In physics, the more you magnify matter, the less you can predict it. Zooming into a small number of particles brings you face to face with the indeterminacy of things. Even at the scale of water droplets, the irregularity of Brownian motion is clearly visible to you, the droplets light enough to be buffeted by single air molecules as they randomly collide with the mist.
It’s only as you zoom out again to regard things in aggregate that the laws of statistics can begin re-asserting themselves; soon they restore the regularity of the world we’re accustomed to occupy. The chair I sit in is solid & supports me; my molecules don’t fall through its molecular cracks.
The stability of thought is similar.
It dismays me at times that I am myself so easily averaged — that the over-all pattern of my thoughts is so predictable. This is true not only from the distance of my own slightly estranged but still intimate vantage-point, but even more unnervingly from the impersonal machine gaze that merely tracks me as data. After all, given my zip code, credit card purchases, and web browsing history, a simple set of statistical algorithms can predict not only most of my basic views but also much of my day-to-day behavior.
But when I slow down and pay close attention to single thoughts and sensations, letting them occur to me as they will, my mind loses this regularity.
It grows stranger, and so do I.
To speak of a single thought is misleading, however, for the closer I look at one, the blurrier its boundaries and the less stable its state.
A given thought trembles on the verge of any number of possibilities. Then, without warning, it turns itself inside out, shapeshifting from one form to another. (This derails whatever train of ideas I thought I was riding.)
So — if I am what I think, then best to live as close up as this, and as unstably, as freely.
###limited number, limitless space
It brings me up short when I stop to think how relatively few things I can bring back to life in my mind.
Recently re-reading Speak, Memory, I found myself envying the prodigious memory of Vladimir Nabokov, who flaunts his superior talent for snapping any childhood scene back into the sharp focus of his virtuosic prose.
My case must have the redeeming virtue, however, of being more average. (Reader, do we have this in common?)
Several years ago my youngest daughter made the request for another childhood story, please, Daddy the main feature of her bedtime ritual. I started out bravely enough, with all the familiar memories that I myself had long since relied upon to make sense of particular times — key signposts of my life. Before long, though, I was dismayed that the once palpable vastness, say, of my enthralling year in Second Grade could now yield so few well-formed stories — six or seven, not one hundred and twenty. The ones that did come to me were wonderfully vivid still, but when I tried peering around their corners to find others, my view was blurred and my grasp uncertain.
This went on for several years, by the end of which I getting splinters from scraping the bottom of my barrel, though whatever I managed to dredge up continued to delight my daughter (even as she then requested more). By the end of that time, my mental exertions felt like the dry heaves of a comic book figure.
Recently I’ve come to understand that my ideas are similarly few in number. Again, there isn’t an unlimited number of insights I can choose among, but just a handful in any given category, which I keep coming back to. Most of them I’ve been circling around for many years now.
But having learned to acquiesce to this reality, I’ve managed to shift it slightly. I continue to range among this small number of ideas, but I now often slow down to focus on the gaps between them. The closer I look, the larger these gaps become, a kind of spaciousness that comes as a great relief.
Circling around an idea now means choosing among a myriad possible orbits, each with its own series of different vantage-points; and in moving from idea to idea I can now take any number of paths that swerve as much as this one has.
Having a word stuck on the tip of my tongue is a common enough occurrence, but as an impasse it’s minor compared to another I encounter far more frequently — so often in fact as to constitute a spiritual condition!
This presents itself (deceptively) as a similar problem of retrieval, though not of a word I can’t remember but rather of a thought or even an illumination that escapes me.
Another expression — I can’t put my finger on it— comes a bit closer to my experience. But that phrase conjures up the image of your rifling through messy piles of paper on your mind’s desk, amongst which the right page has been temporarily buried — whereas the sensation I’m trying to describe concerns something definitely not in my possession.
I’ve thought of calling it at the tip of my finger, but by this I don’t mean my finger as it’s about to touch something, but rather as it points towards something out of reach.
My sense of it is that I keep pointing my finger in different directions, wavering as I do so, hoping to alight on the right angle. This is almost like a dowser with her divining rod or a blind man with his cane.
But all too often I find my eyes following just the fingertip itself rather than what it’s trying to point to.
Last night as I was pondering this in bed I fell asleep with the image of my right fingertip glowing dimly red in the darkness. It illuminated the tiniest area of darkness around it, like an impossibly weak flashlight.
When I awoke, however, I was thinking about the sun.
###reading in the dark
1. Disarmed. Sometimes I wish I could remove my arms before getting into bed — or rather before going to sleep.
For a side-sleeper like me, their removal would put an end to the awkward scrunching of these jointed limbs into makeshift positions that I keep having to rearrange, even as I slumber. No longer would I face the occasional horror of an arm falling asleep on its own, all painful pins and needles when I awake but it doesn’t, instead flapping from my shoulder like a useless rubber appendage.
2. Eyelid. But this bedtime improvement is nothing compared to another I’ve been dreaming of for a much longer time — the ability to read in the dark, no longer distracted by the ambient space of the room, mental pictures no longer impinged upon by the visual periphery.
Better still would be to do away with the book as a physical object. Rather than on a white page, I imagine the words materializing on closed eyelids — that is, on the same screens onto which your rem visions project themselves on.
3. Third eye. Now it occurs to me that there are certain kinds of reading, less visceral or at least less immediately visual, that call for a different kind of contemplation.
For this I imagine reading with the third eye of enlightenment, which is said to be in the middle of one’s forehead — not that I believe it. Still, when I direct my thoughts there, I see what I read with greater abstraction and purity.
This higher level of reading is by no means confined to abstract words like love, infinity, level, and the like, or to logical operators like and, or, if/then, etc. No, the words you see through this third eye can still be visual, but in a special refined way that is best conveyed with a couple of examples.
Take the word mirror first. When pictured on your eyelid’s warm membrane, the mirror you see is set in a wider surrounding, which its back-silvered glass reflects. But when visualized through your forehead, the mirror simply hangs alone in space, reflecting nothing (— or Nothing quote unquote).
A similar effect obtains, even more strangely, with the word indoors, which the third eye apprehends as pure interiority. Unfurnished: containing neither object nor detail, just the remnants of the feelings for them.
About 25 years ago, whenever I passed through nyc, I’d look up a friend whose complicated life often had her looking a little beat, with dark rings under her entrancing eyes.
We’d meet up at a café on MacDougal Street or a Ukrainian diner near St Marks, where the first thing she’d do would be to ask me to take off my glasses. She didn’t want me to see her clearly, she said, and it’s true that my near-sightedness then softened her face into a gentle blur, all its lines erased. Only then did she feel free to descend into deep conversation with me.
I’ve since examined the curious expression that other people assume when they remove their glasses — they look like moles poking their heads up out of the dark ground into the bright day, eyes blinking, totally disarmed.
###eyes in <> out
1. Looks Eyes don’t just see, they also give looks. Wittgenstein wrote that while the ear receives, the eye looks:
One can terrify with one’s eyes, not with one’s ear or nose. When you see the eye you see something going out from it. You see the look in the eye.
So there’s a whole panoply of possible looks your eyes can give, deliberately or not — and an equal number they can take in from other eyes. These, for example:
An exchange of looks is like a back-and-forth conversation, more powerful for being unsaid.
2. Searchlight. An entirely different kind of look once beamed from my eyes at roughly the same time period.
I’d slept as I often did on the floor at a friend’s tiny apartment off Leroy Street. Late one morning, she having rushed off to work much earlier, I swam up to consciousness and noticed my head throbbing slightly with a strange and nearly painless headache. I propped myself up on my elbows and realized that my head was full of light.
With my eyes closed, the light blazed inside my skull. When I opened my eyelids, the light seemed to shoot out like the beams of searchlights. Even when I stumbled out of the apartment to get some food on Bleeker Street, I felt like I had a pair of headlights on, raking the world with light as I walked. This was by no means unpleasant, by the way. I felt like a projector, with the city as the movie I was projecting.
When I returned to the apartment later, the air had that rotten-egg smell of gas. Though the stove hadn’t been left on, I wondered whether a slight gas leak was the cause of my hallucinated state. I opened the windows wide, gazing through the metal bars at the tiny garden below, where the sunlight printed leaf shadows on the grass and the patio.
I now realize, and must confess, that much of what I stand on is open to question. And I’d blame this on my mind’s relentless economizing.
Once I’ve built up a solid position, I tend to discard the scaffolding of specific facts. So if you were to challenge me on even a view I held strongly, I bet I’d be the one at a loss, unable to back myself up.
What faith in my beliefs that I have depends entirely on the notion that I stand upon reason in general — even if I can no longer summon the reasons in particular.
(Believe me: Bush sanctioned torture — though I can’t cite you the reporting from memory.)
Tossing and turning one night, I tried practicing the old technique of progressive relaxation, attempting to quiet my body down into slumber. But as usual my monkey mind kept me up, leaping from limb to limb.
For some reason the arrangement of my body then appeared to me not with its familiar bilateral symmetry, which I remember learning in elementary school science class (fold the body in half to match eye to eye, arm to arm, leg to leg, lung to lung, etc). Instead I got caught up in a continual action of vertical translation that had never occurred to me before.
First, I found myself transposing my upper limbs down to my lower: shoulders to hips, elbows to knees, wrists to ankles, palms to soles, and fingers to toes — as if I’d telescoped my body down to half its height.
Next came the notion that the two lobes of my brain could become the two lungs in my chest, both pairs breathing together nicely.
Alas, that peaceful co-existence didn’t last long — the lobes moved further down to become the two cheeks of my butt, squashed uncomfortably against the mattress.
Then the mere mention of “cheeks” brought me back up to the more ordinary cheeks of my mouth, which I puffed up playfully with air. This immediately transposed them down to my lungs, expelling whatever was left of my brain there. Perhaps it’s then that I fell asleep, for I remember no more.
1. Asked what he was trying to get out of the dancers with all his questions, the composer said he wanted his music to express what they would be feeling when they danced onstage.
2. The dancers replied that they wouldn’t be feeling anything — they would be too busy counting.
3. Earlier, the composer had said he was a practicing Buddhist so I wondered when he practiced counting his own breath.