Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Vibrations & Libations: The Search for Quantum Consciousness and a Good Sherry

Why is one?  Why should one be at all – have just enough presence of mind, let’s say, to grasp the notion of presence-ness?

Well, why not? The question, steeped in myth and fated to slow cook forever in the crockpot of muddled ideas, seems not so much mysterious as silly.

Yet setting aside the ‘why’ nonsense, unless you’re a shell-shocked existentialist, you probably accept as if by rote the notion of ‘who’ – who one is, or that one is – if not necessarily when or where or what one is.  Which makes you wonder if consciousness, the primordial advertence to self we so typically take for granted, could be another of those quantum fields we keep hearing about from particle physicists.

According to this idea (pace, Sean Carroll) each of us, each consciousness, would be a vibration or excitation in the quantum consciousness field, a sort of existential wave function or event distribution so distinct and coherent that even the likes of the Beach Boys, say, could pick up or detect it whilst surfing their own wave function around Malibu. Viewed in this light (as being all about vibes), canonical consciousness states would tend to blend with the background field. In some slices of the spectrum, though, you’d find waves of high frequency and bigness (see de Broglie wavelength), signals of an amplified presence or a heightened expression of self-ness.

No wonder Noetics and New Agers, much attuned to the idea of vibes, gravitate so avidly to those excitable, photon-emitting gurus.

Now recall that quantum waves also behave like particles. So, besides a vibration, each of us would presumably correspond to some sort of consciousness particle or singularity – a singularity every bit as singular no doubt as we’ve been led to believe.

During  quantum entanglement, for example, one’s particle self (consciousness) might take on a particular task while at the same time be spaced out somewheres  tackling entirely separate issues (pace, fanboys of mindfulness).

And what about quantum superposition? Might it not explain how one could be of ‘two minds’ about something, hold contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time? Surely, everybody’s felt superimposed this way at one time or other. It happens when you start to feel like a guest in your own skin, hankering for a bailout by Schrödinger, say, no sooner than the in-laws arrive with that upholstery-shredding tabby of theirs, already rampant in its flimsy, plein-air pet carrier  – and you’re allergic to cats.

On the other hand, if yours is the calm calamity of a one-track mind, don’t go blaming Schrödinger or collapse of a quantum function. Getting bogged down mentally in a soggy patch of the Higgs field is probably your own doing.

By now you can see where I’m going with this – that consciousness is hard to pin down and why in the view of some, it’s unlikely to ever be.  I for one would argue why bother at all? It’s like trying to perform your own colonoscopy using a Kepler telescope.

Indeed, don’t you wonder sometimes if there’s even a particle of consciousness out there?

Still, fluxes in cognition, or whatever you want to call it, can make for interesting times, as I found out the other day while shopping for one of my preferred beverages, Harveys Bristol Cream sherry, at a nearby BevMo! liquor store. I’ve been a fan of the Cream for almost a half-century, so for me the idea of Harveys is sort of second nature.  For others, though, it ain’t necessarily thus.  But more about that latter.

I got my first taste of Harveys at an English pub, the Blue Pig Inn in Grantham, Lincolnshire, many years ago. It was on one of those gloomy English afternoons in midwinter when the lecherous damp, breaching collars and buttonholes, leaches into your skin like a Trump, when sidewalks look moist and osmotic as though the cement were still fresh. Trudging along Vine street toward Swinegate, en route to visit nearby St. Wulfram's parish church*, I came upon the sign of the Blue Pig looming over the pub entrance. The effigy’s desolate blue-ness only sharpening my sense of the cold, I ventured inside to warm up and have something to drink.

But what drink to order? My teetotaler days not far behind me, I was no expert on ales and spirits. Callow about most things British to boot, what caught my eye was a bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream and the label that read:

By appointment to her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Wine Merchants John Harvey & Sons Limited, Bristol, United Kingdom

“Well, hail, Britannia!” I thought. “I’ll have what she’s having!” – and ordered a glass. For an expatriate visitor to Grantham, hometown of Margaret Thatcher, I reckoned, taking a quaff of the queen’s own potation might well be considered de rigueur, a gesture of respect.

The Harveys turned out to be tasty alright and had none of the bitterness of the Guinness stout I poured on my rolled oats of a morning!

Believe it or not, sherry, a Spanish drink, has a long history in Britain. The beverage began gaining in popularity around 1587 soon after Sir Francis Drake sacked the port of Cadiz and stole nearly three thousand barrels of, well, ‘sack’ as it was known at the time. Nothing like free samples to gin up the market!

After sherry had become a major import commodity, many English companies were formed, and styles developed, to take advantage of the trade. Indeed, not a few of the cellars in the sherry-producing region around Jerez were founded by British families.

Bristol Cream sherry, today one of the world’s most recognizable, originated with John Harvey & Sons, Bristol, around 1796. If you haven’t tried it, it’s dark amber in color, complex, and slightly spicy – a mixture of fortified (added alcohol) Spanish wines, including Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez, blended for sweetness and richness and the ‘creaminess’ of aftertaste that is its distinction.

For me, one drink of the Cream at the Pig, and I was hooked!

Which brings me back to BevMo!.

BevMo!, with nearly 150 stores in several states, offers more than 3000 types of wine, 1500 types of spirits, and 1200 varieties of beer. Was I remiss, then, to think they’d have Harveys?  Yet as I searched through their wine section – sweet wines, dessert wines, fortified wines –not a bottle of Harveys could I find.

So I approached the sommelier de la maison, the guy at the cash register, for a little assistance.

He was a young fellow, probably in his early twenties, congenial, with a broad, sincere, if somewhat vacant-looking face, and he sprang up to help me before I’d even had time to ask.

“I’m looking for the Harveys Bristol Cream sherry – I’m sure you must have it,” I said tersely and with authority, as though rendering a sort of admonishment for the unaccountable scarcity of Harveys presently dilapidating their shelves. So confident was I of success in this matter that I took it for granted that random others would rise to the occasion with splendid aplomb – leave a connoisseur (moi) satisfied in every particular.

“Uhhh, crystal what?” The somm cashier looked confused.

“No, no, Bristol Crea…sherry. Do you know sherry?”

Admittedly, sherry has a stolid reputation these days as the favored drink of your maiden Aunt Minnie, but supposedly that’s changing. It’s said to be in the midst of a big comeback. At the very least, I thought, the term wouldn’t have dropped out of the lexicon, certainly not at a place like BevMo!

Together, the sales guy and I retraced my steps through the store’s cavernous wine section. “It’s a cobalt blue bottle,” I encouraged him, “you can’t miss it.”

 But nada – nothing.

“Let me look on the computer,” he said at last, still trying to be helpful, just as we were joined by one of his equally befuddled colleagues. They clicked away at the keyboard.

“…Harvest, harvest…no, I don’t see it.”

“Harveys! Harveys!” I said in exasperation.

But I’m not sure they heard me. Words were forming yet nothing was getting through, as though the oscillations of my consciousness were stuck in a standing wave exactly cancelled by the sales guy’s.

“I’m new here,” he explained impassively, “just transferred in from another store.”

“But doesn’t BevMo! have a standard inventor…”

Waaush, Waaush, Waaush, Waaush...

Either my asthma was kicking up or that was the sound of an outbound tardis!

‘Just transferred in,’ indeed!

And the other store of which the sommelier spoke? What about that? Even out-of-the-way planets in far-away galaxies have sherry and serve it to the likes of Dr. Who!

Next day I bought a bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream at a Vons grocery a few blocks from my house. It seems to be vanishing rather quickly, too, though not like the tardis.

If by now you’re feeling the need for a ‘why’ after all, an explanation, a reason for being, here’s one to consider. Endure nay, flourish! to cherish your sherries, especially your Harveys. Come the Holidays, accept nothing less. Aunt Minnie won’t mind about the stockings – a tipple or two and she’ll feel no distress.


“Only a teetotaler could see the universe in a drop of water.”
                          – Buckley Brandhoofer, cowboy physicist

* St. Wulfram (Wulfram of Sens, c. 640–703), among other miracles, was credited with the safe passage of a copper clothespin swallowed accidently by a two-year-old boy. I once invoked such a ‘miracle’ myself, but a series of x-rays confirmed that the swallowed sewing needle had stalled and was unlikely to progress any further. The ‘haystack’ in which I found it – it wasn’t easy – turned out to be the patient’s appendix! Although Wulfram and the saint-makers presumably wouldn’t have known it, most small, swallowed foreign objects that manage to clear the stomach have a very good chance of passing uneventfully in the stool, even if they’re edged or pointed. If you’re trying this at home, be sure to eat lots of bulk to keep the pipeline well open.

And my latest miracle fail? Trying to turn money into wine at BevMo!, of course.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Goya’s Majas

Recently, I downloaded Touchnote, an app that lets you send customized postcards anyplace in the world that has a functioning postal system. Just for fun and to demo the service, I sent a Touchnote card to a friend of mine in Pasadena while I was visiting the Getty Center in Brentwood.

The Nude Maja , c. 1797-1800, oil on canvas, F. Goya
A few weeks later, by way of reply, he sent me a conventional postcard he’d picked up at the Prado Museum in Madrid fifty years ago and kept all this time as a souvenir, a reproduction of Francisco Goya’s famous painting, La Maja Desnuda (The Nude Maja).

“Your Touchnote is one of those cheesy
Getty imitations,” he wrote.

The Clothed Maja , c. 1800-1805, oil on canvas, F. Goya
Maybe so, but feel free to decide for yourself!

Be that as it may, the Nude Maja (c. 1797-1800, oil on canvas), even reproduced on a postcard, is a striking piece of work and a nice example of Goya’s “playful and mischievous” side, especially when viewed in context with its twin, the Clothed Maja, painted by Goya a few years later.

Both pictures, on display at the Prado since 1901, were probably commissioned by Spanish Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, Duke of Alcúdia, who hung them in a special cabinet reserved for his collection of nude paintings. (Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus, c. 1647–51, was also part of this trove.)

Devoid of allegorical or mythological allusions, the Nude Maja was "the first totally profane life-size female nude in Western art” – classical porn, you might say, since she was certainly considered to be such at the time.

Godoy, a notorious womanizer, hung both painting – the clothed one in front of the nude – in such a way that by means of a pulley system he could dramatically expose the naked version to startle and titillate guests once they’d seen her with clothes on.

But if Godoy was running a peep show, Goya, I believe, was up to a little mischief himself. For taken together, the paintings, intended to be viewed in tandem one after the other as noted, add up to an artistic prank played on the viewer, a painterly tour-de-force achieved through anatomic distortion and trompe-l'oeil windup.

First off, you’d get a gander (in Godoy’s closet) at the Clothed Maja. Immediately grabbing your attention is her elegant black and bronze jacket highlighted in gold, offsetting her rosy cheeks and lips. She wears a white chemise with a broad pink sash snugged up just below her splayed, almost wing-like breasts. Her gown is diaphanous, arrestingly sheer, almost as though she were clad in no more than body paint, and as the eye moves downward, her pubic hair rendered as shadow – or shadow masquerading as pubic hair – subtly beguiles the gaze. And it’s this feature in particular that primes the viewer for what’s to come next – the Maja in full, frontal undress.

It can sometimes be difficult to tell in works of art whether anatomic distortion is accidental or intentional, and if the latter, what purpose it serves. But as in the case of the Nude Maja, context can be helpful. Confronted with the lady now suddenly naked  – again, in Godoy’s closet, as if by means of a curtain hastily raised – you meet the Maja’s gaze: engaging, playful, and unashamedly brazen. Yet her pasted-on head seems to levitate from the canvas almost holographically or trompe-l'oeil fashion. Cockeyed is one thing, but whoa!

Her chest, abnormally broad, extends upward beneath flowing hair to the appliquéd or photoshopped, levitating head, which now suggests a face wedged into one of those funhouse photo cut-out boards that turns you into a gorilla or a clown or a naked lady, say. Her breasts, set too widely apart with a perkiness that defies gravity, are outspread as though poised for a welcoming embrace – a gesture the arms crossed languidly behind the head seem to eschew. Indeed, the Maja’s arms seem attached rather too high, as though to a neck that’s webbed or, like the chest, conspicuously broad.

Thus, in overall aspect the Maja’s torso and head are unsettlingly, almost comically distorted  (vaguely suggestive, by the way, of a female genetic disorder known as Turner syndrome, though this is likely coincidental).

Much of Goya's work is dark and foreboding.
But in the Nude Maja he seems to play the part
of a mischievous, painterly rodeo clown who
goes about subverting amped-up, myopic
Passion away from the primary object of its 

Goya uses these distortions as a sort of  gonzo ploy to disturb and distract the viewer, to draw his/her attention away from the work’s furry focal point back toward the upper half of her body in order to revitalize interest and prevent the gaze from stalling out at ground zero. Besides, with her hips flexed and bent knees pressed demurely together, there’s something a little anti-climactic about the prospect of the Maja’s small triangle (cf. L'Origine du Monde, Gustave Courbet, 1866), appreciated nearly to the fullest already through the gossamer, fluffed-up cotton candy wisp of a gown seen in the clothed version of her.

Thus, unless you’re a complete tongue dangler, Goya’s treatment of the work adds considerable vitality and attraction.

Perhaps also the Maja’s distorted torso and cockeyed, levitating head are there to remind us that she’s a distinct personality, not merely an object of sexual desire. Perhaps, too, these comic elements are simply meant to add levity, an appeal to the viewer not to take the work too seriously – a good idea, maybe, if you’re a pioneer in pornography whose work is going to attract the attention of the Inquisition.

“Lighten up, Torquemada, she’s not going to bite you,” one can almost hear Goya saying.

In any case, Goya’s artistic stratagem perturbs and energizes, prevents the work from descending into ho-hum triviality, the typical fate of so much of pornography.

Indeed, for porno, its been mostly downhill since Goya.