Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Seeds of the real

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.

(Jacques Prévert)

Airport waiting once more. Been in Paris a week, back a week, flying to Chicago today. I had thoughts of calling off the Paris trip all the way until the moment when I finally stepped on the plane. I found Paris unusually warm for October, but familiarly rainy, dead leaves and all. Every day the difficult negotiation of thoughts and feelings, stepping tiptoe over wounds still laying bare, fumbling for a remnant of scrambled mental processes that once had seemed like a coherent frame. A slowly emerging picture of something still possibly existing, ideas, matching formulae, similarities laying hidden amidst differences as wide as the gaping mouth of Chaos in Hesiodean hexameters. Soaked in rain - so much for it to wash away - I walked the familiar places, tried to see friends, tried to feel purpose and meaning in that all. Through the night I read Giordano Bruno, trying to find meaning there too, a search for something that still elicits a sense of connectedness. Focus, I have learned in the experience of the summer months, is what keeps us, if barely, this side of the line dividing existence from nothingness: the focused thought of a well defined scientific problem, stripped bare of everything that is human, and therefore hurtful, about it. It was a good idea, it now seems, not to have called the trip off: running away is never a valuable strategy.

There is a comforting quality to the process of learning: reading, thinking, understanding, a very basic type of human pleasure. In a case as clean and well defined as a mathematical concept this process is refined to a degree of elegance and essentiality that confers to it a special esthetic beauty. It makes it all the more comforting in its abstraction, like that type of Zen meditation exercises where one concentrates one's full attention on a detail of an image, making it into an abstract entity, while emptying the mind from all the other turmoils that torment it. How to compute the probability distribution in a random matrix model, one step after the other, a relaxing mental exercise, a Zen koan. For this to work, however, one needs to be able to let go, to forget all that seems - that is in fact - so much more important and compelling. With science we are able to comprehend and act upon the course of nature, but what ultimately remains beyond reach is the possibility of changing the nature of human beings. One simply has to learn when to let go, and then free the mind so that it can savor the pleasure of learning and its therapeutic value.

On my last day in Paris, browsing with friends at an open air book fair, I managed to get hold of a numbered copy of Max Ernst's "Journal d'un astronaute millenaire", one of his lesser known but very interesting collage books published in the sixties. I even manage to negotiate a reasonable price. "L'astronaute millenaire" is but one of the surreal visual stories in this collection, along with "Le rire du poetes", "humanae vitae", "l'enfance de l'art", etc. This late work has a very different style from the longer earlier collage stories, like "Une Semaine de Bonté". Those were long and elaborate narratives, with the dream like quality through which the observer's brain provides consistence and perceives deeper level structures at increasingly longer scales in the juxtaposition of incongruous collage elements. By constast, the millenary astronaut collages consist of still frames: the narratives they compose are short and iconic like collections of situational portraits. So masks mask and unmask each other while millenary astronauts predict the eclipses of the galaxies.

et le peintre arraché à ses songes
comme une dent
se retrouve tout seul devant sa toile inachevée
avec au beau milieu de sa vaisselle brisée
les terrifiants pépins de la réalité.

(Jacques Prévert - Promenade de Picasso)

Welcome to the desert of the real
(The Matrix)