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

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Obsession And The True Nature Of Perception - For The Rest Of Us A Tree Is Just A Tree

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. 

Image result for images russian fairy tale with pigs

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.

Image result for images huge round gas storage tanks

For a classmate of Billy's 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.

The girl next door 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. 

Image result for images flower garden with many different colors

After knowing obsessive children like this Harper Phelps realized how bland his own own perceptions were - sharp enough to distinguish shapes, colors, and size and to appreciate the difference, but never intense like theirs.  He would have moments of insight when he 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 he was not built like them, and the city would always be bits and pieces, scraps of color, and odd measures of rhythm, nothing else.

Indian yogis, in their evolution towards enlightenment, are able, it is 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 any still mired in complex phenomena the deciphering of which leads nowhere except to more futile attempts to disaggregate, categorize, organize and ultimately make sense out of a world of flickering and impermanent images.

Phelps, hoping to square his conviction that obsession enhanced experience and offered insights that normal desultory perception never could with the contrary Hindu conviction that only withdrawal, emotional neutrality, and the dismissal of rational perception as meaningless, traveled to Hardwar, one of the holiest sites in India.  He wanted to visit Hardwar because it was in the foothills of the Himalayas 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.

Image result for images haridwar india ghats

Harper's real reason for going to Hardwar, however, was because it was a relatively quiet place compared to the vast, dense and sprawling holy cities of Varanasi or Allahabad.  There he would be able to meditate on the banks of the river, and try to at least get a glimpse of ‘seeing without thinking’.

Hardwar was all that he expected – a devotional place meant for prayer, cremation, and meditation.  It was cool and fresh, a welcome change from the heat of Delhi. Harper sat in the traditional yoga pose, breathed deeply, and opened his 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 Phelps could not help but analyze, categorize, and organize.  The color of the water was like a cold Caribbean, he 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. 

He tried again and again with no luck.  He 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.  Phelps tried for moments, seconds of clarity, first baby steps on the way to perceptual purity.  Nothing.  The incredible, new, unique, and unexplained sights and sounds around me were too much.  Westerner to the core, he had to understand them.

Image result for images linnaeus drawings

Phelps left India more confused and discouraged than ever.  Not only did he have the intense, perceptions of Billy Klegg and his classmates but he was equally unable to disassociate himself from the compulsive need to analyze, sift, and make sense of everything from paper to God.

This perceptual confusion led to its own obsession. There was a third and even more important way that perception could be altered, Phelps felt, by adjusting the perception of time.  Repetition, for example, sped things up.  Every morning that he made his bed, smoothed the wrinkles, and arranged the blankets, he was not only aware of that singularly repetitive act, but of the many days he had done it.  Every evening that he left his office and walked down the corridor past the pictures of smiling African women pulling water from wells, or children staring at the camera, he knew that he had done that very same action the day before and the day before that.  Now a year had passed without him realizing it.

If he changed routines, he reasoned, changing routines, altering routes from office to street, making the bed in the middle of the day or just before bedtime, he could slow the passage of time.   All that he accomplished, of course, was to establish new, eventually predictable routines.  The days all sped by, and he turned 70 when he should only have been 30.

He was back where he started, caught between 'two purities' - the ability to see the world according to one's own innate perceptual order; and the equally remarkable ability to see it as a pastiche of unrelated and meaningless objects in random movement. His attempts to slow time was nothing more than a futile and ironically obsessional attempt to engineer perception.

Absalom, Absalom 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 Faulkner's treatise on human perception as well as a chronicle of Southern history, manners, and morals.  

Image result for images absalom absalom

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.

Harper Phelps eventually realized that he was not naturally able to see shapes for their consistency and meaning; nor could he hear sounds as patterns that intimated universality ; nor was he disciplined enough to remove the misleading intent of logic. He was neither Billy Klegg or a Himalayan sadhu. Perhaps most importantly, he shared none of the obsession of both.

He couldn't even convince himself that Faulkner, Robert Browning, or Akira Kurosawa were right in observing that there is no such thing as one unique, true, unalterable perception; who concluded that one can only cobble together multiple views and come up with something resembling reality; and that perceptual obsession had no place at all in human activity.

Harper Phelps ended up like everyone else believing that sounds, colors, and shapes have no meaning other than superficial designators; that logic and rational intelligence are God-given and what make us human.  Questioning their relevance or validity would be senseless; and to suggest that they should be suppressed for enlightenment irrelevant. The external world is a randomly assigned given and the internal one a mystery, so trying to make sense out of their interface would be a futile enterprise from the very start.

In other words he muddled through, never bothering about what things meant or why they were ordered the way they were.  He was ordinary, as befuddled by what he saw as anyone, but thanks to his obsession with obsession, was able to relax and take life as it came.

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