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Sunday
Feb102013

Cocking a Snook at Perfection

 

We have been pondering names that repeat and names that almost repeat.

Sirhan Sirhan is a perfectly repetitive name. José José and Fei Fei are repeating names too, as are Justo Justo, Miou-Miou, Rye Rye, Morris Morris, Morgan Morgan etc.

Then there are the almost-but-no-cigar repeating names such as Neil McNeil, Magnus Magnusson, Callum McCallum, Marky Mark, Jean Valjean and Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Jean Valjean of course is a name given by Victor Hugo to the fortisimo character in one of the half dozen greatest novels in the world: Les Misérables.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the name given to baby Belmokhtar in 1972 by Mr. and Mrs. Belmokhtar. This one has since been handed various sobriquets: The One Eyed, The Uncatchable and Mr. Marlboro, which also has a nice bit of repetitive swang to it - though we will be keeping an eye out for him next time we are on the edge of the Western Sahara just as, one supposes, he keeps an eye out for us.

We prefer these almost repeating names to the perfectly repeating ones since the imperfect repeating names embody an aesthetic of Japanese wabi-sabi. It is precisely because the names are not symmetrical that they are beautiful.

In some languages the repeating of a name, or near re-duplication, cloning, and doubling of a name-sound, serves a grammatical purpose such as plurality or intensification. There is some creative play here, where the duplication and re-duplication interruptus is used to make a wild contrapuntal audible universe. Repeat this aloud and hear your voice land upon melody: Llewellyn Crikey Llewellyn Boutros Haidar Boutros Haidar Bushy Bush Dogg Doggy Snoop Mgoeing Mgoeing Lipp Lippi Renzo Renzi Sven Sven boyo boyo bach. Can you feel some wabi-sabi rhythm in that?

Underplayed and modest

But wabi-sabi is essentially simple, slow and uncluttered. And we learn from the architect Tadao Ando that it reveres authenticity above all. "Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It's a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It's a richly mellow beauty that's striking but not obvious."

Which brings us in a roundabout manner to thoughts on the role of the paid art critic, theorist and ontologist. This sounds like the kind of gig where life is just one big brain party after another, all the time repeating mongo mongo. For example, consider the words of the late art theorist Leone Vivante: "In a cosmos in which number and quantity seem overwhelmingly predominant, art reveals quality as ultimately real in the very actuality of consciousness." And so, he says, in his Essays on Art and Ontology: "A work of art does not turn or depend on anything else for its reality, because, I repeat, it is an immediate actualization and revelation of an inextricable nucleus of values absolutely inherent in a present origin or in an intimate activity or in form ..."

Is it possible that some things do not hold up well on repetition? Let me say in reply that I have never, I repeat, never, made a perfect painting. They are all wabi-sabi and all perfectly mondo, chibi chibi and jar jar jinks.

 

Also, I have a birthday coming up and there is wabi-sabi in that fact too, because the crevices on my visage are longer and more deeply beautiful than before. Though I think I am starting to catch a whiff of the pudding palace that awaits at the top of the hill.

 

(Top Image: Visite du Vigile/Visit of the Watchman 11x14 watercolours by David Roberts)

Thursday
Dec202012

Zen Christmas Blues

 

 

Printmaker Peter Miller the other day posted a photo of the stone basin at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, which carries an inscription: 'Even if I have nothing, it is enough.'

What if this message translates to say that we should gratefully accept all that comes our way this Christmas? Acceptance is the Zen of things: acceptance of the universe and acceptance of THAT which makes it tick.

Peter said he had long cherished this notion of sufficiency and gratitude, adding he purchased at the temple, for 800 yen, a medallion to remind himself of the practical message contained in the kanji. "Then I lost it," he said. "Really. I packed the medallion in my suitcase carefully, but on my return it wasn't there. Thereby illustrating in an unintended way the wisdom of the inscription."

You cannot walk the path until you first become the path.

Let's consider also this bit of seasonal Western wisdom: "He sees you when you're sleeping."

Can we say, now that we are big children, that this Xmas jingle about Santa coming to town confers a slightly discomforting thought? Who wants to be seen while sleeping? And let's admit, while full of good cheer, as piles of bygone Christmases stack up, that we find the holiday season to be no longer the same bumper-car jumbalorum of joy that it once was.

Do we outgrow the wonder? Can we find it again? Show us a kid on Christmas Eve who doesn't channel all their love, hope and joy in the direction of the all-knowing, roly-poly, Saint Nick. Who, as a child, isn't lost in the Lapland of their Christmas dreams or, alternatively, can't be coerced by the threat that you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout ... but be good, for goodness sake?

Goodwill to All

Today, we find our fondest memories of Christmas past are slippery and elusive, untrustworthy even - just like the memory of a carefully packed Ryoanji medallion.

To be honest the manger nativity birth-of-little-Jesus version of Christmas never really resonated with us. The images of cattle lowing, shepherds or even wise men did not enthrall. Personally, the Saint Nick version of Christmas always carried more magical weight than the nativity. Santa bestowed a spirit of generosity, of giving, and good will toward all. I still like to place Santa at the centre of my nativity scene (Jesus is there too) and surround him with plastic dinosaurs, knights and Corgi cars.

When I was last in Bethlehem you could not buy a wooden Santa, sleighs or reindeer - only angels and mangers, and chubby little Jesus's carved from branches of olive trees from near Gethsemane.

Which is a shame. Because at Christmas who cannot imagine iconic Rudolph, lightbulb nose in the air, his icy reindeer breath billowing atop the snowy shingles? We listened under the warm blankets, so still, for the stealth sound of Santa negotiating our chimney, magically sliding past the crematorium of the gas furnace, to leave large boxes under the glittering tree. Oh yes, we were far too wired for sleep. It was Christmas Eve and our hearts were luminous.

But consider this warning: "He knows if you've been bad or good. He knows when you're awake."

Let's not belabour bad or good. You have a conscience of your own. But being awake is a prerequisite for no-mind satori. And I imagine that state to be a place where tigers worship flying lords a-leaping, where no smoky breath can disturb the deepest dust that lies buried therein. I imagine it is where all the peace, calm and serenity in every person of every nook of Earth is mustered and illumined, trumpeted and glorified; where we can bathe in clean rainforests festooned by snow pillars, where we are serenaded by ice wolves who howl across crackling firelight blizzards. And I imagine this is a place where we may raise a glass to toast the thunderclaps, and fill our cup to the brim with love; where we find flashes of fat-bellied mirth as our cockles warm under the ridge of the pipe and the blankets of the sleigh, bells jingling as we are drawn forward, accepting, hopeful, surrounded by gay lumberjacks named Spruce.

 

                                                     ll

Perhaps, though, you are the sort of Christmas celebrant for whom neither satori nor Zen nor even Santa will keep your toddy hot. Let's say you are moved by the traditional birth-story, the shepherds and manger.

If so, then let us offer the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. It is a fine little midwinter yarn that was consigned to the Apocrypha, discarded long ago by church leaders because it was insufficiently contemporaneous and too finely graphic and literary to be Biblical.

What happened is Joseph ended up with Mary after taking a pass on five other virgins: Rebecca, Sephora, Susanna, Abigea, and Cael. The Pseudo-Matthew version of the birth narrative reports: "they cast lots among themselves what each virgin should do, and the purple for the veil of the temple of the Lord fell to the lot of Mary." One thing begat another, as they say, and later (omitting some details in the interest of brevity) en route to Bethlehem to answer the census, an angel appeared and the expectant Mary was guided to refuge in a dark cave. The birth was entirely impressive: "The light from God so shone in the cave, that neither by day nor night was light wanting as long as the blessed Mary was there. And there she brought forth a son, and the angels surrounded Him when He was being born. And as soon as He was born, He stood upon His feet, and the angels adored Him, saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good pleasure."

Joseph wasn't present for the actual birth though. According to this version of things, he took off to find a couple of midwives. But shepherds saw angels and there was a Big Star – bigger than any seen before.

Gold, frankincense, myrrh

 

The manger thing happened on Day 3: "And on the third day after the birth ... the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib. The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him."

A few more things happened on the third fourth fifth and sixth days after the birth and then something a bit nasty happened to Jesus on the eighth day. And then, jumping to the second year: "Magi came from the east to Jerusalem, bringing great gifts … one gave gold, another frankincense, and the third myrrh."

Merry Christmas

 

Later, as Mary, Joseph and young Jesus fled to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, they stopped by a cave to rest: "And, lo, suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons; and when the children saw them, they cried out in great terror. Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired."

Pseudo-Matthew goes on, with much emphasis on adoration and the earthly beastiary: "Lions and panthers adored Him likewise, and accompanied them in the desert. Wherever Joseph and the blessed Mary went, they went before them showing them the way, and bowing their heads; and showing their submission by wagging their tails, they adored Him with great reverence. And Wolves shall feed with lambs; the lion and the ox shall eat straw together."

 

With this in mind let's eat turkey together with stuffing, and plum pudding together with gratitude, and lace it all with acceptance as we muddle through another holiday while tinkling the keys to the tune of the Zen Christmas Blues, which this year ends with the traditional appeal to each of you Dear Friends ... "Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night."

 

(Top Image: Zen Christmas Blues by David Roberts w/c on a card; Inside image: Starry Night by David Roberts w/c on a card)


 

Monday
Nov192012

The Fakir of Wolseley

It was once upon awhile at 7 a.m. on May 15 1919 that the anarchist barbarian Bolshevist rogue was nabbed in the act of deflating bicycle tires and opening the diaper flaps of idling dray horses while posing as a monk.

 

The upshot was that quite a bit of crap goosed and smothered the leafy arteries of Winnipeg's Wolseley neighbourhood in that historic time.

The barbarian-poser-monk was caught in the general area where the Westminster Tot Lot and the Organic Planet Worker Co-op exist today but for reasons of national security we are unable to be more precise, or even to disclose how we came on this info.

Suffice to say the rogue Bolshie-barb claimed complete innocence, pleaded for mercy and said he was simply going door-to-door canvassing for alms. But really, there was little doubt in the minds of most that he was a disturber of gumbo-quality excrement. And besides, no one there at the time had even heard of alms.

He was caught when an observant Wolseley gardener, peering from behind her cannabis and rhododendron bushes, saw that the Rasputin-like sneak had the only wheels with air. And she smelled a horse-dung vapour trail mere footsteps behind wherever he trod. The Bolshie-rogue poser also was wearing that weird purple robe you see on monks today when they stand together in unity with President Barack Obama in Myanmar, which was then Burmese territory of British India and Obama was not yet elected even for the first time.

 

Anyway the purple robe was a dead giveaway, when you really stop and think about it.

And so folks of course knew intuitively that the anarchist-rogue was a ne'er-do-well. And when he made the mistake of rapping on the ornate oak door of the home of Charles Frederick Gray the jig was sauced. "Begging for arms? I'll show you arms!" Gray poncified, as he also happened to be the city's mayor. And so C.F. Gray called the fire brigade. (Or there was something going on between third parties and the mayor and fire brigade.) But C.F. Gray ended up reading the Riot Act, and one thing led to another and the good people of Wolseley certainly gave poser-nose barbarous Bolshie-man all the alms he could beg for alright. They tied that rogue-culprit-monk to a wide Wolseley elm so that he could contemplate through the day the suffering they would later inflict on him.

Now it remained early in the a.m., remember, and so off was the direction in which most of the Woleseyites fucked, as they went to work and arrived against the granularity of others who were not working that day, it being the apex of a general strike. Still, they huddled together and pondered what to do with the rogue-alien smell-bad man. "Look at the hook on that Bolshie - he's one of those foreign fakirs," suggested the mayor. "For certain this is the son of a father-fakir and mother-fakir," agreed the educated water-cooler crowd around city hall. And they got whipped into a bit of a froth over the whole thing. "The eyes. Rather like those of the football club manager," said one frother. "He likely does capital markets business at Deutsche Bank," whispered another.

An aperitif; Winkler sausage


So on and so forth, back and fro-to. Until finally the good folk of Wolseley decided the best course would be to throw rogue-bad smell mother-fakir into the Assiniboine River after they got home from work, had an aperitif, dinner, and laid on every bone a good beating. This was justified seeing as how Mr. poser-rogue hook-mother was probably from the North End, anyway.

But it was precisely at this juncture in the day – high noon - that the local ice wagon driver (who sold harpitars, Fuller brush and Avon products, Singer sewing machines, Colliers Encyclopediae, MSG-free Winkler sausage and vacuum prototypes as well as ice blocks) was driving his cool wagon along the Wolseley rues and vards. The ice-vendor saw the misbegotten poser-rogue tied to the tree and quizzified him.

"So what's on you mother-fakir? You feel me? Why are you tied to this tree?"

(The iceman-Fuller etc incidentally wore a strawberry-hued cap with a vacuum cleaner advert that said: Filter Queen Sure Sucks. And we can say here and now that he was not the sharpest sword in the celestial armoury.)

"Ah, some men have put me here because I won't accept their money," explained mother-rogue monk-poser think-ahead sneak.

"What do you mean, you won't take their money? And why do they want to give it to you?" asked ice-man-Fuller-feely man, his eyes narrowing.

"Can you not see from my Obama-appealing robe that I am a contemplative? They are trying to corrupt me. Godless bunch these Wolseleys."

"I feel you," said iceman, who had a suggestion and a plan. And so he unbound the barbie-fakir from the tree and they changed places.

Later, following an aperitif, dinner, and a few digestifs, the crowd gathered beneath the phattest neighbourhood elm for an early evening beating and river-tossing. They put a sack over the head of the Fuller-ice-sausage-feely guy. Down to the riverbank among the scrub-oak branches which rose all scraggly like the arms of the crucified, they dragged their victim.

 

And together they tossed him into the Assiniboine.

Now in 1919 the Assiniboine River was at its highest and swiftest since 1883 when everything got disrupted by Krakatoa, the sky turned a queezy purple, and Charles F. Gray's second cousin Marvin strangled the six starlings. So ice-man drowned.

The day followed the night and Wolseleyites were amazed to see the rogue-nosed barbarian-mother enter their hood on an ice-wagon with all of this Avon-Fuller vacuum paraphernalia dangling out all jingly-jangly.

"Where have you been and where did you get that MSG-free Winkler sausage?" they asked.

"In the Assiniboine are kindly spirits who reward all who jump in and 'drown' in this manner," said the rogue, taking a swig of bottled Avon-water.

In almost less time than it takes to tell, all of Wolseley dashed to the Assiniboine and leaped in.

And this was how the anarchist-barbie son-of-a-mother-fakir took over Wolseley.

 

(Top Image: Man With Blue Thoughts 14x11 w/c, by David Roberts; Inside image: Sea and Stone 12X16 w/c India Ink by David Roberts)

Wednesday
Nov072012

A Seriously Happy Man

The world's happiest man is Matthieu Ricard, a 66-year-old Tibetan monk and geneticist.

We have no word on the world’s happiest woman. If you know her, grateful that you might tell us, so we may name her here.

But the discovery that the world’s happiest man is a Buddhist monk is a broad and roomy thing. We're intrigued by the enormity of the questions raised by this finding and feel compelled to stab at answering some of them, however tentatively.

What happened is that neuroscientist Richard Davidson wired up Matthieu Ricard's skull with 256 sensors to measure the monk’s meditative brain activity. This was part of a larger experiment where scientists scanned the brain waves of several Buddhist monks as the monks meditated.

Here’s how the Agence France Presse reported things:

"The scans showed that when meditating on compassion Ricard's brain produced a level of gamma waves - those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory – ‘never reported before in the neuroscience literature,’ Davidson said.

"The scans also showed excessive activity in Ricard’s left prefrontal cortex compared to the right, giving him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity."

Limited happiness

Sorry, can we disrupt this trainwreck of a thought? Don't you wonder what's meant when they say someone has "an abnormally large capacity" for happiness? One may suppose that if you were an inmate at Turkey’s Diyarbarkir Prison in the 1980s and were about to be immersed in the ritual excrement bath before having your genitals savaged by the warden’s specially-trained German Shepherd, your capacity for happiness, no matter how abnormally large, would be feeling a bit shriveled.

But to suggest our capacity for happiness is to be inferred by wave activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, is absurd. This is why so much of neuroscience seems like reductionist junk and quackery.

Let me say clearly: there can be no limit to human happiness.

"When meditating on compassion" – this is another phrase in the news story about Matthieu Ricard that piques my curiosity. I’m left to conclude that this likely refers to the Theravada practice of Mettā, which is the cultivation of loving-kindness. You receive suffering, you send happiness.

Mindfield

And I wonder what is meant by gamma waves being "linked to consciousness…" How are they linked and what is meant by consciousness in this context, exactly? This is such a mine field, I almost typed "mindfield".

Someone once said consciousness is like the Trinity; if it is explained so that you understand it, it hasn't been explained correctly. In the case of neuroscience it seems consciousness means any state other than being asleep, comatose or dead. A pretty low standard, wouldn’t you say? Consciousness is a slippery thing, but other definitions at least imply a level of intentionality. As psychologist George Miller said 40 years ago it’s a term that covers everything from phenomenalism to panpsychism: "'Consciousness' is a word worn smooth by a million tongues. Depending upon the figure of speech chosen it is a state of being, a substance, a process, a place, an epiphenomenon, an emergent aspect of matter, or the only true reality."

Now in the AFP story, Ricard says that meditating is like lifting weights or exercising for the mind.  He said anyone can be happy by simply training their brain.

"Try sincerely to check, to investigate," Ricard said. "That’s what Buddhism has been trying to unravel — the mechanism of happiness and suffering. It is a science of the mind."

"It's a wonderful area of research because it shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are," the monk told AFP.

These are fascinating statements, begging to be deciphered: anyone can be a seriously happy man. I wondered about the interchangeability of brain and mind in Ricard’s usage but then realized that for him (unlike the neuroscientists) consciousness is not seated in the brain. Although consciousness can be apprehended by mind – no mind. In other words, as soon as you think you have it, you don’t. Consciousness vibrates with infinite energy, everywhere. Consciousness infuses all. And what the scientists measure is not consciousness. What they measure are brain waves.

Ricard, incidentally, grew up among the Paris intellectual elite as the son of celebrated French libertarian philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and abstract watercolor painter Yahne Le Toumelin. So I’m predisposed to like the guy. A prominent monk in Kathmandu's Shechen Monastery, Ricard divides his time between isolated meditation, scientific research and accompanying the Dalai Lama on trips to French-speaking countries. Plus, he has written a book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill which I have not read and so cannot properly recommend.

 

I am very grateful to Matthieu Ricard for submitting to a brain scan and for leaving me to ponder again the nature of happiness. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe we can think our way to happiness. Happiness is an experience not an idea. Winds of consciousness may billow the sails of our mind but the winds are not summoned by the power of intellect.

It has a lot to do with intention. Let us observe, though, that happiness is not the exclusive domain of Buddhists, who are killing and terrorizing Muslims in Myanmar at the moment, expressing ethnic intolerance – some of which is being instigated by those in maroon. No happiness there.

But, I defer to the Buddhists who have it right in the mathematical sense that I am a new person, recreated in each moment. So there is no self to fix on, and what makes me happy now may not make me happy later. My happiness, if it is to endure even for an instant, cannot be attached to anything. Only by virtue of intention and detachment do I experience the ever-present happiness which permeates everything and which is available to us all – in limitless supply.

It is in doing nothing that I see everything is done.

(Top Image: A Seriously Happy Man 11x15 watercolour by David Roberts; Bagan 15x11 watercolour by David Roberts; Rangoon Colonial 15x11 watercolour by David Roberts.)

 

Friday
Oct122012

Objets Trouvés

 

What on earth is everyone looking for? Cooking recipes? God? Snow tires? Love? Big questions. I'll suggest not all these things can be found online. Whatever you are looking for, you must not have it or you wouldn't be looking.

 

Here's some news: humans have a rapacious appetite for online information but fewer are looking now than were looking a year ago. A big shift has occurred in the digital space, a development that offers a foreshadowing of what's next. Core organic searches across the Internet dipped four percent year over year, representing the first decline in total search volume since such data was first collected in 2006.


Novelty and serendipity

This dip in organic search queries demonstrates a remarkable movement away from our use of desktop platforms to mobile apps. And lazy, but naturally curious beings that we are, we allow some of these smart and beautiful mobile apps – Prismatic comes to mind – to do our searching for us, via algorithm, based on our interests. I love Prismatic, by the way, for it's smartness of form and function, for its consistent relevance, and for its continuous provision of novelty and serendipity. It's the general interest magazine of the future, customized to my idiosyncrasies.

 

Marengo

Google though, which answers more than a billion search queries daily, remains my workhorse. When I want to know the population of Ouagadougou, who played the mellotron on King Crimson's album Lizard, the action of a prehending monad in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, the route of the Austrian advance in the Battle of Marengo, or why I am hardwired to deceive, I consult Google, Google scholar, Google blogs and G+ where the returns are consistently useful, multiplicitous and give me some confidence in their accuracy – although not entirely - and this is an important issue for another day.

 

When I want to have fun, indulge, goof off, or just enjoy the many varieties of driftwood and objets trouvés the digital ocean delivers to my little stretch of beach, I use Prismatic.

 

Does the shift to mobile mean that search is ultimately a declining business? Should the robots and crawlers of Bing, Dogpile, 你就知道 or Mamma.com put down tools?

 

A decline in overall organic search requests could simply mean that four percent of humans who were looking for something a year ago have found what they were looking for. And so they have consequently stopped searching. Or maybe they are still looking but with reified technology at their disposal.

 

Here and there

Most people, it seems, are just searching for Justin Bieber anyway. And that is fact which, in itself, says much about a lot. If you reside in Aleppo, or Mogadishu, or if you are a native of Burundi or Burkina Faso with low internet penetration, or your income is akin to the average Bangladeshi, then you likely have neither time nor inclination to search for much of anything beyond the next meal.

 

For the rest and blessed of us, if we are looking for insight into digital democracy we go here. If we want to see how the 10 best skies in art relate to the Wine of Silence we can read that here. If we crave an unusual restaurant serving two-headed fish we will find a link at the bottom of this thing, here. And if we want to know something about the Higgs Boson, coon hunting, or how it feels to be taken in the rapture, then go here.

 

But what if we are looking for something still deeper? The hero pursues his quest, ultimately, for no reason other than to realize his destiny. What if we want real answers to serious questions? Where do we find enduring happiness and meaning? Who are we, with the wind blowing on our face? Where do we go when its time to engage the luminous in the eye? This is when we put the iPhone in our pocket, power down the desktop or laptop, pat the dog, count our blessings, hug our beloved and find that all we seek is already found.

 

(Top Image: Objet Trouvé (Found Object) 11x15 watercolours and India Ink by David Roberts

Lower Image: Nothing Exists Alone 24x18 watercolours by David Roberts)