Archive

Tag Archives: umwelt

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.

north bergen to meadowlands

Northern New Jersey in the postwar years was a patchwork of suburban towns and rural farmland. The part just west of the Hudson River is hilly, with a long irregular slope dropping down from the crest of the Palisades and into the valley of the Hackensack River. The larger towns — Teaneck, Bergenfield, Hackensack — were urbanized with a bloom of soot covering everything. My town, Old Tappan, was changing from one of small farms and Dutch-colonial homes to one in which whole neighborhoods of sameness were erupting in tract housing. The population was a mix of old families that had lived there for generations and the bright-cheeked newcomers looking for their own homes and green lawns and an upwardly mobile place to raise their children.

OT bridgeOur house was a one-off — new, but not in a development. It sat on a gentle hill in what had been woods and included a brook. My father built a wooden bridge over the stream and enlarged a bend in it to become a small pool in which we could wade or recline in the water to cool off in the muggy summers.

Because I grew up there, this patch of planet became for me my umwelt — my inner picture of what the world looks like — it was normative. The wider world I knew stretched from upstate New York along the Hudson and down to the Jersey Shore along the Shrewsbury River. The landscape included such landmarks as the accordioned oil-storage tanks along Route 36 in Keyport, the Pulaski Skyway that crossed over the New Jersey Turnpike, and the three-lane Route 9W that skirted Storm King Mountain along the Hudson. It included forests and streams, and it included heavy industry, a web of highways and the shopping malls of Paramus. pulaski skyway

The center and anchor of this landscape was Manhattan — the gravitational center on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. It was where, as a teenager, I wanted to spend all my time. Museums, bookstores, subways, Central Park, Chinatown restaurants and the great cheap ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

When the family went to the city for whatever reason, and we came home at night, driving up the brand-new Palisades Interstate Parkway, the lights of the city across the river were stars burning in the blackness, outlining the vertical thrust of the skyscrapers, while a thin line of burning beads moved continuously along the West Side Highway providing a baseline. When I was 7 years old, it was the most beautiful thing I knew. nyc night skyline

The landscape of our childhoods is embedded in our minds and memory the same as the language we learn without trying — it is absorbed whole. It shapes the mirror that reflects back everything we live through afterwards.

“The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,” wrote Andrew Marvell in The Garden.

As an adult, I have lived in each of the four corners of the nation: the Southeast, the Southwest, the Northwest in addition to my green years in the Northeast. But no matter where I have gone, outside that comfortable nest of the Middle Atlantic, the landscape remains a novelty. I have enjoyed, even loved living elsewhere, but deep in the folds of my cortex, normal is New Jersey.

That same process works for wherever you grow up. It is Mississippi for Faulkner, Brooklyn for Henry Miller, Concord for Thoreau, Ohio for Sherwood Anderson, Missouri for Twain, Lowell, Mass., for Kerouac. You can find Paterson, N.J. in William Carlos Williams and Asheville, N.C. in Thomas Wolfe. The axis mundi.

Leonardo took northern Italy with him when he went to France. Durer took Germany with him to Italy as much as he brought the Renaissance back north. Beethoven never left Bonn even when he lived in Vienna, and the provincial towns of Czechoslovakia chime over and over through the symphonies of Mahler in the military marches and SchrammelmusikRiver Street, Madison NC.

My wife grew up in Madison, N.C., on the banks of the Dan River. “The river and the creek in the back yard are the back of my brain, the inner part I draw from. The front of my head looks out to the town.”

That is the crux: the part we draw on, waters of life from the inner well.

Childhood creates the fixed inner sense of the world, depending on where you grew up: the flatness of northern Indiana, the short-grass prairies of western Nebraska, the leaden skies and perpetual drizzle of Seattle in winter.

But it isn’t merely the look of the landscape — as if it were a painting — but an entire sense of the physical world and our place and size in it. That includes a paradigm of distance — how far is the horizon, how long is a street before it curves away from your vision, how tall are the trees. These measurements are as set in the forming brain as are our names.

So too are the seasons we live through. In New Jersey, there were four, with deep snow in winter and muggy heat in summer. The further north, the more winter and summer vary in length of daylight. In Arizona, there are two seasons: unbearable heat and relief from unbearable heat. In San Diego, there is barely more than one season. If you move from one place to another, you never quite get used to the missing or added seasons.

That umwelt includes the quality of light we know as normal, the feel of air and its humidity against our skin, the way sound carries or doesn’t carry as it is muffled by woods or snow. It also includes the food, the ethnicities that surround us, the accent we speak in and the population density. All create a “normal” in our minds that we never lose, even as we expand our horizons as we grow. bergen co to nyc

There are those who believe we try as adults to recapture our childhoods, but I say instead, we can never escape them. They are there engraved in our synapses.

I have traveled widely in North America, through all the states save Hawaii, and all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island. And all those states many times. The landscape — not landscape as art, but landscape as the planet your drive or walk through — gives character to each location, as if each location were not just a tract of land, but an entire culture.

The land has meaning.

I am going to try to describe over the next series of blog entries a variety of distinct American landscapes and find in them meaning beyond the picturesque. I hope you’ll come with me.