listen:there’s a hell
of a good universe next door;let’s go
I am looking here for solid visual aids and powerful emotive stimuli to help my subconscious along in its attempts to accept the idea that there are many universes, and that those many universes may in fact all be overlapping, occupying the same space; that it's not immense speed that we need in order to visit other streams of reality, it's simply a more masterful application of our visual capabilities, of our awareness. My conscious mind accepts the new physics. Greedily. Now I must train the rest of me.
This is a record of that search, and also a record of my own attempt to create doorways out of walls, and windows out of mountains. Following that visual theme, I'll start with a story borrowed fromThe Holographic Universe, by Michael Talbot, in which he relates an experience with a hypnotist his father had hired to entertain some friends at his house. The hypnotist performed a variety of the usual tricks with his subject, a friend of the author's father, named Tom:
“But the highlight of the evening was when he told Tom that when he came out of trance, his teenage daughter, Laura, would be completely invisible to him. Then, after having Laura stand directly in front of the chair in which Tom was sitting, the hypnotists awakened him and asked him if he could see her.
“Tom looked around the room and his gaze appeared to pass right through his giggling daughter. 'No,' he replied. The hypnotist asked Tom if he was certain, and again, despite Laura's rising giggles, he answered no. Then the hypnotist went behind Laura so he was hidden from Tom's view and pulled an object out of his pocket. He kept the object carefully concealed so that no one in the room could see it, and pressed it against the small of Laura's back. He asked Tom to identify the object. Tom leaned forward as if staring directly through Laura's stomach and said that it was a watch. The hypnotist nodded and asked if Tom could read the watch's inscription. Tom squinted as if struggling to make out the writing and recited both the name of the watch's owner (which happened to be a person unknown to any of us in the room) and the message. The hypnotist then revealed that the object was indeed a watch and passed it around the room so that everyone could see that Tom had read its inscription correctly.
“When I talked to Tom afterward, he said that his daughter had been absolutely invisible to him. All he had seen was the hypnotist standing and holding a watch cupped in the palm of his hand. Had the hypnotist let him leave without telling him what was going on, he never would have known he wasn't perceiving normal consensus reality.” (141)
That's what I mean when I say I want to make doorways out of walls.
Think of Wonderland
The part of the puzzle I feel is represented by the chess board, if I follow the imagery of Alice in Wonderland, is the social conditioning that limits what we see. For example, there is the Bartlett Effect. The Bartlett Effect is a major problem when the only evidence you have in investigating a crime is eye-witness testimony, for numerous experiments have shown that several people all present at the same event won't see the same thing. Your average, averagely fearful white suburbanite will tell you that the perpetrator was a tall black man. Thirteen people present at the same bank robbery will all point confidently at someone different in a line up: someone who was in Germany at the time and so couldn't have been there, someone they saw on the news, even one of the other victims. They will point to anyone the police officer next to them seems keen on. Your mind, having bracketed the world into patterns, sees what it expects to see. Worse, if your mind can’t grasp what it sees, it’ll do a little overdubbing--see something it can grasp.
In fact, according to current neuroscience, we actually “see” very little. We take in a bit of information through our eyes, and our brain fills in the rest based on memory, on what we expect to see. The breakdown can be somewhere close to 50/50: fifty percent of what we think we're seeing is in fact only what we're expecting to see based on a combination of what we've seen before and our inherited cultural expectations. (And then, a lot of what we've seen before was already based on those inherited cultural expectations...)
Now, if all that's true, then all kinds of amazing, impossible things could be happening right in front of us all the time, and we just don't see them. Right?
From: Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini
"Discover for yourself, reader, such wonders as the purple-caged citrus, the spider-web flower, the parfait protea, and the ladder weed. This is a world inhabited by weird half-sentient flora such as the tadpole tree and the meteor-fruit, by the lacy flying-saucer fish, the wheeled caterpillar-rumped horse, and the metamorphic bicranial rhino. The planet’s sentient species are here as well—races like the Garbage-Dwellers, the Road-Traffic and the Yarn People, and the exotic Rodent-Skin Wearers… Nor can we forget to mention the Homo-Saurians, whose unusual sexual life-cycle is graphically described." (From the inside jacket of the Codex Seraphinianus)
In 1940, Jorge Luis Borges wrote Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a fascinating account of the accidental discovery of an irregular addition to volume XLVI of a set of encyclopedias. The addition described the language, arts, geography, and history of an otherwise seemingly non-existent country, Uqbar, and its discovery left its two readers completely flummoxed. After a passage of time, the narrator happened upon another odd text, this time an entire volume which seems to have no twin in the world, and this time the entire book was devoted to the description of a planet, Tlön. He tells us:
"Two years before I had discovered, in a volume of a certain pirated encyclopedia, a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody." (translation source)
From: Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini
He goes on to describe some of the characteristics of this planet, for example the languages of the northern hemisphere, which are based almost entirely on adjectives. They do not call summer "summer," they bring together all the sensations as adjectives which would make up summer: wilting and streaming and vivid and hot; baking and underside of eyelids-tinted-red; inability to move, excessive sleep. Etcetera. A thing is not a thing, it is a collection of sensations which (on Earth) have gathered together under the name--in this case-- summer, which, after time, loses pretty much all of its meaning except for the most basic and lacking in poetry. The word conjures up nothing, unless, perhaps, you are a child looking forward to the school hiatus. And, in fact, on this other planet, Tlön, an entire poem can be considered, thus, one word--a seemingly endless string of associations which the poet has brought together to "show" you the word.
From: Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini
In a postscript to the story, the narrator explains that new information has come to light, clarifying some of the mysteries surrounding the planet Tlön. A written confession has been discovered, detailing the existence of a secret society through several generations which sought to prove to a, in their eyes, "nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world." In a creepy turn of events, objects begin to appear which corroborate the actual existence of the planet, the first such object a compass with Tlön script on its metal case. Such intrusions of fantasy into the real world escalate until finally, the history of Tlön is being taught in the schools, Earth's science and archeology--its memories-- are being pushed aside for their Tlön counterparts, and the children are being taught to speak the language of Tlön. The story becomes a completely peaceful takeover of the planet Earth by a non-existent alien race.
From: Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini
In 1976, Italian artist Luigi Serafini began work on just such a project--though I make no claims as to his hopes for a takeover of the planet. It is a masterfully illustrated encyclopedia of an unknown planet, with each illustration described, detailed, and explained in an unrecognizable alphabet. The alphabet has defied the attempts, so far, of linguists to break its code, even though a Rosetta Stone is given in the book--to another unknown language. According to Wikipedia, "Serafini has stated that the script of the Codex is asemic, and that his experience in writing it was closely similar to automatic writing." Though the writing has yet to be deciphered, many studies of it have been made. Here follows, for example, a brief analysis:
"Which brings us back to the writing system. (I'm only discussing words written in majuscules here -- titles of chapters, sections, subsections and paragraphs, for the most part.) Several dozen different characters appear in them, far too many for the writing system to be an alphabet, and there are too many long words for it to be a syllabary. Some characters occur very many times, others only once or twice.
What is even more striking, however, is the tendency of the characters, even the less frequent ones, to reoccur within the same word or group of words (e.g., within the titles of the various subsections and paragraphs in a section). If a character occurs in a word at all, there's a good chance that it occurs there at least twice -- perhaps thrice in a row (which is next to unseen in any sort of phonetic writing system), up to six times altogether. It is as if the headers of most pages in an English book were such words as bookkeeper, googol, grammar, Ouagadougou and Wassamassaw. "
The numbering system has been deciphered--meaning, it is an actual working system, though completely foreign to us. It is explained fully on the same webpage, with a few added notes: "Telefol counting starts with the fingers of the left hand (1 being the pinky), progresses from the thumb (5) to the wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm and shoulder (6--10), the side of the neck, ear and eye (11--13) and thence through the nose (14) and right eye (15) to the right pinky finger (27). The Telefol idea of a very large number is kakkat=14*27=378. "
And who is to say that Tlön is not actually a planet which exists as a fine microfilm overlaying (or underlaying) the fine microfilm of existence we have come to perceive as earth by ascribing to the linguistic system and cultural history that we do, and by seeing the monuments and everyday objects that we have all agreed to see, and then by not seeing the ones of Tlön--not until someone, someone like Luigi Serafini, or someone like Borges, or some fabulous painter that paints in such a way that we look twice at his painting, thinking, wait--is that real?
Sidewalk chalk art by Julian Beever in progress. The beer to the left is also not"real".
And then we look into it, we begin to study the painting or the text, our mind begins to accept certain things, and suddenly small items from that other planet become visible to us; we notice a narrow doorway down the street from our office--which we walk by every day--and discover it leads into a special kind of shop in which things are sold which we did not know were possible? Suddenly, we wake up, and we can send a written message to our friend on the other side of the world, and he can see it as we type, and is that really not telepathy? Really?
What if places like Stonehenge, or suddenly-appearing crop circles, or tales of parting seas are all moments where the two films pressed together for a moment, and there was the opportunity to cross over, and it was taken by some? And then the films parted again, and we have no idea who is among us and how they will change what we perceive about the world.
So, back to the party trick of the hypnotist referenced above. The trick of convincing someone they will not see something is an easily-repeatable experiment with hypnosis, called negative hallucination. You can also convince someone he will not smell ammonia, and then pass it under his nose and watch him take a deep breath. What is amazing about that is, none of the body experiences the deep inhalation of ammonia--which normally would burn your nosehairs, cause your eyes to tear, and be generally extremely unpleasant. Not smelling it is not something you can fake. But if you believe the ammonia is not in your world, it doesn't matter if someone is waving it under your nose. (Now, apply that thought to weapons of mass destruction. Why do we keep imagining into existence such hideous objects?)
Other, non-hypnosis-related experiments have been performed repeatedly, showing that it does not take a man with a flashing watch, haunting voice, and mesmerizing eyes to control our perception. It is controlled subconsciously by those cultural agreements we have all tacitly made--we'll come back to how and when in a moment. First, I would like to point out that the author of the Codex Seraphinianus is still very much alive. Meaning, we could have a full translation and explanation any day now. But I don't think we will.
From: Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini
As I had mentioned before, the work has been studied and then studied some more, in universities and journals and the confused minds of those who have stumbled upon it in bookstores. Still, the language remains unbroken. According to Shelley Jackson, author of Patchwork Girl,
"It’s important that it bothers you with the feeling that there is some content that you ought to be able to extract from it in a normal discursive kind of way. It’s meant to appeal to the rational or exegetical urge. It wants to be interpreted but it won’t let you, and it’s very interesting the way it teasingly asks to be read and then refuses. You could see this as a really really elaborate inkblot. It’s never going to completely yield to you in the sense of giving you insight into the artist’s intentions, so it kind of reverts you back on yourself and makes you notice what you’re noticing and notice the associations that you make. It’s a kind of springboard for your own creative musings.”
And I think that's key: your own creative musings. Keep that in mind for a minute.
Several years ago, there was an experiment run at Harvard by a psychologist named Daniel Simmons. He showed the test subjects a video of groups of guys in black shirts and white shirts, tossing basketballs back and forth to each other on a court. He told the subjects to count the number of times a basketball got passed between the guys in white shirts. Halfway through the video, a gorilla-suited woman walked across the basketball court, and hardly anyone noticed. Why?Because they'd already been told what the important information was. How do you miss a gorilla? By working from a framework that causes your subconscious to discard the presence of the gorilla as unimportant information, before its presence even registers in your subconscious. And this experiment has been repeated many times, in various places, with the same results.
The importance of exposing yourself to as many outlandish and impossible modes of thinking as possible, and as often as possible, in order to erase more and more of the boundaries and limitations on your own system of thought, and thus your own ability to see all the gorillas that might be passing in front of you, can not be underscored enough.
The Agreements We've Made
We know that the world is teeming with atoms, that in each sliver of each nail curving over the tip of a finger, we carry thousands of atoms. The air around us is not empty; it is packed with jostling objects. Probably, when we are born, we can see all of them. I imagine it takes us days and then weeks and months to learn to ignore certain atoms and group together others, coming to see them as one object as opposed to many. What I'm saying is, we learn what to see and what to ignore. I think that the other thing we develop in those first few years is a latent image, a picture that symbolizes what we come to call the world. An image which defines not just what'svisible, but what's possible.
Lullaby of Uncle Magritte, by Michael Cheval
In the book Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami writes about just such an image. He divides the book into alternate chapters, the first set being about a young man navigating a mysterious world of scientific intrigue, conspiracy, and personal danger, and the second set describing that young man's experiences in a seemingly idyllic but very isolated community. The community is surrounded by a high wall, to which the gatekeeper holds the only key. Beautiful, golden-furred unicorns are let out to the fields beyond the wall every day and brought in to sleep every night. As winter descends upon the population, the beautiful horses lose their vibrant color and begin to drop from starvation and cold. There are some hard, fast rules to living in this community--which one is not permitted to leave--, rules which especially include doing the job assigned to you when you arrive and minding your own business. In these rules, one begins to see the connection between the alternating chapters, the thread that holds the two seemingly unconnected stories together.
(at right:"Anna", by Michael Cheval)
There is, of course, a lot more going on in the story, but this is the part I want to think about here: the strange, isolated locale is his latent image; it's how he defines the world. The existence of the place, how he got there, the larger meaning of why he's there, the reason he can't leave and the particular job he's been assigned, these things all just are; there's no real explanation for any of it, none of it makes too much sense, things just are a certain way, and you don't question them. When, in his "other life," he passes a stranger on the street who might need help or who might be trying to get his attention, he tells himself: none of your business. He has no lasting relationships, mostly visits prostitutes, lives alone. He does his job because it's his job--he doesn't even understand the larger purpose of that job, mainly because he doesn't ask about it. All of his behaviors in the world of scientific intrigue, the "waking" world, are explained by the slow, quiet chapters set in that idyllic community. Because of this image he carries, because of that view of the world, his options in life are severely limited, and are, at the time of the story, about to come to an end altogether.
Now, all of the above limitations sound very extreme, but really, they are not. Stop to think for a moment about why you go to work every day, why you go to a particular grocery store, why you speak to some people but ignore others. Mostly, people go through life without questioning much of anything. What do we notice most about children? Their insistent: why?--which we find unreasonable, unrelenting...
In the story, the golden unicorns are the beasts of the earth who carry the suffering and the weight of our sins. Each year, with the coming of winter, they die slowly and miserably, and each year in the spring they are somehow replenished. This (death and resurrection) is a motif present in every single manmade myth I can think of. This is a motif that explains for him, satisfactorily at first, why some people suffer and others don't. As the story progresses, he begins to realize that the unicorns exist because he asks no questions, because he chooses, in essence, not to care about the people around him. Because he isolates himself, because every aspect of his world is a discrete, unconnected bit in its place which has nothing to do with anything else. He slowly begins to feel responsibility for those creatures, for the stories, dreams and memories (the untold stories, dreams and memories of those around him which needed somewhere to go, somewhere to be held) that they carry with them--in the bones of their skulls--to their graves.
As the narrator discovers the stories held in the skulls of these beautiful beasts, he also discovers love. Love comes to him at first as a simple curiosity: who is this woman working next to me? What makes her so silent, and what would make her laugh instead? He wonders. Love is wonder.
That simple curiosity changes a main attribute of his latent image. He no longer feels bound by the rules and idiosyncrasies of that strange, isolated landscape and its brutish gate-keeper. He begins looking, not for an escape for himself, but for the story of this woman who has changed the way he views the world: the story she has somehow lost, a loss which haunts her, which binds her to the place. He begins to care more about what another needs than what he himself simply wants--or rather, expects to want. As a result, his life in the outside (scientific, waking) world begins to change.
At the end of the novel, it is not clear what will happen; it is only clear that things have changed drastically, and with those drastic changes comes the possibility of an entirely new life, instead of that End of the World which had been hovering above his head throughout the novel.
And now we come to the point of all this here.
(Right:Terra Incognita, by Michael Cheval)
This is art; this is why we paint, why we tell stories: to expand the possibilities of the image we live in, to make more things visible, thus making them possible. To create and explore the feeling of wonder. Art comes out of dissatisfaction, out of some desperation to change what we see around us and the ways in which what we see limits us. Art comes out of hope for something else. It is a form of magic, but it is a totally logical magic. Because, returning to the science of the invisible gorilla, the invisible daughter, and the man you just saw rob a bank who isn't even in the country, what we see is not all that's in front of us; it's simply what we have chosen out of all that's in front of us. It is what we've chosen to believe, what we permit ourselves to see. Art is a refusal of limitations, it is an exploration into the absurd, into absurdities which through familiarity become normal, not only possible but plausible, not only plausible but mundane.
(Left: Heritage of the Future, by Michael Cheval)
In these paintings by Michael Cheval's, for example, we see moments of time colliding; threads from one world seeping into another as a path you might follow to change life story-lines; life on its stage with the fine strings controlling our actions caught, momentarily, like a photo somehow capturing the hand of God. He paints using the language of dreams, juxtaposing things that "shouldn't" exist together in an often otherwise realistic style, making it easier to accept.
Art of Diplomacy II, by Michael Cheval
Changing Your Mind
What am I saying? That you look at one of the above paintings for long enough, and you will begin to see wild animals escaping from pillars? Sure.
In her book,The Intention Experiment, Lynn McTaggart describes several experiments which show, basically, just that:
"In 1961, Neal Miller, a behavioral neuroscientist at Yale University, first proposed that people can be taught to mentally influence their autonomic nervous system and control mechanisms such as blood pressure and bowel movements, much as a child learns to ride a bicycle. He conducted a series of remarkable conditioning-and-reward experiments on rats. Miller discovered that if he stimulated the pleasure center in the brain, his rats could be trained to decrease their heart rate at will, control the rate at which urine filled their kidneys, even create different dilations in the blood vessels of each ear.
Hypnosis is also a type of intention--an instruction to the brain during an altered state. Hypnotists continually demonstrate that the brain or body is susceptible to the power of directed thought [and that directed thought is most powerful when presented in image form, as opposed to word form].
One dramatic example of the power of mental suggestion concerned a small group of people with a mysterious congenital illness called ichthyosiform erythroderma, known disparagingly as fish-skin disease because unsightly fish-like scales cover most of the body. In one study, five patients were hypnotized and told to focus on a part of their body and visualize the skin becoming normal. Within just a few weeks, 80 percent of each patient's body had completely healed. The skin remained smooth and clear.
Through hypnotic intention, spinal-surgery patients about to undergo their operations have reduced blood loss by nearly half, simply by directing their blood supply away from the site of the surgery. Pregnant women have been able to turn their babies from breech positions, burn victims have sped up their healing, and people suffering hemorrhages in the gastrointestinal tract have willed their bleeding to stop. Clearly, during an altered state, roughly corresponding to the hyperalert state of intense meditation, conscious thought can convince the body to endure pain, cure many serious diseases, and change virtually any condition."
Consensual Reality is just that--consensual. On some level of our being, a level which is, believe it or not, accessible to us, we are agreeing to whatever horrible circumstance we happen to be experiencing right now. This is not an issue of blame: it is difficult to reach that place, and we have been heavily, heavily trained (punished, rewarded) to stay very far away from it. We have been told that that itself is impossible. It is not.
And if I can turn fish scales into smooth, beautiful skin by putting my mind in that place, then what's a horse coming out of a pillar?
So, aside from hypnosis, how do we get to that limiting image of the universe we carry around in our minds from such a young age? Dreams. Notice how like life dreams are: You accept where you are without comment, it makes sense that everything is against you, or that you are back in school, studying for an exam that will take place in five minutes for some class that you have forgotten you were even enrolled in until just now. You accept the sense of personal history that comes with where you are right now. You accept the rules that govern your interactions with others, and you accept that though you might try to change them, they are outside of your control.
Say you have a dream where you are trying to get somewhere, but everything on the planet seems to be intent on interfering. You have trouble walking, you keep getting phone calls, your car won't start, there's traffic, the crowds at the airport are unmanageable, your confirmed seat has been given away, the plane left early. This dream is the type of latent image I've been talking about here: it is a metaphor for a belief system, for the belief that you'll never get to your goal, because the world is against you (or something similar). After a dream like this, you might use a visualization technique in which you re-enter the imagery and experience of the dream, using all your senses (hearing, smelling, touching, etc), and unravel each problem. Traffic looks insane, but as you're approaching the knot, a policeman appears and quickly alleviates the situation, creating an opening that clears the scene almost instantly. Your seat's been given away, but at the last minute, someone else cancels, or a clerical error is discovered which opens up a seat for you. The pilot realizes he forgot his lunch and taxis back to his parking spot, where you get on. The point is not that each action which unravels the problem make sense; in fact, it probably won't, because it's the very absurdity of the new act which lets you know that the possibilities available in your world view (and waking life) are being expanded.
Painter Michael Cheval defines absurdity as a "“game of the imagination, where all ties are carefully chosen to construct a literary plot.” A plot he himself has created. An intentional plot.
Lethebasher describes Cheval's paintings thus: "The shape of a dress or a faucet will become another object, a surreal object, such as a table or a horn instrument; but it will retain the original shape of the dress or the faucet. Such are Cheval’s games of the imagination; we do not always know what we are looking at. The eye must adjust to the picture object-by-object as it simultaneously takes in a new chessboard of reality."
That is to say, instead of instantly recognizing the logic which unites the parts of the painting, one has to investigate, piece by piece, discovering and entering another world as one goes. Objects that one recognizes are shown in at first unrecognizable situations or uses, which after that initial moment make some sort of (absurd) sense. It is an act much like that of rediscovering your own language by redefining it using the method of the northerners of Tlön, taking a word apart into its constituent pieces of memory, association, sensation, emotion--adding to it hopes and frivolous, fantastical ideas... The word expands, re-encompassing image (for, at the bottom of that word, what is really held is an image), deepening that image and adding detail, and so the world you are describing with your words expands.
Cavalier of Flitting Past, by Michael Cheval
You can, after all, see how the connection was made between the wide (isn't it actually absurd in itself?) ruff (collar) and a seashell. And we all know that the seashell carries the sound of the sea...the voices in that sound..the lost souls, the mermaids, the siren calls... Perhaps the man is merely the anthropomorphizing of a sea gull--maybe that explains the aviator cap and goggles, the empty bird cage in his hand the titular "flitting past". Perhaps not...
So: to expand the boundaries of the possible, to begin anew, we must give in to wonder, be curious, explore. We must invest in absurdities, feel and smell the impossible, concentrate on dreams, and perhaps...
simply ignore reality when it interferes...