartly observed. The delicate upward hitch of the big toes is utterly characteristic of the sense of nobility of the period. I am partial to painting feet myself, and I've given their depiction a lot of thought:

Daniel Maidman, Blue Leah #10, 2012, oil on canvas, 24"x24"

Based on James's feet, I'm going to claim that Crivelli, like Mantegna, could and did draw the body in an entirely Renaissance manner. All of his Medieval gestures are choices.

So what's the deal with this painting?

I see this Saint James Major as existing at the crossroads of the intellectual history of the west. Like Botticelli, Crivelli is a man torn between two worlds.

On the one hand, there are the last echoes of the Middle Ages. For all the anthropocentric humanism of Medieval scholastic thought, the heart of the Medieval thinker beat to the Gothic rhythm of puny, cipher-like Man, cringing before the overwhelming force of God's drama as it played itself out across the uncertain face of the fallen world. This intuition of insignificance defined the art of the Middle Ages, its stiff, stereotyped figures tightly integrated into symbolic scenery. This outlook, at its very best - tender, humble, forbearing - Crivelli cannot leave behind. He refuses to leave it behind; he refuses to give up a nearly-obsolete faith.

And yet he is a modern man. All artists are, be they never so reactionary. Crivelli could not help surrendering to the irresistible attractions of the Renaissance. The Medieval figure is an idea playing a role. The Renaissance figure is at most a step removed from direct observation. It is rooted in the perfection of the real. It is so much more convincing, it offers so much more scope for the talents of the artist. Having once seen it, Crivelli is incapable of going back. He must apply it himself. His lighting is realistic, his anatomy is accurate, his flesh is convincing.

The Renaissance glorifies two things: the flesh, and the meaning of the flesh. Crivelli has taken the first carnal step - the glorification of the flesh. But he has not seen all the way to the endpoint of the intuitive ideology of the Renaissance, that meaning arises from the flesh and inheres in it. Instead, he awkwardly sutures his glorious flesh, like a guilty pleasure, into his Medieval pictorial paradigm, in which meaning is imposed from above, as the God of the Middle Ages imposes his will on the world, from above. He pastes a modern man like a decal into a ginned-up old timey composition.

Do you see how exciting this is? This is a platypus of a painting. It is a painting in which clashing elements of different worlds live uneasily side by side. It is only when the boundary of an outlook occurs inside a work, butting up against the boundary of an adjacent outlook, that the contrast makes us intensely aware of the qualities of each. This painting, more than the works that precede or follow it, gives us insights into the deep natures of the Medieval and Renaissance outlooks. It is a little painting, and no doubt many other paintings are better, or illustrate the same principle. But it was in confrontation with this one that I was offered this series of understandings. The painting offered it to me; in an instant, it revived the past and made its concerns clear and present. These are not dead ideas, because we do not yet know the answers to the questions they address. And even if we did, the ideas would not be dead because they are answers generated by our human brothers and sisters, able to speak to us down through the centuries by means of the miracle of their work, which robs time of forgetfulness. That's what art offers: thoughts, beauty, memory, companionship. It does not divert the course of armies, but it compensates us for our sufferings. Importance does not reside in changing history alone. Art rarely changes history, but it is important.


Worth Reading: Citizens, by Simon Schama
Worth Visiting: The Brooklyn Museum