Those Who Come While We Sleep

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, history, metaphor, perception, religion

I used to have these naps.  They were strange naps; I would lie in the sun in my apartment some afternoon when I’d been working really hard, and I would fall into a sleep so profound it was almost painful.  And then, when the first depth of it had passed, I would find myself lying there, unable to move, trapped in my nap.  It was like I was pinned to the couch or the floor — wherever I’d been lying — and the nap went on, and I couldn’t move, the sleep was so intense; and yet I wasn’t fully asleep.  It would go on for some indeterminate amount of time, and then I would be released.

Being the kind of person I was, I didn’t worry about these naps.  Sometimes I thought they were brought on by sugar, sometimes I thought they were a gift, a kind of ubernap that refreshed me more than usual.  Once or twice, though, I thought I saw something that really shouldn’t have been there: a small man sitting on the foot of my bed, a strange glittering shape in the corner of the room.  And I remember all the way back to being a baby, lying in my crib, terrified, unable to move while these shapes streamed at me from the ceiling.

These unmoving waking-dreams have a name, as it turns out; it’s called Sleep Paralysis.  Apparently, when the body is moving between sleep and wakefulness — at either end of the sleep cycle — the body can be in REM sleep while the mind is awake.  It’s related to lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and is able to gain some control of the dreaming experience, and to out-of-the-body experiences; in sleep paralysis, the sleeper tends to fixate on re-establishing control over their body, but in an out-of-body experience, the sleeper perceives themselves as being separate from their body.

The body naturally falls into a sort of paralysis when it is in REM sleep, called REM atonia, where muscles are kept from reacting to the dreams the sleeper is experiencing.  Think of cats or dogs twitching while they dream of hunting: most of the muscles are disabled, but the echo is there, the ghost of the movement. 

Then of course there is the sexual dimension:

“The release of certain neurotransmitters… is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body’s muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM behavior disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams… Erections of the penis (nocturnal penile tumescence or NPT) normally accompany REM sleep… In females, erection of the clitoris causes enlargement, with accompanying vaginal blood flow and transudation (i.e. lubrication). During a normal night of sleep the penis and clitoris may be erect for a total time of from one hour to as long as three and a half hours during REM.” [wiki]

Which brings me to another point: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, perceived loud noise, and sometimes an acute sense of danger.  So how does this work, if you feel that you are pinned to your bed, unable to move, feeling anxious, but at the same time you have a big stiffy under the covers?  What would your hallucination be?  Would it, perhaps, be that of a demonic lover, keeping you still by evil magic while taking advantage of your manly charms?  Conversely, imagine how confusing it would be if you were a staid Victorian lady who was pinned frighteningly to her bed while experiencing distinct stirrings in the night?

Enter the incubus, one of the oldest forms of supernatural creature, a male demon who lies with women at night — and its counterpart, the succubus.  Tales of these visitors can be found from South America to Africa to Eastern and Northern Europe.  One of the earliest mentions of an incubus “comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, ca. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh’s father is listed as Lilu. It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams. [wiki]

There was a great deal of debate as to these creatures’ purpose in early Christianity, but the common debate was whether the demons had any reproductive capability, and were they using humans in order to reproduce (a la Rosemary’s Baby).  It became commonly accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, changing shape: by taking female form, they were able to collect male sperm and then turn around and impregnate a human woman using their male form — and the collected sperm.  The Malleus Maleficarum states:

“…to beget a child is the act of a living body, but devils cannot bestow life upon the bodies they assume; because life formally proceeds only from the soul, and the act of generation is the act of the physical organs which have bodily life… Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass the semen on to another body.”

Why the baby conceived in this way is not simply a normal baby, no one seems to know; but in the Christian tradition, a baby conceived this way (a cambion) is usually wickedly smart and able to get people to do their bidding.  Some texts hold that a cambion does not exhibit breathing or pulse, but appears to be alive — until they are seven years old, at which time they begin to appear more like normal people.  Caliban, from the Tempest, was supposedly a cambion, as was (according to some stories) Merlin.

When the experience is not sexual it has still been attributed to demons or other supernatural presences.  The word nightmare, for example: mare in nightmare does not stand for female horse, but for mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers’ chests, causing them to have bad dreams.  In Newfoundland, the sleep paralysis experience is referred to as the “Old Hag,” similar to the Night Mare: a creature who sits on the sleeper’s chest while they sleep, making them helpless.  Similar stories can be found in Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Chile, and many other places; one of the interesting things about sleep paralysis is that it is completely cross-cultural — a product, simply, of being human.  Studies done in Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria found that 20% to 60% of individuals, across the board, reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.  

Often, sleep paralysis is associated with narcolepsy, a disorder where emotional excitement makes the sufferer fall asleep.  More rare, but also associated with both sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, is cataplexy, a disorder that makes one lose control of muscles, either totally or partially, in muscle groups.  Thus, for example, one woman I know falls to the floor when she gets overstimulated — but is famous for being able to set her glass on the nearest surface on the way down.  Common cataplexy responses are buckling at the knees, weakness in the arms, and lolling of the jaw; but the effect is brought about the same way that REM sleep temporarily paralyzes the muscles.

This makes me wonder about myths such as Rip Van Winkle.  Was he, actually, asleep the whole time?  Or did he have some kind of waking dream — was anyone sitting on his chest, causing him to neglect his life and let his house and crops fall to overgrown ruin while he lay, unable to move?  (What about the guy in the song “Four Minutes of Two,” who fell asleep waiting for his girlfriend and woke up to gigantic metal bugs?)

And lastly, in the spirit of things falling to overgrown ruin, here is a quote about Lillith, the demon/goddess/early feminist (depending on your source) — whose origin can be found in Lilitu, the Babylonian demon described above.  The quote comes from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah 34:13–15, describing the desolation of Edom:

“Her [Edom’s] nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone.  Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches.  Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.  There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate.  Look in the book of the Lord and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the Lord has ordered it, and his spirit shall gather them there.  It is he who casts the lot for them, and with his hands he marks off their shares of her; They shall possess her forever, and dwell there from generation to generation.”

This is supposed to be about an accursed place, and the passage, in Old Testament tradition, shows that accursedness by listing eight different “unclean” — possibly demonic — animals (including the Lillith, apparently).  However, from my contemporary perspective the beauty of the description gives me chills; it looks to me more like a blessing.  In fact, there are places I would like to invoke this curse in the here and now.  Wouldn’t it be amazing?

Other links:
– Narcoleptic dog on YouTube

– Windsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, my favorite book on dreaming: hilarious and true to life, and drawn in the early 20th century.   Pay no mind to the poor design of the modern cover (unlike the cover of my edition, below); the inside is what matters.

Visualizing Depression, Happiness as Esprit d’Escalier

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, metaphor

You can always tell what state my mind is in by the state of my house. I am not really bipolar, but I do swing back and forth in energy levels; sometimes it’s clean (more rarely than I would like), more often it swings between the clutter of doing lots of things, and the clutter of neglect.

Sometimes, the clutter of neglect happens because I’m not home much, or I have too many commitments. Other times, it acquires a patina of depression. This is when things get bad — the place doesn’t smell right; the dust bunnies are mingling too much with the stuff; there are too many things on the floor; everything is collecting dust. That same pair of little girl leggings has been in that same place for two weeks. None of the chairs are sit-able with all the things piling up, and the plants need water.

Depression, for some people, is a familiar place, a landmark, some scenery you thought you had left, but now find yourself back in almost without knowing it. In my particular scenario, there is a big black hole that I have to stay away from. It has a certain gravitational pull, and if you simply march thoughtlessly ahead, you will fall into it. Once inside, the whole paradigm is geared toward “DOWN” and like the Red Queen, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay at the level you find yourself. My sister-in-law says it’s like an ant-lion’s hole, with the loose sand, so that no matter how hard you claw your way out, the terrain underfoot just keeps shifting out from under you, sliding you back.

It’s easiest simply to steer clear of the hole than to get out once you’ve moved over that edge. I know where the hole is, and I know the surrounding countryside well enough that I recognize the signposts to stay away from. There are things that push me toward it, but there are also things which carry me away from it: by consciously thinking positive thoughts when it looms, I can change the countryside I walk through — just a bit, but enough. Like a compass needle pulled toward the North, my thoughts veer toward the hole if I’m close enough, but unlike a compass, I can, with effort, wrench those thoughts off to a different direction — and by doing so, find myself in a completely different country.

Weirdly, pasting a smile on my face often helps; the smile becomes a real one disturbingly quickly. I’d heard from someone that the act of smiling in itself can help you feel better, and it does. Which says all kinds of things, like those people I can’t stand, who smile all the time, may in fact actually feel good about themselves. Or that Americans have crummy lives, because they smile so much to stay sane.

Other ways people think about depression: I have one friend who says her world becomes two-dimensional, like nothing has any substance anymore. It’s all just cheap cardboard cutouts of reality, and all the people she knows, all her friends and family, have lost their depth. The world becomes shallow and lusterless.

For me, I become slow. I labor along, and I’m never able to accomplish anything: the day simply goes past before I can get there. I wind down like a film coming to a halt, and lose the ability to get enthusiastic. Food doesn’t taste good, so I eat a lot of it to try to make up for the lack of interest by trying again and again. Sleep is unsatisfying, so I do more of it if I can.

Another friend of mine is absolutely the opposite: she says depression winds her up. She gets tense, buzzes around uselessly, doesn’t accomplish anything because she’s rattling apart. She snaps at everyone, and can’t concentrate on anything. And she can’t sleep.

Someone else described it this way: it’s like a thickening veil between you and everyone/everything else, and you can’t reach through it. Sort of like a cataract of the soul, isolating you and making it hard to see where you’re going, what you’re doing, why you’re even doing it.

All of these descriptions have an element of the world moving away, becoming distant, of reaching out and not being able to touch anything or feel it touch you. When things are really bad there is this desire to make it all stop: the reaching, the isolation, the inability to communicate across vast distances. Sometimes there is the sense that it’s all your fault, that you have isolated yourself, or that others have turned away because you are a bad person. It’s hard to live with, and it’s hard to live with yourself. The whole thing becomes exhausting. You find yourself just wishing you could wink out, be gone, stop.

“It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.” –Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Elizabeth Wurtzel said, “I start to think there really is no cure for depression, that happiness is an ongoing battle, and I wonder if it isn’t one I’ll have to fight for as long as I live. I wonder if it’s worth it.” Which is an interesting point. Because what are the gauges by which we measure happiness? How do you know if you’ve won the battle, if you’re getting the happiness you’ve been fighting for?

The truth is, we don’t know until it’s past. “A long and happy life” is something people often say in eulogies, in biographies; but did the person with the “happy” life actually know they were having it, while they were having it? Or is that something you can only judge in hindsight? Is the “long” part of that statement mandatory for the “happy” part to be assured?

An interesting study came out recently that compares satisfaction and happiness levels. For example, people with children are generally less happy than people without children; however their satisfaction levels tend to run higher. What is the difference between satisfaction and happiness? Unfortunately, I got this information third hand, so I don’t know what the creators of the study call happiness, or what they call satisfaction. But I think it’s actually an interesting point to consider.

I suppose I would say happiness consists of moving unobstructedly through the world, of being able to take those moments that are beautiful and really wring some enjoyment out of them — notice them as they go by. It is a matter of being. You are happy; your happiness is a state of being. In the case of the person who has had a “long and happy” life, that happiness may be an artifact of hindsight, of perspective: only when you get far enough away from it do you realize that all that — that hurdy gurdy and running around and having meltdowns and tears and holding each other close and kissing your child’s head — that held all the ingredients of happiness. But, for most of us, I think we don’t know it’s happiness nine-tenths of the time.

Satisfaction, on the other hand, is about doing. You get satisfaction from the things you do. When your life is satisfying, there is the sense of a job well done, a completion, a feeling that you have done well. You look at your child and see someone well-read and capable and vivacious and you feel that you did the best you could. Your garden is full of flowers; you grow tomatoes and you knit sweaters and you work hard at your job. These are all good things, and honestly, satisfaction is an important emotion to have.

The thing, I think, is not to allow yourself happiness as a reward for satisfaction. The doing of things has, I think, ruined many of our lives, because we don’t allow any cracks for the happiness to get in. If there are no pauses, the happiness can’t slip in on us unawares. Those moments of quiet, that happiness, they need nourishing; and if the doing of things balloons outward to fill all available space, then you will look back on your deathbed and say, “My, I’ve had a full life,” and if you’re lucky, you’ll confuse fullness with happiness.

Because there are always those moments of joy, some of them tiny — like watching your daughter lean down over her book in the sunshine, her hair hiding her face, and seeing the beautiful line of her back; or when the first curling leaves of your garden begin to sprout; or even that moment when you take the time to sit outside somewhere beautiful with a glass of wine and watch the sunset with someone you love and like talking to. In those moments, if we take them carefully and in the spirit of trust, we can allow the happiness to take root, like a shy plant, and grow through the hurt, the isolation and the busy-ness. And with it, the world will begin to poke through the caul, begin to thin the membrane, the heaviness between ourselves and the world. The isolation can diminish, the compass needle can be taught to point elsewhere, and at the end of it all, we’ll be able to see and touch everything again.

“It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” — Virginia Woolf

Borges: Pathways of the (Postmodern) Mind

books, brains, Cabinet of Wonders, fiction, history, philosophy

I got an email from a reader recently asking me if I knew of a story that (s)he’d read in college, and was wondering if I knew it:

“…it’s a passage about taxonomy, an inventory of posessions belonging to an emperor or king. The things are themselves fantastical, but are made all the more fantastical by the ways they are grouped. The collection is divided according to rules, but not consistent rules.”

I wrote back to say that I didn’t immediately know the passage (s)he was talking about, but I’d ask around.

Later that night I suddenly sat up in my chair and thought, “I’ll bet that was a story by Borges.” It had been years and years since I read anything by him – The Library of Babel being the only one I knew of, back then – but phrases of it still came back to me now and again, out of the blue. There is a rhythm and a meter to the story which cannot be shaken, imagery which boggles and sticks; and even though I found it a very difficult story to read, I’m thinking now that it was worth it. When, fifteen years after reading it, a student of mine did a very beautiful web-design project based on that story, the memorable-ness was enhanced: her choices of excerpt, combined with extraordinary graphics which she created specifically for the project, echoed and amplified Borges’ own obscure qualities. It was an extraordinary effort. I wish now I could remember that student’s name.

In any case, there was something lying beneath the email’s words, some quality of rhythm or description, which stirred up that part of my brain where Borges lurked. So I started Googling “Borges” and “Collection,” among other things, and came up with a possibility. I wrote the person back:

There is one story by Borges called The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, which I haven’t read, but seems like a fake essay. It mentions a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” that breaks things into these categories: “a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

What a list! How fabulous! Grateful for the mind-bend, I sent the person a link to the full text.

The list continued to intrigue me, and I began to read about the piece, which does indeed appear to be an essay, written in impeccable academic style. The fact that John Wilkins and his Universal Language are real doesn’t clarify exactly what the piece is, either. I was all question marks, trying to understand if it was a real essay, or a faux essay, or what? And then I came across the beginning of a serious academic article by Keith Windschuttle, adapted from his book The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past:

“MICHEL Foucault opens his book The Order of Things with a paragraph that has become one of his most famous. Foucault describes a passage from “a certain Chinese encyclopedia” that, he claims, breaks up all the ordered surfaces of our thoughts. By “our” thoughts, he means Western thought in the modern era. The encyclopedia divides animals into the following categories: “a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.” Foucault writes that, thanks to “the wonderment of this taxonomy,” we can apprehend not only “the exotic charm of another system of thought” but also “the limitation of our own.” What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that “there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture . . . that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.” The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality.”

Weird. Foucault writing about Borges as if he was dead serious, all the way through? Both Borges and Foucault are marked for their love of words and play, so it seems odd. But it got better. Mr. Windschuttle goes on to say:

“In May 1995 I gave a paper to a seminar in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. Although most of the postmodernists in the department declined to attend, they deputized one of their number, Alastair MacLachlan, to reply and, they hoped, to tear me apart. My respondent opened his remarks by citing Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy. Didn’t I realize, he chided, that other cultures have such dramatically different conceptual schemes that traditional assumptions of Western historiography are inadequate for the task of understanding them?

“There is, however, a problem rarely mentioned by those who cite the Chinese taxonomy as evidence for these claims. No Chinese encyclopedia has ever described animals under the classification listed by Foucault. In fact, there is no evidence that any Chinese person has ever thought about animals in this way. The taxonomy is fictitious. It is the invention of the Argentinian short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

“This revelation would in no way disturb the assumptions of the typical postmodernist thinker, who believes that the distinction between fact and fiction is arbitrary anyway. Foucault himself openly cites Borges as his source. The example is now so frequently cited in academic texts and debates that it is taken as a piece of credible evidence about non-Western cultures. It deserves to be seen, rather, as evidence of the degeneration of standards of argument in the Western academy.”

At first glance, I was fascinated by the idea of so many academics being fooled by a supposed misquote. But then I saw: in these three paragraphs there are multiple levels of story going on. First of all, academic infighting: “they hoped to tear me apart.” Then the philosophical differences between Modernists and Postmodernists, which is interesting in itself, because really, their conflict is all about ways of thinking about reality. Which is, of course what Borges’ works all played with. And this man Windschuttle wrote a book about (I’m guessing here) how Postmodern thinking is destroying academic culture. And on and on, subtexts spinning off in different directions like Borges’ library.

You see, this guy is clearly a modernist of the first order. Modernists, to attempt a nutshell description, are all about the importance of authorship and individual owning of ideas and works. With this, of course, come such things as credibility and provenance – in other words, knowing where you got your facts, quotes, information, etc. and making sure to list them carefully so that credit is given where it is due. Copyright is an intensely modernist concept. Postmodernists, on the other hand, are more multivocal in their viewpoint, holding that the ownership of concepts and words is less important than their relevance to culture-making; in art, for example, postmodernists will “appropriate” from anywhere and everywhere, and by redefining the context of the works or snippets, create something new (Andy Warhol’s soup cans, above: using “fine art” painting methods to appropriate canned soup). In postmodern ideals, this kind of appropriation is – well, appropriate, fitting, part of the continual process we all go through of assimilating culture and creating new culture based on that assimilation. Don’t forget, postmodernists believe in the virtues of play, which means you can fool around with the stuff you find around you.

So in this context, Mr. Windschuttle is complaining about postmodernists’ apparently slipshod authoring (using Foucault’s fictional example to define a concept under discussion), while the postmodernists themselves are busy discussing, not the provenance of the quote, but how it captures some essence of the way cultures interact (in other words, the postmodernists are acting like postmodernists). If you read Foucault’s introduction, you’ll find that him referring to Borges’ fictional categories this way: “where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space.” In other words, what Foucault himself is interested in is the way in which the categories exist in our minds.

Modernist thinking: hard and fast lines

It’s interesting, too, how Mr. Windschuttle has so missed the boat on the discussion surrounding Foucault’s piece: I seriously doubt that this discussion takes Borges’ enumeration as “real,” in the sense of scientific proof. From what I have seen, the discussions address the interesting issues of language and the meaningfulness of traditional categorization. Foucault’s quote, curiously, is exactly applicable to the situation between Mr. Windschuttle and his postmodern rivals: he is a person from a strong cultural tradition, having trouble understanding the language of another culture’s logic – in other words, trying to apprehend “a culture…that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.” A dinosaur, some might say; but though I think it is an issue of cultural evolution, it is also a matter of vision, of the flexible apprehension of a thing which is foreign to what we have been taught. The postmodernists, in other words, think sideways to Mr. Windschuttle, and he cannot (or will not) derail his thinking in order to go where they are going.

Postmodernist thinking: playful (image courtesy of Marian Bantjes)

This problem with misapprehension is very familiar, with overtones of those people (you know who you are) who think of the Internet as a bunch of “tubes,” for example. It smacks of the tendency of those older people, who use email sparingly, to condemn young peoples’ desire to publicly document both the internal and external parts of their lives. No sense of shame or privacy, the older people say, too much dependence on interactive devices and formats, never allowing themselves to be alone or silent. While I agree that there is too much chatter out there, too many dead Facebook pages and dull blogs about inane activities, and in the end, not enough silence, these artifacts are nothing more than virtual paper-piles with old scribblings on them, and can be ignored. But if you take this phenomenon as a whole, you will see there is the beginning of something new, a more fractured, yet curiously wholistic, perception of the universe. A more Postmodern sensibility, if you will. Something multivocal, multivisual, multilinear. A creation of new culture based on assimilation and re-definition. Something much more like Borges’ library, which:

“…consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains…four walls of bookshelves….Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books.” [wiki]

Or, perhaps, it could be something like the way the brain processes information from the eyes: we glance, and glance, and in fact move our heads around; but the brain is able to take all these fractured, moving, disjointed parts and stitch them into a coherent reality in which we live quite happily, unaware of the complexities of its creation.

The cubists were aware of this, and tried to represent “true” reality in their paintings – the reality of motion and change – by painting in glances, fragments, the bits seen in all those quick takes of the world we look at. They were breaking with the tradition of perspective, which approaches an image as if the viewer is seeing it from one, and only one, point of view. In a way, then, perspective is the less realistic of the two, given that we have binocular vision and never sit still with our head glued to a point in space. And yet, though cubism is more like how we actually use our eyes to look at things, it can present a rather nightmare vision of the world.

The difference, I think, is in the incorporation. The views we get through cubism are solely visions from the eyes, without the magical intervention of the brain; while perspective is better at fooling us, giving us a semblance of the reality our brain creates for us, which is much more comfortable and familiar.

But what if our brains began to stitch things together differently? What if, instead of either discombobulated glances or falsely cohesive systemization, we saw something which no longer hid the multiplicity of our visual intake, yet made sense of it, unfolding our sense of sight into something huge, something we could not have imagined before?

What if all the devices in our lives were to help unfold our brains into something bigger? Louder perhaps, and busier, but potently dynamic? It is no coincidence that Postmodernism and technology’s multiverse have developed hand in hand, nor that the same folks who are horrified at the lack of authorial stricture tend to be the same folks who don’t understand what’s happening with technology. And who, perhaps, might be horrified at Borges’ irreverent use of academic style to toy with our understanding of reality.

…And the reader? Well, to my great joy (s)he wrote back to say:

“Yes, yes, yes!!! I half remembered it being Magic Realism and a depiction of something Asian although I misremembered it as a collection–this is definitely it. Thank you so much…How did you find it?”

How? Hmm. Perhaps the Internet is Foucault’s ‘unthinkable space,’ after all.

Counting Your Way to Safety

art, brains, Cabinet of Wonders, perception, Personal

When I was a child I used to eat M&Ms in a particular way.

For plain M&Ms, I separated them into colors and then ate them in pairs, one on each side of my mouth. If the number of M&M’s of any particular color was not even, then I was presented with a problem. I could divide the offender in half, and eat it that way, or I could save all the “orphans” and eat them in a great handful, succumbing to greediness and a curiously thrilling sense of chaos – as if I was letting go, dipping into a terrifying vortex for a few moments while savoring the veritable explosion of chocolate on my tongue.

Peanut M&Ms were devoured in a different way. First, the candy was sucked off, and the chocolate bitten in half; these halves were sent to separate sides of my mouth to be chewed up. Then the peanut was broken into its two halves (but the little sprout inside taken out) and tucked into my cheek while skin and sprout were chewed and swallowed. Lastly, the peanut.

It would often take me more than an hour to fully savor a regular-sized bag of M&Ms.

I find, now, that this idea of “coming out even” is considered a prime obsessive-compulsive trait. The number of steps from point A to point B; bites of food; pages in a book; and so on, all are carefully counted and the end result made to “come out even”, even if it means taking an extra, smaller step at the end to accomplish this. The sufferer is compelled to order their world in this way, to “right” the anomalous odds (so to speak), to keep track of numbers, consciously or subconsciously. The compulsion is just that, an involuntary urge which has nothing to do with choice: a deep, sometimes desperate need to order the universe, usually as an anxiety reaction, which sometimes comes to rule the person’s life.

Nothing to do with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but strangely compelling. Thanks to Lost Circuits

For me, it lacked this overriding element. In my case, it was more an asthetic thing, a combination of natural fastidiousness and a deep belief in the magic of symmetry. It was a game I played with myself, an ongoing artwork, a way of setting things in order, creating beauty with my mouth and mind. A meditation of sorts.

Which is, I think, less unusual than we adults probably think. My elder daughter, for example, is constantly creating things which, in an adult, would be considered conceptual art pieces: drawing around shadows on the driveway with chalk and then going back five minutes later with a different colored chalk and doing it again – and again; making a “drawing” of a bumpy road near our house by letting the bumps move her pencil over the paper – for the full six-mile stretch, resulting in an extraordinary drawing of motion and time.

These kinds of activities, this kind of art-making and rule-making, are absolutely everyday things for children. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back; step on a line, break your father’s spine. Cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye. Gruesome, some of them, but based on a well-ordered (if not entirely fact-driven) universe designed specifically to keep dishonesty, monsters, and general chaos at bay. Anyone who has read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn will know that the minds of children hold the seeds of whole cultures of superstition and ritual.

Which leads me to think: perhaps this is really just a universal trait, this desire to order the universe, to create something out of nothing. Those who are educated do it through “acceptable” channels, such as science or research; those who are ignorant – children and the uneducated – do it anyway, through ritual and superstition. We all use what tools we have to hand. Which may, to some extent, explain why it is so hard to change people’s view of their world.

Growing up alone in my large, dark house, I made up my own rules for how the Dark side worked. There was no question of denying the ghosts who changed the water temperature of the bath, or the Thing that lived under the bed: it was more a matter of organizing them enough to keep them at bay. So eventually, for example, the Thing was no longer able to grab my ankles if there was anything covering my legs.

At first this meant “if my legs are completely covered”; but in the naturally bureaucratic mind of a child (me), this definition was continually analyzed, questioned, and redefined (in much the same way the early Catholic church was constantly defining itself via debate and endlessly nuanced theological distinctions), until I was safe if anything “touched” my legs. Further questions came up, such as “Are buttocks considered part of the legs?” And eventually the committee in my head decided these things (it was in favor of the buttocks), and I was able to, for example, keep the Thing at bay through the simple expedience of underwear.

And of course, eventually this led to the vanquishing of the Thing by virtue of its defanging – as all dull, rule-oriented bureaucracy will do with wild beasts and interesting dangers, in the end.

The Exception That Proves the Rule: Calvin, questioner and rule-breaker (and creator of the fabulous game Calvinball) was funny precisely because the Calvin Systems and the Adult Systems did not intersect well.

It’s certain, however, if you give children any chance at all to create their own taxonomy for the universe, they will do so. For in definition lies security, and so ignorance will make its own rules, self-creating the world: to make rules is to make known the unknown, to fend off the arbitrariness of the Universe.

The obsessive-compulsive disorder’s version of this, the need to count, to tidy, wash one’s hands until they bleed because by doing something a certain number of times in a certain way you can define it – I think this is merely an extreme extension of our need to overcome the arbitrary. Children often go through an obsessive-compulsive stage, becoming a victim of their own natural ordering process. When the need does not recede with childhood, when it goes on to dominate one’s life, interfering with relationships and causing self-damage – at this point, the “disorder” concept begins to come into play. When you find yourself unable to stop coming up with new rituals, or afraid that you are going crazy, or simply unable to get to work within an hour of the normal start time because you have to go back and do something again, and again, until it is right, because that is the only way to find peace – then you are suffering. This is a different thing entirely.

But in regular life, as Frances’ friend Albert demonstrates in Bread and Jam for Frances, it’s nice when your lunch can come out even. A little bite of this, a little bite of that, some soup, some salted egg: eating, and other things, can be a nicer experience when you put a little thought and structure into it, when it blends perfectly. Mindfulness is not a bad thing, and making up rules to make one’s life more interesting can be a good thing. Eating your apple and raisin tart in small bites, and dividing each raisin in half to get at the sweet bit as you go, can be a way to help bring yourself into the present, to pay attention. It means you are tasting, exploring, nodding to each part of what you’re eating. Going through life like this can mean you are not gulping down experiences, not rushing yourself, but making a way to see things, feel things, notice things.

But beyond mindfulness, I believe a studied superstition is more interesting than a fully-modernized lifestyle, free of ritual and meaning. To throw salt over my shoulder or knock on wood, though my forebrain knows it does not affect the universe, still makes me feel a sense of connection to an older magic. I like to encourage my children to find creative solutions to their fears. I still believe in the power of twelve inches, twelve hours, twelve pieces: I prefer it to metric in many cases. And I still enjoy the slow ritual of dissecting my peanut M&Ms.

The Shapes of Things We See

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, perception, Personal, weird science

“Look, Mama! The Dragon Tree! Hi, Dragon Tree!”

I heard this about fifteen times in varying degrees of attention, going round a certain curve, before I saw it: a tree shaped exactly like a smiling dragon, with ear, tooth, and everything. And once it was there, I could never un-see it: it was only that, being children, they looked in directions that I had ceased to gaze.

So, the day I finally saw the dragon, I showed them my own favorite tree: the Witch Tree, which looks like a distant witch caught in the throes of dancing crazily. The Witch Tree, as you approach it, executes a quick and impossibly subtle metamorphosis into a boring old tree, like any other. I look and look, as much as I can when I am driving, but I can never catch the moment when it ceases being a witch. On this day they saw it immediately, to my satisfaction – there is nothing worse than someone saying, “Where? I can’t see it; you mean that thing?” And not getting it at all. And of course, if you are looking at clouds, they change while you’re watching, so even while you’re pointing it out, it ceases to be itself and becomes something else entirely.

Trees do this, too, but much more slowly. I finally had my camera in the car one day and pulled over to get a shot, but on examination I find that the dragon is past his prime: he is literally getting long in the tooth, and his ear is changing shape. Still, he greets us every day on the way to town.

When I was a kid, there was a little man who lived in the plaster texture they put on the drywall (plasterboard) next to my bed. Every morning when I woke up he was there, just at eye level. I remember finding him comforting, though I didn’t like the vaguely triangular patch on the ceiling in the corner; it looked like some kind of carnivorous squid, waiting to swoop down.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Seeing faces and shapes in organic or random things is extremely common — is, in fact, part of human nature. Although the idea that face recognition is hardwired into us is under great controversy in the scientific world at the moment, everyone agrees that recognition of objects and faces is one of human perception’s strongest points.

Pareidolia means the perception of vague and random stimuli as significant. In other words, our tendency to perceive faces in the clouds, the man in the moon, the dragon tree, and of course messages in records played backwards. Or people seeing Elvis in the mold on their refrigerator.

Wikipedia has a page on “Perceptions of Religious Imagery in Natural Phenomenon,” which is fascinating to read, not because of the explanation but because the list of examples go on and on and on. People seeing the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich, for example:

“On November 23, 2004, a grilled cheese sandwich that contained the likeness of the Virgin Mary was sold for $28,000 in an eBay auction by Diana Duyser from Hollywood, Florida. Duyser explained, ‘I made this sandwich 10 years ago. When I took a bite out of it, I saw a face looking up at me – it was Virgin Mary staring back at me. I was in total shock.’ She kept the toast surrounded by cotton wool, in a plastic container on a stand. Duyser claimed that although a decade old, the toast has not shown any sign of mold or crumbling, which she considered as ‘a miracle’.”

The shelf-life of Wonder Bread and American cheese aside, it astonishes me the lengths people go to preserve the things they see. The NunBun, a cinnamon bun in which a worker saw the face of Mother Theresa, stayed on display in the bakery where it was made for over nine years:

“The face of Mother Teresa was seen in a cinnamon bun at Bongo Java in Nashville, Tennessee. It was first discovered on 15 October 1996 by employee Ryan Finney and was turned into an enterprise by the company, selling T-shirts and mugs. Mother Teresa contacted the company and asked them to stop these sales. Discussions between the cafe owner and Mother Teresa’s attorney brought about a compromise. The cafe agreed to only sell a limited amount NunBun merchandise and sell it only at their store and not license the images. The bun remained as an attraction at Bongo Java. On 25 December 2005 the bun was stolen during a break-in at the coffee house.

The owner of Bongo Java have offered a $5,000 reward for the return of the NunBun. Recently, photographs of the pastry have been sent to the Nashville, TN newspaper The Tennessean from a person identifying themselves as “Hu Dunet.” It shows the NunBun near a statue of a woman, a picture showing it being held by two men, their faces obscured by alterations to the photograph, and a picture of a man lying on a beach holding the bun in his left hand.”

It is interesting how this phenomenon can give such comfort, while in other areas it creates such fear. Take, for example, the creeping horrors of seeing a snake in the folds of your pillowcase in the moonlight. Or the awful way that your inflatable pterodactyl’s hanging shadow looks like a giant spider on the wall. Or what about the horrible hand-like branches that scrape at your windows in a wind-storm?

Worse, apparently, is the inability to make sense of one’s world. Oliver Sacks’ interesting story “To See And Not See”, from An Anthropologist on Mars, tells the story of “Virgil”, a man who hadn’t been able to see since he was a young infant, more than forty years previously. An operation was conducted on the man, which in some senses ruined his life — making him more helpless than he had been when he was blind, because he had to deal constantly with a new sense that he had had no time to make sense of, after living in a world of felt shapes and imagined distances all his life.

“The rest of us, born sighted, can scarcely imagine such confusion. For we, born with a full complement of senses, and correlating these, one with the other, create a sight world from the start, a world of visual objects and concepts and meanings. When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years—having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten—there were no visual memories to support a perception; there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them; he was, as neurologists say, agnosic.

“…Further problems became apparent as we spent the day with Virgil. He would pick up details incessantly—an angle, an edge, a color, a movement—but would not be able to synthe size them, to form a complex perception at a glance. This was one reason the cat, visually, was so puzzling: he would see a paw, the nose, the tail, an ear, but could not see all of them together, see the cat as a whole.”

Later, Sacks tells us of Virgil’s ultimate fate: “…He found himself between two worlds, at home in neither—a torment from which no escape seemed possible. But then, paradoxically, a release was given, in the form of a second and now final blindness—a blindness he received as a gift. Now, at last, Virgil is allowed to not see, allowed to escape from the glaring, confusing world of sight and space, and to return to his own true being, the intimate, concentrated world of the other senses that had been his home for almost fifty years.”

The proponents of the hardwired-newborns view of how we organize recognition tend to point to the inferior temporal gyrus and the fusiform gyrus (also active in grapheme/color synesthesia!), a “small patch of right-brain tissue just behind the ear”, as the place that holds the key to our ability to recognize things. The non-hardwired contingent hold that “the behind-the-ear brain area…actually coordinates all sorts of expert visual judgments. It’s just as crucial for making deft distinctions among classic cars, bird species, and imaginary creatures with no faces as it is for recognizing pictures of one’s high school classmates. Damage to this part of the brain hinders object recognition to a lesser extent than it does face recognition, but the effect is still noticeable” – which basically means, whichever camp you’re in, that this area of the brain is crucial to our ability to weave the world together. [link]

So in a way, the way we make sense of the world of vision is based in our ability to find order where there might otherwise be none. It’s in our nature to create order out of what our senses give us; without it, the world would be a meaningless jumble of pieces and parts, and love, religion, and art would not be able to exist as we know them. Neither would night-fears, or metaphor, or leaf-patterns on the wall. Or the little man who still sits, probably, on the wall of the room I had in the house where I grew up.


– Wikipedia’s article on prosopagnosia, or “face blindness” (the inability to recognize faces)
– Wiki article on face perception, with all the attendant theories