Thursday, January 12, 2006

All About Meme: The Eternal Vacation at the Edge of the Known

Continuing with the Meme of Four:

Four places you've lived: I have always preferred to live at the edge rather than the center, an area where civilization abuts nature, where the manmade world ends and the simply "given" world begins. Although I enjoy visiting, say, New York, I could never live there. It would feel completely unreal to me. Like Hesse's Steppenwolf, I like to skirt about the foothills just outside civilization, occasionally coming down for nourishment.

I think this is a metaphor for where I like to live conceptually, at the edge or boundary of the known--where the known comes right up against the unknown. All of our sophisticated knowledge is like a giant spotlight. The spotlight is so bright, that we think that is all that exists. However, the vast majority of reality is outside the spotlight. I think of those astronomers who have to go to places far away from any sources of human light in order to see the starry heavens. To give birth to a novel idea, you really have to get far way from the influence of what the grazing multitude down in the valley think they know about the world.

Likewise, it's very difficult to unplug yourself from our modern cognitive light and to make your way in the dark. This is why people crave mystery. For ninety-nine percent of our existence, humans lived in an utter mystery. We awakened to an awesome cosmos that was here waiting for us, and yet knew nothing about it. Just as our primitive furbears set up safe little encampments around the fire, our civilizations are nothing but the same little campfires writ large. We revere real artists because they are the ones who make the "raids on the inarticulate" outside the boundary of the well-lit known.

So I've lived in several beach communities--Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, and Port Hueneme, which at the time, was a quite underpopulated place about 25 miles north of Malibu. It was like having the entire beach to ourselves. I've also lived in Chatsworth, which is in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, in the foothills of the then unpopulated mountainous region. Currently I live in a horseshoe shaped area that is completely surrounded by open space, where I take my mountain bike and do some of my best non-thinking.

Four places you’ve been on vacation. Now that's an interesting question. I almost never take what you would call a vacation. And yet, I take a vacation every day. Remember yesterday, I mentioned my boyhood dream of never working on a full time basis? One of the reasons for this was so I'd be able to take a daily vacation, to completely slip the moors of the space-time continuum and live in the deep and formless expanse of unstructured time.

After all, this is the experience people are after when they go on an expensive vacation, isn't it? Life becomes so stale, so routine, so boring, that they crave novelty. They work hard all year, save up some money, and then go to some exotic locale, where the sights are different, the sounds are different, the flavors are different, and even the smells are different. As such, it provides a spurious sense of aliveness, as all of your senses have come back on line, where they should have been to begin with. Novelty is always here, but it seems that for many people, they don't appreciate it unless their senses are being bombarded with fresh stimulation. People that are addicted to invasive and hypnotic things like television, computer games, or barbarous rap music are hopeless in this area.

I have taken the opposite tack of trying to refine my senses so that every moment seems like a novelty. This requires a lot of "unsaturation" of the mind, aided by daily meditation. The idea is to experience the world as arising and dissolving away on a moment to moment basis. It's always new. We just have to realize it.

Every day I try to complete my work by mid-afternoon, and then knock off so that I can enter the unstructured world a few microns away. This has admittedly been more difficult since my son was born nine months ago. Then again, he's in that realm all the time so it would not be an exaggeration to say that he has become my new guru. We take walks together (actually, I do the walking, he's in the front pack), and I watch him watching the world. It's all radically new to him--literally like a waking dream. His eyes are almost bugging out of his head as he takes everything in, studying, gazing, categorizing. What a place to be! He has a much more favorable known-to-unknown ratio than we do. And yet, if we can only open our minds a little, we can recapture that state of radical wonder. We just have to do it in a different way, for example, with ideas rather than things.

One thing I recently discovered is that when I take my camera with me on my mountain biking excursions, the experience is radically altered. Although the area is quite beautiful, it is possible to completely miss the experience. The beauty is actually impossibly rich, and yet, it can go unnoticed. Which means that it might as well not be there. But by virtue of bringing the camera, I regard reality in a completely different way, almost the delighted way I imagine that God would experience things. The beauty is everywhere--from the smallest to the largest scale. I play with angles, with light, with perspective, and all of a sudden, the aesthetic possibilities are truly limitless. Go at one time of the day and you see one tree, go later in the day and it's a different tree. It's an entirely new landscape in the morning, on a rainy day, in the spring, or in the dead of winter. And each is packed with beauty just sitting there waiting to be appreciated.

But why? Why is there beauty? I can imagine the cosmos being neutral, or ugly, but why beautiful? My dog doesn't think it's beautiful. Sure, there are some interesting smells, but her olfactory sense can be directly traced to some Darwinian utility. But what is the Darwinian utility of aesthetic arrest? I've heard a lot of explanations, but I find them rather pathetic--about as sophisticated as the literal creationists who think the world is 6,000 years old. If you want to talk about one of the weaknesses of the Darwinian paradigm as an all-encompassing explanation, that would be a good place to begin. We have so many "luxury capacities" that natural selection connot possibly account for, unless you are suffering under the weight of the most crimped and hidebound imagination possible.

The imagination, properly understood, is the true estate of man. It is the leading edge of the evolving cosmos, where the eternal breaks into time, where the roiling infinite spills over into the finite, and where we become fully human--in the post-biological sense.

Still left:

Four websites you visit daily
Four of your favorite foods
Four places you’d rather be
Four albums you can’t live without


D. Vision said...

Bob, I think your a genius, with a minor peppering of crazy.

(And that's an extremely good mix).

LiquidLifeHacker said...

I always get enlightened when I read your blog Bob, but today, it brought tears to my eyes...

Today, I had just gotten some news about a friend that had lost his only son in a car accident and when I read what you said about vacations and about your own son, "He has become my new guru. We take walks together (actually, I do the walking, he's in the front pack), and I watch him watching the world" I couldn't help think how we all go through our lives coveting grand escapes from the mundane while the most important beauty is at always right at home.

It's like when we think a new and bigger house is going to make us happy and yet it's not a house that makes a home...its the people inside it!

Thanks for helping us keep the important things in focus Bob!

LiquidLifeHacker said...

BTW HERE is a little something for you guys out there with those precious beautiful sons! It's a nice little video by Without Gravity.

dilys said...

In line with liquidlifehacker, a less elegant movie of fathers and sons.

Bless them all.

LiquidLifeHacker said...

I love JCB....isn't that the cutest? I think that song knocked almost everyone off the charts in the UK! I love the part when the little boy stands up and spins around in the end!

jwm said...

I took a cue from this post and went hiking in the hills today. Somewhere along the trail a sprouting weed caught the sun in a perfect mandala of translucent green lizard wings. A pyracantha (sp?) berry lay newly fallen, like a tiny vermillion pupil in the exact center of this glowing green iris of leaves. It was so pretty that it looked staged.

Of course, my camera was safe at home.


Kahntheroad said...

Funny, I sometimes I see a camera as an obstacle to a full experience. On my last road trip I didn't bring one, and found that I took in and experienced more as a result.

This really hit me at the Grand Canyon, where, at sunset, everyone would run around, trying to position their tripods for the next lightning flash, wives would curse at husbands for screwing up a shadow angle...even those without cameras responded to one of nature's most magnificent daily displays of beauty by sulking that they didn't have their cameras.

Meanwhile, I sat there and just took it all in...

This was actually the moment I realized that it was silly to expect to ever 'find' or 'see' God. After all, what more could he possibly do than schedule a nightly vaudeville routine of nature's beauty?

Is there any large scale miracle he could perform that wouldn't prompt most people to dive for their Nikons rather than their souls?

Dave Reaboi said...

I disagreed with Mike about this very thing last night; taking a camera with me on a trip always opened up more aesthetic doors for me, as Bob said, in terms of creating something new and thinking compositionally as opposed to documentarily. Similarly, I love the random street sounds of the city like Messaien revelled in the chirping birds. It's something we can't control that forces us to look again at the systems we use to organize things aesthetically. ("Man, those tone clusters and harmonics coming from that jackhammer are so fucking hip.")

I also think again of Jarmusch's Mystery Train, and the Japanese tourist who photographs the forgettable odds and ends in Memphis because, according to his reasoning, he'll remember the important things.

jwm said...

"Is there any large scale miracle..?"

Imagine what Mel Brooks would do with that.

"Dammit Lot, hold on! I gotta get a picture of this..."