Being human, lights, rainbows, & dreams

An essay of sorts. Two exempla (Borges, Iyad El-Baghdadi), comment, a true story, and some poetry. Lots of colourful images: colourful in a good way.

@iyad_elbaghdadi on Twitter:


COMMENTARY

Friday was a weird day, to say the least, for most humans in most places. In my own case there were some additional weirdnesses and perturbations that I don’t want to talk about here but will anyway because I have this odd idea that it might help, it might help me anyway. There is also lots here that’s not about me and is (therefore) more interesting and relevant.

This is a post about becoming more composed and / through composition, about place and displacement, perception and dream-vision, mapping and its impossibilities, and psychogeography.

I was thinking, while talking with people yesterday–because at times like these you need people, company, conversation, community–about what I was happy talking about, what was harder to express (and apologies for being jumbled), and what I couldn’t say or would only say selectively. I was thinking this morning about how that all felt draining. We’re all emotionally overloaded, drained and overwrought, and horrified and so on; in short: emotional. Obviously.

Most obviously we are feeling these things because we’re human. I hope that is also obvious.

Maybe less obviously, people are emotional and exhausted because of where we are and where we’re not. In Ankara or Baghdad or Beirut or Paris or elsewhere. Whether or not we know people there or have been there ourselves.

As with refugees, there’s a turmoil of simultaneous incompatible reactions: the sorrow in sympathy with others, that aching sense of loss. Sympathies get complicated by empathies into a heightened emotive state. An individual and individualistic empathy: feeling immediately raw unmediated, there but for divine providence go I; anxiety that this could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and that includes me and you, here and now or when least expected and out of mind; fears about not succeeding in having a good death at a moment of examining one’s life; and guilt because an individual and individualistic empathy feels selfish.

Guilt, too, by being alive. Suffering, differently from the dead, impossibly differently, is still suffering.

Individual empathy is still selfish, of course it is, but all things “self” are perfectly acceptable parts of being a normal healthy individual person.

Dark sides, light sides, greys, shades, nuances, and lots and lots of colours.

Self, including selfishness, is compatible with all those other parts of being human. Not “parts,” that’s the wrong word: aspects, elements, constituents, maybe. I’m not imagining a whole thing here that’s a simple solid whole made up of block parts of greater or lesser size–from one single part that is itself the whole, to something in segments, a jigsaw, a more open Lego construction to which more blocks can be added. I’m imagining something with fluid outer boundaries, in multiple physical states, with distinct features that may be still or may move around, can change direction and relationship with other features, can flow in and out and through each other, can expand and contract in size, and can coexist in the same physical space.

A cloud-microbiome-ecosystem-constellation self.

Where we are and where we’re not: something else to consider is how it is that we “know” these places. Whether or not we know people there, or have been there ourselves; most of us have seen these places in films, seen photos or paintings, or read about them.

Paris the city of lights, love, effervescence, enlightenment and illumination, poetry and poetic life.

Beirut the Paris of the Middle East.

Symbolic places. Where poeticity and mythopoesis conjoin.

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 12.20.20 PM

And the web has abounded with images of buildings illuminated electronically at night, and imagery around light in darkness. Iyad El-Baghdadi is right: black and white is a problem: we need colour, whole resplendent full spectrum rainbows of gorgeousness.

So there’s the disturbance of imagining oneself in an imagined place, already disturbing for any imaginative sentient human, aggravated by experiencing hyperreality.

It’s scary because “your” Paris (or Beirut, etc.) could be a Baudrillard simulacrum, breaking boundaries between the real Paris and its representation, so the worry is that your feelings are for that representation rather than the real: worry about “real people in a real place” rushes in, wounding to a rational post-religious post-human. And hyperreality’s scary because “your” Paris might bear no relation to any reality and not be “yours” anyway: it could be a simulacrum, invented and propagated by others, and you are just being manipulated by media.

Your images, imagination, mind, and emotions–all that might feel most intuitively deeply essentially “you”–is not. Not you, not yours, not true, not real. Then you get stuck in, well, how shall I put it, post-structuralism. Now, it could be argued that wallowing in engaging in that and other “French Thought” would be a fine way to honour The Spirit Of Paris. But. Give me murk and mire, doom and gloom, any day rather than that. It may be vain–and in vain–but grant me the basic human dignity of imagining I’m real and alive (and yes, we can all quibble about that too, and being able to so quibble is one of the greatest things about being human, alive, and real) and that others are too.

Some weirdnesses feel trivial and petty now even though they were immediately striking. We’re all talking about what happened, how it made us feel, already narrativising reactions. Separating out “events” from “everything that happened,” then sorting them into chronological order, like other list-making and ordering this rationalises what happened. Analysis, and all very healing. It’s also editing.

Editing has obvious therapeutic positives (whatever your choice of poison therapy), but a danger that you’ll cut out all that was “not event”: redacting and excising memories, free associations, feelings, sentiment; perhaps retaining the physiological expression of perception and sensation as feeling “more real” than what was happening inside.

In a difficult historic moment, where there is a sense of immediate need to remember and to communicate, in a moment of oral cultural creation, it makes sense to cut down to the kernel and get rid of the satellites. The better to preserve, disseminate, and continue.

But editing is also a contrary motion to composition, of adding texture, allusion, sense and sentiment, interiority, all that enriches a text. Poeticity and poetry.

“Your” Paris could also be in Eco’s hyperreality instead of Baudrillard’s one, in a psychogeography of desire and imagination, an idea. I’m more comfortable with this imaginative poetic hyperreality, a possible world that is one of many possible worlds.

In UBC’s infamous branding and marketeering terms, “a place of mind.”

It is unfortunate that the phrase has been usurped. That perversion of language and corruption of ideas behind it, that insult to philology and philosophy, it doesn’t just rankle personally but is a public danger: risking turning each word in “a place of mind” and what the whole phrase means into a simulacrum and worse still a simulation. Words and ideas matter: Zeba Khan, “Words matter in ‘ISIS’ War, So Use ‘Daesh’,” The Boston Globe (2014-10-09):

The term “Daesh” is strategically a better choice because it is still accurate in that it spells out the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Yet, at the same time, “Daesh” can also be understood as a play on words — and an insult. Depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from “to trample down and crush” to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Already, the group has reportedly threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses the term.

Why do they care so much? The same reason the United States should. Language matters. […]

So here are a couple of haphazard, free, poetically-hyperreal non-events in “my” “real” (well, modal real) “life.” They connect up to three other non-events: wise commentary in exemplary literary use of Twitter, a fake history in/as a story embedded within an anthology, and some internet memes.

A TRUE STORY

I.

The main weirdness in my Friday was a text message that triggered recollection of something I hadn’t thought about in years, the 1998 football world cup which France won, in a dream team of rainbow ethnicities, starring the superheroic Zidane. I’m not going to tell the story behind that message here in full, from 1998 to 2015, because much of it is intimate and private and privacy is important. It struck me last night in another conversation that I was remembering things differently every time I returned to a hi/story. That’s not exactly novel or unexpected, we all do it, we all know that happens, and this has been a known known for a very long time. But one element of that story resonated, a thread that came up and through in conversation, the way conversation does that. It was about colours.

Last night I dreamed about these colours again. I was wearing, as I was that summer day in 1998, a rather fabulous dress. (I still have it and it’s still fabulous.) It’s in a large print, rather 1930s modernist-with-Afro-Cubist-vibe. Cream, tan, browns, black, white, reds.

The main colour is red, if you’re looking for one single key colour.

Red happens to be a colour that is shared by the French and Algerian flags. That magical evening, I was in Grenoble. People were running around being happy and waving flags, wrapped in flags, wrapping other people in flags. Some people just waved one flag (French or Algerian or other), most waved two or were with people who had the other flag, so the effect was of groups-as-unities accessorised by multiple flags. Flags mingled, colours mixed, we were all drinking and being jolly and dancing in the streets and so on so colours probably looked more rainbow than usual.

So last night I dreamed about colours. It was weird and lovely. I don’t remember much else of what would usually narratively be considered significance (and non-TMO-ness for present purposes): I recall no events. Colours, images, sensation. The perceptual emotional poetic stuff alone.

II.

On Friday, two of my classes were, as usual, FREN101. Fitting around the schedule and textbook materials, I had planned some activities around colours and reading some texts about them: French Wikipedia articles on colour symbolism, Robert & Sonia Delaunay, visual perception of colour; and virtual visits (to choose and describe an artwork) to the Musée d’Orsay.

In my first class that morning, I was late: a (horribly early) doctor’s appointment overran due to previous people being late due to flooding. I was flustered. I’d also had blood stuff and iron stuff done on an empty stomach. (Red again.) Not my best morning, but we did some stuff anyway: mainly reassuring students that they could read some really complicated French from cognate-recognition, and that perceptual illusions are cool.

(I didn’t think of it until now, but that’s à propos too re. current events: perceptual illusions and talking through how you’re seeing them and seeing through them. But I digress. But that’s the point.)

The second FREN101 class was in the late afternoon. I had first had news about what was happening in Paris and what would be happening next from someone there, the 1998 association, some hours earlier. (By text message in the middle of of my middle class of the day; I am still weirded out by that as I hate phones and usually keep them turned off, apart from when in use for active communication or as a teaching tool; but happened to look and saw I had a text message and read it. In class. I never do this: at least, the last time I looked at a phone in class was when I was checking for updates when my father was dying.) (I wasn’t going to talk about that weird message at all if I could avoid it. Oh well, there it is. Unavoidable. I’ll leave it there, there’s nothing inappropriate or indiscreet.) What do you do? I felt a little more settled than before, but I’m not sure what I said to students.

I remember thinking along the following lines: “We need to do things with beautiful works in Paris museums, this is important, and we need to talk about colours and how beautiful they are. Maybe looking at colours will be relaxing and soothing. I must restrain anger and scathing and sarcasm because it will come out as being aggressive or facetious or both, and that’s confusing for people. And confusing people or not caring about whether they were confused or not is cruel; and lots of people have been hurt today so it’s a day about NOT HURTING ANY MORE PEOPLE especially not deliberately. Fuck: what do I do now, what do we do now?”

–and I remember saying something like “I’m upset about something that has just happened, so I might be a bit weird” and I remember hoping I said something like “if this is weird it’s OK it’s not about or against you it’s about ‘IT’ out there” but I don’t think I did and that’s a failing. (So is over-thinking everything constantly.) I am clear on being relieved once students were doing stuff with images, and we got to chat about pointillisme and short-sightedness and subtlety. One group had an image that looked black and white until you looked again more carefully. So we had some new useful vocabulary, like “subtil” and “nuance.”

(With hindsight, colour and subtlety are relevant and therefore a further weirdness. Or: plain poetic. And Paris museums, always relevant, became poignant. Their very raison d’être is as an inheritance of the Revolution: free access to national heritage in state museums, the idea of world cultural heritage, and the recent innovation of its free availability online.)

There was a previous weirdness in class on Monday, when we were looking at images in the textbook and commenting on it–

–including mocking the psychopathic neatness of the first one (bodies behind doors?) and a number of curiosities in the second, which is a treasure for story-telling potential:

We were revising colours and prepositions of relative spatial location and numbers. We counted the socks. You see that lonesome white sock with the grey heel and toe, dangling off the corner of the desk, to the right of the antique computer?

Well, that was when I found its mate. In my classroom. Right-hand end of the first row of chairs, under a chair. White with a grey heel and toe. No-one claimed ownership and no-one had seen it before.

That was the afternoon class. I’m hoping that, in the reconstruction of remembering, it is Monday’s class that is more important to them than Friday’s; and Monday’s weirdness, that magical moment of art/life representation/reality lyrical fluidity, rather than Friday’s.

I want them to learn and remember that French is an integrated language and culture about poetry, luminous beauty, joy, enjoyment, jouissance, joie de vivre.

The image I ended up projecting, for happy vibrant gorgeous colour, throughout the Friday afternoon class was Robert Delaunay’s “Joie de vivre” (1930).

And it was also in my dreams last night. Vividly.

COMMENTARY ON COMMENTARY

I.

“On Exactitude in Science” (“Del Rigor de la Ciencia”)

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

(first published 1946, Penguin translation 1999, read alound by Will Self here)

II.

Back to Iyad El-Baghdadi:


III.

And, on the subject of open identity, life, liberty, and love: 
  

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