I’ve had a few more thoughts on the topic of how our internal state of mind affects our art. But first, take a look at these two pictures.
At the left is a photo of Milan’s Duomo (originated in the 14th century). The second a modern skyscraper (I’m presuming it’s an artist’s rendering.)
Yesterday I was commenting on the constant interruptions of daily life. The phone calls, the nagging emails, our screaming, annoying children, television blowhards freaking out about this or that etc. Those are, of course, external distractions. But we’ve got internal distractions as well. I was just reading an old interview with the stress doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn who sums these up nicely.
A thought comes up and you’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got to do this,” and you run to do that. Then the next thought comes, and you say, “Oh, I’ve got to do that,” and you run to do it.
From “Healing and the Mind” by Bill Moyers
I read this and thought, “Boy, that is exactly how I think.” Then I thought, “Shit, I’ve gotta check for that email!”
So we’ve got two different kinds of distractions: external (which we have limited control over) and internal (which we have – one hopes – some control over.) I would also surmise that our internal state is “trained” by our external environment. If we are constantly being interrupted in the “real world,” soon our own mind will only be able to focus for short periods (because it’s anticipating the interruptions it’s so used to.)
Now, as I was saying yesterday, in the past we had less external interruptions. In 1450, there wasn’t much to do. If you wanted to write a piece of music (and were lucky enough to have your sustenance needs taken care of) you could sit and write for hours/days without phone calls, emails, facebook updates, television blather, etc. And I presume this lack of external interruption led to “quieter” minds that were less prone to self interruption (of the type described by Kabat-Zinn above.) As a result of all this, people could really focus produce artistic media with tremendous detail: 12 foot tall paintings with all sort of hidden objects and figures (and obtuse religious connotations), ornate, sky high cathedrals covered with miniature statues of golems and maidens, 20 minute sonatas in which themes are developed via endless variation of tempo, melody, harmony etc.
And a calmer mind isn’t required just to create this art; it’s required to even appreciate it! I get about three minutes into most 20 minute sonatas and my mind is already wandering. I usually don’t have the focus to stay with it.
To recap: in earlier eras people had calmer minds. But, as time went on – as society industrialized, as we became better able to keep precise measurement of time (and thus create the great evil that is the daily organizer), as communication methods expanded from a single town crier to pony express to telegraph to telephone and then instantaneous email – our minds became more and more deluged with interruption.
So how did that affect art? Well, take a look at the above pictures again. The second building is much less ornamental, much simpler, much easier to digest. You can look at that building from a distance and basically “get it,” as opposed to the Duomo which you really have to view up close to appreciate the detail.
Now, if you landed on an alien planet and saw that second building you might think, “Wow, this such serene architecture; I bet these aliens are calm, peaceful creatures with minds devoid of incessant inner chatter.” But I’m thinking that the exact opposite is true. As the mind gets more cluttered, art gets simpler. Why? Because we don’t have the time to focus on creating detailed art, and frankly, we don’t have the time to appreciate it.
Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not knocking minimalism. I like minimalism and I’m not a great fan of ornamentalism (though I’m not virulently opposed to it.) But my larger point here is that what goes on “in here” (pointing to head) has an effect on what shows up “out there.” And it’s an inverse effect. Busy minds = simple art and vice versa*. To examine the history of art is to examine the changing state of the human mind. (To put it another way, “Art history is a subset of psychology.”)
*Obviously this is a broad statement with many exceptions. I also realize that simple, minimalist art is not that simple. But you get my point.
One thing that always impresses me about classical music is the great depth of its construction. Such tremendous care was taken to place interlocking melodies together in precise ways. And then, on top of it, some of these pieces go on for 20 minutes. And this approach is prevalent in much of the art of that era (I guess were talking about the 14th to 18th centuries.) That’s when you had the epic novels that went on for 2000 pages detailing the rise and fall of a family. Or gigantic paintings that were detailed down to the quarter square inch. Or ornate cathedrals covered with miniature sculptures that are themselves works of art. (The epitome of this in my mind is always the Duomo in Milan.)
It’s really the extended focus required to create such works that impresses me. It’s hard to conceive of spending 8 to 10 hours a day for weeks, months, perhaps years, working on the same thing.
Of course, when you think about life back then, it becomes easier to understand. After all, what was there to do? You had to take care of your meals, and maybe chat with neighbors, but if you were a professional composer or painter, you had a large chunk of basically uninterrupted time to fill. And there was no television, radio, Internet midget porn or telephone to fill it.
My suspicion here is that people of this era — an era devoid of many of our modern distractions — were capable of much greater focus and constant attention than we are. In our era — whether we want to focus on something or not — it’s inevitable that we will be distracted by some piece of meaningless bullshit. (It’s no coincidence that I got started thinking about this topic while working on a piece of music and being interrupted by two telephone sales calls in the space of five minutes.) And I think the art of our era has been affected by this. Our songs are shorter and require less attention to detail; our “stories”, which are mainly our movies, are totally immersive, but also take much less time to consume then a 16th century novel. Our architecture largely lacks the ornamentalism of previous eras.
And I’m not necessarily knocking the art of our era. I tend to find ornamentalism unnecessary and ostentatious. And I love pop music and movies partly because they get right to the point. But, I can’t deny that I’m kind of jealous of artists of earlier eras. I’d like to be able to sit down and really focus attention on a single project all day, for days or weeks. I imagine that there would be a real catharsis in letting the outside world drift away as you focus on your work. On rare occasions I have managed something like this for short periods and there indeed was a kind of bliss to it. You become so focused on the act that you’re not even thinking about it. You’re just doing it.
I’m reminded of something I blogged about before. There’s a particular historian who’s argued that as recently as 3000 years ago, the average man did not have consciousness. This seems hard to fathom. After all, these people had created some technology and culture and how can one create anything without consciousness? But maybe I’m misinterpreting what consciousness is. We’re certainly aware that we have a kind of inner dialogue which we use to keep track of what we’re doing, where were going, what’s coming up etc. It’s a constant mental chatter, and probably only getting more spastic as we are interrupted by ever-increasing communications and channels of information. So let’s envision a world 3000 years ago. Again, no phones, no TV, no Facebook, no e-mails etc. Maybe there was simply much less of a need for this mental chatter. In fact, maybe there was no need at all. People were able to place such focus on whatever they were doing, that they simply did it without thinking about it. Maybe that’s what a lack of consciousness is.
Over the past years, as I’ve been reading these various texts on psychology, neuroscience and psychosomatic pain, I’ve been bothered with one thought: If all this stuff is true, I think, then it just seems like most of humanity would have to be screwed up. By this I mean that if we presume correct the idea of a subconscious that torments its owner, or that mental disarray causes physical pain, then it seems like the average joe would be a mess. And this perplexed me because, for the most part, the average joe seems all right.
But in the past couple months I’ve really opened my eyes. And I’ve I realized that most people are fucked! For instance – and I know I’m ranting about a topic I’ve ranted about before – what’s with all these morbidly obese people? That’s beyond mere physical unhealthiness and getting into some kind of warped psychological drive to consume everything in one’s path a gastronomical death wish. And I’m also struck by a tendency you see among so many – myself at one point – to worry obsessively about largely meaningless things (sports scores, job problems that can clearly be solved, bullshit politics.) It strikes me now that the point of such behavior isn’t any kind of productive worrying (e.g. heading off an actual impending problem), it’s simply worrying to avoid responsibility. If the disaster does happen these people/I can say, “Well I was worrying about it – you saw me!” This kind of behavior, like overeating, is clearly insane. (There’s a flip side to the worrying issue as well: people are not worrying about activities such as eating themselves to death, or not sleeping enough (things they can do something about), that clearly are problems.)
It’s possible Devo was right – we’re moving backwards, de-evolving.
In truth, I think humanity will muddle through as it always does. But I’m no longer struggling with the idea that most people are insane wackos (myself included.) It’s clearly the case.
You know, while we’re on the subject, here’s a great Devo song with a psychological bent.
Many years ago, when I was in Seattle, I took a class at the community college on public speaking. In this class there was an older guy, kind of white trashy, who seemed almost functionally retarded. He would constantly interrupt the teacher with totally asinine comments which she responded to with either mild amusement or annoyance.
One day, during a class exercise, this guy gave a speech on what he did for a living. He explained that he would go to government auctions and buy vehicles that had been impounded by the police, repair them, and then resell them for a hefty profit. I don’t think this made him exactly wealthy, but he was certainly doing all right, which was all the more impressive due to the fact that he was a complete moron.
Now, recently I was talking to a guy I know about a business venture he is engaged in, and he was reporting quite a bit of success. I don’t consider this guy to be a moron, but he’s not Einstein either. He’s a person of average intelligence. So I was driving home last night and thinking, “You know, I’m always going on about what a genius I am (not to mention incredibly good-looking and possessing vast physical prowess) but I’m largely unsuccessful. Why don’t I try one of these relatively simple business ventures?” The answer arrived pretty quick. I have considered such ideas in the past, and I almost invariably overthink and outthink myself. I consider a scheme — at one point I was thinking of starting a business doing consulting for speech recognition software — and then I sit around thinking about all the things that could go wrong, and essentially talk myself out of it. My vast intelligence — my ability to analyze problems and concepts to an almost granular level (you could say I’m doing it right now) — is actually a detriment. I’m the opposite of the moron from my public speaking course who probably thought, “Hey, I could buy used cars and resell them,” and then just went out and did it.
Okay, so hold on to that thought. Recently I’ve started reading a new book from the general ouvre of books related to Dr. John Sarno’s theories of the psychosomatic causes of pain. This book is called “The Great Pain Deception,” and from what I can tell it’s self published by the author. He does have a nice chapter length overview on Freud’s theories (id, ego and superego etc.) and at one point discusses how people inhibit their own success.
Some people unconsciously set themselves up to repeatedly fail… This can be accomplished through repetitive obsessive behavior or more commonly to a lesser extent, by procrastination. Things such as cleaning and re-cleaning, thinking and rethinking, or doing and re-doing or checking and re-checking, or practicing and re-practicing are avoidance-flight mechanisms.
Now, I read that point about “thinking and rethinking” and thought, “This is exactly what I do and exactly what I was thinking about while driving home last night.”
Do I have a problem with procrastination as well? Hmm, maybe, I don’t know…
Well, I think I’ll get around to finishing this blog post later…
But, seriously: of course I have a problem with procrastination. (As well as general time management.)
Why would I and others tend to outthink ourselves from pursuing ideas that might succeed? The conventional response would be we have some kind of fear of failure — we don’t want to waste time and resources on something that won’t pan out. This book argues the opposite — it posits that procrastination/overthinking is a fear of trying and succeeding. But why fear success? The answer comes easily if you’re familiar with Freud. Freud argued that we have an id — an inner child full of insatiable wants and desires — and a superego, which is essentially the voice of society. These two modular components are always clashing. The id wants success. But the superego does not, because it knows success will offend and engender jealousy in those around us. The superego wants to be “one of the people.”
This struck me as quite interesting, and I actually ran through a short mental list of people I know who have been successful versus people who have not, and I have to say, the people who have been successful clearly are not particularly bothered by the wants of the superego, or larger society. And the inverse is true with the unsuccessful.
So, am I constrained by my superego? Overall, I would say I have become less and less so as the years have gone by, particularly the last three or four. But I would surely say that in my childhood and even 20s I was bound by my superego. Or more correctly, there was a definite clash between my rebellious id and my parental superego. (A guy too concerned with fitting in probably wouldn’t start a blog called “My So-Called Penis.”)
The main thought here is that the id wants glory and is not ashamed about it. To add some ammunition to this point, consider children. Children are thought to be largely id-based creatures, and experienced no shame in taking glory in the most miniscule of accomplishments (such as successfully stacking colored blocks on top of each other.) Toddlers are largely unaware of the needs of others, and thus have to be trained, often violently so, to respect those around them. (To throw some neuroscience in here: generally speaking, the superego part of the mind is presumed to exist in the frontal cortex of the brain, and this brain area doesn’t really “activate” until many years after birth. We can also recall the famous case of Phineas Gage, a responsible, dutiful worker (e.g. dominated by superego) who, after having chunks of his frontal cortex removed in an accident, became a childish brute (e.g. dominated by id).)
Of course, there’s an additional component to this. I’m not sure “success” (which I’m generally defining as wealth, status and nailing a lot of babes) equals “happiness.” When I run down that mental list of successful people I mentioned above, I’m not sure I would describe all of them as happy. (Some I would though.)
I’ll end with an interesting quote mentioned in the book, from new agey author Marianne Williamson.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… we ask ourselves, who am I to be this brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? But actually, who are you not to be?… Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
The discussion I brought up earlier this week about the evolving notions of “cool” has been kicking off some interesting thoughts for me. When I was in my 20s I had a pretty acute sense of what was cool. I knew that a particular subculture — say, punk — thought that these bands were cool, whereas some other subculture — say, metal — thought these bands were cool etc. And I understood that the same rules applied to books and movies etc. I was aware of the constant tension between various subcultures and the mainstream and how that all played out in the arena of cool. And, of course, I had my own notions of what was cool… an individual sense of cool, you might say.
My point here is that I really put a value on these notions of cool. Coolness was a “real” quality of objects and ideas. It actually existed.
That started to change for me after 9/11 and the ensuing Iraq war. Both events kind of brought forth the fact that there was a big chunk of human culture out there — the Muslim/Arab world — that really had no interest in Western notions of cool. I can specifically remember ruminating on the fact that your average Iraqi probably had zero interest in Led Zeppelin. Not just in the music of Led Zeppelin, but in Led Zeppelin as a concept, or contextualization, or icon or whatever. And from there, of course, I had to concede that the same was probably too with many Chinese, Indians, Eskimos and Pakistanis etc. This whole idea of cool I place so much value in was basically ignored by most of humanity. This wasn’t some huge emotional shock for me but there was something a little disturbing and humbling about it.
As time has gone on, and I’ve really gotten into neuroscience and physics, I’ve become even more removed from the world of “cool.” Now I’m acutely aware that our senses give us, at best, a vague representation of the real world. By “real world” I’m not referring to the hit MTV show (which was never cool) but all that stuff out there — atoms, and molecules and laws of gravity and light etc. So ideas of “cool” — while important to the study of human culture — are close to meaningless in “reality.”
As a result, I really think the subcultures people affix themselves to — whether they are subcultures based on a musical style, religion, or political viewpoint — are fundamentally prisons. “Man-made prisons,” as Kramer from Seinfeld would say, that prevent you from seeing reality as it exists. (Of course, as explained in the above paragraph, we can never really see reality as it exists.) Only an elite few, such as myself, can handle the truth of reality. Everyone else is scum.
An interesting interview with the recently deceased Ray Bradbury is making the rounds on the Internet. He’s less than kind on the value of college in relation to writing.
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught.
So how does one learn to write? The answer, according to Bradbury, is the library.
I’m completely library educated… I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library…with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?
I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.
This largely mirrors my own views. We go on and on about ways to educate people in this country but there’s a perfectly good educational institution — the library — in every city. People just need to find the will to use it.
I was just at the library today, in fact. I notice there’s a lot of homeless people there. It seems quite possible that they’re gathering knowledge, filling their brains with a total understanding of science, technology, culture and history. And then, when the unavoidable Armageddon arrives, when the water stops flowing, the oil dries up and food becomes scarce, the homeless will step forward and say, “We have the solution. We have spent our lives in the library gathering knowledge for this very day.” They will offer to save humanity, but only if non-homeless people have sex with grimy, smelly, unbathed homeless people. That will be their ultimate victory.
I often discuss philosophical or neuroscientific topics on this blog and usually I insinuate or even directly state that the fact that I’m one of very few people ruminating on these subjects indicates that I am close to godhood while most other people are drooling morons. Now, I still think that’s a valid position, but yesterday I was sitting in a Starbucks and there were a couple of college-age kids one table over discussing a lot of the very same topics I’ve spent these past couple years thinking about — free will, biological determinism, consciousness. The young man (it was a man and woman; the chick was pretty heavy but had massive hooters) even tackled a conundrum that’s baffled me: how does the concept of randomness as described in quantum mechanics fit into a world we presume to be deterministic?
So, I guess I’m just saying there’s hope for the younger generation.
I continue my reading of the Damasio book; currently I’m on a chapter discussing the need for the evolution of emotions. It’s an explanation I’ve read in the past (in Damsio’s other books, in Jonah Leher’s “How We Decide”) but it’s still interesting to ruminate on.
Before I get into it, let’s be clear what the term “emotion” is describing. By Damasio’s argument, an emotion is a series of measurable body changes – fear is an increased heart rate and sweating, sadness is the dull ache of muscles and viscera, joy is perhaps a light warmth, a sense that the body is moving smoothly. These are not the complete list of body changes for each emotion and it can also be argued that many of the changes we experience in an emotional state are barely on the tip of our consciousness (e.g. Freud’s classic subconscious emotions.)
Damasio’s argument is that emotions evolved as a kind of short cut to reason. We employ emotions to make quick decisions that would take longer if we employed only logic. Let’s say a friend says to you, Hey [your name here], I’ll give you ten bucks if you dangle you penis into this swimming pool filled with flesh eating sharks.” Do you contemplate this offer by musing, “Well, if I do that there’s a likelihood that the sharks will sense my penis and bite it off in a mad feeding frenzy. Since this would deprive me of the many pleasures of owning a penis as well as the possibility of creating children I should decline this offer.”? No, you do not. Instead you instantly recoil at the thought of your proud phallus becoming shark chum. Emotions do all the logic processing for you and deliver a sharp sensations (physically felt) indicating that the idea is bad.
I described a similar example of this kind of emotional processing, complete with physical sensations, in my groundbreaking article, “What is Emotion?”
I recently hiked up a mountain near my house. As I stood atop a boulder overlooking the view, I observed some power lines that ran down the mountain and crossed just below me. As a kind of mental joke, I considered the possibility of leaping off the boulder and wrapping my sweater over the powerline so that I could literally slide down it as a kind of human ski lift. I had no serious intention of doing this, but even so, I could feel my body revolt. My viscera churned slightly and my chest got tight. What surprised me was the sensation in my knees. They tingled and weakened, almost as if my body was saying, “if you are considering this insane action, then I’m going to take away your ability to jump!”
So the idea here, again, is that emotion is a shortcut for logic. Problems that a computer, or Mr. Spock, might solve by “pure reason” (a questionable concept) are instead solved by emotion. In many ways one can see advantages to this – emotions are faster than logical processing and speed can be important in many situations. But there’s a downside – emotions can get “confused” and find joy or fear where there is really none to be had. The classic horror film, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” explores this. As a boy, the lead character sees his parents murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus. As a result, he grows up associating every Santa with fear (and eventually, ironically, himself becomes a killer wearing a Santa uniform.) This is unfortunate since most Santas are harmless. But the movie’s lead is not processing the sight of Santas logically; he is processing them emotionally.
Thus you get to the cruxt of all problems in society. Take an issue – gay marriage, national defense, taxation, animal rights, etc. People argue and debate these issues, but they “feel” their viewpoints more than they “think” them. They process these issues emotionally more than logically. Frankly, I’m not sure there is a “logical” resolution to many of these issues. But you can no more convince someone to “feel” they way you do about something than you can convince them to like a food they do not like. They have their emotional sensations, you have yours, and never the twain shall meet.
In the past, I’ve mentioned the writings of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. I’ve always enjoyed his work and I just starting reading his third book, “Looking for Spinoza,” which intermingles reflections on the biology of emotion with ruminations on the life of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. At one point the book discusses the assassinations of a contemporary of Spinoza, Dutch political figure Jan De Witt, and his brother. When they were killed, and violently so (for presumed disloyalty to the nation), Spinoza’s faith in man’s ability to rise above his savagery was shattered. Here’s the passage describing the De Witt’s death.
Assailants clubbed and knifed both De Witts as they dragged them on the way to the gallows, and by the time they arrived there was no need to hang them anymore. They proceeded to undress the corpses, suspend them upside down, butcher-shop style, and quarter them. The fragments were sold as souvenirs, eaten raw, or even cooked, amid the most sickening merriment.
To be fair, if you’re going to eat somebody, you should cook them. It’s just good form.
One thing I’ve noticed in my language studies is that there are a lot of words in various languages that almost duplicate each other. For example, in english you can “eat” dinner, or you can “dine” on dinner, or you can “feast” on dinner. There are slightly different connotations to all three options, but in general they speak of they same thing.
I strikes me it would be worthwhile to create a basic language that has about 200 hundred words – enough to get a point across – and then teach that to everyone in the world. As such, people everywhere would be able to communicate on a very basic level. This is a language that would not have separate words for “eat”, for example. All tigers, house cats and lions would be referred to as “cat.” (Maybe you could apply an adjective like “big” to tell them apart.)
What kinds of words would be needed to communicate just the essentials? Here’s a small, partial list.
Inflatable sex doll