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by Richard Nilsen

I sit across the table from my brother at the seafood restaurant in Virginia and he doodles on a napkin with a Sharpie.
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My brother is an artist — primarily a printmaker, but more recently a painter. And while he isn’t terribly prolific, he is constantly drawing. His mind is always coming up with visual ideas and he jots them down. Most never go anywhere, but he just cannot stop himself from playing. It is his way of processing experience: What he sees he transforms.
It reminds me of the photographer Lee Friedlander, who describes his addiction to making photographs as “pecking.” Like a hen darting at cracked corn on the ground, he clicks his camera — peck, peck, peck. Some of the results of his pecking turn into finished photographs he displays in galleries and publishes in books. But there is an improvisatory quality to his work that comes — like a jazz musician woodshedding — from constantly working his instrument.
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Among the images caught by pecking, Friedlander will periodically find something he hadn’t considered before, and thus his body of work takes a new direction, constantly refreshing his art.
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In part, the importance of this kind of sketching is that it is not art — or rather, not meant as art. It is more the flexing of an esthetic muscle. One can become intellectually paralyzed if all you aim at is writing deathless prose, or painting the museum masterpiece, or composing the next Eroica. Not everything needs to be The Brothers Karamazov. There is great value in just pecking. It keeps your senses alive.
My wife and I just spent a week visiting her brother, who is also an artist, a very accomplished artist who regularly sells his paintings to clients both private and corporate.
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But while we were there, I spent a portion of my time doodling — pecking — with my tiny point-and-shoot digital camera. We would sit on their patio talking about the things one yammers on about with one’s relations — old times, where former acquaintances have gone, the horror of the recent election, the joys of fishing — and I would distractedly point my camera around me at the things one seldom notices.
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I wasn’t thinking of making art. I barely paid attention to what I was doing with the camera, but I pecked. The result is a kind of notebook of the things we lived among, seen in some different way, so as to lift them from their context, to suck them out of the everydayness they languish in.
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 It reminded me of an assignment I used to give my photography students, some 35 years ago, when I taught the subject at the same school where my brother still teaches. “Make a photograph of something so I cannot tell what it is.” I made sure they understood I didn’t mean to make it out of focus or poorly run through the darkroom, but to find something we see everyday, but pay so little attention to, that when faced with its presence, we might be baffled until that moment when, the proud student, having fooled us all, tells us what we’re looking at and we all let out a gasp of breath and say, “Of course, now I see it.”
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These pecked pictures are mostly details. They are not the grand view or the concatenated whole, but the tiny bits out of which the larger scene is built. Most of us pay attention only to the whole, when we pay attention at all; for most Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the cloud that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, closet. But every house has a door, and every door a door-handle; every car has tires and every tire a tread and each tread is made up of an intricate series of rubber squiggles and dents. Attention must be paid.
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Paying attention to the details means being able to see the whole more acutely, more vividly. The generalized view is the unconsidered view. When you see a house, you are seeing an “it.” When you notice the details, they provide the character of the house and it warms, has personality and becomes a Buberesque “thou.” The “thou” is a different way of addressing the world and one that makes not only the world more alive, but the seer also.
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(It doesn’t hurt that isolating detail makes it more necessary to create a design. You can make a photo of a house and just plop it in the middle of the frame and we can all say, “Yes, that’s a house,” and let the naming of it be the end-all. But if you find the tiny bits, they have to organize them in the frame to make something interesting enough to warrant looking at.)
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Sectioning out a detail not only makes you look more closely, but forces your viewer to look more closely, too. Puzzling out what he sees without the plethora of context makes him hone in on its shape, color, and texture. It is a forced look, not a casual one.
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So, when I gave my students that assignment, it wasn’t just to be clever, but to make them pay attention to the minutiae that are the bricks of the visual world they inhabit. And paying attention is a form of reverence.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

Predicting the Oscars is always a tricky enterprise, but I earned a small (tiny) place in history — and my only citation in Wikipedia — for a prediction I made in June of 2007: “Richard Nilsen from Arizona Republic,” noted the Wiki entry on the movie, “was even more enthusiastic, writing ‘don’t bother voting. Just give the Oscar to Marion Cotillard now. As the chanteuse Édith Piaf inLa vie en rose, her acting is the most astonishing I’ve seen in years.’

This, it should be noted, was written six months before the 2007 Academy Awards nominations were even announced, before the opening of such best actress nominee films as as Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (October), Laura Linney in The Savages (November), and Ellen Page in Juno (December). Only Julie Christie in Away From Her had opened earlier (in 2006, so I’m not sure why it was eligible for the 2007 Oscars — anyway, I reviewed it for The Republic in May of that year). 

All I’m saying is, I was so confident in Cotillard’s ascendency, that I pronounced her victory before most of the films of the year had even opened. And this despite the fact her role wasn’t even in English, and the Oscars tend to be Anglophile in prejudice (previously, no foreign language film had ever brought an Oscar to its lead actress). 

You can imagine just how smug I felt when Cotillard accepted the statuette from Forest Whitaker. “Thank you life; thank you love,” she said. 

Of course, I wasn’t so smug on March 21, 1999, when the Academy proved, once again, that the best doesn’t always win the award. The films of 1998 duked it out and I had been assigned to see all the Best Film nominees and write about them. 

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“(Saving) Private Ryan was the big surprise for me. If it doesn’t win the Oscar, something is wrong. I haven’t seen a movie that well-made — and overpowering — in a long, long time,” I wrote. Well, something was wrong. 

I listed my films in order of preference: 

“1. Saving Private Ryan — Not only the most impressive piece of moviemaking of the year but probably of the decade. Director Steven Spielberg manages to make great art entertaining. 

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“2. The Thin Red Line — You come out realizing, ‘This isn’t really about war, is it?’ No, its meaning is cosmic where Private Ryan’s is civic. Director Terrence Malick has made something like a modern version of the Bhagavad-Gita

“3. Life Is Beautiful — Of the three war films nominated, Roberto Benigni’s is the most personal. Neither cosmic nor civic, it is the one that makes you care most deeply for the fate of its characters. It is funny, inventive, profound, disturbing — all at once. 

“4. Elizabeth — Makes a convincing case that this young, naive woman could develop the political savvy to survive in the (literally) cutthroat environment of English r4Renaissance politics. Besides that, I could look at Cate Blanchett’s riveting face for eight hours, no break. 

“5. Shakespeare in Love — A huge disappointment, it turns out to be nothing but an extremely well-written and witty sitcom. Also, I couldn’t take seriously any Shakespeare who looks this much like the artist formerly known as Prince.”

I’m sure you remember which film ran off with the Oscar, in fact, ran off with seven Oscars. My emotions that night were somewhat akin to how I felt this year on Nov. 8. “Whuuuuu????” Sometimes, things go horribly wrong. 

The problem with the Oscars, though, is that they go wrong so frequently, and so predictably. Which is why some film-critic Oscar prediction stories run parallel lists: “Who will win,” versus “who should win.” The critic knows that the Hollywood insiders who vote tend to go for high-minded films, no matter how much baloney they dish out; or films that dump a Scrooge McDuck-load of money on their studios; or actors who lose or gain a great deal of poundage; or who portray some disability or other; or have been notoriously overlooked for previous films and now given the award for some current mediocre work while they should have won earlier. They are loathe to reward a difficult film, one with a less-than-uplifting ending, or one that is too innovative too soon. (Those innovations will be rewarded in the sixth or seventh generation film that has learned from them). (Footnote: I should make clear, I am talking about the “major” categories; innovations frequently garner awards in the technical categories, in part, because they are voted on not by the Academy membership in general, but only by their peers, who actually know what is going on.)

r5We can go down the long list of Oscar winners — most notoriously the Best Film winners — and slap our foreheads over and over at the choices. Not that the winners were universally bad films, but that the runners-up were so often better, at least in the eyes of posterity. Consider the Sixth Academy Awards, from 1933, when the winning film was Cavalcade, a film hardly seen anymore, and seldom mentioned. But that same year saw as “losers” such perennial favorites as 42nd Street, A Farewell to Arms, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong and State Fair. What is more, films not nominated that year include Dinner at Eight, King Kong, Duck Soup, Trouble in Paradise and M. What distinguished Cavalcade, aside from maudlin sentimentality? It made $3.5 million that year and joined the list of most profitable movies up to that time. 

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Take most Top Ten lists from American movie critics, and you will find a trove of films that didn’t win, or weren’t even nominated. Citizen Kane, which used to top everyone’s list, didn’t win. Jean Renoir’s great war film, Grand Illusion, lost out in 1938 to You Can’t Take It With You, which is a memorable film, but not quite in a league with Renoir’s. In 1994, Pulp Fiction — one of the most innovative and memorable films ever — lost out to Forrest Gump. Let me repeat that: Forrest Gump! Looking back from the perspective of two decades, that seems like a missed call. It would be hard, with a straight face to argue that in 1953, The Greatest Show on Earth was a better film than High Noon, or than The Bad and The Beautiful, which wasn’t even nominated.  

We should consider some of the films over the years that weren’t even nominated. Beginning with the first ceremony in 1929:Steamboat Bill, Jr., Nosferatu; In 1931, City Lights, Public Enemy; 1936: Modern Times, My Man Godfrey; 1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; 1941 (the year that overlooked the nominated Citizen Kane, to say nothing of the un-nominated  Maltese Falcon,Suspicion and Sergeant York): Fantasia; 1942: To Be or Not to Be, Sullivan’s Travels; 1946: The Big Sleep, Children of Paradise,Notorious, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice. The list goes on, year by year, but here are a few of the films left un-nominated for the top award by the Academy: The Third Man, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Singin’ in the Rain, Roshomon, Night of the Hunter, Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers, The Seven Samurai, Paths of Glory, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Some Like it Hot,Wild Strawberries, Psycho, Spartacus, In Cold Blood, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider,Little Big Man, Mean Streets, Sophie’s Choice, Fanny and Alexander, Blood Simple, The Princess Bride, Do the Right Thing, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cinema Paradiso, Leaving Las Vegas, The Big Lebowski, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Fight Club, Boys Don’t Cry

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Box office, as I said, sometimes has a hand. How else can you explain the nominations (not wins, thank goodness) of John Wayne’s The Alamo in 1960 and Cleopatra in 1963. That latter fiasco may be the worst film ever nominated for any award other than a Golden Raspberry. As a yardstick, it was the same year Fellini’s wasn’t even nominated. In 1986, when Out of Africa took home the statuette, Kurosawa’s Ran wasn’t nominated. 

I’ve listed films for only one category: Best Film. But other categories have their own embarrassments. Consider that in 1941 John Ford (no slouch for sure) won over Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. Surely, in hindsight, Kane is one of the greatest directing jobs of all times, while Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is one of his lesser r8efforts. One of his best, The Searchers, didn’t win in 1956, because George Stevens did, for a trumped up epic, Giant. Marty is a moving film, from 1955, but for its writing and acting, not for its direction, yet the brilliantly directed Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s only film as director, lost to Delbert Mann’s Marty.Vertigo is currently listed as the Greatest Film of All Time (for which I disagree, but it is the critics’ favorite), but was not even nominated for best director (Alfred Hitchcock), while the award went to Vincente Minnelli for the treacly Gigi. Perhaps the worst of all, John Avildsen of Rocky beat out Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver in 1976. Someone should have been hanged for that. It’s at times like that when you realize there is no assurance of justice in this world. 

And let’s not forget Art Carney (Harry and Tonto) winning over both Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al

r9Pacino in Godfather Part II. One could go over each major category and find head-scratching outrages. 

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Which brings me back to 1998, when Shakespeare In Love beat out its betters. That is the biggest head-scratcher of all, to me. The first 20 minutes alone of Private Ryan will be taught in film schools for decades while Shakespeare In Love will be played as a filler on TBS cable after the last daily rerun of Big Bang Theory. Academy muffed that one.

It is  important to keep all this in mind this year when the awards are given out, once again, to the mediocre, meretricious and magniloquent. 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

Who is this man?
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This is arguably the most recognizable face of the 20th century; you may recognize him without his most iconic feature. But probably not. Without it, he looks like any anonymous businessman or bourgeois politician of his time. Yet, give him back that one little caterpillar curling under the shade of his nostrils and you can recognize him instantly.
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In fact, you don’t really need the rest of the face. Even an abstract diagram can be given its name without much puzzling. That mustache defines the face of the single most evil person of the previous century (nominations are now open for the current era). Before the middle of the last century, there were many who bore a similar fungus on their lip, but since then the so-called “toothbrush mustache” has gone understandably out of fashion, save for a few copycat dictators and a comedian or two attempting irony.
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Yet, before its demonization, the lip tonsure was famous for defining the Little Tramp of Charlie Chaplin. It was also worn by Oliver Hardy (“Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) One would be hard pressed to understand the thing in any way but comical, until it occupied the philtrum of the Great Dictator. It’s hard now to realize that it could grace the passport photo of Eric Blair on his way to Burma to shoot an elephant, later to write about it as George Orwell.
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Then, there is precedent for the little fuzz as popular with strongman rulers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, before he was still dead, bore the little bristle. So did pre-war Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. And, of course, Peter Parker’s boss in the Spider-Man comic books is J. Jonah Jameson. The scant inch-of-hair has a long pedigree.
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Even now, there are those willing to sport the growth. Former Ecuadoran president, Abdala Bucaram, known to his voters as “El Loco,” sported it before he was impeached. Zimbabwe “president for life,” Robert Mugabe wears one so tight and slender, it barely fills the space between his two nostrils.
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Michael Jordan tried one on for a series of ads he made for Hanes underwear. It won him the title of “Herr Jordan.” His friend, Charles Barkley admitted, “I don’t know what the hell he was thinking and I don’t know what Hanes was thinking. I mean, it is just stupid. It is just bad, plain and simple.”
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It has fallen on hard times, this innocent little bushlet. Irony is its constant companion. It is a meme on the internet; it is a joke in a Mel Brooks movie; it is even a phantom that bedevils Michael Grave’s teapot design for J.C. Penney (now off the market after too many people saw the evil one’s face in its handle and lid ball, with the spout as a Nazi salute).
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But, where did this odd thing come from? And how did it make its way onto the facial undercarriage of der Führer?
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The first surprise is that early commentators tell us the style was originally American. It was American tourists who brought it with them to Germany, where, in the early years of the past century, it spoke of Modernism and efficiency. Back then, the style, especially among military officers was the broad, spreading eagle of the “Kaiserbart,” or Kaiser mustache. All the most Erich von Stroheim cavalry men sported them. It was described in a New York Times article on Oct. 10, 1907 as something like a handlebar mustache, with its tips “elevated upward and the rest fashioned something after the form of the wings of the Prussian eagle which one sees on National standards and postage stamps. It is more or less popular all over Europe, particularly in military circles.”
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The piece goes on to say, “The ‘toothbrush’ mustache, which is  considered an American importation, is a bristling appendage claimed by its possessors to have the advantage of being hygienic and convenient — virtues which should make a particular appeal to the Germans.
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“That it did make such an appeal is revealed by the fact that many German swells have of late applied the scissors to their ‘Kaiserbart’ and discarded the use of the ‘frixe mustache.’ The substitution, however has met with widespread resentment on the part of the fair sex. One German lady writes to the Berliner Tageblatt that she will no longer recognize her male acquaintances who wear ‘a toothbrush on their upper lips.’
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“ ‘Man is naturally very ugly,’ writes another. ‘The only natural adornment he ever had was his mustache, and that he is now ruthlessly mutilating. Instead of the peaceful hirsute ornament of the past he is marring his face with a lot of bristles.’ ”
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The fashion was certainly helped along by celebrity. A year before the New York Times story about the “American mustache” that had become all the rage, the newspaper chronicled the heroics of a young German military officer who won the “New York to Paris” round-the-world automobile race (he was later disqualified for cheating). Hans Koeppen was described as “31-years-old and unmarried. Six feet in height, slim and athletic, with a toothbrush mustache characteristic of his class, he looks the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”
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The ‘stache acquired nicknames. It was called the Rotzbremse, or “snot brake.” It was called the Fliege (fly),Zwiefinger (two-finger), and Chaplinbart, after its most famous wearer before it gained infamy on the lip of the Führer.

This was before the start of the War to End All Wars. When the war changed everything, it seemed to have changed the upper lip of a certain German corporal along

Hitler during World War I

Hitler during World War I

with it.

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There is no certain documentation as to when Adolf Hitler first adopted the wooly-worm balanced above his lip. There are several stories, none of which is certain.  The most common is that his broad-winged Kaiserbart could not fit efficiently into the gas mask he was required to don in the trenches of the Western Front, and so he was forced to snip it down to something that could squeeze in. There are several photographs of the corporal with a wide snifflebuster across his face. Post-war, it is gone.
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In her suspect autobiography, Hitler’s sister-in-law Bridget Hitler claimed that she couldn’t stand his spreading Kaiserbart whiskers and, in 1912, made him snip off its ends. But in doing so, she wrote, He went — as he did in most things — “too far.” The problem with this version is that photographs show him after 1912 with the handlebars on his cheeks.
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In all likelihood, he just picked the mustache because it was fashionable. He, too, could look “the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”
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Not that everyone liked it. In 1923 fellow Nazi party member Ernst Hanfstaengl claimed “the ridiculous little smudge … made him look as if he had not cleaned his nose.” He attempted to persuade Hitler to change it, telling him the style was by then unfashionable. Hitler’s answer: “If it is not the fashion now, it will be later,” he said, “because I wear it.” Boy, did he get that wrong.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

You have no idea.

Russia is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the 7-Eleven, but that’s just peanuts to Russia.

The largest nation by landmass on the planet, it covers 11 time zones (recently simplified — perhaps out of modesty — by the Russian government to 9 expanded zones) and 9 percent of the earth’s dry land. What remains of the former Soviet Union actually has more surface area than the former planet of Pluto. It spreads across the globe like Michael Jordan’s hand on a basketball.

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The Trans-Siberian railway, from Moscow to Vladivostok, is the  longest single line in world; it would take 152 hours, 27 minutes to traverse — nearly a week — to go from one end to the other — that is, if it ran on time, which it notoriously never does.

Despite the hugeosity of the land, Russia has less than half the population of the United States. In fact, it has a population density of less than 22 people per square mile, compared to 86 per square mile in the U.S. It is less than half the population density of Arizona (57/sq. mi.). Yet, this figure is misleading, because more than three-quarters of Russia’s people live in the European one-quarter of the country. The population density of eastern Russia, aka Siberia, approaches that of the area in Arizona north of the Grand Canyon.

 

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Even though the western quarter of Russia is just a sliver of the whole, even that western quarter occupies 38 percent of the land area of Europe. So, when we are talking big, we are talking big.

Most of the history of Russia, and most of its presence in the consciousness of the rest of the world can be found in that western quarter, the European Russia. Yet, even then, Russia has always had a whiff of the Asiatic about it. One thinks of those onion-dome churches or the long history of “Oriental despots” who have run things. For a large portion of Russian history, the land was ruled by the Mongols, a period known as “under the Mongol yoke,” controlled by that portion of them known as the Golden Horde, or the Tatars. Tatars remain a significant minority in the demographics of the Russian Federation.

But while the Tatars descended from the east to rule — or at least demand tribute from the Rus in Moscow, Kiev and Novgorod — in later centuries, the situation reversed, and Russian Cossacks returned the favor, invading and conquering the Russian East.

It is that huge expanse of sparseness that has fascinated me for many years; just what sort of land was it, what people lived there, what mythologies and religions did they live, how did they survive in the snowy emptiness?

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It is this vast expanse of Russia that interests me, because hardly anyone ever thinks about it, except in terms of the Gulag prisons and the exiles of so many Russian artists, intellectuals and political dissidents to the wastelands of Siberia — a term, by the way, as indistinct and poorly defined as “the frozen north,” or “ultima Thule.” For most Americans, Russia is the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, Moscow and Vladimir Putin. If they have a sense of history, they may remember Krushchev, Stalin, the czars, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. The mass of Russian history concerns European Russia — Russia west of the Ural Mountains. East, though — east is a vast land of pagan history and limitless forests and tundra. It is the source of 75 percent of Russia’s wealth, primarily in oil and natural gas, and the home of those few remaining indigenous peoples.

In many ways, Russian history is the mirror image of American history. We moved west, they moved east. We appropriated Native American lands, they did the same to the Yakuts, Nenets, Chukchis, and scores of other tribal groups. They did it through military conquest and the spreading of disease.

Until the 16th century, Russia was confined to the European part of the Eurasian continent, but beginning in 1581, the Cossack leader Yermak  Timofeyevich led an army of 1,600 into what was then the Khanate of Sibir, in southwestern Siberia, and began to lay siege to its cities (although “city” might be too strong a word: Estimates for the primeval population of Siberia put the population of the entire area at something like 300,000). Yermak died during the siege of Qashliq (near the modern city of Tobolsk), but over the next century and a half, the vastness of Siberia was brought under the control of the Moscow czars. Their primary interest in the area was economic, and in that, primarily in furs. Just as in the American West, hunters nearly exterminated the bison, in eastern Russia, the reindeer herds of nomadic indigenous peoples were nearly gone. (Recent policy changes have brought back the herds, just as the bison have been revived in the U.S.)

 

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Those tribal people who survived the genocide — there is no other word for it: At least 12 separate ethnic groups were wiped from the planet by the end of the 19th century — were forced to change their way of life, and learn Russian.

The conquering Russians, like their American counterparts, also used disease, if not consciously, at least to their benefit. According to historian John F. Richards, “New diseases weakened and demoralized the indigenous peoples of Siberia. The worst of these was smallpox because of its swift spread, the high death rates, and the permanent disfigurement of survivors. … In the 1650s, it moved east of the Yenisei, where it carried away up to 80 percent of the Tungus and Yakut populations. In the 1690s, smallpox epidemics reduced Yukagir numbers by an estimated 44 percent. The disease moved rapidly from group to group across Siberia.”

The Russian incursion into Siberia and the Far East (the official name for all of Russia east of the Ural Mountains) remains heaviest along the southern edge of the nation. The cities we think of in Siberia — Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk (I love those names: Saying them out loud is like chewing cabbage) — all hug the bottom of the map. Settlements that venture north tend to follow rivers, some of which are navigable in the summer and function as frozen roadways in the winter. The Trans-Siberian Railway follows that southern route. It has to.

 

 

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But the north; the frozen, vast, icy, north, spreading to the Arctic Circle and east to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the end of the line at Vladivostok — is 1.5 times the area of the Sahara Desert and the largest sparsely inhabited region in the world. The north half of the Kamchatka peninsula features a population density of only one person per every 6.2 square miles. Talk about swinging a cat and not hitting anything.

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When a meteorite (or comet or black hole) crashed into the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908, it hit with the force of 1,000 atom bombs of the size that destroyed Hiroshima, and flattened 770 square miles of taiga yet  somehow missed killing anyone at all.

Film director Werner Herzog fashioned a wonderful film about the area near the Yenisei River north of Krasnoyarsk, and the native Ket people, re-editing footage by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasukov into an atmospheric documentary that captures the vastness, drabness, emptiness and sublimity of the region, all to the soundtrack of his hypnotic voice-over. It is called, only half-ironically, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
When I was young, I don’t know how many times I visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York. As a boy and as a teenager, the planetarium and its adjacent American Museum of Natural History were anchors to my sense of the world. It wasn’t just the science I learned there (I quickly figured out that science required more math than I was willing to chew on); in fact, it was really the esthetics. I thought the photographs I saw of the stars and galaxies at the planetarium (and the bones and dioramas I saw at the museum) were the most beautiful things I knew. They gave me a nascent awareness of the sublime — a sense of the vastness and intensity of the universe and the tiny corner I inhabited. An affirmation that the sum of creation was not limited to the suburban banality I knew in northern New Jersey. That came as such a relief.
Those astrophotographs were the birth of an esthetic sense that has never left me.
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Long before the technicolor glories from the Hubble telescope, it was the now-primitive black-and-white photos from the Mount Wilson and Lick observatories that moved me. At the planetarium, they were glass transparencies lit from behind in a darkened corridor and it was the visual contrast between the texture of bright specks against an unfathomable black background that excited me. I have searched long for a book that would have those photographs in it, printed with a velvety black ink, to reignite that sense of wonder, but I’m afraid that like much in the childhood of any of us, such pleasures are unrecoverable.
Yet, I found something like that sense again in Phoenix, when, as the art critic for The Arizona Republic I followed the career of Mayme Kratz. One of the very first shows I reviewed for the paper, in 1987, was Kratz’s ”Vertigo Series” show at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, which was mostly paintings of falling or floating women. Between then and now, Kratz has grown considerably. Her art currently has more dimensions and, what is more, is better crafted.
One of the things I railed against on my journalistic soapbox was the proliferation of academic and didactic artists flailing away with titrations of French philosophy and installations espousing ideological points better made in political cartoons — such art giving us recipes instead of food, menus instead of meals. I longed for art that spoke to us about the experience of being alive, art that awoke me to the pleasures and pains of the existence I knew. Art not about art, but about life.
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Yet, to be successful as art, it needed to be more than pictures of pretty things, it needed to be abstracted to some degree, to be made metaphorical rather than literal, to have resonance, like the plummy sounds of a chorus of French horns. It couldn’t hit me over the head with a message, but rather elicit from my inner core something buried there — something I recognized when seeing the art. That harmonization of the inner as a mirror of the outer brings the viewer pleasure — even pleasure in the recognition of sorrow and loss, the pleasure in recognition of something shared, something profoundly human. This is what gives me so much utter pleasure in the works of Kratz.
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The analogy with the photographs of spiral galaxies is hardly arbitrary. What attracted me to the photographs was the contrast between texture and flatness — stars in the blackness. Both necessary. In the large Kratz wallhangings, there is the same: some textured bit of nature embedded in industrially smooth colored translucent resin. You can see in many of them, the buried seeds or shells have been sanded smooth to the surface of the resin and often as a result slicing the seed or shell in half, opening their innards to view, and thereby giving them a rough and spiny texture that contrasts with the polish of the resin.
There is also the organic nature of the embedded morsels versus the manufactured sheen of the framing acrylic. This balance of oppositions gives them an ambiguous subtlety. One feels the sensuous darts of the natural bits and the bland soothingness of the color that engulfs them.
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I have enjoyed the art of Mayme Kratz for decades now, and it is one of my regrets that, having moved away from Arizona, I no longer see her shows in person. Seeing them digitally online cannot suffice — the computer screen (or printed page) cannot convey the deep color, the physicality of the texture, or the scale — and it is their palpable presence that carries the resonance (I almost wrote “resin-ance.”) But I carry with me the remembrance of them, just as I do the glowing pictures of distant galaxies. They illuminate my life.
I have written about her work many times over the years, but I wanted to include the close of a review I wrote in 1998 for a show the artist had at the Lisa Sette Gallery, when it was still in Scottsdale:
“For most of these pieces are constructed out of the findings Kratz accumulates while walking. There are butterfly wings, moths, sunflowers, a wizened lizard and bee wings, in addition to an entire dead bird, the capstone to her 5-foot-tall mini-obelisk calledThis Bird. The piece captures the light and glows with life. The bird itself, half obscured in the foggy thickness of an amberlike resin, is spread-winged in imitation of flight, yet obviously no longer alive. The ambiguity is central to Kratz’s art.
“The work is always ravishingly gorgeous, but it is never about that. If anything, it is about death and loss, the passing of seasons and years, the process of living and dying. It all seems as fragile as the nests, as stinging as the thorns on the ocotillo.
“The dead bird is only one example. Other titles tell the tale: Late Summer, Winter of Listening, Lost and Found, Ending August,What Remains. There is a deep nostalgia in the work that is not cheap sentiment, but profound emotion.
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“In Out of Silence, the glistening cicada wings, like veins of silver, float in the darkness of the resin, and are seen, dimly, inside the work and not on its surface. You are forced to consider what is not obvious.
“Always, there is the sense of looking through the work, rather than at it, like kelp seen floating under the sea surface.
“ ‘What I deal with is a battle between dark and light, between what’s seen and what’s unseen,’ she once told me.
“It is work that is ambiguous without being obscure, subtle without being feeble, raw without being unfinished, emotional without being overwrought.
“And, most of all, it is beautiful without being pretty.”

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
The editor who hired me at The Arizona Republic, now almost 30 years ago, wore sandals to work at a time reporters were required to wear neckties — at least, the men were. He took a chance on me, though I had no genuine journalistic experience. He either saw something in me that even I didn’t see, or he was doing his best to subvert the cause of newspapers. Which way it turned out, I am not qualified to say, but I was the last street-hire in the history of the paper. Apres moi, le J-school degree.
Why I bring it up is that he looked at talent and intelligence according to a kind of ordinate-abscissa he concocted, in which the x-axis was a measure of intellectual depth, and the y-axis was width.
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“Everyone tends to be either one or the other,” he said. “It is rare to be both wide and deep.” He paused a moment and decided that perhaps Pope John-Paul II might count as both, a playwright and a theologian; he spoke 12 languages.
In centuries past, it was no party trick to be both wide and deep. In a world pre-specialization, a botanist could count as a philosopher and might write poetry on the side. Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote novels, poetry and was an experimental physicist. We remember Henry David Thoreau as a writer, but he made real scientific discoveries about plant succession. Even novelist Vladimir Nabokov discovered several new species of lepidoptera.
In the past, it was expected that an educated man would have a wide erudition, that he would know Latin and Greek, play a musical instrument, could draw with a clean line and perhaps discover the existence of oxygen, or the nature of lightning. Such expansive learning is nearly impossible now. There is too much to know about any field before you can make a significant contribution. Specialties require too much time, too many degrees.
In our own time, E.O. Wilson knows more about ants than any living human being, but he also knows a good deal about other aspects of science, and is a fluent and graceful writer of English prose.
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But Wilson stands out for his polymath catholicism. In this day and age, to earn a Ph.D. is largely to find some subject so small, so narrow and restricted, that you can become the world’s leading authority on it. “The use of macron and breve in 11th-century Bergundian prosody,” or “The internal coherence of a 12th dimension in 11-dimensional quantum string theory.”
I don’t want to make this too exclusive. I hardly know a scientist who has no interests at all outside his field. He or she might play the bagpipe on the side, or collect postage stamps from Eastern Europe. Physicians  traditionally play classical music. But such hobbies are relief from a life buried in vocational minutiae. The fact remains, it is nearly impossible to make a significant contribution to human understanding without diving so deep into a specialty that you suffer the bends if you attempt to resurface.
What is the benefit of all this submergence? For whom does the specialist toil? Certainly for career advancement, but that is little boon for the rest of us. The fact is, all this tunnel vision, by an army of specialists, works to better the lot of humankind, whether through vaccines, or finding ways of purifying water in subsaharan Africa or even faster, more efficient travel from one side of the continent to the other. Even the scholar who collates Medieval texts gives us a general advance in human knowledge. Someone has to give us the best version of Hamlet to perform.
Rather like the ants in one of E.O. Wilson’s colonies, the individual working so diligently at such a tiny corner of existence turns out to be a grain of sand in a great strand of accumulated beach. Does it benefit the specialist? Perhaps it makes his or her life richer, but perhaps, too, it can bore to death a pile of grandchildren whose interests lie elsewhere. The ultimate benefit is in the accumulation of all the tiny bits from all the specialists everywhere.
That’s where width really enters the equation.
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Someone has to put all the puzzle pieces together. And to do so requires the crossover strength of someone who may not grasp the finer details of molecular biology or the ballistic calculations behind a space probe, or the grammatical convolutions of rank and deference displayed in the Japanese language, but has just enough of the many parts to make wider sense of it all.
Width takes it all in from horizon to horizon. It may see only the surface, but it can make a useful map of those surfaces, find where they interrelate, how one advance can be applied to some unrelated field, suggest a possible consequence previously unintended, can discover that grand unified field vision that identifies an era as the “Age of Reason,” or the “Romantic Age,” or Victorian.
In some sense, I think of it as the eternal struggle in biological taxonomy between the so-called “lumpers,” and “splitters.” Lumpers find the similitudes, splitters the distinctions. So that, once a lion was classified as Felis leo — that is, a cat of the leonine kind. But splitters decided that there were two different kinds of cats, Felis and Panthera. The primary difference was that felid cats could purr and panthers could not, which means that cougars, although they are large, are considered “small cats” and were dubbed Felis concolor, and that lions were clearly in the latter group, and so the poor beast was renamed as Panthera leo. Not leaving well enough alone, the splitters then decided that perhaps the king of the beasts should have his very own genus, and renamed him Leo leo. (The rare or extinct Barbary lion subspecies was hence christened Leo leo leo, which sounds more like someone calling home a pet for dinner). Not everyone agreed; you still find cases of each being used, although most zoologists have backed off Leo leo and settled on Panthera leo. So much for Linnean naming conventions clearing up the ambiguities of popular names. The rest of us can just say, “lion.”
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The point being that in the perpetual friction between depth and width, there is the same back-and-forth. At times it is the aggregators who are in the ascendency, at other times, it is the specialists. In reality, you cannot do without both. The specialist makes the bricks that the generalist can use to build his edifice.
At this point in time, it is the specialists who hold sway, and they have a tendency to regard their opposites as mere amateurs, which, of course, they are. It is hard to be an amateur, as Benjamin Franklin was, and make a difference in genetics or astrophysics. But a brilliant amateur can often spot the analogies, find the hidden concurrences and make the synaptic zap between some advance in neuro-biology and another in political theory and synthesize something new. It is the generalists who ultimately validate the specialists.
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(I might make a plug here and point out that The Spirit of the Senses encourages such cross-discipline thinking and provides its members with access to some of the bricks being made by some state-of-the-art specialists.)
One might make the argument that it is in the arts that such cross-fertilization finds its best expression, that the subconscious of our cultural rationality is summed up and presented in the visual, verbal or kinetic arts. It is hard now not to find the reflection of Einstein’s relativity in James’ Joyce’s Ulysses or Picasso’s Cubism or Schoenberg’s serialism.
So, in this era of gene splicing and cyber programming, I would make a case for the liberal arts, for the generalist, the amateur, the synthesizer, the pattern finder, the wool-gatherer.
In other words, I would make the case for width in an age of narrow depth.

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

Between me and the rest of the earth, the rest of the solar system, the rest of the cosmos, is a thin membrane, infinitesimal by actual measurement, but infinite in its impassability. Outside this membrane you find all but one of the 7 billion people of the planet, all the dogs, cats, mosquitoes, all the edible plants, all the mountains, everything you come to experience in a lifetime; inside the membrane is you. It is the integument of selfhood. You can think of it as your skin, all organs and blood inside; all sidewalk and oak tree outside. But although its physical embodiment is your human hide, its psychological existence is something else. 

Neuroscientists are currently making all kinds of new discoveries about the origin of self — a sense of who you are, the nature of consciousness — and most of those involve the blasting of synapses in the brain. Consciousness may very well be an illusion created by flashing neurons. But we’ll let the scientists discuss what’s under the hood. I am more interested in the experience of consciousness, the feeling of self. Whether we exist merely as a pattern of nerves or not, the experience doesn’t RN-self2change. We live as if we were embodied souls, as the ghost in the machine. Knowing we are Pavlovian stimulus responders doesn’t alter the sense of being a sentient human individual. 

For each of us has this inexplainable sense that we are a pivot of consciousness, that we know ourselves not only at this moment, but know the same person we were in our past. There is a through-line, a narrative that can be told from birth to now, and that will continue until the story is over and the book is closed. We are not merely some sea urchin twitching to the alien touch of a passing lobster; there is more to it than stimulus and response. There is the “me.” And what is that? Again, I’m not looking for a clinical answer: That will come as we dissect more grey cells and discover the inevitable dreariness of it all. I mean, what is the “me” that we recognize and feel not only each morning as our feet hit the floor, but even at night in our dreams. It is, after all, “me” that is doing the dreaming.

RN-self3The most notable thing about the self is that although it is contained in a human body, it is more like Dr. Who’s Tardis — that is, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside. Inside, the mind is — in Andrew Marvell’s words, “that Ocean where each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find,” meaning that everything in the world is reproduced inside the mind, an interior reflection of the external world. Or, as Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” It is crowded inside the head. 

So, can something so immense really be contained in such a small bottle? The self is infinitely larger than the meat in which it is housed. And it is so insistent. Outside of a few psychological aberrations, the self is remarkably consistent. 

I remember as a young man talking to a friend who was having an “identity crisis,” and I had a difficult time understanding him. For I have always had a very secure and firm sense of who I was. I furrowed my brow: Who else could I be? How could I not know my identity? It’s right there with me constantly; I was born with it. I cannot escape it. I don’t doubt he was sincere; there are many recorded instances of people with such identity crises, but I cannot grasp quite what they are dealing with, because it seems identity is not something you choose, but comes with the packaging. 

In a comic way, we might recognize the “me” as the person driving the tank we move around in, looking out the eyehole, listening in on the headphone. We might imagine a homunculus inhabiting our skullcaps, pulling the levers and pressing the buttons, making the decisions whether to go right or left, whether to eat that old slice of salami — after all, it still looks OK. 

Yet, that misrepresents our sense of self. For it is more than a driver making choices. We feel ourselves in our confidence and in our timorousness, in our anger and in our sorrow. We feel the rest of our bodies are part of us, too. We feel the ache in our knee or the indigestion in our gut. That is part of our “self,” also. 

The problem is that we know very well that we are not simply our brains. We feel things in our gut, we bleed from our cut fingers, we poop daily and at moments, feel intense desire in other quarters. And it is clear that our conscious mind is only a small percentage of that self we seek. So much of what is us acts autonomically. We digest the salami, we pump blood without willing such. It is all part of us. 

Yet, the consciousness is what draws our attention. We feel that as humans, we are conscious in a way other animals are not. The sea urchin is in some sense conscious of the passing lobster, but unlike you or me, it is not aware that it is aware. We are. And what is that last gateway we have passed through that lets us know we are aware? That is the human consciousness. Now, it may turn out that porpoises or bonobos have something similar, but as yet, such has not been discovered. 

And more than that, we feel ourselves telescoped out into the world we inhabit. Consider something as mundane as parking your car. You cannot see the rear bumper, but you know — you feel — how far it projects out behind you, just as you know where your feet are even if you don’t look. If you are sitting at your desk writing and don’t like what is drawn out of your pen, you crumple the paper up and you can toss it into the wastepaper basket behind you without looking: You have a sense of your self in the room. 

I say the self is bounded by the skin, but that skin is a semi-permeable membrane. Some leaks out; some leaks in. 

The extent of self in space is vague and fluid; sometimes it stretches out, sometimes it retracts. It is as if you have a haze of selfness that acts as a nimbus around your physical being; it is what is tested when someone is uncomfortably close, invading your “personal space.” 

Then, there is the way you can actually leave your body and assume the thoughts and feelings of someone not yourself, as when you watch a film and weep uncontrollably when the character on the screen suffers some debilitating loss. The hero dies and we die with him — at least temporarily. We can protrude from our bodies like an amoebic pseudopod and take up residence in another, and can, like Bill Clinton, “feel your pain.” Empathy is the momentary disappearance of the wall of skin between one sentient being and another. All great art is based on this bit of ambiguity in the blueprint for human life. Indeed, whole religions are built on the perceived fictionality of human separation and individuality. At times of great stress and moment, we are most likely to recognize the commonality of human experience, the sense that we are “all one.”

This is, of course, at odds with that other and opposing truth of existence: that each of us is not one, but many. 

And there are the other selves you are surprised by, as when you need to haul out your sympathetic ear and instead the peevish you emerges, or when you need to fix the gutters and this lazy version of yourself makes excuses. The face we show to our boss is not the same one our underlings see. The ugly face that shows up in online comments is certainly darker than the one we smile at our mothers-in-law. 

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote about this and says:

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Chilean writer, France, 1971. (Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Chilean writer, France, 1971. (Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

When I call for a hero, 

out comes my lazy old self; 

so I never know who I am, 

nor how many I am or will be

I’d love to be able to touch a bell

and summon the real me,

because if I really need myself,

I mustn’t disappear.

We think of our self — our ego — as singular, but in reality its edge is fuzzy and indistinct, like the haze above hot grease, like the moon seen through overcast. If you try to pin it down, you can’t know its direction; if you know its speed, you cannot localize it. Personality is a quantum substance, both wave and particle.

 Our young selves are not our old ones; our morning selves, before coffee, are not our afternoon selves, or our night selves, after a few glasses of pinot. Our selves with our spouse is not our office self. The face we wear for public speaking is not the one we allow out when we stub a toe. Neruda wrote:

“Of the many men who I am, who we are,

I can’t find a single one;

They disappear among my clothes,

They’ve left for another city.”

We finally aggregate all these selves, like marbles in a leather pouch, and call them our self. It is a term of art, so to speak, a legal fiction so that when we sign our names on the dotted line, we confidently assert to the world outside our skin that it ourself we sign, our singular, conscious self. But if we permit ourselves the truth, we know it is a lie. 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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