Category Archives: convivial

Senses

Here’s a book I should have encountered years ago (first published in 2013) but only read (well, listened to via Audible) this last week:

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

Two more ways in to its content: a posting by Maria Popova gives a typically excellent entrée:

…and there’s a video of Horowitz talking at the New York Society Library:

The book is a narration of city walks with 11 different expert sensers:

  • toddler
  • flaneuse
  • typographer
  • geologist
  • field naturalist
  • wildlife scientist
  • diagnostician
  • physiotherapist
  • blind person
  • sound designer
  • dog

The book is wonderful for the detailed and ruminative descriptions of the perceptions and discoveries of the differently-abled lookers/sensers, and for focusing attention on the vastnesses we don’t notice, don’t sense.

Yesterday morning I was looking up at the barn’s roof boards, scanning as usual for faces. I’d seen and photographed this one before, but it was only yesterday that I saw it as a slightly cross-eyed or perhaps Cubist-rendered alpaca:

perhaps alpaca

My eyes are accustomed to seeing, sensing, faces where an objective observer would say there is no face, just a random pattern of light and dark that an over-fertile imagination reads as a physiognomy, a personality, a face-like rendering. But for me the sense of a presence is undeniable.

…and this brings into focus for tonight’s Question the Senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling… via eyes, ears, skin, nose, and mouth, the canonical “5 senses”). But it’s common to find extensions of the 5 (add proprioception, add emotions, add ratiocination, add imagination, perhaps others?). Arguably, all living things have “senses” that convey information about the environment—Horowitz’ example of the dog’s-nose view of the urban block is eloquent and immediately accessible: every tree and fire plug alive with messages.

And I look out the window to see several deer under the apple tree.

??what is the consciousness, the sensate state, of a deer eating apples?? Visually and aurally, in a state of extreme vigilance, alert for any movement; but drawn by the bouquet; entranced by the taste, returning day after day until the last apple has fallen, then moving on to the crab apple trees…

We each have a lifetime of sensory input stored somehow (holographically? fractally? in networks of synapses?) in our brains; our sensory apparatus AND that storage is a large part of what we know and who we are as individuals. But as Horowitz’s book shows so clearly, we miss so much of what happens in the world through which we move. We tune and hone for what we think important, and can develop fine discrimination; and we can shift attention between senses situationally. Indeed, we do it all the time.

An aesthetic sense finds pleasure in *the smell of bacon cooking, *the taste of a well-prepared dish, *the sight of a visual marvel (viz. the alpaca in barnwood), *the unique sound of a favorite piece of music… “aesthetic” is a vastly complex word: ‘sensitive, sentient, pertaining to the sense perception’.

And some pleasures come from the synaesthetic combination of senses, *the sound and feel of a plucked string, *the swirl of clouds with thunder in the distance, *the green smell just after a shower, any number of others one might name.


25viii2002

We live through our Senses, as do deer and dogs and butterflies and ants and anything else with processing capabilities… very likely plants as well. We are IN the world, participants with other living things in a vast dance, and, as Carl Sagan put it, our “star stuff” is recycled when its processing capabilities cease.

Each of the Senses has complexities that seem almost fractal—the further in you go, the more detail seems to manifest. Thus, with Taste we learned in high school biology that the tongue has receptors for salt, sweet, sour, and bitter… and, as it turns out, for umami (‘delicious taste’ in Japanese, receptors for glutamates first described by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908). But what’s a ‘receptor’? …a sensor for specific molecules …but how does that work? And with Sight, we know that there are rods and cones in our retinas, and black-and-white and color vision in different species, differential sensitivity to areas of the spectrum, and mechanics for focus, and multiple evolutionary versions of sensor systems (spiders, squid, vertebrates… though all involve opsins, “a family of photo-sensitive proteins”). For Touch there are specialized neurons for pressure, heat, vibration, proximity (think of the whiskers of cats and rats…). For Sound, sensitivity to different sectors of the audio spectrum for different creatures, ultra- and infra-. For Smell, vast differences in number of receptors—dogs have something like 50 times the number of olfactory receptors we have. And so on, for Senses beyond the first 5.

But where’s the Question in this?

I’m still working on it.

Ah. I think I’ve got it:

what would you wish to do with your senses? Which to augment? How?

Two examples inspire me in my response to this question, one very current and only available for the next few days:

a PBS documentary on Ursula K. LeGuin (https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/worlds-of-ursula-k-le-guin-full-film/11632/) that I’m in the middle of watching

and the freedom and inventiveness of Thelonious Monk:

contra Sherlock

Today I was listening to Stephen Fry’s reading of Sherlock Holmes as I walked, and was diverted by this bit of Holmes’ practical philosophy:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
(from A Study in Scarlet)

This is just about the diametrical opposite to what I’ve thought all these years, the antithesis to my patron saint Hugh of St. Victor’s dictum:

Omnia disce,
videbus postea nihil esse superfluum

(Learn everything,
you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

(and see my Goals and Methods of Teaching as summarized 25 years ago)

It’s the curation of stuff that makes the difference between the lumber-filled brain-attic and the well-oiled engines of synthesis and retrieval to which one aspires. I (seem to have to) learn this lesson anew whenever I try to make sense of one of my collections, and each pass reveals new interrelations I hadn’t noticed or fully appreciated before.

Convivium: Attachment

This week I think I’ll try a different approach to posing a Question for Convivial consideration, stating it in its general form and then providing a backstory to how it arose and what I think about it. Here goes:

We’re told that Attachment is a fons et origo of Suffering, with the implication that we shouldn’t BE Attached, or should shed Attachments. Of course there can be Attachment to immaterial as well as material, to notions as easily as to stuff.

So on the one hand one might Ask: how to be/become NOT Attached?

But perhaps the more useful question to mull is: what are one’s own Attachments, what’s their history, how does one understand their importance in one’s life?

Personally, my consideration of this Question has led to the realization that I don’t wish to shed Attachments, but that I enjoy the active engagement with their curation, with the working out for myself of those Attachments’ designs and architectures. This won’t surprise anybody who has been following along, nor will the scope of convolutions and serendipities that are the background to its posing.

Here’s how the Convivial Question-making seems to unfold: I’m reading in one or more books, attending to their main threads, and up pops a Relation to something we’ve discussed before—often quite tangential, but pointed enough to get written down, and thus to provoke further wondering. Other books come off the shelves, google searches may ensue, bits of summary of findings and thoughts get written down, and so it goes.

The impetus for today’s Question was a story from the New Yorker’s Annals of Gastronomy, 2 August: How a Cheese Goes Extinct, By Ruby Tandoh

…By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”

When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic The Great British Cheese Book, from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.

The cheese story ties in with ongoing reading of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, one aspect of which is (on my part) a rather romantic engagement with (indeed, an Attachment to) technologies and lexicons of the past, and with the mysteries of Mastery of materials and processes, which may be (at least for me) anchors to windward against the storms of the Modern that perpetually threaten to swamp us. Among other books in this ilk are Robert Persig’s perennial and always-worth-revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (which first appeared in 1974) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2010). And Glassman and Fields Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters traverses much of the same territory.

I have a 50+ year engagement with the history (well, histories) of technology, broadly defined and ranging from poky sticks and string and rock-smashing through all manner of materials and mechanisms and clevernesses, all the way to today’s frontiers with nano-scale materials. All of this territory is of the mind, and wanders through human proclivities and imagination and dexterity and inventiveness, and not excepting mistakes and unforeseen consequences. A lot of territory, and spangled throughout with the by-now-familiar assemblage of this-and-that from reading and chance encounter and excavations of past enthusuasms and lines of inquiry… it’s what I do. Two extended examples from the past:

  • At the behest of this line of inquiry, yesterday I quarried a 1991 project from the archives, a design for “A Reference Collection for the Executive Offices of the Society for the History of Technology” that I produced for a Library School course taught by Jay Lucker, who was MIT’s Librarian. The first 10 pages read well even 29 years later and after a vast upheaval in the library world, and Jay Lucker’s comments warm the heart. The 434 items listed and annotated would provide several lifetimes of reading…

  • See also my Technology weblet, built before there were blogs and illustrating my approach to distributable digital note-making of 20+ years ago: the 1998/1999 scheme for a History of Technology course at Washington and Lee. See also electronic version of the Syllabus and notes for my presentation on the course to the Virginia Collegiate Honors Council, September 1998. There’s probably a lot of linkrot, but the implicit method is clear enough.

Uncertainty

Last night’s Convivium question, posed by John McIlwaine: how do you deal with Uncertainty?

I didn’t have a very coherent response, but did sputter out something about trying to learn more to reduce uncertainty, seeking to understand factors in play, and I referenced a New York Times story on Argentinian weather extremes which offered this condensation of factors in the uncertainty of giant storms:

Every storm is composed of the same fundamental DNA — in this case, moisture, unstable air and something to ignite the two skyward, often heat. When the earth warms in the spring and summer months, hot wet air rushes upward in columns, where it collides with cool dry air, forming volatile cumulus clouds that can begin to swell against the top of the troposphere, at times carrying as much as a million tons of water. If one of these budding cells manages to punch through the tropopause, as the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere is called, the storm mushrooms, feeding on the energy-rich air of the upper atmosphere. As it continues to grow, inhaling up more moisture and breathing it back down as rain and hail, this vast vertical lung can sprout into a self-sustaining system that takes on many different forms. Predicting exactly what form this DNA will arrange itself into, however, turns out to be a puzzle on par with biological diversity. Composed of millions of micro air currents, electrical pulses and unfathomably complex networks of ice crystals, every storm is a singular creature, growing and behaving differently based on its geography and climate.

With so many variables at play, it became apparent to modern meteorologists that predicting storms required sampling as many as possible. The perfect repository, as it turned out, existed in the Great Plains, where many of the world’s most dangerous storms are born. Here, in the spring and summer months, moist air off the Gulf of Mexico pools with dry air from the Arctic and southwestern deserts, which is all then corralled by the Rocky Mountains, forming a massive eddy. For meteorologists, this sustained volatility has made the plains the de facto national laboratory, where about 30 National Weather Service offices, tens of thousands of private radars and weather stations and hundreds of airports are sampling the air conditions before, during and after storms. Each sample, whether taken by radar or wind gauge, is a snapshot of that particular storm’s behavior and composition — such as air density, pressure, temperature, humidity and wind velocity — providing meteorologists a profile to look for in the future.

As often happens, I awoke this morning with a conversation in mindspace, this one having to do with the dynamics of Complex Systems, and the phrase

limn contingencies

floated to the surface. And that’s what I often find myself trying to do: sketching causations, incorporating stochasticities, tracking implications, assessing dependencies, always with an eye to the random, but rarely with a sense of arriving at a final solution. More an ever-growing appreciation for the ineffabilities of real-world complexity, with a soupçon of Micawberian “Something Will Turn Up!” … but I have to confess that another reflexive response to uncertainty is to make light, seeking irony or other embedded humor —the sardonic, the cynical, the parodic. Such responses are amusing, but hardly constructive.

Wende mentioned a heightened sense of perception (in a side conversation re: cataract surgery and other eye things), which fitted well with another set of thoughts that had been in the background recently, in the context of rediscovery of old favorites in the vinyl archive, and a consequent engagement in the vastnesses of my digital music files. The phenomenon of enhancement by new affordances (an upgrade to the viewing experience via a new monitor, or to ear quality via better speakers, or the effect on visual perception of new glasses) is familiar, as is the rapidity with which the heightened acuity becomes simply normal, until the next upgrade…

And so another Question spawned:

how can one revive the wonder once it becomes quotidian?

I think it’s largely a matter of direction of one’s Attention: the wonders are still there, e.g., the glories of the Milky Way when noticed on a clear night are pretty much eternal, but one’s mind may be otherwise employed. How is the mind to be reined in? In the words of H. Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

and another Convivial wonderment

The incoming Freshman class of September 1961 was assigned CP Snow’s The Two Cultures (based on his 1959 Rede Lecture). An excerpt of the original lecture:

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of
western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. When I say the
intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because
I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be
distinguished. I shall come back to the practical life a little later. Two polar
groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no
one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there
were no others. I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild
puzzlement, some time in the 1930s: “Have you noticed how the word
‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which
certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It
does seem rather odd, don’t y’know?”.

Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most
representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual
incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and
dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted
image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of
emotion, they can’t find much common ground. Non-scientists tend to think of
scientists as brash and boastful. They hear Mr. T. S. Eliot, who just for these
illustrations we can take as an archetypal figure, saying about his attempts to
revive verse-drama that we can hope for very little, but that he would feel
content if he and his co-workers could prepare the ground for a new Kyd or a
new Greene. That is the tone, restricted and constrained, with which literary
intellectuals are at home: it is the subdued voice of their culture. Then they hear
a much louder voice, that of another archetypal figure, Rutherford, trumpeting:
“This is the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!” Many of us
heard that, and a good many other statements beside which that was mild; and
we weren’t left in any doubt whom Rutherford was casting for the role of
Shakespeare. What is hard for the literary intellectuals to understand,
imaginatively or intellectually, is that he was absolutely right.
And compare “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a
whimper—incidentally, one of the least likely scientific prophecies ever
made—compare that with Rutherford’s famous repartee, “Lucky fellow,
Rutherford, always on the crest of the wave.” “Well, I made the wave, didn’t I?”
The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly
optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe
that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly
unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to
restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with
a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean
back-chat. On each side there is some of it which is not entirely baseless. It is all
destructive. Much of it rests on misinterpretations which are dangerous. I should
like to deal with two of the most profound of these now, one on each side.

I regret to say that I punted: I didn’t read the book at the time, and I didn’t quite see why it would matter to me. Looking back, I see what I might have begun to think about if I had just made the effort. I could see, dimly, that Snow was on about two hostile camps, between which we might be supposed to choose. Or so I thought. Of course there was much more to it than simple four-legs-good-two-legs-bad (I had read Animal Farm…), with/against binary opposition.

Betsy and I were both in that Freshman class, though unbeknownst to one another, and likewise we were both in a Gen Ed class on Philosophy (along with maybe 300 others), taught by Rogers Albritton, in which I have to confess I drifted aimlessly, largely ignorant of how to read and how to listen. One of the readings was Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A section I still recall (though don’t remember it as verse) describes the imagined atomic world:

     What seems to us the hardened and condensed
     Must be of atoms among themselves more hooked,
     Be held compacted deep within, as 'twere
     By branch-like atoms--of which sort the chief
     Are diamond stones, despisers of all blows,
     And stalwart flint and strength of solid iron,
     And brazen bars, which, budging hard in locks,
     Do grate and scream. But what are liquid, formed
     Of fluid body, they indeed must be
     Of elements more smooth and round--because
     Their globules severally will not cohere:
     To suck the poppy-seeds from palm of hand
     Is quite as easy as drinking water down,
     And they, once struck, roll like unto the same.
     But that thou seest among the things that flow
     Some bitter, as the brine of ocean is,
     Is not the least a marvel...
     For since 'tis fluid, smooth its atoms are
     And round, with painful rough ones mixed therein;
     Yet need not these be held together hooked:
     In fact, though rough, they're globular besides,
     Able at once to roll, and rasp the sense.
     And that the more thou mayst believe me here,
     That with smooth elements are mixed the rough
     (Whence Neptune's salt astringent body comes),
     There is a means to separate the twain,
     And thereupon dividedly to see
     How the sweet water, after filtering through
     So often underground, flows freshened forth
     Into some hollow; for it leaves above
     The primal germs of nauseating brine,
     Since cling the rough more readily in earth.
     Lastly, whatso thou markest to disperse
     Upon the instant--smoke, and cloud, and flame--
     Must not (even though not all of smooth and round)
     Be yet co-linked with atoms intertwined,
     That thus they can, without together cleaving,
     So pierce our body and so bore the rocks.
     Whatever we see...
     Given to senses, that thou must perceive
     They're not from linked but pointed elements.

What I couldn’t grasp in 1961 was that I was being introduced to how people thought, to the evolution of understanding that led to the present moment. I’ve been working on repairing my inattention ever since.

Alexander Boxer’s A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data drifted into my ken a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been nibbling at it gradually, as a brick in the edifice of History of Science that I’ve been tracking for years. The book is full of surprises for me, the example of the moment being a discussion of oppositional schools of thought, Epicurean vs. Stoic in Boxer’s formulation, that contrasts Lucretius the materialist/skeptic/randomness-oriented Epicurean and Manilius the instantiator of the zodiacal elements of astrology (Stoic, or perhaps Pythagorean or Platonist), and advocate of divine intelligent-plan determinism. Boxer suggests that astrology is in effect Stoic astronomy, in which all can be analyzed mathematically. Manilius (of whom I had never heard) seems to have been the first to codify the characteristics associated with each of the 12 Signs of the Zodiac: Those born under the Sign of Virgo (“associated with the arts of writing, inquisitive and studious, adept with words and speech, held back by shyness…”) vs. [for example] those under Cancer (“associated with finance and international trade, grasping and miserly, shrewd and combative”) and so on. The newspaper horoscope version of all that is hokum and flim-flam, but in Boxer’s telling there’s much to tantalize. And I’ll have to confess that the description of Virgo characteristics is too close for complete comfort for this Virgo.

But what interests me is the proclivity for and predominance of oppositional thinking, this OR that, one or the other, for or against, right or wrong. It’s worth reflecting on how many witless binaries have blighted our lives, how often we are called upon to “Stand With” or to Oppose. John McIlwain’s comment is apposite: “Divinely ordained/fated, or simply a very complex machine – are these the only two metaphysical choices we have? We seem to still be struggling with these two alternatives, both of which free us from the responsibility of free choice. Either way, it’s not my fault!”

I seem to be sheltering in a metaphysics that is more organic/vitalist than ‘very complex machine’, a world of open systems and transduced energy and vast interconnectivities that we only dimly grasp and have, to our surprise, no dominion over.

Impostures continued

In last night’s Convivium Wende described a meditation session which began with the injunction to seek one’s own Tradition (left undefined and general) and dwell in its Source. Wende found herself in exploration of Mystery as her own personal core [I may have overset what she described to suit my own modes of perception and thought, but I think those are the essential terms she used].

Interesting to me is the name-it-and-nail-it experience as Wende related it, in this case the consequent and consequential explication of Mystery and the Mysterious.

My own imagining and reading of a personal Source was surely most influenced by the so-recent experience of reading the introductory material to Impostures, described in yesterday’s post, and especially the discussion of maqamat as ‘art of freestyle improvisation’. The literary meaning of the term, as explored by Cooperson, partakes more of the notions of ‘assembly’ and ‘standing up’, with the sense of “a verbal performance delivered to strangers” (pg. xix), which Cooperson glosses as ‘Impostures’. The book contains Cooperson’s renderings, in various Englishes, of a set of 50 Tales of the “eloquent rogue” Abu Zayd al-Saruji, couched by al-Hariri in forms that display linguistic virtuosity in Arabic (often considered utterly untranslatable).

My take on maqamat is primarily musical, and references the term as it is used in Turkish and Arabic musics. A maqam can be thought of as beginning with a series of notes, or as a succession of intervals—a scale in the most basic form, but then further developed in practise into a feeling. The major/minor distinction in Western classical music, or the seven conventional modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) of Western theory are a much simpler and more limiting framework than the scales found in Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Indian systems, none of which are greatly concerned with writing music in notation. They are taught and learned primarily by ear, and in master/student settings, and generally performed as improvisational meditations on their basic sonic materials. In North and South Indian examples, particular ragas are associated with hours of the day and night, and even with particular states of mind.

Many musics are primarily or wholly improvisational. Here’s how Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: its nature and practice in music summarizes:

Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it. Perhaps this is inevitable, even appropriate. Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation. (pg. ix)

The parallel between al-Hariri and Robert Johnson is almost too striking: al-Hariri apparently had no skill at the highly-valued forms of extemporaneous composition that were greatly appreciated in his 12th century Basran milieu, so he went away and woodshedded and then returned with a manuscript of his 50 tales (based on al-Hamadhani’s 10th century model, who “astounded the [city of Nishapur’s] elite by defeating a local celebrity in a prose-and-poetry slam” [pg. xx]). al-Hariri’s maqamat

…enjoyed a reputation unlike anything else in literary history, so marvelous in expression, and so copious in vocabulary, as to carry all before it. The author’s choice of words, and his careful arrangement of them, are such that one might well despair of imitating him… (xxii, a biographer’s description)

And likewise with Robert Johnson, who learned from older Delta musicians like Charlie Patton and Son House and Willie Brown, all of whom played in the highly competitive arena of rural Mississippi and Arkansas jook joints. Initially Robert Johnson was pretty inept, but he left the area for a while and returned with vastly greater skills. The legend grew that he had sold his soul to the Devil to gain his newfound skills…

from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues

The fear in “Cross Road Blues” is actually a complex of fears, some rational and immediate, some more metaphysical. The most literal reading of the tune is as a description of an actual experience. Johnson finds himself alone at a county crossroads, attempting to flag a ride as the sun sets…In blues lore, the crossroads is the place where aspiring musicians strike their deal with the Devil, and Robert claimed to have struck such a deal… (pg. 126)



from Alan Greenberg’s Love In Vain: the life and legend of Robert Johnson

The camera slowly dollies down the ghostly, dirt-paved artery. Anonymous black men walk or stand stationary at points along the way.

Now the road becomes barren. At a dark crossroads we behold Robert Johnson, picking on his guitar nervously, delicately. It is out of tune. Then, footsteps, up the road.

The devilman weaves and stumbles into view. He never looks at Robert, only at his guitar. He takes it, tunes it, turns around and plays an extraordinary guitar part. He hands it back and starts to go. (pg. 49)

(later, in a jook joint)
Stunning guitar sounds cut through the night from the jook. Robert is playing “Preachin’ Blues,” astonishing all with his rhythmic and emotional intensity. (pg 55)



from Giles Oakley’s The Devil’s Music: a history of the blues

The legend of Robert Johnson has been created from the combination of the tragic brevity of his life and the overwhelmeng sense of inner torment and foreboding in his blues. He only recorded some thirty odd songs but taken together they create visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled withsecret fears and anxieties. At times he seems scarcely able to control the extremities of feeling which press in on him or the tensions and neuroses which drive, harry and confuse him… (pp. 218-219)




And, as a reward for coming this far:


see also Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Elijah Wald, 2004) and Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, 2019)

another Convivial question

An all too well-known doofus put it thus:

If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases if any…

That evoked a derisive snort, but I didn’t stop to think why it seemed so preposterous, I just knew that it was. A blog post this morning enlightened me:

[the all too well-known doofus] made an elementary error known from quantum physics,
of suggesting that the state of the world is determined by our perception of it.

It’s no surprise, indeed it is fundamental, that we are I-centered, and that’s not good//bad so much as BASIC (unlike ants, or mycelia, or rocks, whose consciousness is collective…). We look out at the physical world through two eyes (and ears and nostrils…) and interpret what we sense in the context of a lifetime of seeing and processing and linguistic construction. Imagination, illusion, Maya—but our own, continuously updated and elaborated and refined. The complications of Id, Ego, and SuperEgo as components of the I are a whole other subject.

I woke up with the realization that sometimes a book or a piece of art or music, a movie or video series, or a photograph can shanghai your life, such that you live in and through it for a while. It becomes an obsession, a preferred reality, a personal refuge. I look back on a very long series of such engagements, each foundational in my evolving sense of what matters and how to interpret the world around me. Some seem trivial to others but loom large in personal retrospect, like the novels of RF Delderfield and Nevil Shute and Jan de Hartog, the fictional worlds of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the Okefenokee Swamp of Walt Kelly, the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the mystery stories of Manning Coles, Eric Ambler, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle, the hobbitry of JRR Tolkien, the sci-fi of William Gibson and John Brunner, to name just a few things I’ve binged upon over the years (and happily return to, repeatedly). Their contribution to my Present burgeons as I consider further and dig down into Implications. The same journey could be undertaken in music, in imagery, in culinary experience.

And it’s clear that books (and other media) speak to each other in surprising ways, as I’ve been recognizing via an ongoing project of library reorganization: pretty much every book connects to (enlivens, illuminates) others, and all of that territory could be mapped, literally or figuratively. It’s informative, even heuristic, to consider the contingencies, the hops from one enthusiasm or infatuation to another, that consititute one’s history as a reader, viewer, listener, gastronome.

So the Question is, once again, an open-ended invitation to

reflect on the mapping of
one’s own history and trajectory
in the construction of Self
via encounters with significant influences of the Past
.

Convivial Question

What are the Questions that puzzle and inspire?

This doesn’t need an answer so much as it focuses one’s attention on what the Mind is doing, is working upon in the background of consciousness. Thus, it makes a good Question for each of us to consider and perhaps respond to in the familiar idiosyncratic and free-associative fashion. Consciousness is always busy processing sensory input, appreciating the seen and heard and felt and tasted. But what’s going on beneath? Are the three wonderments described below the SAME in some sense? Are they all entangled in the perennial Question of how complexity and dynamical systems work, perhaps? We are clearly off the fairway, into the weeds, the rough, the unknown. Where I love to be wandering, if the truth be told.

So here’s a sketch of my own current state, made up of Questions emerging from the stimuli that have drifted across the bow in the last few days. We can begin with the observation of many many thousands of tiny orange ants in the soil I’ve been sifting from the sod that was stripped from the garden space. What, we wonder, are they doing? Where do they fit in? Is there some mutualism with the co-occurring worms, and/or with unseen other somethings? How could we learn more? [partial answer: a soon-to-arrive Field Guide to the Ants of New England].

A second element is this video of “7 levels of jazz harmony”:

which may at first blush seem to have nothing to do with orange ants, but addresses elegantly and most provocatively a [very] long-running puzzlement over just what happens in jazz, and spawns various hatchings of plans to explore further.

And a third element in temporal conjunction with the two above is the just-published and just-arrived (via Kindle and Audible) Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake [who is, remarkably and synchronistically enough, the son of Rupert Sheldrake, of Morphic Resonance fame], which I started to read this morning.

Here are the passages I highlighted as I read the Introduction, to illustrate my habitual process of collecting bits of aide mémoire, breadcrumbs along the pathway:

Introduction: What Is It Like to Be a Fungus?

Page 10
…[mycelia] weave themselves through the gaps between plant cells in an intimate brocade and help to defend plants against disease .

Page 11
Mushrooms are a fungus’s way to entreat the more-than-fungal world, from wind to squirrel, to assist with the dispersal of spores, or to prevent it from interfering with this process.

Page 12
Mycelium describes the most common of fungal habits, better thought of not as a thing but as a process: an exploratory, irregular tendency.

Page 14
Unsustainable agricultural practices reduce the ability of plants to form relationships with the beneficial fungi on which they depend. The widespread use of antifungal chemicals has led to an unprecedented rise in new fungal superbugs that threaten both human and plant health. As humans disperse disease-causing fungi , we create new opportunities for their evolution.

Page 18
…many fungi can live within the roots of a single plant, and many plants can connect with a single fungal network. In this way a variety of substances , from nutrients to signaling compounds, can pass between plants via fungal connections.

Page 20
Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.

Page 23
Many scientific concepts—from time to chemical bonds to genes to species—lack stable definitions but remain helpful categories to think with.

Page 25
There was something embarrassing about admitting that the tangle of our unfounded conjectures, fantasies, and metaphors might have helped shape our research. Regardless, imagination forms part of the everyday business of inquiring.

Page 27
…wondered what it was like to be a fungus. I found myself underground, surrounded by growing tips surging across one another. Schools of globular animals grazing—plant roots and their hustle—the Wild West of the soil—all those bandits, brigands, loners, crapshooters. The soil was a horizonless external gut—digestion and salvage everywhere—flocks of bacteria surfing on waves of electrical charge—chemical weather systems—subterranean highways—slimy infective embrace—seething intimate contact on all sides.

I’ll also point to an article in this week’s New Yorker, The Secret Lives of Fungi by Hua Hsu, which references Sheldrake and also Anna Haupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which I read with great pleasure last summer.