What is beauty, exactly: A bribe ? A reward ? Or the
promise of something eerily different... This (beautiful)
image (c) Val Druguet @ last week's Easter Day Parade.
5: Big Apple of our eye
Friday, April 28th. So-called 'Earth Day' has come
and gone and Val and I stayed at home (28th and 7th)
and celebrated by reproducing. Afternoon delight.
Given all the ambient Gaia vibe going on outside we
thought it an appropriate homage to springtime. What
with Easter, Passover, spring break... We partied
accordingly. Our right of spring. You party therefore
you are. Our ancestors agree.
Rest of the time we've been stuck, per usual, our
faces in the dirt, rummaging through the understory
of New York City's remaining wilderness. Naturalists
at large, birding, butterflying, botanizing, come
raindrop or sunburn. Guess what: in the past 2 weeks
bonanza's of new wildflowers have sprung. Virginia
Blue Bells, white Wood Anemone, sulfur-toned Sessile
Bellworts, wild Pink Azaleas... Eye-candy! Big apple
of our eye!
In scientific nomenclature, that's Mertensia virginica,
Anemone quinquefolia, Uvularia sessilifolia, Rhododendron
nudiflorum. Annie Dillard says that seeing is an act
of verbalization - you visualize what you can call
out by name. I see things twice. Once in English,
once in Latin. I'm stereo-lingual. Either that or
permanently drunk. In my own, personal idiom, the
above list can also translate as 'soft leathery petals,
pools of pepper-scented honey, pert pistils and erectile
stamens, magic carpets of ocular titillation'. Simple
sensual stuff, the opposite of downtown traffic. The
dark menstrual rose of red bud. Lawn violets as grass
people. The Crayola-crayon-green shock of the Norway
maple bud. One large psychedelic megaboomblast color
explosion (And I'm still stuck in the sixties…)
The flower list thickens: wild ginger, may apple,
smooth yellow violet. I.e.: Asarum canadense, Podophyllum
peltatum, Viola pubescens… How polite. These names
come with a surname. Respectability. Attribution of
kinship. The beauty of the Linnaean language (aforementioned
Latin names) is that it describes a being's relation
to the world, its bloodline. It attempts to tell the
full story of a plant or animal's place in time and
evolution. I believe it speaks to us of the relationship
between a being and the sum of all Life. First the
Species, then the Genus to which it and others belong,
then the Family to which it and even more species
and genera belong. That's like daughter/son, mother/father,
grandmother/father… The Linnaean system reads like
a recognition of ancestry, a tribute to history and
to belonging. A language of community. I party, therefore
Likewise, the beauty of the common name lies in the
story it tells of our relation to the plant, thus
of our dialogue with nature at large; for hundreds
of thousands of years, wildflowers were our natural
medicine cabinet, our Alibaba's cave of natural remedies.
Toothwort ? The plant that cures our tooth ache. 'Wort',
from the old English equivalent to 'root', meaning
herb, which is actually from the French 'herbe'. Confused
? A solution is in the works. A current project intends
to supplement all common and Latin names with barcodes
and phylogenetic codes. Numbers. Zeros and Ones. Similarly,
Bill Gates and his buddies were caught on C-span by
yours truly at their annual nerd fest at Davos this
past winter; they were reveling in the idea that thanks
to the information revolution the entire planet would
soon be entirely translated into digital, replicated,
virtually cloned. With zeros and Ones. Onto silica
we jump! Hurry! Quick! Before we run out of the original!
Come to think of it, ever notice how many people around
you (that includes me and Val) are actually running
around with digital cameras these days? And all these
dodos with mobile phones that take digital snapshots?
Then upload them onto their computers (confer Kodak
moment above)... Seems to me the whole world has turned
into one giant photography slave feeding binary information
to a machine. O Terminator, where art thou ?
I predict that some day soon, even our conversations
and gossip will be reduced to the Pythagorean ideal.
Plus or minus. Yes or no. Nothing but numbers! We'll
all speak Math, the so-called universal idiom. Maybe
then we'll finally realize how much language really
Back to my main point: Angiosperms and the beauty
thereof. Val and I will readily admit to (again) spending
all of our time flirting with wildflowers and other
life in our usual boudoirs: Alley Pond, Queens; the
North woods of Central Park; Inwood; Prospect Park.
We walk around like drunken idiots (at least I do),
foaming at the mouth, slaves to our senses and built-in
endorphin factories; we fumble through the budding
forests and botanical gardens of NYC, snorting crabapple,
cherry, hyacinth, lilac, tulips with names like 'corsage'
and 'day dream'… We're stoned out of our minds. At
the sheer sight and smell of a bunch of male and female
sexual organs glued to a freakin' branch. The question
is: Why ?!
To find out, we went to this lecture last night on
the evolutionary roots of beauty at the American Museum
of Natural History, given by renowned ecologist Gordon
Orians. According to this fine gentleman what Val
and I are really after (subconsciously) is the fruit
and nourishment of all life. Beauty as food - and
vice versa. When we go naturalizing for flora, we're
actually 'hunter-gathering'. And guess what - it plays
out just like foreplay. Each new species, shape or
scent or form we bump into brings on a rush of pleasure,
a soothing flush of emotion; with every new epiphany
with some gaudy shock of biodiversity comes a heartfelt
reward (important word in the following paragraphs),
i.e.: a micro-orgasm (O Epicure!).
All of this has a purpose, of course. Namely, survival.
Orians hypothesizes that the human species (like the
bowerbird) is in many ways addicted to the fancy and
the colorful, because as primates we relied for eons
on our powers of discernment and appreciation to find
food and survive in the deep dark woods of our primeval
ancestry. Oooo! Ripe red fruit! Apple of my eye! Grunt!
Yup, our delectation in Beauty is a de facto built-in
reward system. We evolved (rule of thumb) to enjoy
doing what is good for us, i.e.: that which ensures
our continued existence. Survival of the prettiest!
Confer all nervous sensations produced by intercourse.
Reproduction. "Star rockets in flight…" Beauty is
what we survive on. We compete for it: Oooo! Ripe
red fruit! Grunt! Punch! Eviscerate! Stab! Steal!
How odd: this whole theory of beauty rings like a
projection - and justification- of our own belief
and value systems. (Not mine, the one of our current
establishment, pumped as it is on its own ideology
and practice of social Darwinism and fanatical belief
in competition, contest and prizes). Beauty, the trophy.
The rarer the better, of course. The louder the 'Eureka!',
the bigger the buzz. We pay attention to that which
is uncommon, deviant, off the bell-curve. Mutational.
Beauty, whose requisite is variance, diversity, change.
Evolution! 'Beauty, concludes Orians, is something
that lies in the 'adapted' mind of the beholder.'
(Sounds like E.0. Wilson's "beauty lies in the genes
of the beholder"). As a species, he adds, we have
even figured out how to use it (beauty) to our advantage,
as currency, for status. For sex and for power. The
more of it we hoard and keep (priceless art or expensive
roses) and display (enter the Rolls Royce and the
Strip-dancers), the richer we are, the more seductive,
the more mates, the more offspring. Yadda-yadda. The
more of everything. Sounds to me like shopping at
Wholefoods. Glutinous out-of-control bowerbirds. Oh
dear… Did liking red apples lead us one day into Iraq?
It led us out of the Garden! So we have it: spring
wildflowers are as erotic as cheesecake. Sweet, refreshing
and fat with visiting bumblebees that suck themselves
through the crisp, spring air (Bees don't 'fly', they
create vortexes with their wings into which their
bodies are then hoovered, silently).
And so I wonder: since beauty stands for survival
and continuity, could reveling in the splendid and
the sublime (and the glory of wildflowers) be our
last shot at eternity - apart from building pyramids
and cryogenics? For us, meager species, cursed with
the conscious and unspeakable fear of death ? I.e.:
is beauty something we use to vacuum ourselves into
tomorrow, into the afterlife ? Are we like bumblebees?
Is beauty our vortex ? Our aspiration?
I'll be honest with you. And a tad intellectual (yawn).
I agree with Professor Orians - and I disagree. Because
I am both a dilettante reductionist and a devout structuralist,
depending on the hour. Sure, beauty can be a reward,
a trophy (the selfish point of view); but it can also
be that which helps to create something greater than
the sum of all participating components (the selfless
point of view). Beauty is a whisper, a promise, an
invitation to something 'larger'. A tantalizing perfume,
a hook that grabs us by the senses and hauls us into
something bigger than ourselves: an emerging order,
with emergent properties. An afterlife! When we answer
the call of beauty we are participating in a megaverse
that is greater than the sum of all beings, molecules,
atoms. Ultimate eye-candy!
Very unfortunately, this 'megaverse' to which I am
referring is something to which we are destined to
be blind. We cannot see it for we are stuck inside
of it. Just as a carbon molecule trapped within a
sugar atom will never know just how creatively sweet
he or she is, we remain clueless as to what emanates
from the assemblage of so much beauty in the world
and cosmos around us. Similarly, like brain cells
in a brain, we have no idea how collectively conscious
(or not) we really are.
Take artists. They pollinate society by ferreting
out new ideas, flying them from gallery to gallery.
Just like bees pollinate the woods around us - by
buzzing from flower to flower. Poetry, in motion.
Will never the read the totality of the poem it is
helping to write.
What I'm getting at (am I?) is that a wildflower (or
an apple) is the infra of another, supra-world to
come. A symbol not of fertility, but of yet more fertility,
just around the corner - to us unknown. Today's creativity,
tomorrow's creatures - to us unknown. Sure, beauty
can signify fruit and sex and pleasure and plenty
in the moment; it is also an invitation for us to
partake in the creation of an invisible future. As
yet unseen - and unnamed. Did dinosaurs dream of turning
into birds? To contemplate beauty takes courage. It
is potential chaos. It is uncertainty. It is the seething
community of "Fornikation" so abhorred and adored
by Werner Herzog. Ever been into the rainforest ?
It is more than beautiful. It is the sperm and egg
of tomorrow's sublime.
For my Ye'kuana friends (a tribe in southern Venezuela),
there is Wanato, the Spangled Cotinga, an electric
blue and plum-throated bird species of the rainforest
canopy. Today's iridescence of the 'birdman' - he
who invented beauty in a time long before ours.
Beauty as process. Through today's wildflowers and
berries and apples and other plays and works of art
we are invited to act. To take action. Beauty as Verb.
To be beautiful. Our chance to evolve. When I stare
at a wildflower, or a jungle, I'm looking straight
through an open door of endless possibility, into
tomorrow's design. Let go! To acknowledge beauty everywhere
(in a worm, a slug, a snake) is to agree to be a part
of that process of evolution and life. Ultimately,
it is to accept and acknowledge death. The vortex
ahead. We too, have the potential to be beautiful.
Which reminds me: A week ago Sunday Val and I did
not go "shopping" for wildflowers in the understory.
For once. Because another pagan festival snatched
us en route. The Easter day hat parade in Midtown,
on 5th Avenue - Capital of all things perpendicular
and monolithic and perfect. Trump Tower Road. If only
Plato had lived to see it! We took our niece, Olivia,
who is a freshwoman at Barnard's, originally from
Seattle. Her first year in New York. Pastel pinks
and blues and greens were everywhere. The air was
fresh with sunshine and the smiles of a thousand imbeciles.
You've never been ? This is how it works (or rather,
'plays out'): each person has an orgy going on his/her
head. That is to say, a whole bunch of people show
up in front of St Patrick's Cathedral with weird,
hand-crafted hats that tower into the air, replete
with built-in green gardens on platforms smothered
in pink flowers and hosting wired mobiles of dangling
red butterflies and bluebirds and stuffed bunnies
with eggs and the like... One guy even had a living
parrot - an African Gray- on his hat; the bird responded
by chewing up all of the hat's plastic biodiversity.
And then there's everybody else. All the you's and
the me's who show up to ogle the guys with the hats.
And take pictures with digital cameras. And hoot "how
Look deeper. Easter Day Hat parade is the only parade
in NY where the military don't show up or death is
not on full display (Halloween has ghosts, Saint Patty's
got soldiers with guns. And Bloomberg). Accordingly,
it's the only parade where people are neither forced
nor obliged to walk in a straight line nor crowd and
scrunch-up behind police barriers. For once, a real
day off. Walking is random, circular, disorderly.
Non linear and chaotic. People own the street. People
go Bumpeteebump. They say excuse me and exchange innocuous
looks. The entire crowd is like matter in a state
of plasma, before stuff signs up to be an atom or
a molecule. Free, living energy. Pre Big-Bang material.
"Sky rockets in Flight…"
At first I stand there with my mouth open. Goop! I
bask in the reflected glory of seeing no mission,
no target, no objective in the crowd, other than the
freedom of movement itself. Bakunin would have loved
this. Forgive the following snippet of sexist speculation
but I also see this parade as something exquisitely
feminine. Intrinsically creative. Easter=Ishtar=Fertility
Goddess, she who rises in the East. As in Estrogen.
Don't believe me ? Ask Google.
I just finished reading a recent study about army
ants (the ones in the tropics that swarm by the millions
in vast columns and devour and disassemble stuff en
route). In it, the authors show how crowds (like ants)
spontaneously form lines and columns as a means of
collective discipline and order and all around beneficial
regimentation. Like people on a side walk going to
work in Manhattan, ants spontaneously begin to form
lines going one way, lines going the other, in the
heat of ant rush-hour (ants don't need traffic cops
- they self organize). It is the collective intelligence
of crowds to thus reduce bumps and run-ins and get
people to wherever people have to go in as short amount
of time as possible. With the least amount of hassle
possible. Soooooo clever. Not so at the Easter day
hat parade! This thing seems brainless, like watching
bumper cars on cocaine (or me and Val rambling around
NYC looking for wildflowers); participants stumble
about in a state of sheer anarchy. The ultimate duh-fest.
Nobody gets angry (except for one very up-tight hag
whom I overhear reprimanding ("shame!") a black dude
for showing up in medieval drag à la Lord of the Rings).
So just on this day, it seems, New Yorkers are allowed
to be something other than neat and orderly and efficient
(and stressed out); they get to transcend the grid
from within, supercede the machine, to be other than
just a competent component - or cog. More than just
a 0 or a 1, flying around the motherboard of Mannahatta...
Thank G*d for Easter ! On this blissfully confused
day of Spring, our Euclidian geometry collapses. Newton
is dead. Descartes never existed. What a beautiful
mess, Mr. Orians !
Three years ago, at my first Easter Day Parade, in
the middle of all this gooey happiness there was one
person, however - a man - attempting to steer and
control traffic. He was old. Petrified. A patriarch
? He was standing quite appropriately at the corner
of 5th and 50th street. At an intersection. At a perpendicular
within the Grid. He had a big sign that read something
about the apocalypse and Jesus Christ our savior.
He was an evangelist. He was shouting out prophecy
and doomsday. "Repent ! Blasphemers and sinners !
For the day of reckoning has come…" I stared at Val.
Val stared at me. This man was directing traffic alright,
spiritual traffic. Seemed he couldn't stand all this
disorderly pagan conduct, these hearts and souls lost
in the leisure of uncertainty. And beauty. Had we
disrupted his grid ? Ever the semiologist (one who
reads signs) and the devout Jungian, I suddenly realized
the Christian cross itself can look something like
a mathematical, X Y axis. Religion, the Cartesian
system? Bear with me, look at a cross, or make one
with your fingers: it's a perpendicular, right? It
evokes 'up and down', 'right vs. left', plus or minus,
the superior and the inferior. Order, hierarchy, submission
(the stuff of crucifixion). Yuk.
As a quietly rebellious teen in the 70's I used to
enjoy when Carl Sagan would rant on TV about the Pythagoreans'
belief in a perfect, immortal, non existent, world
of mathematical ideals. I remember him explaining
it as a means for Greek citizens at large to explain
and justify and legitimize their own value system
- a so-called democracy that would permit and rationalize
slavery. Inferior people in a superior world.
Mr. Gates, meet the Greeks. Or come to the NYC Easter
Hat parade. Speaking of numbers, some of you may know
of William Wallace, NYC's most cheerful historian
and talking head on the PBS series "New York". In
it he postulates that the famous grid and number system
of New York City (are you listening, Mr. Gates?) were
devised to make it easy for inbound illiterate people
from all over the world who couldn't speak English
to find their way. Maybe it just turned out that way.
Maybe what was really going on was more conspiratorial.
Two years back I read a Masters thesis by a geography
student who theorized that the Manhattan Grid (the
first of its kind, and the first to be born of the
Industrial Revolution (that which defecates on the
Commons) and the age of Modernity (that which urinates
on the past)) was in fact a planned, strategized,
well thought-out effort by the power system to control
and file the populace with easy access to their numbers.
People had become numbers. Order. Hierarchy. Submission.
So Pythagoras rules (he who hath a lithp and pithes
in public, hence 'Pith-agoras'; Agora, from the Greek
meaning 'public place', all of this according to an
old and good friend of mine, my older brother Andrew).
As do computers all assembled into one automaton,
like the one I'm plugged into right now, the one filing
all my thoughts as 0's and 1' as I e-blast this rant
off into cyberspace. O Morpheus!, where the fcuk art
Joseph Campbell used to say computers were like an
old testament god - a lot of rules and no mercy.
One last item: back in 2003, most of all hats at the
Easter Day parade were signs of protest against the
war in Iraq. People had created imaginative battle
scenes on their heads using toy soldiers smothered
in ketchup holding flowers and little signs that read:
"make love, not war". Rather appropriate for an Easter
day Parade! This year, 2006, all seems to have been
forgotten. Or fully accepted. Or simply acknowledged.
As in 'Mission accomplished'. Anesthetized. PC. Clean.
Wait a minute ! There's this one damsel, wholesomely
revealing in her Arabian attire, belly-dancing in
the middle of the crowd (confer Kodak moment above)
with some dude playing some middle-eastern music in
the background, from the sidewalk. I wonder: this
Princess Leia prancing around the pavement... a trophy?
She's straight out of an old Cecil B. DeMille flick.
I believe in the power of the unconscious, meta-communication,
Freudian slips of the collective tongue. This woman
might be the unknowing and unspeakable sign that we
are proud to have pillaged and plundered Mesopotamia
with shameless success. She embodies the prize. We
have returned from battle, victorious. With loot -
the smooth skin and buoyant hips of a young dancing
Arab. Beauty as reward. O Wildflower from 'A Thousand
and one nights'! Symbol of fertility. Mother of all
virgins. Eye-Candy from the East. Slave. Apple of
Ishtar ! The spirit of Easter, fully captured... And
she's dancing like she's the best 'number' in town.
aim before you shoot!
Dave Rosane and Val Druguet