Humans and the aesthetic

I’ve been watching bonsai videos lately. I don’t know why. There’s something about taking a straggly adolescent tree, shredding it to its core and produce something humans would find beautiful. There’s the time aspect too, the fact that once you strip some seedling down to its naked trunk, chop its arms and head off, bend it sideways and command it to “sit and stay!” that you have to wait years while the pathetic Charlie Brown’s bonsai either handles the trauma and flourishes — or dies.

And I got to thinking, a dog wouldn’t give this tree a second thought, that is, right after it pissed all over it. Nor would a robin, or a gecko, antelope or a mountain lion. Too small to provide shade, too nasty to eat, maybe there’s some bugs to be found crawling through its diminutive branches… But other than that, meh, just another woody green thing to be ignored.

We humans seem singularly adapted to layer an aesthetic sense of beauty, or the lack there of, over top of everything we experience in the world. The most mundane items of everyday life may be imbued with the qualities of feng shui, chi/qi, or wabi-sabi evoking the true essence of their purpose — or not. There’s some ugly shit in the world.

I’m reminded of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comment that, of the billions of species that have existed since the rise of complex life 500+ millions years ago, higher intelligence evolved just once as an extended species (Homo). “I guess higher intelligence must not be all that important for survival.” Sharks and crocodiles would agree.

And with this “higher intelligence” it would appear we got the added bonus of arbitrarily assigning an aesthetic quality to anything within our environment. I look at these bonsai trees (bonsai literally means “planted in a pot”) and I can immediately distinguish which exude elegance and charm and which are gnarled witch-sticks leaning toward the fire. And I’m convinced my dog couldn’t care less.

But then, maybe she does care… Care about other things. “Oh my, what a wonderful smell that is, wafting in through the open car window.” Or the corvid perched on the rooftop, “That’s one clean, white ground roller there. I think it needs a bit of aerial deposited decoration.” What of a dolphin’s delight in the curve of the surf, or the standing pulse of a bow-wave? How about the sweetness of a strawberry or banana for a chimpanzee?

Perhaps our delight or disgust of that which we experience, and how they influence our behavior is not ours alone.

If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink then you’ll recall how our subconscious, our first 1/2 a second of experience can instruct us in our aesthetic judgement. It’s a thing we cannot stop. We instantly “know”. But I ask myself, why should my interpretation of the world and my personal opinion of its beauty or ugliness have meaning beyond my own mind, beyond my own life?

My dog rolled in something again. Damn, that’s some skanky shit.

“You’re joking, right?” she whines, “That was the best smellin’ dead-thing I’ve found in many moons.”

Writer’s Log: The Scientific Case for Evil

Back cover blurb:

Dr. Tern Wallace hoped his discovery would prove the afterlife. Inter-dimensionality combined with the Universe’s compositional gaps left room for the “otherness” many thought composed the spirit world. That and the decades of research, the divorce of two wives and the estrangement of his children were worth something, weren’t they?

He flipped the switch and the intricate customizations of the MRI machine began to whir. His subject, an irreconcilably mad dog, donated by the local pound, lay drugged within the humming doughnut of induced gravitational waves. His computer screens glowed. Where there should have been the almond shaped amygdala he found, nothing.

No, not nothing. He had suspicions as to what had replaced the brain’s fear center. Here was proof.

Dark matter. The stuff of astrophysicists, the missing matter of the universe, it theoretically surround us but was kept at bay by our own observable matter inexorably pushing back. Yet, its existence, induced to leak across the impenetrable boundary by the cruelty, the torture the broken German shepherd had endured at the hands of its owner, was undeniable. Evil existed.

Indeed, evil existed, manifested from dark energy, dark matter and, from what Dr. Wallace could tell, was spreading.

The machine spun down. Unfortunately, the side effects of the machine’s interrogation included the death of the subject. He would have to expand his research.

He needed other subjects. Human subjects.

He reflected upon his options. Could the mere thought of experimenting on humans mean that he, himself, had succumbed to this dark infection? He dismissed the notion. Science required information. How could science ever be thought of as evil? Tomorrow he would call his contacts at the asylum.

Waltzing Matilda – quiet coercion

I’ve been fond of the song Waltzing Matilda since forever. Whistling, strange words, catchy-tune, what’s not to like.

There’s a history of the song, of course, which depicts a rather unpleasant story about sheep shearers, a strike and the pursuit and suicide of one of the shearers near a pond.

The phrase, Waltzing Matilda is suppose to mean go on walk-about with your kit (swag, including your tent). But, I think there’s way more to the phrase that what we innocently take on. Reviewing the lyrics: (wikipedia)

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his “Billy” boiled,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Chorus:
Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda,
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his “Billy” boiled,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

(Chorus)

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

(Chorus)

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never catch me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”


You’ll notice that each time the stanza, “You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me”, is spoken, there’s a specific directive implied.

  • I’m gonna drink my tea.
  • I’m gonna take you, sheep, kill you and eat you.
  • You’re commin’ with us, says the troopers to the swagman.
  • You’re all gonna follow me to the grave, says the ghost of the swagman.

That last one is especially poignant:

And his ghost may be heard as YOU pass by that billabong,
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.

Is Waltzing Matilda, ultimately, a euphemism for dying? Not a very happy tune, now is it?

Creating vs Consuming

[Originally posted five years ago.]

I have a wise neighbor, Mike. We were chatting about various things and the concept of the creative process vs the consumptive process came up. Here’s a brief synopsis.

When you consume it’s like burning fuel in a fire. To retain the emotive high you get when you consume you must feed the flame. You buy a pair of shoes, they’re new for a week or two, but then they’re not—and you have to buy something new to keep that consumptive itch scratched. You consume a mobile game, a TV show, a movie, a blog post, a magazine article or a book as soon as you’re done, you want more. The flame of consumption cannot be allow to dwindle and die. Consuming becomes an addiction. In the case of oxygen, water and limited food intake, consumption is a good thing, otherwise, well, you die. But consumption of everything else becomes a losing battle—the inferno of your desire to gobble up those unfulfilling objects and experiences—will never be appeased.

In contrast, I give you the creative process.

When you create—anything—that creation becomes an established part of you. If you write, or paint, sculpt or build something the end product of your effort, even if the physical object doesn’t endure, will extend you. That is, the fact of its creation will always exist within you. You made it. Creation is an additive process. Every time you create you extend yourself beyond your prior boundaries. If you produce media art like pictures, music, or video, or you create motion art such as dance or activity/skill based (skating, skydiving, surfing, climbing, etc.) you are creating, you are adding to yourself (and to the world).

It’s somewhat ironic don’t you think?

  • Creation, the act of giving of yourself and your efforts to the world—adds.
  • Consumption, the act adding stuff onto yourself—subtracts.

Writer’s Log: 2350

  • February: Crawled out of my cave, looked around and crawled right back in.
  • March: Bah!
  • April: Still nope.
  • May: Fingers itching, must be vaccine side-effects.
  • June: Fuck me. Alright, alright, just quit squeezing my frontal lobe.

[Back cover blurb]

A-Nihilists: Tribe of Annihil-Nation

Members of a growing anti-society movement continue to expand their attacks against anyone and everyone. If you believe in anything, God, morals, society, human rights, animals rights, Save-the-Planet, free school lunches — you are a target. A-Nihilists are here to destroy you and everything you believe in. They live solely to convince you of the absurdity of existence.

Kamus joined at fifteen. His first act involved the explosive destruction of an I-15 bridge that spanned the Virgin River in St. George, Utah. It didn’t go well. He and his partners underestimated the concussive power of one-hundred pounds of ANFO (ammonium nitrate & fuel oil). But mostly, it was the too-short fuse Kam had used on the M-80 that detonated the makeshift dynamite.

Mistakes are often the best teachers. That is, if you can survive them.

Years later, that first lesson became a seed of doubt.

“If my purpose is showing you your purpose is bullshit…”