Monday, August 3, 2015

A Sweet Preparation


Experience tastes like chicken. Even chicken tastes like chicken. But this isn’t about chicken. This is about experience. Right now I’m experiencing ramification. Paper, architecture, space. You name it, I will experience it. All it takes is a little physiology. Bones, blood, skin. Nerves. Medulla oblongata. Sulcus of corpus callosum. Legs, arms, fingers.  

Let’s talk about fingers.  

Fingers fascinate me. I have two handfuls of them. And two thumbs. Thumbs are the senators of the hand. That is to say, thumbs are pivotal to the enactment of fingers, which is to grip, to hold, to curl around knobs and open doors. That sort of thing.  

Few adjectives are required to experience dinner. It is only afterwards that adjectives are required to describe things like coleslaw and potato chips.  

Mirrors are good for the face. You can put your face in a mirror and open a door in your head. This is called memory. If you see any wrinkles it means you’ve been around for a long time. Maybe longer than you expected. Nobody really expects to be an old person. At first, old people seem like a different species. Like they came from outer space or something. Then you realize old people were once young people. And so one’s experience of the aging process becomes navigable. One begins to feel the hills of distance, whole highways of vanishing perspective. The horizon is composed of gold. And suddenly experience turns sexual as a dashboard. Knobs and nipples and rock ‘n roll. 

Bohemia, rumination, Ted Berrigan’s sonnets.  

The experience of puddles is both light and dark and full of contingency. 

Ethiopia is where Rimbaud went when he had his fill of snobbery and mediocrity. Which is why I have chosen to endorse introspection. No experience is fully experienced until it is experienced as an exploration of consciousness. In other words, candy.  

Candy is serious. It’s why people tend to suck on it. Candy can be anything that is sweet, superfluous, and vivid. Leaving the house and going for a walk can be sweet, superfluous, and vivid.

I lean into walking and let the sidewalk emerge as an experience of symmetry and cement. One thumb is an airplane. The other is a violin concerto in B minor by Bela Bartok. I’ve got the sparkle of music in my head. I remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix. The song was “Purple Haze.” The place was a bedroom in a Victorian house with high ceilings and ornate molding near downtown San José. It blew my mind. My emotions rolled across the floor like earrings whispering hair. I was stunned. It was then that I discovered experience is enhanced by description. But that happens later, after the experience is experienced and the next song begins.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

In Search of Lost Qualia


English philosopher C.D. Broad hypothesized that if a mathematical archangel endowed with unlimited mathematical skills and knowing exactly the microscopic structure of ammonia would not be able to predict the smell of ammonia in a human nose. The most that such a being could predict would be certain changes that would occur in the mucous membrane and olfactory nerves and so on, but not the actual sensations that ammonia would bring about in terms of taste and smell. What this suggests is that there is a profound difference between matter and mind. Whatever qualities a sentient being can experience apart from physical structure seem to exist in a dimension uniquely and alluringly non-physical. Not necessarily ghostly or disembodied, but indefinable according to the measures and instruments of science. This domain of phenomena is referred to in the plural as qualia and in the singular as quale. Qualia refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. They are what give life its heat and charm.
Science is concerned with empirical data. Art is concerned with ineffability. Phenomena that cannot be easily categorized. Phenomena such as sand. Geology can tell you what causes sand, where the sand is from, how old the sand is, the exact number of grains in a vial, but not the sensation of sand in your shoes, the feeling of it beneath bare feet, the fineness of it as it slips your fingers, the slant of it in a castle pounded into place with the palms of the hand.
Marcel Proust was exceptionally gifted in this area. His entire work is concentrated on the intensity of focus and attention he brought to sensation, emotion, experience. This is particularly true of the volumes titled À la recherché du temps perdus (In Search of Lost Time). The work begins with a sensation: the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea.
In the volume titled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), there’s a magnificent paragraph in which the narrator (presumably Marcel) sits at a table in the Grand Hotel of Balbec, which in actuality is the town of Cabourg located on the northern coast of France. He has been spending several days in the company of a well-known painter named Elstir, who has introduced him to a group of village girls with whom he has grown quite infatuated. He becomes particularly enamored of a girl named Albertine. These experiences of art and romance combine to give his time at the table a flavor of intense sensationalistic splendor. Here is the paragraph:
At the end of lunch, I was inclined now to stay on as the tables were being cleared; and if it was a moment at which the little gang of girls could not be expected to pass, my eyes looked on things other than the sea. Since seeing such things in the watercolors of Elstir, I enjoyed noticing them in reality, glimpses of poetry as they seemed: knives lying askew in halted gestures; the tent of a used napkin, with which the sun has secreted its yellow velvet; the half-emptied glass showing better the noble widening of its lines, the undrunk wine darkening it, but glinting with lights, inside the translucent glaze seemingly made from condensed daylight; volumes displaced, and liquids transmuted, by angles of illumination; the deterioration of the plums, green to blue, blue to gold, in the fruit dish already half plundered; the wandering of the cloth draping the table as though it is an altar for the celebration of the sanctity of appetite, with a few drops of lustral water left in oyster shells like little stone fonts; I tried to find beauty where I had never thought it might be found, in the most ordinary things, in the profound life of “still life.”
The cumulative effect of Proust’s words is stunning. Details work symphonically to create a lush experience of gustatory communion. This is unqualified quale.
“We have ground to hope,” observes Saul Bellow in his novel Herzog, “that a life is something more than such a cloud of particles, mere facticity. Go through what is comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives light.”
I could not agree more. We have similar experiences, but never identical experiences. There is no one pure sensation that is absolute in its effect on a living organism, be it a frog, a shark, a penguin, a grasshopper or a human being. Real problems begin in communicating such phenomena. Communicating the incommunicable is precisely the mission of art. Of poetry.
“Experiences and feelings,” observes Michael Tye in a section titled “Qualia and the Explanation Gap” for the online edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “are as much a part of the physical world as life, digestion, DNA, or lightning. It is just that with the concepts we have and the concepts we are capable of forming, we are cognitively closed to a full, bridging explanation by the very structure of our minds.”
Maurice Blanchot presses the situation further. He expresses the impossibility of experiencing the totality of any phenomena. “We rarely encounter the world,” he avers somewhat pessimistically, “we rarely touch existence, we do not experience our own situation as a being who is seized utterly and likewise seizes everything there is to know and feel in the event.”  As pessimistic as this may sound superficially, it also galvanizes in its challenge, gives one further scope in its admitted limitations. It leaves one feeling wow, what else is out there? I want to find out. I want to give it a shot. Break on through to the other side as Morrison sang.
Proust lends further drama to this immersion in phenomenality. In The Guermantes Way (translated by Mark Treharne), the volume which follows In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Proust describes the spectrum of emotions and sensations of staying in an unfamiliar hotel room. Here is the paragraph:
Inside my hotel, I retained the same fullness of sensation I had experienced out of doors. It gave such a full and rounded appearance to the surface of things that normally seem flat and lifeless  -  the yellow flame of the fire, the crude blue paper of the sky on which the evening light, like a schoolboy, had scrawled wiggly pink chalkmarks, the oddly patterned cloth of the round table where a ream of essay paper and an inkpot awaited me in company with one of Bergotte’s novels  -  that, ever since that moment, these things have continued to seem laden with a particularly rich form of existence, which I feel I could extract from them if I were given the chance to set eyes upon them again.
How do we apprehend such quale? Is this why at times we feel lost, or something precious has been lost, a keener sense of the world blunted by daily habit? How do we gain this “fullness of sensation,” this ability to penetrate the “surface of things that normally seem flat and lifeless?” Elsewhere within the same volume Proust writes that “the same is true of sleep as of our perception of the external world. It needs only some modification in our habits to make it poetic.”
Paying attention helps. “Now there is indeed one human act which at one stroke cuts through all possible doubts to stand in the full light of truth,” observes Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception. “This act is perception, in the wide sense of knowledge of existences. When I begin to perceive this table, I resolutely contract the thickness of duration which has elapsed while I have been looking at it; I emerge from my individual life by apprehending the object as an object for everybody.”
We make perceptions out of things perceived. This seems absurdly simplistic, but what it entails is profound. It means that our delimiting sensation is integral to the experience itself, that the quality of such attention is as rich and mysterious as the object reveals itself to be. “Even if what we perceive does not correspond to the objective properties of the source of stimulus,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “the constancy hypothesis forces us to admit that the ‘normal sensations’ are already there. They must then be unperceived, and the function which reveals them, as a searchlight shows up objects pre-existing in the darkness, is called attention. Attention, then, creates nothing, and it is a natural miracle…”
But what in tarnation is a “constancy hypothesis?” The constancy hypothesis makes the claim that the basic inputs to consciousness have a constancy in their correlation with stimuli such that the same stimulus will produce the same sensation. But this can only be true if our sensory apparatus is precisely the same for everybody, which is not entirely correct. We all have noses and ears, fingers and nerves, tongues and eyes and ears and thumbs and skin. It’s all pretty much the same thumbs and noses and eyes, etc. But they’re not. No two eyes are the same. No two noses are the same. The variations are crucial. Nerves aren’t wires. We’re not zombies hooked up to the same power grid. That is to say, if you’re eyes are focused on these words chances are good that you’re not a zombie. A zombie is a molecule by molecule duplicate of a sentient creature, a normal human-being, but who lacks any phenomenal consciousness. The zombie experiences nothing at all. A zombie has the ability to process stimulus and produce similar patterns of behavior. A zombie might have recognizable beliefs, thoughts, ideas, desires, etc. But if we reject the idea that phenomenal states are identical internal, objective, physical states and that there is more to experience than fixed microphysical facts than we must open ourselves to the importance of introspection. This is where quality (i.e. qualia) are processed and distilled into poetry and art.
The qualitative features of mental states, that which we call qualia, and which authors such as Proust base volumes of writing upon, are supplied to us by introspection. It is more than a cluster of idiosyncratic dispositions. It involves a disposition toward contemplative incandescence. The stoking of an inner light.
I would like to conclude with this paragraph from Proust’s The Guermantes Way:
If I wished to go out or come in without taking the elevator or being seen on the main staircase, a smaller, private staircase, no longer in use, offer me its steps, so skillfully arranged, one close above the next, that their gradation seemed perfectly proportioned and similar in kind to that which in colors, scents, and tastes often arouses a special sensuous pleasure. But the pleasure of going up- and downstairs was one that I had had to come here to learn, as I had once learned in an alpine resort that the act of breathing, to which we habitually pay no attention, can be a constant source of pleasure. I was exempted from effort, an exemption usually granted us only by the things with which long use has made us familiar, the first time I set my feet on those steps, familiar before I even knew them, as if they possessed something that had possibly been left and incorporated in them by former masters whom they used to welcome every day, the prospective charm of habits I had not yet contracted, which could only pale once they had become my own.

 

Friday, July 17, 2015

What 68 Years on Planet Earth Have Taught Me


Revolt agrees with me. I cut cotton into wings and fill areas of conversation with humidity and kerosene. I dissolve in amber, culture pearls, light Colorado with my limestone piano. Structure collapses on the moon. My emotions smell of language. I feel extraverted and tangible. Life is not always quixotic. It can be rough. It can incandesce like a spinal cord. I can feel the medication kick in. Most of the carrying is sullen. Redemption will sometimes shake you to your core. Decisions are sharp and hard and riding the rails is full of thrust and steel. It’s better to bounce around in the United States like Neal Cassady than it is to arrive in a flying saucer. The mine is haunted but the gold is particular, like the legs of a tarantula. I must do some wash. There is always wash. Dishes, clothes, windows, chairs. The world is full of bananas and numerous subtleties of salt and dogs. The allegories take care of themselves. They reveal themselves in dreams. I’m dry now. People like to sing in church. I begin to think about eating. I think eating is silk. I salute my blood. I wave to my digestion system. Hello down there. How’s it going? I’m old now and have developed a wattle, much like the one my dad had, and his dad before him, and his dad before him, and so on. Grandmothers too. They all had wattles. It was Aldous Huxley that introduced me to the idea of a door and what a door is all about. Perception, you know? Like when a clock radio goes off and you hear a Bach cantata on KING FM and words fall through your mind in strings and you open one blood red eye and see a ceiling doing push-ups on your forehead. That’s what getting old is about. The brain reflects on its own reflections. And you feel like a rag on a shelf in somebody’s garage. And the garage smells of paint and turpentine and car grease. And that’s when it hits you: existence is soapier than death and money is lousy with symbols. But the funniest things in the world aren’t pimples, they’re fingernails.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pluto


I can’t get Pluto out of my mind. Tiny speck of light that it is, it sticks. I keep thinking about it. What’s there? What a fantastic distance this little rock gleams in the black void of eternity. My obsessive checking for images at Google News has partly to do with a sick cat and escalating veterinarian bills. There are other anxieties but for now this one is pretty big. And so I keep checking those NASA images. The first one to appear shows a faint ball of funny splotches and a black band across its equator the crew at NASA are calling The Whale. It’s not a perfect sphere, a big gash appears at the bottom. Or is that the eternal dark nibbling a part away?

It’s Pluto’s phenomenal distance that so captivates my imagination. At approximately 3.1 billion miles from Earth, give or take a few miles depending on its moderately eccentric orbit, it has taken the New Horizons space probe nine years at 36,000 mph to come within a few million miles of the planet, close enough to gather data about its surface, mailing address, and who lives there.
It’s doubtful that anyone lives there. Pluto is the very epitome of cold isolation. I imagine it as a place of magnificent desolation, high jagged crests of rock, bizarre ice formations, and an indescribable stillness. It’s a place that so resembles death that it is death itself. It’s exceptional in its inhospitable terrain. Not that Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn and Uranus offer appealing real estate. Those planets are all balls of gas. Who wants to live in a ball of gas? Pluto, strangely, has a solid mass. My imagination can cling to it. Climb on it. Jump on it. Walk on it.
Pluto offers a place I can go in my mind to find relief from the anxieties of daily life. Mars performs this function to a large extent, but Pluto offers something different than Mars, which is a seclusion so perfect in its remoteness and so supreme in its stillness it’s a summons to the imagination. I can see myself walking on Mars. It’s unlikely that I have enough years left to train for an actual mission to Mars, not to mention a crippling inadequacy when it comes to math, but it’s doable on some level. Pluto is not. Pluto is strictly for the imagination. Like death, or the afterlife.
The New Horizons spacecraft, which is the size and shape of a baby grand, contains a portion of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer. Tombaugh grew up on a farm in Kansas in the 1920s. He made his first telescope in 1926 after plans to attend college were ruined by draught and crop failure. He ground the lenses himself. In 1928, he put together a 23-centimeter reflector using the crankshaft of a 1910 Buick and parts from a cream separator. He discovered Pluto in 1930 after noticing the movement of a tiny speck of light among a pair of photographs containing over 150,000 stars.
The latest image (July 9th, 2015) shows a planet that looks like a reddish marble with swirls of white, or the clouded, cataracted eyeball of an old wizard. Off to the side is its moon, Charon, a mottled little ball of brown and grey with a few bright spots towards its bottom, which may be impact craters.
Saturday’s image (7/11/2015) shows Pluto from a distance of 2.5 million miles looking a little like an orange that’s been sitting in the refrigerator a bit too long. It has black splotches on the bottom and a surface that looks porous, perhaps riddled impact craters.
Today’s image (7/14/2015) taken yesterday from 476,000 miles away, reveals a sphere of ocher and burnt crimson with a heart-shaped splotch toward the bottom. Impact craters are visible. It looks like an impossibly isolated place. Lonely it is not. How can anything be lonely if nothing inhabits it? As soon as something is discovered, human emotion rushes in to define its features, its atmosphere, its character and soul. An entity as isolated and remote as Pluto baffles and excites the imagination. To think that it exists at all is cause for wonder. 
 

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Study of Oak


Study oak, I tell myself. Press your nose against it. Smell it. Touch it. Feel it. There is a god inside.
Beatitude is the steel of well-being. Which is itself fragile as an antique cut crystal English condiment set. Don’t wiggle this sentence. Everything depends on it. Including the sounds of Rome. The opacity of light in a dusty old caboose. Words twinkling and swarming around an hallucination of gravity salt.
The myriad narrations of life are polymers of being. Protein chains in serum albumin. This is called a residue. It’s a residue of thought. My body is engorged with the enigma of the stars. And I felt compelled to write that down. And now it’s an arabesque of gold and rattlesnake blood fluttering in the thorny truth of blackberries.
If I plate breaks in Africa, I can hear it in China.
The mountain pulls itself into a thought with a serenade of cedar and pine. I walk to the end of a promontory and look out over the valley. A song of thread pulses in a violet sky. Death is a glissando of snow falling on the river. Life is a cartoon drawn by creosote and grace.
I wonder what’s the best way to experience a philodendron, grip a revolver, or put something down on paper that will shine and spurt. I like things that spurt. The last bit of mustard from a plastic bottle. Water after you twist the nozzle and all that pressure gushes out onto the driveway where little incipient weeds twist their way through the cracks in the concrete.
Life makes me dizzy. There’s so much of it. So much possibility. So many choices. I’m always indecisive. Don’t know which way to go, what to do for the cat, best way to get to the bank, which bank, and what’s money anyway but a form of language: this paper means I spent X amount of time laboring for humanity, this is my share, my portion in the struggle to attain well-being, which is what we’re all after, all trying to achieve, all trying to figure out the best way to go about it, there are no maps for the future.
Sometimes money just falls into people’s laps. There’s no pattern or predictability to it whatsoever. Hence, the popularity of casinos.
So many fragrances in the air this time of year. Things blossom at different times. It begins in May, and by July I’ll start getting nosebleeds from all the pollen. Fine ocher dust collecting on the paprika red of our Subaru.
Don’t get me going on clouds. Endless fascination there. I’ll get a crook in my neck from staring up at the sky all the time.
My absorptions spin and shine. I’m haunted by antiquities of gold and granite. There’s no wave whose form and direction is entirely predictable. The wind can adjust things in less than a second. I feel the universe spread its wings. If I speak in metaphors it’s because the intimacy of the moment has become pink with affability. Even the cement solicits a reciprocity of spirit. 
 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Halibut Today with a Chance of Bubbles


A find sucks Scotland. I feel planets and scrub. The weather appears halibut. A steep relation chirps invisible black participles. Civilization’s stars exult in churning perspective. Severity is air and how it becomes spectral. Driving is diving is tears when there is sheer form and velocity hangs in the mind like a raw geometry of vapor. The Parisian snow articulates clothing. Parabolas of taproot attitude statements are singing and clouds are mouths of heavy ships and rope. There is a grease for the propeller and strolling and axles and subtleties of abstract garage. Words in a sentence protecting things like grammar and baptisms of combinatorial arms carrying popcorn and metaphors. I like your touch. I don’t mean to seek approval, but the elegance of your feeling is just like saws or powwows. Get wet in the city dude. I mean babble. Bubble. Click together like spatulas. Presence tastes of heat. Ice cubes melt into experience. Lucidity floats in my head like a world. Hospitable trapeze tubs for quitting bad habits and mitigating dye. The water is a dime that indulges the eyes in a parable of metal and little bronze hats for the elves. French ocher impact kings playing at a swamp. I want to know more about you. Can you send me your name, number, and a sample of your wings? I like being abstract, you know, and writing things that bare themselves with an automatic awkwardness. Language cuts the air and unfolds by finger and aching desire. Winter is everything cabbage. This is how we fold ourselves. Cogitation is just a fancy word for consciousness. Description prowls behind the painting in blue tennis shoes and eight years in Ethiopia. Bob Dylan pays a visit. He’s old now. He owns his snakes and shivers from so much poetry that the beauty and grace of Italy compels my tongue to speak in time and twigs and arouses the good sense of fire when it’s sleeping to get up and walk around in a dusky migration of age and semantic mustard. Nothing pleases me more than knobs and a great many words so many words that silence eventually ensues and curtains and brushwork and incongruity. Can you imitate a box? All I need now is a little dynamite. All the letters do is excite my personality. But what can you do? If morning drops my heart I know the night will pick it up and carry it somewhere good.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Lonely Gaze of Men in Nightclubs


A silken air bends the greenery in a tangled mind. That would be the mind of the earth, which is a splash of calculus on the face of eternity. Which is chronology when chronology occurs and the lonely gaze of men in nightclubs. It’s the naked rupture of excursion when an excursion is called for and the personification of prayer in a radio vibrating with the definition of eyes. The eye is a ball of jelly. The human eye is an organ that reacts to light and allows vision and colors. It does delicate things and lives in the head. It liberates form. It does not completely answer why there is something instead of nothing but it does a good job drinking a canvas by Cézanne. Two eyes are better than one. Three is the optimal number. A third eye in the forehead drags winter behind it. A third eye in the head pushes the impact of an olive into the sag of time. Sometimes all it takes is a little concentration to discover sewing, or infinity, or a sale on light bulbs at the drugstore. Quarts of philosophy may be transacted by semantic obstetrics. Gravity thickens as we approach a planet or a headlight made of words. You must act like a cloth when the wrinkles of local emotion jerk forward churning in abstraction. This is the time to play a sublime accordion. This is the time to construct a symptom of rain. To open a suitcase in Wisconsin. To feel the planets ride their orbits in tranquil velvet space.