Foundation for a New Consciousness,
chapter 2 Copyright © 1987 John Caris
Copyright © 1987 John Caris
If, using an ancient technique, we test the wind with our fingers, we gain data about the wind's direction, force, temperature, and dryness. The data, which the wind carries, shed light upon our environment, our times. We can predict changes in the weather--and in the cultural milieu. This ancient idea is still found in modern art. Poet and musician Bob Dylan expresses it for his generation in the ballad Blowing in the Wind. The poet sings that the answer to life is blowing in the wind. We can understand the ballad's image on two levels--the literal and the metaphoric. This awareness of two dimensions, each having its own truth, lays the foundation for a new consciousness. By linking these two dimensions together, we obtain a stereo-view of reality. We have made a new dimension, one which is more than the sum of its two parents.
Contemporary people have a penchant for prophecy and divination. We conduct opinion polls, construct distribution curves for predicting probabilities, and test the winds of fashion. We fantasize about learning of future trends and events so that our speculations will pay off. And we prepare ourselves for self-growth. When gardeners tend their plants, they look closely for signs of health and development. These are natural signs that reflect the plant's physical state. When we look at our face in the mirror, we search for signs of mental and physical health. Here we interpret the sign on two levels.
By using art works as illustrations, we can examine the concept of sign and map its structure. In Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf the main character, Harry Haller, passes by a series of signs, some of which he recognizes as such. Early in the story, while Harry is walking through an older quarter of the city, he comes upon an old stone wall which is situated between a little church and an old hospital. Harry has noticed the stone wall before, and always with pleasure. This time, though, Harry spies a change in the wall: "a small and pretty doorway with a Gothic arch." He is uncertain whether the doorway has always been there and he has not noticed it, or whether it has recently been placed there. He pauses to inspect the doorway and finds that it appears to be of ancient origin. Then he notices something gaily colored like a garland. Crossing the street to take a closer look, he sees that it is an electric sign; at least bright letters appear and disappear. After some mental effort he puts together enough letters to understand the words: MAGIC THEATRE. ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY.
Obviously, this is a strange event in anyone's life. It makes one pause and wonder. Even if the doorway were old and Harry never noticed it before, why does he notice it this particular night? And secondly, what connection does the electric sign have with the old doorway? The electric sign is a modern invention, yet Harry noticed the doorway before he saw the sign. Harry speculates that the doorway probably opens onto a convent yard now no longer in use. For what purpose is an electric sign placed above such an entrance, and one displaying MAGIC THEATRE. ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY? Like most of us, Harry is intrigued by the meaning of the sign but not by the now apparent doorway. Finding the door locked, Harry continues his walk; in front of him appear colored letters reflected on the asphalt: FOR MADMEN ONLY! A former thought arises in his mind; the colored letters are similar to "the track of shining gold which suddenly vanishes and cannot be found."
Harry continues his wandering until he reaches an old tavern where he spends several hours drinking wine and musing upon his thoughts. Leaving, he walks back to his room and again passes the old stone wall. He stops, hoping for another invitation. But this time there is no doorway and no pointed arch, only unbroken masonry. To Harry it seems natural enough; but we may wonder about his state of mind? Was he hallucinating when he first passed by? Doorways and electric signs do not vanish into thin air. If we are to be logical, though, we can also wonder whether Harry is hallucinating when he returns by the stone wall. He has been drinking wine, remember, and perhaps his mind is too foggy to see the doorway.
At this moment a man appears from an alley carrying a red signboard on a pole: ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT. MAGIC THEATRE. ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY. Harry, wanting an answer, calls out to the man who, without slowing his pace, gives him a small book. Harry takes it home and reads it at a sitting. The book helps Harry understand himself; it is a Treatise on Steppenwolf. The name "Steppenwolf" conveys the image of a wolf that lives on the steppes or great plains of southeastern Europe and Asia.
Certainly this whole episode has marks of the unusual, the strange. We, like Harry, wonder about the event and the importance of the book. Perhaps we have had a similar happening which was strange or unusual. No doubt we told our friends about it and then let it drop into the depths of our memory. Of course, Harry is fortunate because he was rewarded with a physical reminder, the book.
Yet many signs do not necessarily jump out at us with their strangeness. In fact, many appear so mundane that we pass them by. When Harry, several days later, again meets the man who gave him the book, we have what appears to be a mundane event; but it turns out to be significant. Harry asks the man if there is a show tonight. The man tells him to go to the Black Eagle. A dinner engagement pushes this advice out of Harry's mind. Later that night, after he has insulted his dinner hosts and is roaming the streets driven by the wretchedness of his actions, Harry stops in front of a dance hall called the Black Eagle. He enters and meets a young woman whose name is Hermine. Harry's life now begins a series of changes. Is it by chance that Harry happens upon the Black Eagle, or is it predestined--in the cards? Whichever, it is a significant event.
A modern person may think that it is chance and will let it go at that. A traditionalist may believe that it is predestined and thus a reflection of the pattern which connects. A sign is never arbitrary, for a reason underlies the existence of a sign, a reason which is connected to the universal fabric. Harry is in a state of mental confusion, not knowing where he is going. But by chance or destiny he finds himself at the Black Eagle. And that's the catch. The Black Eagle fits into a pattern which, as it grows, will push Harry into a new mold. The Black Eagle is linked to the man who gave Harry the Steppenwolf Treatise and who is linked to the doorway and electric sign. The glue which binds these together is the Magic Theatre, for once Harry steps into the Black Eagle, he will follow a series of events culminating in the Magic Theatre. The Black Eagle is a sign as much as the electric sign, yet on the surface it seems so trivial. Are there not events in our daily life that seem trivial yet, if seen as part of a pattern, gain importance?
It is easy in modern times to talk about patterns. We have many mathematical equations that discover patterns and interpret them. Yet the modern scientist would not pinpoint one item in that pattern and call it significant. And so too, most people today do not perceive something as a sign unless its strangeness strikes them. Modern science describes a universe that has interesting patterns but lacks singular signs.
Recently however, physicists have applied the word "singularity" to black holes, those strange phenomena existing in space. A black hole is caused when a star collapses upon itself so that nothing can escape, not even light. The center or heart of a black hole is named singularity; here exists infinite pressure, infinite density, and infinite curvature of space-time. Physicists conceive of a black hole as having two main parts: a singularity and an event horizon, that is, a place beyond which no event can be seen or experienced. This is analogous to the natural horizon on earth. Looking out over the ocean, we watch a ship disappear below the horizon or suddenly appear above it. Beginning in the Renaissance, painters have used a horizon line to create the effect of a three-dimensional (3D) space.
Many artists, though, have used the concept of singularity in a more philosophic vein, as a means of suggesting the absurd. Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea, directly experiences the modern universe. And in doing so, he is overwhelmed with an intense nausea. While sitting in the park looking at the scenery, Roquentin is suddenly struck by the realization that the tree and its roots exist--and for no apparent reason. They just exist, and the absurdity of it all is overbearing. Roquentin, like the modern scientist, can only describe what exists. Unlike the scientist though, Roquentin searches for a reason and finds himself facing the stone wall of a universe that happens to be, but lacks purpose and meaning. We can analyze the atomic structure of matter for eons and never find one quark of purpose or meaning. Yet the universe is here; its singularity is evident. Like Roquentin we look for a reason and find only the wall of absurdity. Our human reason is blocked. The scientist probably does not react with nausea, but Roquentin does because his emotions exist, for no apparent reason, and they form a basic part of his mind.
Through the character of the underground man, Roquentin's 19th century brother, Fyodor Dostoevsky poses the issue in Notes from Underground. The underground man has observed that most people, when confronted with the impossible, at once resign themselves. The impossible is imagined as a stone wall and is equated with the laws of nature and the conclusions of science and mathematics. The underground man does not care about the laws of nature, and he certainly is not going to resign himself to the stone wall. Resignation can give him peace of mind, yet he refuses and so suffers from extraordinary consciousness.
The underground man, as Dostoevsky mentions in a footnote, had to surface in the mid 19th century at a time when the philosophy of progress, which we still consume today, was becoming popular. The underground man is not a jolly companion nor an entertaining buddy. He is a sick man, a spiteful man, an unpleasant man; in fact, his liver may be diseased. The underground man has peculiar fears. He does not want to be an organ stop or piano key in a deterministic universe. He does not want to be an ant living in a scientifically engineered ant hill. When he looks at the Crystal Palace built in London in 1851, a great monument of modern technology, he sticks his tongue out at it! He even goes so far as to challenge the Socratic idea that evil is caused by ignorance, that if people had knowledge of their real interest they would behave properly. Yet he is on a quest for what he believes is the greatest advantage, the finest jewel in the universe: his free will.
In modern times science does not provide answers that some people are searching for. Was it any different in earlier times? Medieval science assumed that the world reflected God's divine plan. Nature itself was studied for a better understanding of this plan. How does this differ from modern science? Both try to understand the world and its laws. The medievalist, though, can find purpose and meaning in the atomic structure of matter because of a firmly held tautology: since God made the world, purpose and meaning must inhere in its structure.
During the Renaissance scientists like Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei were condemned for heresy by the Inquisition. They believed that they were describing nature more accurately and more truthfully, but they were also treading dangerously on the domain of theology. By the 18th century science was moving warily around potential theological traps. As Isaac Newton put it, once God made the world, He stepped aside and watched it operate. Thus, the world is seen as a closed system operating on a set of programed instructions. In the 20th century we have become completely imbued with science: only the world that science describes exists; nothing can exist if science cannot describe it. But we should remember that science has imposed its own limitations on the universe by roping off a small section for scrutiny.
Modern and ancient sciences do differ on one very important issue which is the nature of truth. Modern scientific theories are built upon observation of natural processes. Empirical evidence decides which competing theory is "true." The recently accepted theory of continental drift clearly illustrates the modern method. Only fifty years ago a few "crazy" scientists thought that the continents were originally one and over millenniums they had drifted apart. Now geologists picture the continents as tectonic plates that slowly float over the globe's surface. On the other hand, ancient scientists held that truth was absolute and not dependent upon observation. Empirical data were only examples and illustrations of truth. The alchemist could understand the essential quality of metal (that is, metalness) without inspecting the many kinds of metal. The structure of reality was pictured as a tapestry with its vertical and horizontal threads. Facts gathered through observation existed on the horizontal level, but truth was discovered by examining the vertical links.
In his essay "A Free Man's Worship" Bertrand Russell poses the question of human existence for the 20th century. He believes that we are caught by blind, irresistible forces of nature and swirled through life from birth to death. Russell, like Roquentin, is upset by the human predicament. For Russell the choice lies between becoming a slave to the blind power of the inanimate world or directing the mind toward eternal things and thereby gaining freedom. The eternal things that Russell turns toward are ideals in a Platonic sense. For the ancient philosopher Plato, ideals or ideas are more real and more true than the material objects and things in the everyday world. A particular tree--whether oak, cedar, or redwood--is not as real as the idea of tree. Plato is searching for the essence or nature of a tree. What makes an oak, cedar, or redwood a tree? What do all trees have in common? Why, their treeness--an identity that distinguishes them from lilies and roses, from fish, birds, and mammals, and from humans.
Modern science was born in the 17th century. Even at its birth, European intellectuals felt the stress and tension that have become a dominant attribute of the "new science." John Donne expresses the birth pangs in his poem "An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary":
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
But it is Hamlet who best dramatizes the new dilemma. Like Russell, he is caught between the new science and traditional ideals. Hamlet's mind-searching, his madness, his doubts have been questioned by modern literary critics. Why doesn't Hamlet act and revenge his father's death early in the play? When his father's ghost tells him the truth and places a heavy burden of revenge on his young shoulders, Hamlet does not act immediately. He should respond to the medieval code of fealty and unquestioningly accept the responsibility.
Several factors in the play bring about the outcome when vengeance finally occurs. One of these pertains to our discussion. It is a direct attack on medieval loyalty to tradition. Hamlet, a student at the University of Wittenberg, reflects the new consciousness, for he needs empirical proof to substantiate the ghost's story. Hamlet does not look for signs in a medieval sense; he looks for empirical clues. It is the play-within-a-play, "The Murder of Gonzago," which provides the necessary and sufficient data. The play-within-a-play is a traditional dramatic technique that reflects ancient cosmology: the universe has many dimensions and each dimension is a reflection of the next higher or lower one. Hamlet, acting strictly as a medievalist, notices the link between the ghost's story and the storyline of "The Murder of Gonzago." The occurrence of two related events could lead Hamlet to the conclusion that his father was murdered by Claudius. Yet Hamlet, showing his modern academic training, uses the play on his uncle. Hamlet and his friend Horatio carefully watch Claudius' reactions to the play, and on that basis they are convinced of his treachery.
One dominant trait of modern science is its use of observation. When enough data have been gathered through observation, then perhaps a pattern can be discovered. In mid 20th century the dramatist Samuel Beckett inspects human existence and expresses his findings in the drama Waiting for Godot. Estragon and Vladimir, the two main characters, show the culmination of modem cosmology. They are paralyzed; they cannot act; they can only wait. Wait for a message telling them what to do. In the second act they notice that the tree has changed. The tree is a focal point in the dramatic setting, and they spend most of their time around the tree waiting for Godot to arrive. Yesterday it was all black and bare, but now it is covered with leaves. The strangeness is dissolved by their agreement that they were not in that location yesterday. A tree cannot change in a single night, so obviously it is not the same one. A sign must fit into their description of the universe. If it does not, then they do not recognize it as a sign. The singularity is what puzzles the two. So Estragon and Vladimir must continue to wait for Godot--perhaps for an eternity.
Although modern consciousness focuses on facts rather than on signs, a case can be made for the importance of signs. Perhaps, if we use the word "clue" instead, we will notice the importance. The word "clue," a variant spelling of "clew," originally meant a globular body or ball, especially one formed by winding thread. By Geoffrey Chaucer's time, "clue" has taken on the figurative meaning of "that which guides through a labyrinth, maze, perplexity." Yet the idea goes back to antiquity. It is found in the Greek legend about the minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, who lives in a labyrinth on the island of Crete. Each year seven young men and seven young women are fed to the minotaur as a ritual sacrifice. Theseus, a Greek hero, wishes to stop the sacrifices, so he must enter the labyrinth and kill the monster. The minotaur knows the design of the maze that it lives in, but Theseus does not. Even if he kills the monster, how will he find his way out? Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete, gives Theseus a ball of thread that he unrolls as he searches for his opponent. Theseus is successful; after he kills the minotaur, he follows the thread back to the entrance.
No doubt the most renowned searcher for clues is Sherlock Holmes. Because he is immersed in modern scientific consciousness, we can believe that he relies heavily on the inductive approach. Holmes, though, is more deductive. From an appraisal of someone's hand, he deduces many facts. In some ways Holmes' consciousness is closer to the medievalist than to the modern laboratory scientist. He can focus on one clue and perceive the total pattern. Thus, the one clue functions as a sign. Of course, he uses his laboratory to increase his knowledge of material things by analyzing bits of hair, pieces of cloth and whatever else might be useful to the investigation. But perhaps, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was interested in the occult, was trying to show the continuity of scientific tradition, that the new science was not so new after all. Holmes has a feeling for the proper moment; his sense of timing is perfect, usually.
The subtle difference between deduction and induction is illustrated more precisely in Frank Herbert's novel The Santaroga Barrier. Gilbert Dasein, the protagonist, is thrust into a perilous situation. Arriving in the small community of Santaroga where he hopes to make a market study, he experiences one accident after another. These accidents nearly succeed in killing him. He is aware that the townspeople do not particularly like him or trust him, and the accidents are always triggered by one of the Santarogans. Gilbert is in a semi-paranoid state when he arrives, and the first accident is interpreted as an intended threat. The example is instructive. Dasein's mental state allows him to perceive the accidents in a certain light. When he enters Santaroga, he believes that he is walking into a trap. Each accident reinforces this attitude. Gilbert experiences each accident as a sign, pointing to only one conclusion: his life is in danger.
The word "accident" usually connotes an element of chance or randomness. We say, "It was an accident,"meaning that it was not intended or planned. But Dasein sees each "accident" as intended. For him each accident is a sign with a direct link to a central point--the trap that he believes he is in. Since Gilbert is a psychologist, we might expect him to use a more inductive approach. Perhaps he could set up some experiments and when sufficient data have been collected, look for a pattern. But Dasein, who is more analogous to a laboratory mouse placed in a Skinner box, reacts from a very subjective position.
The word "accident" stems from the same root as the word "chance": the Latin cadere, meaning to fall! When we fall, we often want to blame something other than ourselves. The concept of chance or randomness holds a very important place in modern science. The mathematics of probability allows science to deal with probabilities rather than with certainties, and so chance is linked to a degree of predictability that is based upon an inductive approach. When we examine the pattern of events which Gilbert experiences while in Santaroga, we can say with high probability that as long as he stays there his life is threatened. Yet Dasein does not wait until a long series of accidents have occurred before he believes in the danger; he needs only one accident to perceive the lay of the land.
Some of us might think that chance is actually a cover for free will. Chance, then, is the hole in a deterministic or necessary design, a hole that signals our free will. Sigmund Freud, noticing the association between chance and accident, argues that the unconscious part of the mind wills the "accident." By linking the unconscious mental operations to the will, he is undermining the conscious ego and reinforcing the basic self, which is usually hidden from our view.
Gilbert's predicament, however, leaves us with a puzzle. How can we decide whether something is a sign or not? We usually cannot count on a strangeness being attached to the event. So what kind of a clue will tell us that it is a sign? The word "sign" comes from the Latin signum, meaning mark, token, image, seal; and it is probably akin to Latin secare, meaning to cut. We can say then that a sign is a distinguishing mark. Once it is identified, we follow the thread to what it signals.
In his novel The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway illustrates the structure of a sign. Santiago, the main character, has been a fisherman for most of his life. Although an old man, he goes to sea every day, and so he has learned how to interpret natural signs. The shape of the clouds and the sunlight reflected upon the water tell him what the weather will be. If a hurricane is on its way, its signs will appear several days early, enough time for him to go back to shore. Even a bird flying overhead can give him information. When he sees a man-of-war bird, he knows that a school of fish is nearby. Hemingway, though, does not stop at a literal rendering of signs. He develops vertical links through metaphor and allegory. As Santiago's memories and dreams are added, the story unfolds as an allegory of life and human existence. When Santiago hooks a large martin, the author weaves a symbol of unity between them; both human and fish are joined as one. So Santiago's struggle to protect the dead martin from savage attacks by hungry sharks becomes a heroic and tragic drama.
Here, it is fitting to recall Plato's famous myth of the cave. The complete story, as found in the Republic, is reprinted for our meditation.
Next, said Socrates, compare our nature in respect of education and its lack to such an experience as this. Picture people dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet shows have partitions in front of them and above which they show the puppets.
All that I see, Glaucon said.
See also, then, people carrying past the wall implements of all kinds that rise above the wall, and human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent.
A strange image you speak of, Glaucon said, and strange prisoners.
Like to us, Socrates said. For, to begin with, tell me do you think that these people would have seen anything of themselves or of one another except the shadows cast from the fire on the wall of the cave that fronted them?
How could they, Glaucon said, if they were compelled to hold their heads unmoved through life?
And again, would not the same be true of the objects carried past them?
If then they were able to talk to one another, do you not think that they would suppose that in naming the things that they saw they were naming the passing objects.
And if their prison had an echo from the wall opposite them, when one of the passers-by uttered a sound, do you think that they would suppose anything else than the passing shadow to be the speaker?
By Zeus, I do not, Glaucon said.
Then in every way such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.
Consider, then, what would be the manner of the release and healing from these bonds and this folly if in the course of nature something of this sort should happen to them. When one was freed from his fetters and compelled to stand up suddenly and turn his head around and walk, and to lift up his eyes to the light, and in doing all this felt pain and, because of the dazzle and glitter of the light, was unable to discern the objects whose shadows he formerly saw, what do you suppose would be his answer if someone told him that what he had seen before was all a cheat and an illusion, but that now, being nearer to reality and turned toward more real things, he saw more truly? And if also one should point out to him each of the passing objects and constrain him by questions to say what it is, do you not think that he would be at a loss and that he would regard what he formerly saw as more real than the things now pointed out to him?
Far more real, Glaucon said.
And if he were compelled to look at the light itself, would not that pain his eyes, and would he not turn away and flee to those things which he is able to discern and regard them as in very deed more clear and exact than the objects pointed out?
It is so.
And if, Socrates said, someone should drag him thence by force up the ascent which is rough and steep, and let him go before he had drawn him out into the light of the sun, do you not think that he would find it painful to be so hauled along, and would chafe at it, and when he came out into the light, that his eyes would be filled with its beams so that he would not be able to see even one of the things that we call real?
Why, no, not immediately, Glaucon said.
Then there would be need of habituation to enable him to see the things higher up. And at first he would most easily discern the shadows and, after that, the likenesses or reflections in water of people and other things, and later, the things themselves, and from these he would go on to contemplate the appearances in the heavens and heaven itself, more easily by night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than by day the sun and the sun's light.
And so, finally, he would be able to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.
Necessarily, Glaucon said.
And at this point he would infer and conclude that this it is that provides the seasons and the courses of the year and presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some sort the cause of all these things that they had seen.
Obviously that would be the next step.
Well, then, if he recalled to mind his first habitation and what passed for wisdom there among the prisoners, do you not think that he would count himself happy in the change and pity them?
He would indeed.
And consider this also. If such a one should go down again and take his old place, would he not get his eyes full of darkness, thus suddenly coming out of the sunlight?
Of course he would.
Now if he should be required to contend with these perpetual prisoners in "evaluating" these shadows while his vision was still dim and before his eyes were accustomed to the dark--and the time required for habituation would not be very short--would he not provide laughter, and would it not be said of him that he had returned from the journey aloft with his eyes ruined and that it was not worth-while even to attempt the ascent? And if it were possible to lay hands on and to kill the one who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him?
How would we answer the concluding question? Perhaps, we should wait until we have given the question more thought. An underlying concept of the story illuminates Plato's cosmology: many dimensions exist and each is a modified or distorted reflection of a higher or lower one. A drawing of the cave story can help us visualize and feel the basic idea. The drawing also adds another dimension to our experience.
In the visual arts there is a style called anamorphic art. The word comes from the Greek ana, again, plus morphe, shape. An anamorphic image is distorted and barely recognizable unless one perceives it from a designated view point. When Renaissance painters developed the system of central perspective based upon a horizon line, they realized that such a perspective fixes a particular relationship between the viewer and the painting. One must see the painting from a designated location for all the images to look natural. If one moves a few feet away, some of the images will appear distorted. It is this fixed perspective that 20th century art has challenged. Once Cubism broke and fragmented the painting surface, the visual perspective shifted back to the vertical pull of the surface.
Perhaps the painting best known for its use of anamorphosis is Hans Holbein's Ambassadors. The two men and the many objects on the shelves are depicted with a trompe l'oeil quality. Yet, jumping out at the viewer from the bottom of the painting is a distorted image. When the viewer moves close to the surface of the painting and looks at the shape along its long axis, a skull becomes recognizable. During the Renaissance painters used the metaphor that a painting is a mirror reflecting the world or a window through which one sees the world. What kind of world is seen in Holbein's painting? The reflection of a real, everyday world is apparent and we are awed by the painter's skill. But the skull appears as an object seen through a distorting lens. If the skull exists in another dimension, we are seeing only a "shadow" image. And in the top, left corner is a crucifix hanging on the wall. Holbein's painting portrays the idea of several dimensions.
Another excellent example of trompe l'oeil painting is Fra Andrea Pozzo's St. Ignatius in Glory. This masterpiece of illusion is a fresco on the nave ceiling of St. Ignazio church in Rome. The viewer receives a paradoxical experience of looking up and then "falling" into space. Such an experience is analogous to those occurring in meditation when consciousness seems "to float." Perhaps, the only thing that prevents the viewer from "falling" into space is gravity or the fear of flying!
Shadow lanterns were very popular at the beginning of the 20th century, and many people enjoyed making amusing shadows on walls. The artist Marcel Duchamp drew on this enjoyment when he attached a bicycle wheel to the top of a wooden stool. He did not think of it as an art work but only as an entertaining construct. The shadow produced by the bicycle wheel is distorted unless it is viewed from one location, and the placement of the light source plays its part. Fascinated by the visual distortion, Duchamp wondered whether a 3D physical object, producing its own 2D shadow, was not a "shadow" of a 4D object. The analogy can move on to an indefinite number of dimensions.
If we consider optical illusions and other perceptual influences, we may conclude that all images are in some way distorted, that they are not identical to the object. The arts have always been aware of this truth. In fact, it is a principle of traditional cosmology which the arts have assumed. An art work is only an image of something else. It need not be a representational image; it may be abstract like the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi or Hans (Jean) Arp or a painting by Piet Mondrian or Jackson Pollock. When he developed the style of action painting, Pollock tried not to paint recognizable images. Yet many viewers have found such images in his action paintings. It is this subjective quality that dominates 20th century art. Many artists desire a universe that contains not only the objective but also the subjective, not only the horizontal direction but also the vertical.
Roger Zelazny's novel Nine Princes in Amber portrays this idea. Amber is the home of the protagonist Corwin and his brothers and sisters. For them it is both the center of the universe and the true reality. In the story many realities exist. These realities are different dimensions which reflect, more or less accurately, Amber. When Corwin and his brother Random return to Amber so that they can challenge the coronation of their brother Eric, they take a very devious route. They journey through many strange realities, each one reflecting only a facet of Amber. The changes are triggered by Random, who mentally selects the sequence of realities that they drive through. The proper sequence must be chosen if they are to reach Amber because Eric is trying to prevent them from returning. Finally, they arrive at the Forest of Arden, which is the entrance to the land of Amber. The blend of ancient and modern ideas is quite apparent.
Another way of describing the many dimensions of reality is by using the microcosm-macrocosm concept. The word "micro" means small and "macro" means big while "cosm" means world or universe: the small world and the large world. The concept implies a particular relationship between the two. It is analogous to a mirror reflection or according to the basic alchemical principle, "As above, so below." It is not one of strict identity but one of likeness. Thus, allowance is made for difference and variation. These, however, are more accidental than essential.
After discovering the law of gravity, Newton spent considerable effort studying alchemy. He read many symbolic and theoretical treatises where he hoped to find the great secrets of the ancients. Through extensive research Newton tried to comprehend the link between chemical and mechanical principles, between molecular structure and planets. His studies led him to a new concept of force, one that describes the small world of chemistry.
In the early 20th century before the dominance of quantum mechanics, atomic structure was paradigmed on the solar system. This is a conceptual illustration of the microcosm-macrocosm relationship. In Johann Goethe's poetic drama Faust the wager at the beginning of the play between God and Mephisto is mirrored by the later wager between Faust and Mephisto. In Heaven Mephisto bets God that he can win Faust's soul; when he returns to earth and meets his intended victim, they bet that Mephisto cannot win Faust's soul.
The arts are often thought to reflect their times. This is why art historians can divide human culture into style periods like the baroque, classical, and romantic. Looking at the beginning of the 20th century, we can notice signs of radical change. By 1910 Pablo Picasso was leading the cubist movement in its destruction of the Renaissance picture plane. Space is no longer constructed as a series of parallel planes, one in front of the other. Renaissance space is fractured, and the pieces are rearranged according to a different frame of reference. Only a few years before cubism's birth, Albert Einstein dropped an intellectual bomb on science. Both Picasso and Einstein have relied on the work of their predecessors. Picasso solves a challenge bequeathed by the impressionists, who brought the pictorial image closer to the painting's surface. Einstein builds a relativity framework upon the 19th century development of non-Euclidean geometries, which opened new dimensions for exploration. Around the same time the composer Arnold Schoenberg directly attacked the foundation of the diatonic scale. Why should a musical scale be centered on one dominate note? So an equality is imposed upon the scale; all musical notes are equal to each other, for the idea of a tonal center has been discarded.
If we listen to popular music of our day, we may discern clues that will tell us what is happening. Consider the rock music of the 1960's. Notice the parallel between the style changes and the political events occurring in the world. The early Beatles differs from the 1968 Beatles. The beat becomes harder, and the sound is often twisted and confusing, closely mirroring the increase in police action against the young people who were clamoring for change. The music of the flower children is turned into music for a burning trashcan.
With the advent of the transistor in the late 1950's and so the harkening call of miniaturization, comes the minimal painting style of the early 1960's. We are not talking about any causal connection but one of parallel trends. An art work can function as a sign of the times. When we look for a pattern, art works can illuminate some of the forces operating in society. Artists often explore developments in the changing technology. Once plastics became available to the public, many artists selected them as material for their art.
John Barth's novel Giles Goatboy portrays the influence that computers have on society. George Giles, who grew up in the country with a flock of goats, attends the West Campus of the University. As a student Giles experiences a number of adventures that look remarkably similar to those of legendary heroes. His final task is to change the primary program of WESCAC, a computer that controls and runs the University. But there is extreme danger, for he must descend into the belly of WESCAC where the primary program (AIM) is stored under heavy security. WESCAC will eat anyone who tries to tamper with its AIM unless the person is a Grand Tutor. Barth's story can be read as a parable of modern times and as a cosmic allegory.
Human society has many layers, and we have a tendency to take only a horizontal perspective, looking out across one layer at a time. We may specialize in the arts or sciences and know very little about other human activities. This horizontal view seems to be characteristic of the 20th century. We are like Mr. Square in Edwin Abbott's story Flatland; our awareness is limited to only two dimensions. Mr. Square lives in a flat, 2D world and he is not aware that higher dimensions exist. Only when Mr. Sphere visits Flatland and talks with him, does Mr. Square expand his understanding and realize that his world view is distorted. Eventually, Abbott forges the next link in his analogy. Beings existing in the fourth spatial dimension can "see" into solid objects as Mr. Sphere can "see" into flat objects. And so, Mr. Sphere's world view is distorted when compared to the experience of a being living in a 4D world.
The mind's equipment--sensory, emotional, and conceptual--is limited to a narrow range of experience. When we focus it on a horizontal vista, we are imprisoning ourselves. We are caught and bounded by the fish bowl that we live in. Contemporary science, though, stands on the edge of a gateway to the stars, but the journey will not be made across one plane. The only path is a vertical one. This is another important difference between ancient science and modern science. In ancient science the vertical direction provides the links among the many layers of human society and the many dimensions of the universe. An infinite number of horizontal dimensions can be connected in this manner, and the microcosm-macrocosm symbol expresses this cosmic cross. Polyphonic texture of Renaissance music, with its several voice lines, is a clear example. The voice lines are linked vertically, and compositions with five or six voice lines are common.
In Christian art the microcosm-macrocosm is displayed by the Veronica, the cloth which Jesus used and so bears the only true image of His face. All other visual images of Jesus are anamorphic copies, and so a painting of Jesus is a distorted copy of the Veronica, or perhaps it is a modified image of the artist's vision. This idea ties in with Plato's myth of the cave. In both we find many dimensions connected by a vertical axis. The Veronica links ancient cosmology with Christian theology.
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