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Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Blue Lagoon: Heaven and Hell in Iceland

“Hell is other people!” French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously exclaims in No Exit, his existential play set in the metaphorical hell of a closed room populated by three individuals condemned to spend eternity in each other’s company.

Sartre had the notion that the gaze of others, observation by others, somehow deprives one of one’s freedom, locks one into a particular way of being, thus making one weak and fragile, a subject. So an eternity of such scrutiny was an idea of hell.

Yet Sartre himself hardly eschewed the limelight. Like the pop star who flies into faux dudgeon at the sight of paparazzi but somehow makes sure to wind up in the viewfinder, he had a devious propensity for headlines. Even his refusal of the Nobel Prize for literature may have been a publicity stunt. You wonder if for him, existential angst didn’t somewhere run headlong into narcissistic self-absorption.

A guardian angel wrestles with nicotine addiction.
According to one authority, an angel’s celestial service
corresponds to the function it performed in a prior
earthly existence – as a lifeguard at the Y, say.
Indeed, for most of us, the regard of others is what keeps us sane, prevents our descending into self-deception and delusion. When you’re about to go off the deep end, isn’t it typically others, your friends, family, sometimes even strangers, who restrain you from the brink?  A balanced, realistic view of oneself must to some degree take into account what other people think. Sartre’s solipsistic perspective is apt to be more than a little prejudicial, and taken to extremes, can be a conduit to lunacy.

In the end, despite being given an opportunity to escape, the three characters of No Exit resign themselves to an eternity of togetherness. Even Sartre, it seems, couldn’t get his head around the idea of perpetual solitude no matter how free it might make him.

Magic bar where but the touch of your chip-equipped
bracelet conjures up intoxicating libations.
Which brings me to my point: what seems like hell at first might begin to look better, even like heaven, later on. And visa versa, of course. Heaven and hell can be hard to tell apart.

Indeed, philosophers and clerics have debated forever about the nature of hell and heaven. For some, they are actual places, whether temporary or permanent; for others, merely states of mind or spirit. Modern physics asserts that no information about the body or mind is preserved after death so that heaven and hell could just as well be inventions of Marvel Comics.

For my part, I believe there is a physical heaven – in a black lava field southwest of Reykjavik, Iceland, of all places! It’s a geothermal spa called the Blue Lagoon. And though you don’t have to be dead to get there, who knows? For some, death might very well be part of the journey.

Heavenly bodies call to mind the martyrs’
reward of 72 virgins in Paradise. But even
dried out like prunes by the Blue Lagoon’s notorious
powers of desiccation, these ladies  wouldn’t
pass 
muster for the prophecy’s actual promise of, not 
virgins, but 72 raisins.
The Blue Lagoon, you could say, is an accident of industry, a byproduct of the Svartsengi geothermal power station.  This facility uses brine superheated to 464 °F by a mantal plume 6,500 feet below ground (hell down there) to generate electricity and pipe hot water (via heat exchanger) to Reykjavik twenty miles distant. Effluent from the plant, rich in minerals like silica and sulfur, is continuously pumped into a waste water lagoon, the blue one, at 99-102 °F, maintaining a depth of 3-4 feet and completely exchanging the lagoon’s volume about every two days. Silica suspended in the water renders it an opaque milky white. Sunlight refracted by the silica creates the lagoon’s eponymous pastel blue.

The way the spa manages its guests is a marvel of near celestial wonder. For starters, you have to have a reservation. Upon arrival – after standing in line with the rest of the faithful (or patient) for what already seems like eternity – gatekeepers vet your credentials. Deemed suitable for admittance, you’re issued a plastic bracelet with an electronic chip for identification purposes and sent on your way to a sanctum of communal showers (segregated by gender, however). This is a sort of cleansing purgatory where earthly impurities are washed away like sins before you enter the lagoon.

After a good dousing, you walk down a flight of steps, then pause for a moment or two to sort out the three-fold way – pick a path for the final leg of your journey into the salubrious blue.

The first path leads to an unobtrusive indoor incline some eight feet or so wide that continues out through a set of low plastic curtains into a secluded estuary of the lagoon, just the ticket, perhaps, for anyone who’s been feeling the chill – agnostics, say, or the faint of faith. For this route permits you to completely immerse yourself in the lagoon’s reassuring warm waters while still indoors before braving the curtains to the cold out yonder.

A second route leads directly through a set of swinging outside doors that give upon a much larger incline, like a boat ramp, which you descend into the water on foot in full view of the assembled host – as though you were making an entrance for baptism, say. This would be the way of the zealot or true believer.

Finally, off to one side, there’s a wheelchair ramp where once submersed, the lame and halt may float free of the confines of earthly affliction.  At my age, it’s a miracle I didn’t have to go this way.

In the event, I was inclined to the indoor warm-up.

Because the lagoon is so shallow, no one really swims in it. You simply walk about. Or if it’s cold and blustery as is often the case, you submerge yourself up to the chin and glide about in an effortless crouch – buoyed up as by faith, in a manner of speaking, or at least by the mineral-laden waters.

Scattered strategically around the periphery of the lagoon are wooden housings accessed by boardwalks that contain hot water feeds from the power plant. When the wind gets intense, you can take shelter in the lee of these structures and luxuriate in the heat plume. It’s as though some benevolent leviathan of the nether waters were peeing on you just to vouchsafe your coziness.

Sometimes a bright notion
On account of steam rising into the cold air, the atmosphere at the surface of the Blue Lagoon can be nearly as opaque as its waters.  Out of this ethereal mantle, blissful souls emerge as though from nowhere, only to fade again into the mist as quickly as they’d appeared – a natural cadence of being and nothingness, as it were, sans espresso, cigarettes, or Simone de Beauvoir.

It was a rainy, chill afternoon. As the air grew colder and the wind picked up, guests began to congregate in intimate groups around the pump house plumes, sharing greetings and stories of their stay in Iceland. One charming Canadian couple, newlyweds, told of their hassle-free nuptials at a rural Iceland church following arrangements they’d made online. Another Canadian, a military person, spoke more somberly of experiences during deployment overseas.

At a pump house close to the paddle-up bar, a gaggle of young men, apparently in town for an IT convention, sipped drinks from plastic cups and kept an eye out for young women adrift of their moorings.

Afloat for four hours or more in this aqueous Eden, at last it was time for me to leave. Getting out, however, proved to be hell. The prolonged, exertion-free soak in warm mineral water left me dehydrated, flaccid as a noodle, dizzy, and weak. I’d have almost preferred the wheelchair route.

Then there was an obligatory pass back through the purgatorial showers – ironic when you’re returning from heaven. Making my way to the lockers – bypassing the showers – I learned of this requirement from a demonic-looking attendant or custodian who barked out a reprimand like Cerberus in broken English. You never know when error or corruption may overtake you, especially in Paradise.

Still, heaven had thought of just about everything. Just a touch of my chip-equipped bracelet popped open my locker. There was even a dispenser for shear plastic baggies with which to pack up your sopping wet bathing suit.

The road back to Reykjavik passed under lowering skies and rain showers through miles of jagged black lava, bringing to mind the Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, and the Divine Comedy, his epic journey through heaven and hell. Unlike mine, however, Dante’s afterlife doesn’t serve Egils Gull lager or feature the LAVA Restaurant. It has more to do, I'd say, with vengeance served cold than fine dining.

Sure, I’d return to Iceland’s heaven-cum-hell in a trice. One of these days. One way or another.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Wolves of Canyon Road


                                         “Goodness, what big eyes you have!” said Red Riding Hood
                              
                                         “The better to see you with,” replied the Wolf.


In Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a mile-long stretch of Canyon Road, can be found the greatest concentration of art galleries in the U.S. Among these, at Canyon and Garcia Street, stands the Carole LaRoche Gallery. Ms. LaRoche has been proprietor and artist in residence there since 1982.

Red Wolf and Flowers (33/100), giclée 
on paper, 8.25 x 10.25 in., Carol LaRoche
LaRoche’s work at first glance appears deceptively simple – basic, figurative depictions rendered in pastels or acrylic on paper or canvas, prints in monotype or giclée. The backgrounds are characteristically spare and schematic or completely monochromatic and solid. The central or dominant forms or figures are typically bold and forthright. Standing out sharply against the expanse of more muted background hues, they often appear solitary and self-contained, even monumental.

LaRoche favors animals, particularly wolves which she regards as guardians and protectors, though she also creates images of other creatures, both wild and domestic (burros, bears, buffalo, birds, horses, deer, cats, and the occasional elephant, lion, and zebra). She does shamen-like human images as well.

But her main passion, it seems to me, is wolves – wolves that come singly, a few at a time, or in packs. Red wolves, black wolves, golden, blue, or magenta wolves. Wolves cradling birds (Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom comes to mind).

Opined one reviewer of LaRoche’s creatures, “their still, vulnerable faces reflect their inner souls, conjuring up angels, oracles…”

Alice
That’s certainly true as far as it goes, but to me there’s a good deal more going on in this work, especially when it comes to the wolves.

LaRoche’s wilderness canines are looming, portentous creatures – almost mythical or archetypal. Indeed, when confronted with the likes of them, it’s the observer who’s apt to look still and vulnerable. Gazing in fascination, one can but trust that these resplendent beings are protectors and guardians as LaRoche prefers to think of them – and not, say, covetous of your soul!

Red Riding Hood
A few years ago, during one of my visits to the LaRoche gallery, I purchased a limited edition wolf print, Red Wolf and Flowers (giclée on paper). It came in a sturdy black wood frame faced with glass – intended primarily to shield the art, of course, but perhaps the new owner as well. The print has hung over my desk ever since.

Thus far, Red Wolf has yet to escape that picture frame, at least from what I can tell. Still, though I fancy him securely confined, staring at me through a bed of brightly colored flowers that conceals his face almost up to his eyes, he in turn keeps me constrained – transfixed, almost paralyzed – with that piercing gaze of his.

For a truly overpowering prospect he be! The great mass of his orange-red head, thick neck, and truncated portions of shoulder and chest contrasts starkly with a dark grey background. His ears point nearly straight up like horns, signaling a state of high alertness and perceptivity. His muzzle, rendered with no more than a single black line, thicker at the left angle of the jaw to suggest shadow or space, is broad, flat, and puissant; a roughly triangular smudge partially concealed by the flowers comprises his nose.

You feel a frisson of disquiet and foreboding about the piece. Is Red Wolf stalking from cover, or is he merely peering through the flowerbed? Is his hard stare meant to convey some sort of remonstrance, or is he simply indifferent, looking straight through you?

Ironically perhaps, there’s also a touch of edgy comedy here. It’s as though crafty Mr. Lobo were contriving – with obvious difficulty and little success – to hide his imposing presence behind but a scant nosegay, to conceal himself with a posy of wild flowers instead of the usual sheep’s clothing.

Yet droll as this seems, you're left laughing nervously. For if the wolf's intentions are malign, he doesn't seem to care in the least if you know it! A taste for gallows humor comes in handy here.

But without a doubt it’s the eyes that have it. The most arresting aspect of the work by far is Red Wolf’s great yellow eyes and a gaze of such intensity you wonder if he’s some sort of demiurge. Eye contact is a powerful force that, sustained like this, could variously signify aggression, affection, or deception.  It’s physically and mentally challenging, yet hard to escape. A fixed stare of this sort obliges you to respond in some manner – perhaps by adjusting your tie, looking at your watch, or even walking out the door – but you have to allay the unease somehow. It can be downright discombobulating.
(1978)

Even now, Red Wolf hovers up there on the wall, staring at me inscrutably through the flowers…tulips...maybe daffodils…

In other news, there’ve been rumors recently of unusual grassroots unrest on Canyon Road, though it's not clear just how it all started. Ms. LaRoche’s wolves, it seems, have been slipping the confines of her studio and venturing off on their own, turning up surreptitiously as interlopers in musical compositions, legends, folk tales, and children’s stories – in some cases, making quite a muddle of things.

Thus, Deacon Carroll’s Cheshire Cat seems to have disappeared once and for all, courtesy of you-know-who. And guess who’s been stalking Little Red Riding Hood.

Now it appears the Boy Who Cried Wolf may have had good reason to all along.
Three Billy Goats Gruff – Lazy M Ranch ‘Annunciation’ version

The Wolf and the Seven Kids has somehow acquired a replacement antagonist – never mind about Richard Scarry’s. Likewise for Maestro Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

As for the Three Billy Goats Gruff, it’s no longer a troll that awaits them under the bridge.

And someone’s been trying out new insufflation techniques on the houses of the Three Little Pigs.

Clearly, things in Santa Fe have gotten out of control, and I suspect Carole LaRoche could use a hand. So thither I suggest you hie, there to become like me a guardian of the guardians: adopt a wolf – better still, a pack of them – frame and all, at the Carole LaRoche Gallery. Her staff will be happy to assist you. Or you can establish custody online or by mail.

Got to run now. I’m all out of ink – and somebody’s at the door.



                                                           Carole LaRoche Gallery 
                                                           415 Canyon Road Santa Fe, NM 87501

                                                           Email: email@laroche-gallery.com
                                                           Phone: (505) 982-1186

                                                           Carole LaRoche Gallery on Facebook




NB: I have no commercial or financial relationship with the Corale LaRoche Gallery.

Images used with permission









Thursday, June 15, 2017

Virtual Reality? Really?

My Rift with Oculus


Several months ago, the New York Times sent me a strange cardboard contraption with plastic lenses that looked like an awkward pair of goggles, part of the Times’ venture into virtual reality.  The thing rattled around the back seat of my car awhile before I tossed it in the recycle. I hadn’t even bothered to figure out how it was supposed to work. I simply couldn’t feature that a mash-up of cardboard and plastic would somehow transport me to another reality, let alone do much for the one I appeared to be in.

The contraption sent by the New York Times 
could have just as well come from Mars
That's because virtual reality (VR) is, for one thing, a contradiction in terms, a phrase as dubious as the phenomenon it’s meant to describe – albeit probably still very useful when it comes to selling computer games and cybersex toys (more about those later).

There’s just reality, you see – that’s it.

What varies is not reality, but the way our lying eyes, ears, and other senses, with an assist from high-tech gadgetry, fool our poor brains into a kind of meretricious processing of light, sound, and sometimes haptic (touch) and proprioceptive (movement and position) sensory input in order to create an elaborate illusion.  VR is nothing more than trompe l’oeil gone high-tech with a vengeance.

But as you gaze glassy-eyed about the tiny IMAX 3D strapped to your face, the state of things around you, things as they actually are, remains precisely the same. At our level of quantum emergence, everyday physical reality is remarkably stable – if you drop a brick, for example, it never falls up – and its behavior surprisingly knowable. Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves,
verified only recently, more than a century ago.

Observed one pundit, “the cloth-made Google 
Daydream View looks and feels like something you 
would find at an expensive clothing accessory store…” 
Maybe in a virtual sense.  Still, even Dacron 
polyester would be an improvement on cardboard.
Yet, perhaps on account of the way our brains process information, we constantly reinterpret reality, making it feel as though it were somehow inconstant and changeable. It’s not just in a court of law you may find yourself lying like an eyewitness. Virtual reality, in effect, has you doing much the same thing – deftly bamboozling your hapless little grey cells.

To be sure, we’re all prone to creating personal sanctuaries, private amusement parks of the mind – VR being just the latest way of going about it – but the real challenge, I think, is to hew as close to objective reality as you reasonably can. And for that, you might want to avoid heavy doses of VR-derived “telepresence” (complete cyber immersion and interactivity) and the narcosis that’s apt to come with it.

Not that “digital environmental simulation” (DES) – let’s set aside the misleading virtual reality trope for a moment – is all bad. Today, there’s a host of promising applications, real or potential, in medicine, law, education, the arts, marketing, media, and more. Besides, the fact that DES abets escapism isn’t all bad, either; escapism in moderation can make for good entertainment.

Still, DES has significant pitfalls, including it own kind of sickness. Wearing one of those head-mounted displays (HMD) for even brief periods can cause Simulator Sickness (“SimSickness”), so-called – "a sense of general discomfort, headache, stomach awareness, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy.” Makers of VR paraphernalia, e.g., Oculus, HTC, will tell you its just a matter of getting your sea legs, like getting used to the pitching deck of a sailboat, and that the symptoms will pass. But before spending $500 or more on a HMD and other gear, you might want to make sure. As with motion sickness, some folks are more susceptible to Simulator Sickness than others.

Don’t count on VR improving your social connectedness any time soon, either. “For all of the overwrought promises about the futuristic technology connecting people, it's a pretty isolating experience,” says tech reporter Heather Kelly. “The hardware shuts out any view or sound of people physically near you, not many people own headsets yet, and interactions inside virtual settings are still limited.”

But even with improved connectedness, you have to wonder if people will end up segregating themselves in VR metaverses or tribes the way they do on Facebook, say.

Some have suggested that exposing VR gamers to violent situations, especially ones that incite them to violence, could result in risky desensitization and sociopathic behavior. This has already been observed, for example, amongst online gamers.

Addiction will be a problem, too. The more realistic and life-like VE experiences become, the more likely users will become addicted to them – again, something already seen in cyberspace. Author journalist Steven Kotler compares VR to “legal heroin,” saying that “when video games start producing ‘full-scale flow states’ is arguably the point that VR becomes more fun and perhaps more meaningful than actual reality.”

The Thrill of Teledildonics. But beware i-rape by a hacked
device. Or maybe an Oculus incubus! In cyberspace, you
never really know who’s pushing your buttons.
All these risks – addiction, social isolation, anti-social behavior, and the like – would presumably be greatest for VR’s avid contingent of computer gamers and cybersex junkies.

If cybersex has been a major Internet moneymaker (it has), VR cybersex is set to top it in spades. American porn company BaDoinkVR, for example, is partnering with Dutch adult technology company Kiiroo to market sex videos that combine virtual reality and “teledildonic” devices (vibrating sex toys) synced for interactive experience with adult film stars.

VR Bangers, an L.A. porn producer, is developing the “VR Bangers Hotel Experience” for clients in Las Vegas.  For $19.99, you get a VR headset preloaded with interactive 360-degree views of a steamy scenario set in a virtual mock-up of your hotel room.

“Next you will hear a knock on the door (in the virtual reality world), and the girl or guy will come into your room in order to enjoy an erotic or sex experience with the viewer,” VR Bangers CEO Daniel Abramovich explained to PC World.


“Hopefully the rentals come with a few disinfectant wipes, too,” PC World shot back.

Those wipes would be good for sure, but not nearly enough. If you ask me, VR Bangers should throw in some sterile C++ filters to guard against virtual STDs, especially the viral kind. Otherwise, hackers might horn in on your holiday and leave you irate about having been i-raped!  It’s something to think about. A few bytes of prevention here might be worth untold megabytes of cure later on.

Declension of iMan I: Homo devolutiens, ssp. Alienensis.
Some may dismiss such speciation as specious, but don’t
be so sure.
Finally, what really grabs you about VR is the whole appearances thing.  Who hasn’t been struck (nay, clobbered) by the painfully silly look? The headset with its patented vacuum stare suggesting horse blinkers for spaced-out homies or maybe a Dadaist idea of scuba gear for the blind? Worse yet, you can’t escape a nagging impression of a  schnoz disorder (rhinophyma – think geriatric W.C. Fields), or perhaps a malformation of the jaw (prognathism), and with some VR getups, an improbably protuberant occiput-cum-tail.

And that’s just for starters. Wait ‘til you get a load of these VR contenders! Several look like agitated, hallucinating schizos or acidheads on a really bad trip. Some appear to be falling-down drunk. All of them seem in major need of just getting a grip and taking a seat pronto. It’s enough to give cyborgery a bad name.

Yet – form following function – cyborgs presumably mutate, too. One day, for example, VR habitués might wake up to find their headsets fused to their faces, the result of some catastrophic phenotypic mutation. Of necessity, their children would be born by Caesarean section – the infants’ heads being too misshapen for natural birth. But no matter! The mutation spreads like wildfire. The few remaining humans of the archaic phenotype end by frantically gluing on VR gear or even resorting to plastic surgery in order to look like everyone else.

Rod Serling explored such an idea in an episode of the Twilight Zone (Eye of the Beholder, 1960).

Perhaps one day soon we’ll discover the need for a brief VR educational short, themed along similar lines – call it Why the Long Face, VRGameBoy?  It would give VR regulars a heads-up (preferably while they’re sitting down) about the potential for things to come. It would warn about the dangers of too much telepresence and encourage contact with real humans beings and the world outside.

Declension of iMan II: Homo devolutiens, ssp.
Prognathicans. Some may dismiss such speciation
as specious, but don’t be too sure.
Even if it meant settling for that much more reality TV.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Princess Lil Ti and the Tangerine Mandarins: A Tale of Old Beijing

Chinese history is replete with stories of remarkable women. Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty, led troops into battle, conquering neighboring states.

Princess Pingyang, daughter of the first Tang emperor, played an important role in the founding of that dynasty, raising and commanding an army of 70,000 soldiers to assist her father’s campaign.

Li Ye, famed for her literary talents, was summoned to the court of Tang Emperor Dezong to compose poetry for him.

Yet for originality and shear force of character, none compares to Princess Lil Ti of the latter Qing dynasty – not even the redoubtable Dowager Empress Cixi, according to most authorities.

Lil Ti was born gulun gongzhu, or "princess of the first rank,” to Xiaozhuang, wife of the Xianfeng emperor, in1705. Many of the details of her upbringing remain sketchy, but as distinct from most women of the Chinese imperial court, the sources indicate that she was well educated.

At the age of six she was placed under the supervision of "Grand Tutor of the Royal Princess" Wei Zhongxian, a learned court eunuch who by dint of skillful heuristics imbued in her a thorough knowledge of the Chinese classics. This even if at times coping with his charge proved daunting or downright parlous!

At only ten years of age, for example, whilst reciting for her tutorial the Three Obediences and Four Virtues handed down by Confucius, Lil Ti paused, then suddenly blurted that the venerable Chinese philosopher “might just as well be called ‘confuse us’!”

Peasant rice farmers  of the Nong social class
wearing traditional hemp smocks over tunics of
ramie. Tongshan, Hubei, c. 1735. Cultivars of
indica and japonica rice were grown in Central
China by the 3rd millennium BC, though most
farmers made little distinction. “Mǐfàn shì mǐfàn”
(rice is rice), the saying went.
For the Three Obediences and Four Virtues had to do with the expectation that a woman would first obey her father, then her husband, and in the event of her husband's death, her sons – and to Lil Ti this made no sense at all. Indeed, according to Confucius’ own precepts, it added up to a sort of duplicity. One of the meanings of the Confucian virtue Rén, she pointed out, is "not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself.”

So why should men seek to dominate women, she wondered, if that weren’t what they’d want for themselves?*

Or did Confucius have a dominatrix in Shanghai? (Lil Ti, it seemed, was growing up fast.)

More than a few Chinese scholars of the time had been executed for unorthodoxies less serious,  and Wei Zhongxian, trembling like a willow in his green silk changshan, stood to be blamed.  Struggling to dissuade Lil Ti from pursuing heresy any further, he grimaced and made a slashing motion across his throat with the edge of his hand to indicate the likely outcome of her apostasy.

Prosperous silk merchants of the Shang social class.
Shanghai, c. 1745. Involvement in the silk trade could
bring great wealth. But in an agrarian proto-
communalist society that held the Shang in low esteem,
silk traders were often distained as “dirty silk roaders.” 
Now, as Lil Ti was quite fond of Wei Zhongxian and not insensitive to the hazard she’d created, she decided to let the matter drop even though retaining her views about the injustice of it.

Then to her surprise, in a private concession that came not long after, Wei Zhongxian, who’d been mulling things over, allowed she’d been right all along.

“Philosophy only makes sense if you think about it as little as possible,” he admitted.

When it came to the rest of Confucius – the Four Books, including the Analects, and Five Classics – however, the sailing was smoother. Likewise for the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars (classics of Chinese mythology and folktales), the Twenty-Four Histories, the Hundred Schools of Thought (eventually boiled down to the Nine Schools), and the Three Hundred Tang Poems.

Even so, with such a program as this, Lil Ti necessarily began to wonder if, in a quaint sort of way, Chinese learning might be summed up as a collection of numerals, odd and even – the nines of these, the twelves of those, and so forth.

Successful citrus growers in silk dǒulìs (conical hats)
and dajinshan jackets displaying samples of prized
Zaoshu Nanfeng tangerines or honey mandarins.
Jiangxi Province, c. 1740. 
“I’d bet even odds you very well could,” she mused, “and cover it with no more than, say, the Three Explanations.”

By the time she was eighteen, Lil Ti had discovered (and read to dog-eared attrition) two classics of the Chinese novel, works that would effect for her a sort of coming of age epiphany: Slapping the Table in Amazement by Ling Mengchu, and The Carnal Prayer Mat, an erotic thriller by Li Yu. There followed not only a spate of philosophizing (which coming from Lil Ti seemed ironic) – her thesis of the Ten Blandishments and Seven-and-a-Half Ratiocinations – but also authorship of a scandalous romance novel Lotus Steps of a Song Virgin in which she explored her philosophies in (perhaps too much) depth, reaching a wide audience of enthusiastic nobility. From this she emerged for a time as a sort of Qing dynasty Françoise Sagan.

And still more ingenuity was to follow. At nineteen, to celebrate an erotic assignation with a Han Bannerman, one Geng Zhongming, Lil Ti composed a one-act Cantonese opera, Fragrant Sacrifice that would remain popular even to modern times.

But it was literature, particularly poetry, rather than music that proved to be her métier. Yu Xuanji and Li Ye, famous women poets of the Tang dynasty, became her exemplars. Besides composing extensively herself – she would write for hours on end – from 1725 onwards Lil Ti oversaw the publication of a periodical for aspiring poets, Tooth and Claw Monthly.

Yet fancy sometimes got the better of the princess, conjuring as it did, figments of an especial sort that for her surpassed the merely imaginative.  She would wander the back allies and street markets of Beijing in a conical coolie hat, disguised as a corvée laborer from Yunnan (a tour de force in itself since most such conscripts were men who remained tethered close to their work), absent her attendants. And thereabouts would whimsy overtake her.
Top-ranked Jinshi Jidi scholar-bureaucrats, or mandarins,
of the Shi da fu social class, bearing insignia of office
symbolizing the duality of their roll: individual or personal
versus administrative or formal. Beijing, c. 1750. The oblong
shape of the insignia, probably Manchu in origin, is distinct
from the usual Qing mandarins’ square badge of rank. Similarly,
the official Zhan Chi Fu Tou (spread-wing head cover) is
typical of an earlier era. The colorful mandarin drake, a sort
of unofficial periapt or mascot, was seen as a mark of cultivation
and good taste.

And no wonder! The Beijing bazaar was an exotic, raucous, voracious place – a veritable Götterdämmerung of the senses. Jugglers, fire-eaters, beggars, and thieves plied their trades. On offer were all manner of comestibles hanging from racks or heaped in bins: millet, wheat, beans, barley, and mountains of rice.  For the wealthy, there were meats from the farm – chicken, duck, goose, beef, and pork. Trappers and hunters offered rabbit, sika deer, turtledove, bamboo partridge, magpie, pheasant, crane, and owl. Fish caught by indentured cormorants in the nearby Chaobai River could be had year round. Also, shark fins, frogs, snakes, and even centipedes.

More seasonal were vegetables and fruits such as jujube, pear, plum, peach, apricot, and myrica. Oranges, prized as a delicacy, could be had as a treat for Chinese New Year’s or given as gifts.

Beyond the farmers’ market were the stalls of the dry goods sellers, purveyors of everything from bronze oil lamps to iron plowshares to silk – countless skeins and bolts of silk in myriad patterns and hues, shimmering in the afternoon sun.

Finally, there were imported luxury goods – tortoise shell, objects of gold and silver, incense and spices, tall Ferghana horses prized by aristocrats.

The experience could be overwhelming, like Stendhal’s on steroids. Indeed, for Princess Lil Ti, it quite begat an altogether novel dimension, an alternative space curiously amended as from beyond the looking glass wherein she encountered an odd assortment of notional, yet all-too-sensible, characters.

Thus did she come upon Ding and Dong, two rice farmers from Hubei, who were (a little too) eager to feign for her the sensation of rice paddy muck oozing between one’s toes or tilapia snogging one’s ankles in water knee-deep. Lil Ti dismissed them, along with their Ten Secret Recipes for Glutinous Congee (with Mung Beans), as merely garish.
Debased and venal, some miscreant mandarins
ceased to trouble themselves with scholarship and
official decorum as bit by bit they sank into corruption
and carnality.  Note the horde of coin-like gold discs,
relics of the Western Han period (202 BC – 9 AD)
filched from the Forbidden City. Of particular regret,
a single fateful line ("Fill your plates with roast duck…”)
from the Duan Zhu Zhi Ci, a collection of Beijing verse,
saw the baking of mascot drakes into a famous Peking
delicacy
. Such could be the degree of degeneracy.

She met Ping and Pong, silk merchants from Shanghai, who affected smoothness and luster but simply couldn’t maintain a good back and forth.

Zing and Tang, smarmy citrus growers from Jiangxi, in a fruitless attempt, likewise vied for her notice.

Then one afternoon near the pavilion of Cai Xingfeng, a Uyghur spice merchant – swooning amidst aromas of frankincense, styrax, and bdellium, attars of garam masala and camel dung – Lil Ti encountered an unusual pair of reprobate mandarins, Ming Mong and Mong Min.

Theirs was a truly a tale of woe, for from positions of probity and regard they’d sunk headlong into corruption and depravity, squandering both wealth and the public trust.

But their story aroused in Lil Ti the deep-seated compulsions of a reformist, and she at once undertook to “struggle” the two, tersely reminding them of the Confucian virtues of justice and propriety and of the mandarin’s responsibility to the state. Then, having somehow remedied their every transgression in the space of but a few minutes, she advised them to take up poetry, particularly shi and ci – these forms being held in especially high regard, and poetry considered the proper avocation of mandarins.

In the event, evangelism was its own reward. So pleased was the princess with her handiwork that she invited the pair to dine with her at the Summer Palace that they might celebrate their redemption and discuss matters further.

At the appointed time, from the palace’s great kitchen came a sumptuous repast: Peking duck, steamed pancakes, spring onions, sweet bean sauce, dim sum, and baijiu ("white liquor"). It was a feast fit for a Qing, a royal one anyway.

But as the waiters and stewards entered the royal refectory adjacent the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, they were startled to discover the princess seated before a large Ming celadon filled with luscious zaoshu nanfeng tangerines (honey mandarins) – quite alone, yet engaged in earnest conversation. Now and again she would pause as though listening for a reply from unseen interlocutors, then continue apace.

Princess Lil Ti clad in a flowing eucalyptus-green
silk gown embellished with fringed embroidery. A
ceremonial Phoenix headdress and Chinese New
Year’s sorceress mask complete her costume. Hall
of Jade Billows, Summer Palace, Beijing, c. 1740.
Though she fancied herself adept at both “ku”(black)
and “wu” (white) magic, in the popular mind the
princess was seen to possess an imagination on a par
with her vivid attire. Formidable nonetheless when it
came to palace intrigue, rivals dubbed her Imperial
Nobel Lady Qing Kong.
She still had a great deal to say, it was clear, about corruption among Beijing’s mandarins – how several candidates for the Imperial triennial court examination had cheated by bribing court officials or hiding test answers in their underwear (in one case, even a five-character, 12-line shi poem for the exam’s poetry section).

From the look of it, the princess was setting the tone, and if supposition were any guide, the invisible dinner guests simply followed her lead.

Meanwhile, the attendants, loyal retainers of the royal household, went about serving the meal as though nothing were out of the ordinary.

Until of a sudden, disturbed by the clink of porcelain, the princess started alert as though awakening from a trance or dream. For a moment or two she looked about in a daze, not a little chagrined by what had transpired.

Then quickly regaining her composure, she announced she would celebrate the entire experience, street markets and all, in an anthology of verse.

“After all,” she explained, glancing toward the celadon, “it’s in the very nature of creativity to turn adversity into, well, verse!”

And with that, she gave a wink to, well, no one in particular.

For Lil Ti, the upshot of this drama was a classic of Chinese poetry, The Garden of Jade Chrysanthemums: Dreams from the Heart of Beijing, which she completed three years later.

Sadly, in the turbulent years that followed, during the decline and fall of the Qing dynasty, China’s last, Lil Ti’s masterwork was lost to posterity. Still, one can hope that someday, like the Terra-Cotta Warriors of Xi’an, it may again come to light, revealing more to us of this remarkable Chinese princess.





* Years later, anticipating Andrea Dworkin, one might almost say, Lil Ti threatened to “bind the heads" (with a Medieval cruncher, of all things) of those who subjected girls to foot binding. But it was not until the People’s Republic that the practice finally died out.



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Planktonic Unconscious: Cargo Cult Psychology in the Galápagos

Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, five great ocean currents converge on the Galápagos Islands. Two of them, the Cromwell and the Humboldt, bring an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that supports vast concentrations of plankton and in turn an abundance of sea life. Were it not for these natural phenomena, the currents and plankton, you might never have heard of Charles Darwin. And I might never have experienced an epiphany of the Planktonic Unconscious, the numinous progenitor of all awareness that may someday point the way to a genuine community of mind and a better understanding of our place in the world.

[Left] Five major ocean currents converge at the Galápagos archipelago.
Two of them, the Cromwell and the Humboldt, bring an upwelling of cold,
nutrient-laden water that supports vast concentrations of phytoplankton.
 [Right] Phytoplankton (light green) surrounding the Galápagos
But first a little background. In the popular imagination, the Galápagos are seen, and rightly so, as a microcosm of evolution, a showcase for the biology of natural selection, or as Darwin précised it, the origin of the species. A volcanic archipelago of some 21 islands and assorted islets straddling the Equator, formed between 8 million and perhaps up to 90 million years ago, the Galápagos are known for their extraordinary number of endemic species – with most of the aboriginal biodiversity, remarkably, still extant.

Startling homomorphism (deep homology)
between plankton and neural tissue points to 

a biological basis for the Planktonic Unconscious. 
A famous example of this, the Galápagos finches, has been the subject of a 30-year research project that, for all intents and purposes, has shifted Darwinism from the realm of theory to that of scientific fact. Studying large and medium ground finches on Galápagos’ Daphne Major, Princeton biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant documented changes in beak size driven over time by fluctuations in specific natural selection pressures. As some have put it, their unprecedented observations caught evolution in the act.

But the islands are much more than a mere showcase for science. There is also about them an aura of the preternatural, as though they represent one of those sacred natural sites that to folks of many beliefs are mystical, imbued with spirituality.

Yet what about the Galápagos creates this impression?

To begin with, there are the islands’ ancient reptiles. The giant tortoise dates back to the Upper Cretaceous (70-80 million years), and the marine and land iguanas, to the Miocene (8 million years). Although the marine iguana is typically vegetarian, its appearance is so unnerving you might be scared sacred if you ran into a big one after dark – an iguana of the night, so to say – especially, if it were to make a play for you.

Then there’s the harsh, ascetic beauty of the landscape itself. Although a few of the islands have ecological zones that progress from dry to humid as one moves from coastal areas into the highlands, most are flat and barren with little more than sparse stands of saltbush or cactus for ground cover. Cooling magma has left lavas of almost kaleidoscopic variation (due to oxidation of iron), ranging from shiny black to red, yellow, or dull brown. Lava fields vary from a ropy smoothness with dark whorls and ripples like chocolate pudding to apocalyptic-looking escarpments of jagged, rust-colored volcanic clinker that might well call to mind Dante’s seventh circle of hell.

Snorkelers follow a volcanic cliff  face in the 
Galápagos
Yet nowhere perhaps did my apprehension of the uncanny wax so pronounced as in the waters fronting a sheer volcanic rock face plunging vertically into Gardner Bay off Española. A zodiac from the National Geographic Islander brought us here on day #2 of the expedition for an initial go at snorkeling. It seemed straight forward enough at first, but once in the water, I found to one side of me trackless ocean, and looming on the other, a grim precipice of adamantine lava that fain would thwart, it seemed, even the most desperate attempt to make land. It was as though I’d fetched up in some out-of-the-way purgatory, a place of final reckoning from whence there could be no escape.

A frisson of panic swept over me.

Plankton dreams: plankton-rich waters obscure 
the fish, but adumbrations of  archetypes emerging 
through the murk excite the imagination. Indeed, the 
ocean itself is an archetype – the hot tub, as it were, 
of the Planktonic Unconscious.
But I quickly banished these fears by dunking my face mask-first in the drink – sort of like burying one’s head in the sand except that unlike sand, the ocean is sure to offer you striking new scenery.

And, striking the scenery was, too – foraging sea lions pirouetting after sardines; blue-footed boobies and pelicans diving on unwary prey, trailing torrents of bubbles from where they’d breached the surface; a four-foot hammerhead patrolling in the gloom deeper down.

And then there were the plankton, so much plankton, like a dense primordial soup, a rich bouillabaisse of tiny marine organisms swirling in every direction, reducing visibility to but several feet – conjuring for me, it seemed,  a vision of the very beginning of things, the rise of the élan vital or life force that animates all Nature.

For a time I lay enraptured, spellbound by the foggy spectacle, barely breathing through my snorkel – and might have remained that way for untold minutes, maybe hours, had not a impertinent mackerel startled me from my reverie.

Clambering back aboard the waiting zodiac, which had been following us like a shepherd with a flock, our party motored back to the ship.

It seems implausible that hominids like 
these two, even collectively, could have contri-
buted much to the evolution of consciousness
(note the vacant stares). More likely, cons-
ciousness had its origin in the vast and vital
bloom of the ocean’s plankton. 
Later, over lunch and a Harvey Wallbanger I fell into deep contemplation. It occurred to me that owing to evolution, plankton today, unlike their ancient ancestral prototypes, might well be playing host, not just to primitive ion fluxes but to a great deal more besides – that is, to an actual ecto-cerebroid collective or planktonic unconscious (unconscious, of course, because plankton don't really think all that much). For at sometime in the remote past, from a condition of primordial unicellular bewusstlosigkeit, there must have sprung the first inklings of cryptic nescience that over eons evolved into a full-blown collective unconsciousness of plankton – how else could one explain it?

Amongst living organisms, eukaryotic
choanoflagellates are are genetically most
closely related to animals. As such, they
serve as a model of our unicellular
ancestors. Thriving on bacteria and detritus,
they make up a major part of plankton’s
contribution to the global carbon cycle.
Evidence of cryptic sexuality amongst them,
moreover, points to an important role in the
evolution of the Planktonic Unconscious.
Though happening over a vastly different time scale, these events probably occurred in much the same way that the images of a motion picture, springing from the projector (think brain), resolve into focus on the screen. While the projector (or brain) is quite real, the images that emanate from it are not, even though on screen they might appear so. They’re merely representations of things. By the same token, consciousness is not real; it’s merely a projection or representation of one’s potential for dealing with oneself, with others, and with one’s environment. The same might be said, for example, about energy: energy is not a thing in itself but merely a representation or projection of the capacity for doing work.

If consciousness, therefore, is unreal, unconsciousness must perforce be real!

To pursue the analogy to its conclusion, then, the Planktonic Unconscious like our movie projector is real yet gives rise to the condition of consciousness that is imaginary and malleable. It surely follows that plankton hold a very real potential for molding our future awareness if only we remain open to their influence.

We must listen to plankton!

Plankton form the foundation of the marine food 
chain
Well, just consider the facts. In aggregate, plankton make up 98 percent of the ocean’s biomass and produce 50% to 85% of the oxygen we breathe. Taken together, phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals) form the very basis of the marine food chain, sustaining echelons of life that finally lead to us, mankind. Gaging that such a potent natural force might also influence the workings of mind seems almost a no-brainer.

Although more encounters with plankton amongst the islands were to follow, none reprised the epiphanic wonder of the first, and all too soon it was time for me to leave.

As I disembarked the Island Explorer at Baltra for an Avianca flight to Guayaquil, I came upon a sea lion snoozing on a park bench not far from the dock. At first I though better of disturbing her, but still filled with the zeitgeist of the place I made bold to speak.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I’ve heard a legend hereabouts that the giant tortoise knows what's in the mind of a visitor. If the visitor's intentions are bad, the tortoise will put a curse him. Do you believe it’s true?”

The sea lion opened one eye and gazed at me for a moment.

“Sure, it’s true,” she replied blinking (her breath smelled of fish), “but you have to consider that a tortoise’s curse, like the tortoise himself, moves at a very slow pace. So even if a tortoise curses you, it might be a long time before you’d notice. Maybe even not until you’d died. But make no mistake, a curse is a curse.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She gave a great sneeze, expelling salt granules from the special glands in her nose that allow sea lions to cope with their salty marine environment.

“Why, what comes around, goes around, of course,” she went on. “You humans are oblivious – have a sort of collective unconsciousness, if you catch my drift – to the consequences of what you do in the world. You float along living only for the present – if you can call it living. Admittedly we sea lions aren’t exactly strategic planners, but we do leave things pretty much the way we found them. People might try the same.”

I thanked her and went on my way.









Acknowledgements:

I wish to acknowledge comedian Jerry Lewis who can prattle on brilliantly in what sounds for all the world like French or German without uttering a single real word of either language, and likewise les Jacques, Derrida and Lacan, who (in their cases, presumably unbeknownst to themselves) did much the same thing.

I acknowledge that this exposition may be sexist in that it privileges plankton, organisms that thrash about like spermatozoa, over organisms that don’t.



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Venus in the 21st Century

Italian € 0.10 piece 
The ancient Greeks had a remarkable flare for turning unspeakable crimes and violence into art, and as early 750 BC, with Hesiod’s legend of the birth of Aphrodite – or Venus, as the Romans called her – they were already at the top of their game.

Revered as the goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory (quite a brief even for a goddess), Venus sprang into being fully grown, the oddly paradoxical consequence of a horrific crime – the castration of her father, the primal sky god Uranus, by one of his own sons, the Titan Cronos.

Having scythed off Uranus’ genitals, the story goes, Cronos flung them into the sea, where being immortal flesh they remained vigorous, sloshing about in the ocean foam for awhile before finally giving rise to Venus. Thus, complicated as it sounds, I suppose you could style Venus one of the first ever gender-swapped, anthropoid, ex vivo clones. (Athena and Dionysus, though emerging, respectively, from the head and thigh of Zeus, each had a genetic mother). Her nexus to the sea, moreover, was said to perpetually renew her virginity 1, handy if desire is your name (in Latin, venus means sexual desire or sexual love) and coition, your game.

But talk about dysfunctional families! The shenanigans of Venus’ progenitors, Uranus, Gaia, and the Titans, make the Texas Chain Saw Massacre look docile! No wonder the early Abrahamic writers decided giving up a rib was enough for Adam to get Eve. And no wonder the Greeks with their taste for mayhem ended up with the likes of Oedipus and Phaedra. Before you take up cosmogony, maybe you should consult a therapist.

After making her maritime entrance (how fast could a divine center cut have re-purposed itself like that, you wonder) Venus finds herself adrift on an outsized scallop shell, blown along by the “lascivious2 ” wind god Zephyr until she makes landfall at Paphos on the island of Cyprus (or on the Ionian island of Kythira, according to other accounts). Here she is met by Flora (Chloris, to the Greeks), one of the Horai (Seasons), goddess of spring and flowers, who hastily clothes her in heavenly garments – Venus the while covering her “sweet apple3” with her left hand, and with her right, either wringing out her hair or haphazardly covering her breasts depending on the art work you’re considering.
Venus Anadyomene, from the Casa Veneris, Pompeii, before 79 AD, unknown
artist (probably after an earlier work by Apelles).

This story, going under the generic label
Venus Anadyomene or Venus emerging from the sea, would prove to be a popular, not to say overworked, theme in Western culture, the inspiration for numerous classical paintings and sculptures, and in modern times, satire4 as well. The theme will get no respite here, either, for the time has come, I believe, to update the whole account.

But first let's consider Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus (Uffizi, Florence), done around 1486, arguably the most recognizable and iconic expression of the Venus Anadyomeme idea.

Here we see the goddess exquisitely rendered in delicate pastel shades, the epitome of feminine pulchritude. Yet her neck and torso seem improbably elongated and her contrapposto stance (weight shifted too far to the left), unsustainable, as though her nativity is still very much in progress.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Tempera on canvas, (c. 1486), Uffizi,
Florence
With her head cocked at an odd angle, Venus gazes absent-mindedly, blankly, down and to the right, almost in a daze, like the newborn she supposedly is. She appears naïve, unprepared to take on the character of the adult body she has suddenly inhabited: Venus, the undressed, yet still unready. So fresh to the world is she that even her modesty seems improbable.

On the whole, though, not bad for a mutated heap of sky god castrate!

The world the goddess inhabits into appears wholly nascent as well, as though the rest of creation is only just emerging around the event of her birth. Together with Zephyr and Flora, she fully occupies the foreground of the painting, while the background is strangely vacant, offering only the sparsest of a floral covering with not even a presentiment of culture or civilization. Nary a hint does one find of life’s circumstances – enterprise, conflict, passion – portending a bleak beginning for the newly minted goddess of passion.

No wonder Venus betrays, too, an air of distress here. You’d think Botticelli might have thrown in at least a handsome shepherd for her to beguile, a priest or sage to befuddle, yet there's not a soul sight. As the just-anointed CEO of Love and Beauty, UnLtd., Venus would surely have wished to come out of her shell primavera, ready for business, with prospective clients closer to hand.

Venus Reimagined: Apotheosis of the Working Girl (c. 2017)
Which brings me back to the idea of a more contemporary take on Venus, one that speaks to the world of us moderns.

Today’s goddess is not really into “goddessing”  at all – she leaves that to music video figures and Halloween trick-or-treaters.

She’s a woman who’s managed to be both a mother and a top professional. And she’s done it herself with no one to propel her along a career path or swathe her in the apparel of success.

Better educated than most of her peers, she has advanced degrees in science and law.

A self-promoter, she can be aggressive, assertive, and confident when it suits her, but can also switch these traits on and off, depending on circumstances. She loves a challenge, takes a measured approach to risk, and knows how to deal with adversity. She has the courage to break the rules, and – in stark contrast to her classical counterpart – admits when she’s wrong, and knows how to forgive.

She rose quickly to the leadership of her firm.

Politically active, she pushes for “fair representation” in the electoral process (where political parties or interest groups win seats in proportion to their vote share), and aggressively supports legislation on civil rights, education, health, labor, and women’s issues.

Determined to marry well or not at all, she has a consort who stays at home looking after the hearth and their six children. A retired organic chemist, he’s now a gourmet cook.

Careful to prioritize her own needs along with the needs of others, our modern Venus exercises daily. She looks great in Dior or Prada, better still in nothing at all. She’s on the pill.

In short, she's determined, resourceful, engaging, ambitious, and confident.

If you were to feed the classical versions of Venus, Minerva, and Diana into a Cuisinart, sprinkle with hyssop, and then dump them blended into the sea, it would be our Venus la nuova who emerged from such immortal goop —  probably wearing metallic cloqué jacquard by Prada.



Tableau of Venus and companions, David LaChapelle, photograph, 
2009













Joseph-Marie Vien’s Venus (1755) looks downright bedraggled and mentally 
challenged. What on earth could he have been thinking?


1. Sea water is apparently good for psoriasis, too.

2. The idea that the wind god, Zephyr, ought be deemed lascivious merely for puffing on a naked goddess apparently comes from the Stanzas per la giostra (stanza 68) of the Florentine Renaissance classical scholar and poet, Poliziano (1454–1494). To me, this judgment seems a bit harsh. After all, doesn’t a wind god blow on everything? Isn’t that his job? And if he enjoys his work, so what?

3. The “sweet apple” metaphor (which seems somehow droll in this context) appears in stanza 101 of Poliziano’s Stanzas per la giostra and refers, of course, to Venus’ vulva. In Greek mythology, the apple (a pomegranate, maybe, to you and me) was considered sacred to Venus. Thus, in Epigram VII, Plato writes:
I throw an apple to you and, if indeed you are willing to love me, then receive it and let me taste your virgin charms. But if you are otherwise minded, which heaven forbid, take this very apple and see how short-lived all beauty is.
In Christian mythology, the apple was the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, with sexual awareness no doubt being an aspect of this.

4. Some wag was bound to come up with “Venus on the half-shell.”  Philip José Farmer turned it into a science fiction novel.