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Necessary Fictions, Their Sources and Utility

Necessary Fictions, Their Sources and Utility

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which can be Used as a Table, Salvador Dali. 1934.

Stumbled upon a fascinating TED talk this morning, by Yuval Noah Harari, entitled What explains the rise of humans? In a nutshell, his thesis is that we alone, among all the species on earth, are capable of flexible cooperation in large numbers, and that the chief galvanizing force behind this is our ability to create and believe in fictions. 

His recent book is now on my must-read list: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. From the author’s website:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

In a recent post, I talked about the Paris Commune (1871) and how the early Russian evolutionists had a different view of things than Western Darwinists in that era. Harari’s talk doesn’t deal with that historical period directly, but I thought it fit overall. Under the rubric of our created and creative fictions, we’ve been led to believe that life is struggle, that competition, not cooperation, drives us, and that we survive because we see this. Ironically, it takes cooperation to maintain this particular fiction — both between rulers and the ruled, and among the ruled. It takes cooperation for us to settle upon unifying fictions, good, bad and indifferent. Without that cooperation the fictions die. Harari’s thesis is that we’re the only species which creates them in the first place, and our ability to flexibly believe in things that don’t exist defines us and our dominance. It makes sense that this flexibility is a major strength, especially if we’re able to see through those fictions, but a major curse if we can’t, if we hold onto them beyond their expiry date.

Fictions that once held millions together have vanished. Belief in old gods, old visions of the world, of empires, of the heavens, of the centrality of earth and human life, have faded away or disappeared entirely. But the creation of new fictions follows immediately upon the heels of the vanished, and all too often we actually believe our new fictions are factual and a major leap forward on the road to aletheia. Unlike those poor sods who believed in gods and goddesses, or the divine right of kings, we finally have it right — with our one god, our money, our nation-states, our conception of “democracy.” While there are certainly major benefits to cooperative, flexible belief, this can and often does lead to untold hubris and arrogance as well.

It also strikes me as ironic that we recognize novels, movies, TV shows and so on as “fiction,” and can laugh at our fellow humans who get too caught up in them, to the point where they seem to believe they’re real. Meanwhile, the same people who can see that a novel is a novel is a novel, can’t see that our religions, economic systems, nation-states and “natural rights” are also all works of fiction, for good or ill. Harari in his talk likes to contrast us with chimpanzees, and he would say of the above that chimps wouldn’t be able to understand the difference between our art and the rest. To the chimp, none of it would be “reality.” None of it would be concrete.

My favorite American poet, Wallace Stevens, had many things to say on the subject of truth:

   “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
    
    “Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”

    “I do not know which to prefer,
    The beauty of inflections
    Or the beauty of innuendos
    The blackbird whistling
    Or just after.”

    “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”

    “The reader became the book; and summer night
    Was like the conscious being of the book.”

 

As an artist and writer, I (obviously) love that we create and keep creating. But I long for the day when humans recognize all of their fictional production for what it is, and that we can narrow down the list. As life gets more and more complex, it seems our production of necessary fictions grows along with it. For us to become far less dangerous to each other and the planet, we’re going to need to radically reduce them.

 

Charles the Liberator

Charles the Liberator

Charles Darwin. 1880
Charles Darwin. 1880

Much has been made recently of the fact that Lincoln and Darwin share a birthday. Two hundred years ago, this past Thursday. A new book talks about another thing they share. Their hatred of slavery. It sounds like a great read. Here’s a short excerpt from the introduction:

 

 

Darwin’s Sacred Cause
How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution
By Adrian Desmond & James Moore
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 448 pp. $30
Feb. 15, 2008
Introduction

How did a modest member of Victorian England’s minor gentry become a twenty-first-century icon? Celebrities today are famous for being famous, but Darwin’s defenders have a different explanation.

To them Darwin changed the world because he was a tough-minded scientist doing good empirical science. As a young man, he exploited a great research opportunity aboard HMS Beagle. He was shrewd beyond his years, driven by a love of truth. Sailing around the world, he collected exotic facts and specimens – most notably on the Galapagos islands – and followed the evidence to its conclusion, to evolution. With infinite patience, through grave illness heroically borne, he came up with ‘the single best idea anyone has ever had’ and published it in 1859 in the Origin of Species. This was a ‘dangerous idea’ – evolution by ‘natural selection’ – an idea fatal to God and creationism equally, even if Darwin had candy-coated this evolutionary pill with creation-talk to make it more palatable. Evolution annihilated Adam; it put apes in our family tree, as Darwin explained in 1871 when he at last applied evolution to humans in The Descent of Man. Secluded on his country estate, publishing book after ground-breaking book, Darwin cut the figure of a detached, objective researcher, the model of the successful scientist. And so he won his crown.

 

Happy Birthday, Darwin!

Happy Birthday, Darwin!

Charles Darwin. 1868. Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Just a tad late on this one. Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago, on February 12th. His revolutionary work lives on, despite opposition by the sadly misinformed, to put it gently.

A great link to the study of evolution is here. I think it is incumbent upon anyone who criticizes the theory to actually understand it first, and not to create endless strawmen to knock down. We only hurt ourselves and our own future when we refuse to confront its implications. Building from the foundation of this theory, we have the potential to advance many divergent tributaries of science, and perhaps unlock essential keys in the battle to fight a multitude of diseases. Dismissing the theory, running from it, hiding behind religious belief, we are far more likely to stay in a new Dark Age. Darwin lit the light for us. We need to carry the torch onward.

Richard Dawkins on the Genius of Charles Darwin.

 

The Children’s Idyll In All Of Us

The Children’s Idyll In All Of Us

A Children’s Idyll, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. 1900
A Children’s Idyll, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. 1900

Spurred on by a thought-provoking blog post by my good friend Tim Brownson, I thought again about what we lose when we grow up. The way we once looked at life. With fresh hope. With a ton of hope and delight. With great expectations and daily excitement. What is it, exactly, about the process of maturation that seems to take so much of that out of us? Is this chemical, biological, spiritual, or all of the above? Do we actually lose special brain cells that are informed with a sense of hope and awe and wonder? Is this an evolutionary process that even makes sense?

I sometimes wonder if we have this backwards. As in, shouldn’t we be more cautious as children and more blown away by the world as adults? Because we see more, we know more, we’ve been to more places, and our senses grow layers and depth, and we can actually appreciate far more about the world in context than we ever could as a child. Not to mention our physical improvements. We are less vulnerable in the world when we gain the stature of adulthood. We are physically stronger and better able to be in the world, as we become who we are.

This odd reversal may have a lot to do with our strange fate as adults. Most of us are tethered to jobs, settle in to them, settle down and settle for. Most of us never travel the seven seas like we once dreamed of doing when young. Reading about Perseus, Jason, Odysseus, Cuchulain, Roland or the Knights of the Round Table, foments a myriad fantasies and hopes for our own globe trotting adventures. We seldom go on to make those myths come alive. How many monsters do we slay and how many fair maidens do we woo and win?

Age can bring dullness. Like a painting left in a basement for years, collecting abstract dust. But there is nothing inherent in the aging process that makes that dullness necessary. Sometimes all that is required is the right cloth, the right medium, and a little elbow grease. Sometimes all that is needed is a reminder.

My own bias pushes me toward the reminder of art. Others find lightning in a bottle elsewhere. The trick, of course, is not to be a temporary child, made new and fresh and hopeful for a minute or two while we gaze at a painting, hear a song, read a poem. The trick is to take artistic provocation and recreate the self, as self, permanently. To inject and infuse the child in all of us so that we reverse the process as adults and never go back to our inner old fogey. Make it new, as Ezra Pound said. But not just that. Not just what Ezra said. Be ever bold and new.

 

Magic Mountain

Magic Mountain

On the way there.

Took a drive then a walk then a climb then more walking. The walk became a discussion with a park ranger about an accident and a bike. She blocked all cars. No one could pass except the ambulance. Bike hits car or car hits bike. Too fast. All too fast. The Blue Ridge Parkway should be to dwell, not die. To dwell inside the blue, to derive the flesh of the blue air from the sky as it is, as it was hundreds of thousands of years ago. This ridge is that old. This sky is older.

Who saw this sky a thousand years before me? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? There is no such thing as Young Earth, but there were places on Her, on Her soft green body that lacked the human touch. Our hemisphere is young in that way. Across the Bering Straits they marched. Some say only a hand-full of humans on their way to . . . . on their way to Wounded Knee?

And there was music today. Fittingly, Blue Grass. Sometimes called Roots. Raucous. Jubilant. Dozens of people gathered round the band in an unnatural semi-circle. The trees looked down appalled. One fan danced as if he had just uncorked a jug and was remembering the gal he left behind. But it looked like it should, like it was the case. The case one hundred and some odd years ago, when people lived up here, before it was parkland, before it was a humble reproduction of bygone bygones.

Further down the road was a different world. A family from Brazil peered across the valley. One son asked an American where to go for serious rock climbing, who to join for repelling the sides of magic mountains so far from his home.

Years ago, I could have told him. I could have helped. Instead, I took pictures, looked out at the mountains, the valley, thinking, I’ve seen this before. I’ve witnessed new generations coming up here, passing me by. Once, other generations watched me pass them by. And so it goes.

 

There is no Young Earth, just young people, new grass, new saplings, babes in the woods, deer so close to their mums, rabbits just out of the pouch, birds shaking off their first fall, their first partial flight. And recapturing that in Nature, in a singular composition of cloud and sun, in the sense that we think of renewal, in the sense that we embrace that, means that we live with the young and keep them with us, keep up with them, run side by side. Run with them.

It’s not that we need a season for everything. It’s that we need to feel each year as if it is horizontal, a landscape, a vision. Put one next to the

other, and then another, from left to right. Extend the horizon to an impossible degree. From the shore, the strand, right there, up close, now, today, looking at that extension, while at the same time being thousands of miles away, far enough to see further, wider, everything.

  So close that we can feel the way the mountains touch the sky. So close that we can feel the way the ocean touches the black night. But further away than the longest voyage so we can reach out to it, acknowledge it, clap for it, stand up and shout for it like ten thousand yawping Whitmans. Letting it master the fear in us as we master that fear and laugh.

In this part of the Blue Ridge, you don’t really “come down off the mountain” like you do in Boone. But it is a changeling moment. It is a transaction with Her.

Blue Ridge Mountains, VA

 

*All photos by Douglas Pinson

 

Timeless Beauty, Changing Times

Timeless Beauty, Changing Times

Frederic Edwin Church's Twilight in the Wilderness. 1860. Cleveland Museum of Art.
Frederic Edwin Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness. 1860. Cleveland Museum of Art.

There are things that should be protected and preserved. Nature. Lakes, rivers, oceans, mountain tops, valleys, blue skies. Protect and defend, preserve. Things that evolve in ways that preserve their timeless beauty, even in the midst of natural, organic change. Things to build foundations upon. Colors, shapes, organic, natural drama. We rest our minds there, within the natural change, seeking the core we can never find, joyfully.

These are things to conserve. But ideologies? Systems? Political schools, artistic schools? If these things do not grow, expand their base, remain open to natural and organic change–and they almost never, ever do–they die inside and they kill the souls of others. They become stagnant like malarial swamps.

Timeless beauty and the justifiably ephemeral. Destroying the first while holding on to the second is a current and past sin that plagues us all. More than youth against age, or the old against the new, it’s a mindset and a worldview that seeks to squeeze the life out of human and natural creations, in the name of . . . . what? Fear? Ironically, possibly, a fear of death in the form of change, which they mistake for the destruction of things that need to be reformed, revised, altered or surpassed in no uncertain terms. They prevent change out of fear that that change means death. A death of their own illusion of power over their world and the world of others.

In short, it’s a mistaken worldview, that does not differentiate between timeless beauty and the logic of evolution. It is a mistaken worldview that can not or will not recognize the difference between the reality of stones and the change they undergo as water passes over them, century after century. Or, better still, between comfort and life.

J.M.W. Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed. 1844. National Gallery, London.
J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. 1844. National Gallery, London.

Though I have seen it all too many times, I can’t help but be baffled by young people who cling to “conservative” ideologies. Art, music, literature, philosophy, politics and so on. I have tried, but I can’t wrap my mind around this attitude toward the world, especially among the young. When someone is young, they should be filled to the brim with the desire to surpass the old with the new, with their new vision of the new. They should be bursting at the seams to make their mark by changing the things they see, as they protect timeless, natural beauty and the world of nature. They should be minor revolutionaries of the soul, filled with a passion for change.

Some may say that, well, yes, that is the realm of the young. But when you get older, you change, grow “conservative” about things, slow down a bit, take stock of things in a realistic manner. You see the world for what it is, for what it really is, and you become conservative.

I see a massive flaw in this. I see a logical flaw in that acceptance of conventional wisdom. And, I think that the impressions of the young, when they are brimming full with a love of change and a desire to effect change . . . are really the people who see the world realistically and for what it truly is. Evolution is endless. Evolution simply is. Change is endless. To hide from that is not wise or realistic or seeing the world as it truly is.

That said, perhaps the biggest reason why we should not grow more “conservative” as we age is because we continuously see the establishment making mistake after mistake after mistake in all realms. We continuously see those supposedly wise and serious and experienced powers-that-be drive us into ditches, destroy lives, nature, art, harmony and so on. We continuously see them take the world to the brink of disaster, ignore genius, destroy it, prevent its emergence.

In short, to be young and embrace change, to foment change, to foment progress in the arts, in life, in society, is truly the common sensical, the logical, the rational, the eternally intelligent way to go. When we question all authority and push for progressive change, we ride the waves instead of fighting against them. We cease being Yeats’ vision of Cuchulain fighting the water, fighting himself.

 

Contemporary Reception, and the Last Laugh

Contemporary Reception, and the Last Laugh

Gustave Courbet's The Sleepers, 1866. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, France.
Gustave Courbet’s The Sleepers, 1866. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, France.

There is always a battle between the new and the old, between the old and the young, between conservatives and progressives. There is always a faction frantic to hold onto power, established, stodgy, stubborn power, and those who rise to fight that power and make their own way in the world. Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris reminds me of that battle and the reception by the old guard of new techniques, subject matter, and new artists without establishment ties. His book reminds me of the almost laughable reception of such greats as Corot, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, and the young Cezanne by that old guard. Almost laughable, because of its fight against the inevitable. Or what appears to us now as the inevitable.

We never learn. We really never, ever learn.

There is always someone, something, or some powerful group trying to put the genie back into the bottle. There is always some silly prude, some ridiculous puritan, all too stiff and rigid in their ways, closing the gate after the young stallions have bolted. Inevitably, these groups ignore reality and evidence in order to maintain their hold on the present by referring endlessly to the past. It’s all such an incredible waste of energy and time, because time moves on. Inexorably. It just does. It always has and always will. Move on.

I wonder if there is some book out there that documents, for all the arts, the comedy and fear and silliness involved, across the ages, across cultures, across the globe, when it comes to trying to stop time. Is there a book that covers the attempts in literature, music, painting, sculpture, philosophy, etc. to prevent progress, to prevent revolutionary actions in the arts? I wonder if that same book also explores the tragedies that must accompany all of that, the artists who suffer through their own lives in obscurity, only to be “discovered” far too late to alleviate that suffering.

We never, ever learn.

And the shame, the tragedy almost never stops after that “discovery.” To make matters worse, the very same painting, musical composition, novel, poem, or idea once dismissed as laughable or heretical by the old-guard gatekeepers, often ends up taken completely for granted and co-opted by yet another establishment. Thus reducing–if not destroying–its revolutionary essence, its originality, its place in the grand march of artistic time.

Of course, innovation and newness are not guarantees of true art. Obviously. A young artist is never guaranteed a superiority or inevitability over older artists. Nothing is automatic. Nothing should be assumed. But the dynamic of dismissal or indifference typically starts with the old, the established, the powerful, and falls heaviest on the young, the powerless, the not-yet-established. That is the age-old comedy, drama and tragedy replayed a thousand times across the centuries.

What is new today that we overlook and shrink from? What do we fear today that will be seen as sheer genius tomorrow? Will we ever evolve enough to at least minimize the numbers of the forgotten, the ignored, the overlooked?

 

Evolution, Contradiction, Continuity

Evolution, Contradiction, Continuity

 

She youtubes in beauty like the night . . .

The videos below speak volumes, compress volumes, compress centuries. The democratization of media brings us closer. Closer to each other, to the past, to a future in which we can and should and will question everything, question all authority, all gatekeepers, all modes of exclusivity, while we celebrate excellence. While we add to the march of that excellence and expand the base. On and on and on.

It is that base we must broaden. It is for inclusion that art lives and breathes and lifts up and shatters walls and barriers and all obstacles, all the time. Without a pause in the march toward the all-inclusive Republic of Art.

Once upon a time, we had a Republic of Letters. New technologies add new methods and modes to that republic. Let it be!!!

 

500 years of Women in Art. 500 years of transformation, transition, luminosity, and determination.

 

Western and New World Goddesses