"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Obsessive People

Even as an infant Billy Klegg knew the meaning of ‘fat’.  He pointed his chubby little finger at flubbery stomachs, thick thighs, high booty, pendulous breasts, and triple chins and said, “Fat”.

He pointed at stanchions, pylons, posts, and trash bins and correctly said, “Fat”.  Billy understood girth.

His mother, thinking that this ability was a sign of high intelligence rather than the developmental challenge that it was, encouraged him.  At his insistence, she read him only stories of fat people.  His favorite was about Farmer Bialek, a peasant from the Russian shtetl who had a barnyard full of fat animals.  In liltingly rhyming couplets the nursery rhyme told of geese with their plump breasts ready for eating, fat chickens laden with eggs for laying, and cows with heavy udders ready for milking. 

When he got a bit older and could deal with numbers, his teachers were impressed with his ability to gauge circumference.  Even without seeing completely around an object, he was able to estimate its circumference within a few millimeters.  He couldn’t make neither heads nor tails out of pyramids, cylinders, or cubes.  It was as though they weren’t there, out of his field of vision. 

As he grew, his obsession continued.  His world was completely circumscribed, so to speak, by round objects.  Only they mattered to him.  New Jersey was his favorite state because when he rode up the Turnpike and passed the giant, spherical gas containers at the refineries, he was ecstatic and kept pestering his parents to stop so that he could climb them.  He no longer called things fat, and his obsession morphed into to something more expansive.  It now was mass that appealed to him.  To most other children, skyscrapers were simply overwhelmingly tall.  To Billy, they were massive, as were mountains, huge semi rigs, and dams.  His mind could not calculate mass as easily as circumference, but he measured it in his own way and was surprised by the various forms that mass could take. To him outlines and perimeters did not exist.  The shape itself was never interesting, only the mass contained within it.

I became fascinated with this particular kind of obsession after knowing Billy, and encountered many more like him.  I didn’t search out people who saw the world in unique and singular ways.  They were just there – many of them.  For Mike Lowell, for example, the world was only rhythmic sound and movement.  He saw and limited his vision to the rhythmic flap of wings or the sound of a train crossing a trestle.  He heard and isolated a dripping water faucet, the creaking of a dormer expanding equally under the heating of the sun, or the sound of engine tappets at idle.  He had no interest in chaotic events – a flag flapping irregularly with the intermittent wind, the chop of the Potomac River, or the stop-and-go movement of traffic.

Lisa Price saw only colors, but instead of seeing the color of an object, she saw in her mind all the similar colors that it was not.  A dandelion yellow sweater was not daffodil yellow, or flashing light yellow, or burnt red-yellow, or yellow ochre, or goldfinch yellow.  Her mind was a riot of colors.  A downtown street is colorful enough without the obsession of seeing all the colors it could be.  She had to wear glasses with special lenses to block out color, especially during summer when the sun brightened all colors, and brought out tint and hue almost painfully. 

After knowing these obsessive people I realized that mine was a bland perception, sharp enough to distinguish shapes, colors, and size and appreciate the difference, but never intense like theirs.  I would have moments of insight years later when I suddenly saw the mass of a mountain silhouetted by the setting sun, or heard a rhythm that pierced through the horns and battering of the city, or saw the blue spectrum in a scarf; but I was not built like them, and the city would always be bits and pieces, scraps of color, and odd measures of rhythm, nothing else

Years later I went to India where I was taken with just the opposite phenomenon. Yogis, in their evolution towards enlightenment, were able, it was said, to see without thinking; to take in a varied scene of movement, sound, smell, shape, and color and receive it, absorb it, assimilate it without analyzing it.  It was a purer perception, a higher state of perception than one still mired in complex phenomena the deciphering of which would lead nowhere except to more futile attempts to disaggregate, categorize, organize and ultimately make sense out of a world of flickering and impermanent images.

I travelled to Hardwar, one of the holiest sites in India, as part of my travel to all the seven holiest places, among them Mathura, Varanasi, and Ayodhya; and the kumbh mela sites – Allahabad, Nasik and others where millions visit every seven years. An estimated 15 million came to Allahabad for the last kumbh mela there.  I wanted to visit Hardwar because it was in the foothills of the Himalayas, and it was near the source of the Ganges.  The water, unlike the brown sludge of the Ganges in the vast Indian plains, was a brilliant turquoise.  The water poured down upland rapids for miles until it joined with other rivers to become the powerful but placid river of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

My real reason for going to Hardwar was because it was a relatively quiet place compared to the vast, dense and sprawling cities like Varanasi or Allahabad.  There I would be able to sit and meditate on the banks of the river, and try to at least get a glimpse of ‘seeing without thinking’.  The place would be right; the ambience would be right. 

Hardwar was all that I expected – a devotional place meant for prayer, cremation, and meditation.  It was cool and fresh, a welcome change from the heat of Delhi.  It was small, quiet, and serene. 

I sat in the traditional yoga posed, breathed deeply, and opened my eyes.  In the river, men held large pieces of broken glass on top of the water as lenses to see through so that they could locate gold teeth, jewelry, coins, and other valuable bits and pieces that survived the burning and charring.  Upriver were the burning ghats, the high funeral pyres stacked with wood under white-wrapped bodies.  Along the riverbank were the prayer stalls where Hindu priests located in some arcane book your caste name, took your money, and promised to offer prayers for the dead.  There were kites – scavenger birds – which pecked and pick at the leavings that floated downwind from the pyres.

The problem was, of course, that I could not help but analyze, categorize, and organize.  The color of the water was like a cold Caribbean, I thought.  The color of a woman’s sari was like that of a former girlfriend in Bombay.  The cawing of the crows was like that of the birds scavenging rat pieces near Kemp’s Corner. 

I tried again and again with no luck.  I had been trained for thirty years to see things not just for what they are but for what they resemble – how they are like other things in a category, or dissimilar, like the plants of Linnaeus in a world of taxonomy.  It would not be possible to change so quickly, if at all.  I tried for moments, seconds of clarity, first baby steps on the way to perceptual purity.  Nada.  The incredible, new, unique, and unexplained sights and sounds around me were too much.  Westerner to the core, I had to understand them.

Once, after returning to my sanctuary – the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, truly a  grande dame of a hotel, very British and colonial, cool and far removed from the intensity, heat, and throngs outside – did I realize that for an hour spent in the markets of the city, I had not analyzed or categorized or organized.  There was simply no time to do so.  The bazaar was a kaleidoscope of colors, sound, smells, activity, so much so that I didn’t know where to look.  I had just taken it all in until finally, feeling sensory overload, I had to retreat.  Maybe this was the first step to the clarity that the yogis of Hardwar promised.

The only obsession I have had is time, and I have been convinced at one point or other in my life that I could adjust its speed.  I felt that repetition sped things up.  Every morning that I made my bed, smoothed the wrinkles, and arranged the blankets, I was not only aware of that singularly repetitive act, but of the many days I had done it.  Every evening that I left my office and walked down the corridor past the pictures of smiling African women pulling water from wells, or children staring at the camera, I knew that I had done that very same action the day before and the day before that.  Now a year had passed without me realizing it. 

I was determined to adjust time, to slow the perception of it by changing routines, altering routes from office to street, making the bed in the middle of the day or just before bedtime.  All that I accomplished was to establish new, eventually predictable routines and the days whizzed by.  The days have all whizzed by, and I am 70 when I should be 30.

So, I am glad I met Billy Klegg and his fellow obsessives.  I am glad I went to India; and I am glad that I had at least enough of an awareness of the perception of time to know how to become more aware of its passing.  The wife of Carlos Casteneda died today.  Her husband wrote about opening the doors to perception through drugs and the wisdom of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico.  It was a big deal back in the early Seventies.  We were all convinced that his stories were true.  Now, we assume not.

I have just finished reading Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner, perhaps the best, most complex, and most ultimately satisfying of all his novels.  He tells the story of the Sutpen family through the eyes of many observers, some who have seen events happen directly, but most who either have heard about them second hand or more and who conjecture about fact and reality.  It is a brilliant treatise on human perception as well as a chronicle of Southern history, manners, and morals.  Robert Browning (The Ring and the Book) and Edward Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) did the same with much less success.

Faulkner said, quoting a poem by Wallace Stevens, said that reading Absalom, Absalom was like looking at a blackbird thirteen different ways.  When asked about that quote by a student at the University of Mississippi who wondered why 13, Faulkner replied, “I made a mistake.  Not thirteen, but fourteen”.  The student looked at him quizzically.  “You are the fourteenth”, said Faulkner.

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