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two old men

Which of these portraits is more realistic?

One is a photograph and the other a Roman portrait bust. One might choose either one over the other, although I suppose most people would choose the photo. But in what sense are either of these “realistic?”

(For the purposes of this argument, you should imagine an actual photograph, on paper, held in your hand, not the digital image you see on your screen — for which there is a whole different set of problems. And the portrait bust, think of as the real stone sculpture, on a plinth in a museum.)

The photograph is in black and white; reality is in color. The photograph is flat; reality is rounded. If you walked around to the back of the photograph, you would not find the back of this man’s head; in reality, you would.

Further, the photograph is rectangular and framed by its edges; reality has no such frame. Looking at a photograph, we hardly notice the frame.

The sculpture is three-dimensional, which might give it a leg up on the photo, but the sculpture is also monochromatic. Worse, it has no pupils in the eyes, which makes it a little eerie. True, you can walk around to its back and see the rest of its tonsure, but that hair is stone, which is unlike real hair, except during the ’50s, when hairspray lacquered the head down into something brittle. Take its temperature, and it will not be 98.6, but room temperature.

Neither the photo nor the bust has a body attached, which would be  very uncomfortable in real life.

The fact is, that both forms of art are highly conventionalized. We take them as “realistic,” when, in fact, they are merely conventional. We tend to let our conventions fall invisible; we hardly notice them.

picasso self portraitThe photograph might be an 8X10 glossy, but the head in the photo would be miniature compared to the man’s real head. How is a tiny figure on a flat piece of paper said to be realistic? You can fit a whole city on an 8X10 glossy; try that with the real Philadelphia. The only way to do that is to accept the conventions and then let the disappear.

You can go on listing unrealities: The photo and bust are motionless. The men portrayed most certainly were not. They also made sounds — I’m sure they they each spoke to their portraitists while they were being immortalized. And they probably had characteristic smells about them. More, they each had thoughts that cannot be read in the images.

Yet, compared to a Picasso painting, we take these as realistic images. We ignore all the counter-indications and lock on to the few things we wish to accept.

duane hansonEven a Duane Hanson sculpture, which might fool us as we first enter the gallery, eventually gives itself away by never moving.

Every culture has these conventions. Consider the standard ancient Egyptian figure, turned into contortions so that we see both arms and both feet, yet the head turns profile because we need to know the nose sticks out from the face. Somehow, though, the eye is drawn as if head-on. The convention insists on things we know — like two arms and two legs — rather than things we see — like foreshortening and overlapping. To an Egyptian in the Middle Kingdom, a foreshortened figure would simply be “not true,” since it would obscure facts we know — like two arms and two legs.

ukiyo e mie pose actor pictureOr consider a cultural convention that seems to Western eyes truly bizarre — or at least comic. In the Japanese woodblock print, images of popular actors were often portrayed in the Mie Pose, which means giving them crossed eyes. To us, crossed eyes are silly, but in the Ukiyo-e tradition, they express extreme emotion. Those images were hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries — the equivalent of the Farrah poster from the 1970s, with its own conventional gesture and hairdo.

There are the conventions of Precolumbian cultures and the wonderful circle-and-dot conventions of Northwest Coast Native American cultures.

Each is a way of transposing the living, breathing world into a two- or three-dimensional image that can be understood to embody some version of that world. For us to accept the black-and-white photograph as a realistic depiction of our world, we have to accept and then forget the many conventions behind it.

clock 1But it is not merely art that conventionalizes our sense of the world. Many of the things we take for granted are not rooted in reality or necessity, but are purely conventional. Twenty-four hours in a day? Seven days in a week? There is no good reason, other than convention, that the clock and calendar could not be decimalized, like so many other measurements we now know. A 10-hour day just requires a clock notched out in a new way. Give those extended hours 100 minutes each. Fine. There is nothing about time that requires the division of the day and night into 24. Or a 10-day week, leaving us with a year of 36-and-a-half weeks.

Nor is there reason to add days into weeks, or weeks into months. We could subdivide them entirely differently, say into sub-weeks, or bi-weeks and cut the 36-week year into 9-week divisions, subdivided into 3-week “months.”

There is a lunar and sidereal cycle, but our current conventions don’t actually match up to them, so convention trumps astronomy on the calendar.

I am not suggesting we change our clocks and calendars; convention works just fine. But I am saying we should recognize them merely as conventions. If Ramadan moves around our Julian calendar like a slipped clutch, that’s fine: It’s merely another convention.

We are used to seeing North at the top of a map. How disorienting it can be to see a Medieval map which puts South at the top.

Suits and ties? Convention. Lipstick? Convention. Men in pants, women in skirts? Convention. Just picture Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs standing next to Sean Connery in a kilt. Where are the bloomers and bustles of yesteryear? Conventions change.

Our version of marriage? Convention. There are other ways of organizing families. History is full of them. Patriarchy? Convention. There are perfectly successful matriarchies in the world.

The names of colors are conventional. We could divide and subdivide the spectrum in other ways. Different cultures, in fact, do divide them differently. The same way we think of pink and red as different colors, Russians think of dark and light blue, and have different names for them: Siniy and Goluboy. We could easily make a distinction between “sea green” and “leaf green” and give them distinct names.

colors

chopsticksThe musical scale is now more conventional than ever, as it has been squeezed into the well-tempered system. We now split an octave into 12 semitones; others find five tones in an octave plenty. Indian ragas may need up to 40. All conventions, taken inside their generating cultures as simply “the way things are.”

Why do we eat off round places with knives and forks? Other cultures favor square plates or chopsticks. Three meals a day? Not nutritionally determined. Four does for some; two for others. Compare the French croissant and coffee in the morning with the full English breakfast.

Zuni PuebloOur houses have front and back doors. Ancient Puebloan people did without doors altogether and clambered into their homes from their roofs down ladders.

Poems used to rhyme. Works great in Italian, with all those vowels, a bit harder in English, unknown in most cultures, which may value metrical rules over rhyme, or alliteration instead.

Driving on the right in the U.S.? On the left in the U.K.? Switching from one to the other in Sweden?

We each of us has in our mind a pattern of how we think the world is organized and constructed. Sometimes called the “Umwelt,” it is partly constructed from the ineluctable constraints of reality, such as gravity, light, day, night, hunger, thirst, the horizon and the wetness of the sea — and the rest is made up of convention. We seldom make a distinction between the two, and take the weekend for as natural a thing as we take ripening fruit.

This model of the universe does not feel learned, the way laws have to be learned, but are taken as the natural state of the world. The problem lies when we make prescriptive demands on others based on our private Umwelt. It is what feeds racism, for instance. When you have an internal model of the world that sees one race as superior or inferior, you then create laws requiring others to act according you your inner light (or lack of light). Yet, as we have seen, a good deal of this inner model is nothing but convention. It might be good to examine everything we believe with some skepticism.

Mercator map

Topo mapAn ideology is like a road map. It contains a schematized version of the world. But, it is always a simplified and distorted version. It may show the roads, or be covered with circles of topographic tree rings, or be great blotches of geological information. But it by necessity ignores a great deal of information to clarify some single small aspect.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a conservative sees a different world from a liberal; one is looking at highways and the other is looking at landforms. But this is not simply binary: The libertarian has a different map from a neocon, the religious right has yet another map, and the fiscal conservative yet another — and all call themselves, in one sense or another, conservative. The same variety can be found at every point in the political spectrum. Just consider how many spatting socialist parties join in war against each other.

geological mapAnd all of this is only the plethora of maps held by political enthusiasts. Politics, after all, is only one tiny corner of human consideration. Look at the range of literary theory, from Formalism through Structuralism to Post-structuralism, from deconstruction to neo-Marxian criticism. Each of them has its own roadmap and each ignores any tiny detail that might confuse the clarity of their ideology.

Or religion. No, let’s narrow it to Christianity. Or further, let’s narrow it to Protestant Christianity with its Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists — oh, heck, lets just look at Baptists. There are Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, African-American Baptists, Landmarkism, Missionary Baptists, Fundamental Baptists, Progressive Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Sovereign Grace Baptists, Southern Baptists and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestination Baptists. And that only scratches the surface. Each is separated from the others by a map that emphasizes some single detail that serves as sufficient cause for a schism from some parent group, whose roadmap leads directly to Hell.

Treasure Island map

Treasure Island map

(This is the sticking point for Pascal’s wager: That if you don’t believe in God and he exists, you go to eternal damnation; if you do believe and there turns out not to be a God, then you are no worse off than if you didn’t believe. Therefore, said Pascal, the smart money is on believing: You have a one-in-four chance of salvation; the atheist belief has a certainty of annihilation. The fly in the ointment is this proliferation of sects. Which God do you place your wager upon? Choose wrong and, whoosh, you slide down the chute to perdition. That one-in-four bet now looks more like the state lottery.)

Mercator projection

Mercator projection

The world map most of us remember from the walls of our schoolrooms was the Mercator map, which attempted to show the oceans most accurately to aid navigation, while distorting the landmasses to accommodate that. We have become so used to the Mercator look, that any other map looks somehow “wrong.” If you take the Peters map, for instance, it looks highly ideological, as if it’s trying to make a propaganda point. Of course, it is, but so was the Mercator map. Where is Europe? Why shouldn’t China be at the center?

Gall-Peters projection

Gall-Peters projection

Try to take the globe and flatten it into a map and you are forced to distort. No way around it. The problem is that a map is not an accurate depiction of reality, but a schema, a simplified, diagrammatic visual representation.

Goode homolosine projection

Goode homolosine projection

Comedian Steven Wright once said, “I have a map of the United States … Actual size. It says, ‘Scale: 1 mile equals 1 mile.’ I spent last summer folding it. I hardly ever unroll it. People ask me where I live, and I say, ‘E6.’ ”

But even life size, the map is still flat when the world is all bumpy, and Wright’s lifesize map is still on the human scale.

Norwegian coastlineConsider the fractal nature of the Norwegian coast (as designed by Slartibartfast). How many miles of coastline is there in Norway? Depends entirely on how accurate you want to be. If you look at it as the crow flies, it is something like a thousand miles. But there are all those fjords and inlets. Add them to the calculation and you wind up with an accepted length of 25,000 miles — enough to circle the globe. But that doesn’t count the islands. Add those and you are up to 80,000 miles. But let’s lower the fractal scale: The usual numbers are calculated in a rather crude way. The fjords might be considered, but how about the river mouths leading to the fjords, the creeks feeding the rivers, the constant wavering of shoreline zigging and zagging. Look at it not at a mere human scale, but on the microscopic, and you realize that you can re-add-up the length of the coast of Norway to something like infinity. Reality is that infinity. Existence is overwhelming. So forgive me if I snort at your conservative roadmap, or your Marxist theory of history, or your prescriptive grammar.

It is no different from any other version of reality, any ideology, religion, artistic convention or psychological theory. Reality is maimed.

And so, ideology is always mistaken. Always. It cannot be otherwise.

road mapEvery ideology is based on a synoptic description of the world, a limited model of the way things are: a map. That map, whether it is the right-wing Mercator of nationalism, privatized economy, traditional marriage and organized religion, or the left-wing Peters of fair distribution of wealth, cultural tolerance, the evils of a class system and mistrust of big business – that model is always too simplistic, too limited, too rationalized, too coherent, to encompass the vast, unwieldy, incoherent, and imponderable experience of being alive.

Our lives, among the swirling trillions of stars, the millions of species of plant and animal, in the midst of an atmosphere ruled by chaos theory, with the billions of synapses in each of the billions of brains that populate this ball of dirt, are too complex to fit into any ideology. Is the standard-bearer of Progressivism a millionaire? Is the Christian conservative a secret frottagist or Republican pedophile? Is the classical scholar a fan of hip-hop?  Does the Andean priest speak Church Latin? We should never be surprised.

No ideology can grasp the shifting variety of the world: When we look for the particle, we find the wave; when we look for the wave, we find the particle.

Garden

There is a line in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” that should be a starting point: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.”

These are two primary foci for our existence: There is the world and there is our mind working on the world. Mind and world, the face and the mirror. The central problem is that the world is incomprehensible, multifarious, immense and unimaginably complicated, self-entwined and raw, while our minds, however brilliant, are puny organizers and pattern-finders. What we believe of the world is what we have been able to make of it, and we are simply not humble enough to recognize the insufficiency.

bee blossomTake something as basic as sight. We look upon the world and take what we see as something “real,” something actually “out there.” Yet, we know that visible light is such a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, that our human vision is essentially nothing more than the chink of Pyramus and Thisbe, the slat of a Venetian blind lifted to see a wedge of the  world outside the window. Other animals are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and for them, the world is a different world: The bee sees not the daisy that you or I see.

We know this because human ingenuity has given us instruments that can measure those portions of the wavelengths that we cannot apprehend directly, and proves their existence. But we cannot know them directly: We are too limited. For that matter, so are the instruments.

Also limited are the odors we can smell, the sounds we can hear, the tastes we can enjoy or revile, or, for that matter, the languages we can understand or the names we have for the emotions we feel. And yet, somehow we feel we can say we know the world.

I am constantly amazed at human arrogance in the face of the vast ignorance we daily confront. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have faith in our senses and our minds, that we believe what we have learned of the world is the way the world in actuality, is. It takes an act of imagination to escape our shortsightedness.

And it is not only the world beyond our skins that escapes us: The conscious mind — that part of ourselves we generally consider to be “us” — is such a small part of what our brains do for us. We are not consciously aware of our guts squeezing the chyme along our bowel, not aware of our capillaries constricting, our irises expanding, our hearts beating faster or slower, depending on the unconscious monitoring of our inner bodily needs. Consider yourself at this very second, sitting or standing. Are you fingers curled? Are you tapping them? Is your head tilted slightly? Are you yawning? Have you sneezed? Did you “decide” to do any of those things? Your body seems to work quite autonomously, and your administration has delegated authority to its constituent parts to act on their own. Let’s face it, you would die if you had to will each heartbeat, each breath, each eye blink: Keeping track of it all would be impossible.

And yet, we have faith in that little voice in our heads that seems to be in charge: It blithely makes assumptions that cannot be justified.

This is not to toss out the little voice: We could not operate in the world if we did not simplify it to our purpose; we would be overwhelmed. We make schemas and function within those schemas quite happily, but are seldom aware of their artificiality.

tres riches heuresA good deal of trouble is caused by our unawareness. In politics, for instance, one side believes in pure capitalism, the other in socialism, but each view is only a schema, and takes not into account the great variability of human want, need, ability, and the inevitability of change, both historical and social. Remember feudalism? Monarchy and aristocracy? These were earlier schema, and sustained over centuries, even millennia. One thing might work better at some point, while its opposite might be more functional at another, neither perfectly, while all are always mere band-aids. No human reality can be encompassed by an ideology. They are all simplifications to the point of absurdity.

take outRepublicans who now believe things diametrically opposed to what they had once believed, think that if they can finally pass the laws they want, everything will work like a well-oiled machine from thence onward. Conservatives, who once championed strong central power, now believe the least government is best. (In reality, they believe in whatever will best preserve their own hegemony and wealth and if that changes, so will their ideal of proper government). But in practice, nothing is ideal, nothing is unchanging and perfect: Politics is always ad hoc. It doesn’t fit into cardboard pint containers like so much chop suey.

Religions, political ideologies, psychologies, even science are all such partial schemata and none can be said to encompass all of existence. It isn’t that we should trash all of them, but rather that we should recognize their agendas. And beyond that we should embrace, enjoy and revel in all that is not contained therein. The universe is vast, it contains multitudes. It is this plenitude and fecundity that ultimately sustains us. No system is enough.

Largest ever galaxy portrait - stunning HD image of Pinwheel GalWhat wakes us to the complexity is experience: travel, reading, learning other languages, meeting other people (as a “thou” not an “it”), education, and most of all, the exercise and strengthening of imagination, which all the previous foster. Openness to the world rather than stricture according to ideology or schema. Pulling our turtle heads into the shells of our small perceptions is nothing but retreat.

And whenever possible — and this is the biggest lesson I have swallowed in 68 years on this round, bubbly planet — to love the things of this world. All of it, helter-skelter, unapologetic and enthusiastic, chaotic, overwhelming, incomprehensible and glorious. And recognize our smallness, our ignorance, in the face of it.