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posts by Richard Nilsen

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by Richard Nilsen
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How many sides does a triangle have? Don’t be too quick; it’s a trick question.
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Usually, math is not thought of as something where you can have opinions over answers. It’s one of math’s most reassuring qualities.
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Too often, we take what we hear at face value. Facts turn out not to be facts. No one changed your family’s name at Ellis Island. Didn’t happen.
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These are not just myths, they are just things that sound like they could be true and so become embedded in our midden of common knowledge. No, Eskimos do not have 30 or 43, or 90 words for “snow.” Human beings do not use merely 10 percent of their brains. A triangle has three sides. This is all stuff for the Cliff Clavins of the world.
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Sometimes this stuff gets caught in our mental wheel spokes because we simply don’t look closely enough. Take the Fibonacci series. We are told that this interesting pattern of numbers governs much of what appears in nature, including the spiral patterns we see everywhere from whelk shells to spiral galaxies. The problem is, observation does not support this idea, at least not as it is usually presented.
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The series is created by starting with a zero and a 1 and adding them together, and continues by adding each new number with the previous, making the series: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. The series has many interesting properties, one of which is the generation of the so-called “Golden Section.”
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To the Greeks, the golden section was the ratio ”AB is to BC as BC is to AC.” It also generates the Fibonacci series and is said to define how nature makes spirals.
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Look at the end of a whelk shell, they say, or the longitudinal section of a nautilus shell, and you will see the Fibonacci series in action.
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Yet it is not actually true. When you look at whelks, you find spirals and the Fibonacci series creates a spiral, but the two spirals are quite different:
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The mathematical spiral opens up much more rapidly. The shellfish has a tighter coil. The whelk’s spiral makes roughly two turns for every turn the Fibonacci spiral makes. Math is precise, but nature is various.
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What I am most interested in here is not just the agon of conflicting beliefs, but rather the faith in mathematics, and the sense that math describes, or rather, underpins the organization of the world.
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I cannot help thinking, in contrast, that these patterns are something not so much inherent in Creation, as cast out from our brains like a fishing net over the many fish in the universe.
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Take any large string of events, items or tendencies, and the brain will organize them and throw a story around them, creating order even where none exists.
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Consider the night sky, for instance, a rattling jostle of burning pinpoints. We find in that chaos the images of bears and serpents, lions and bulls. Even those who no longer can find the shape of a great bear can spot the Big Dipper. The outline seems drawn in the sky with stars, yet the constellations have no actual existence outside the order-creating human mind.
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Our own lives — which are a complex tangle of events, conflicting emotions and motives — are too prodigal to fit into a single coherent narrative, even the size of a Russian novel. Yet we do so all the time, creating a sense of self as if we were writing autobiographies and giving our lives a narrative shape that makes them meaningful to us.
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We usually believe the narrative version of our lives actually exists. Yet all of us could write an entirely different story by stringing events together with a different emphasis.
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The question always arises: Are the patterns actually there in life and nature, or do we create them in our heads and cast them like a net over reality?
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The issue is central to a brilliant movie made in 1998 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky called Pi. In the film, a misfit math genius is searching for the mathematical organizing principle of the cosmos.
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His working hypotheses are simple:
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“One: Mathematics is the language of nature.
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“Two: Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
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“Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.
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“Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”
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The movie’s protagonist nearly drives himself nuts with his search until he cannot bear his own obsession anymore.
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But the film also questions in a roundabout way whether the patterns exist or not.
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In the film, when different number series — each 216 digits long — seem to be important, an older colleague warns our hero that, once you begin looking for a pattern, it seems to be everywhere.
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It’s like when you buy a yellow Volkswagen and suddenly every other car on the road is immediately a yellow VW. Nothing has changed but your perception.
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Mathematicians find patterns in nature, yet math itself is purely self-referential. It can only describe itself.
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As mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: “Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about nor whether what we are saying is true.”
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In other words, “one plus one equals two” is no different from saying “a whale is not a fish.” You have only spoken within a closed system. “A whale is not a fish” tells us nothing about whales but a lot about our language.
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It is a description of linguistic categories, rather less an observational statement about existence. Biology can be organized as a system of knowledge to make the sentence false — indeed, at other times in history a whale was a fish.
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Before Carl Linne, who created the modern biological nomenclatural system, there were many ways of organizing biology. In his popular History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1774 and reprinted well into the 19th century, Oliver Goldsmith divided the fish into “spinous fishes,” “cartilaginous fishes,” “testaceous and crustaceous fishes” and “cetaceous fishes.” A mackerel, a sand dollar and Moby Dick were all kinds of fish.
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Let’s face it, although the Linnaean system is useful, it is kind of arbitrary to organize nature not by its shapes, or where it lives, but rather how it gives birth or breathes.
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“One plus one” likewise describes the system in which the equation is true. It is only a tautology. Real knowledge is metaphorical, hence, “artists’ math.”
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Artists have a different way of counting, of doing arithmetic and of contemplating geometry. It’s what makes them artists.
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For an artist, one plus one equals three. It is a very clear formula: There is the one thing, the other thing, and the two together — a knife, a fork and a place setting. Three things.
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And a triangle has five sides. There are the normal three, and then the front and back. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. Cut a triangle from a piece of paper and hold it in your hand. Your thumb is on one side of the triangle and your index finger on the other. Add’em up: Five.
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Computer programmers talk about fuzzy logic as if they discovered it.
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It is artists who wake up each morning in a Gaussian blur, after all. It is artists who first understood that all numbers are irrational numbers.
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The primary difference between a mathematician’s logic and an artist’s is that the artist is unable to leave the world behind: The mathematician, the logician, the philosopher deal in abstractions; the artist deals in plums.
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The artist lives in a world of things. Real things: palpable, noisy, smelly, difficult and beautiful. He mistrusts any answers not rooted in them.
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The sentimental view of artists has them constructing “castles in the sky,” but the artist scratches his head over this, because to him, it is math and philosophy that are constructed out of thin air.
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“No ideas but in things,” wrote poet William Carlos Williams. Like the plums that were so cold and so delicious in his poem.
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Don’t get me wrong: One should not dismiss the practical world out of hand. It is good to know how to balance a checkbook, and artists’ math does not carry much clout with the bank.
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An artist is likely to use something called “gut mathematics.”
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The artist knows, as a banker usually doesn’t, that the shortest distance between two points is a leap of the imagination.
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She also knows that three is more interesting than four. It just is. Ask any artist.
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And when an artist talks of pie charts, she wants to know if it is cherry or lemon meringue.
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Like the old math gag: “Pi R square.” “No, pie R round, cake R square.”
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It’s fun to joke about artists’ idiosyncrasies, but there is a serious side to all this.
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When we see yammering faces on TV shouting each other down over ideology, the artist is the one who can remind us that the world isn’t made up of theory or system, but is made up of hubcaps and clamshells. Ideology means very little to an asparagus.
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The world falls into peril every time a system denies physical reality. It is abstractions, after all, that fueled the Cold War, abstractions that justify suicide bombing; it was theory that built Auschwitz.
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Artists remind us of flannel, of smoke, of mud. These are the things we share with our family and our friends. These are the things that ultimately count.
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No ideas but in things.
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It reminds me of a line written by the poet Tom Brown:
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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 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
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There is no city more photogenic than Paris. New York does well by the camera, too, but Paris has that je ne sais quoi. London hardly shows up on the camera map; Los Angeles only serves as a set for movies. But Paris is the City of Light and untold photographers have asked it to be their model.
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I’m not talking here of travel photos — those gaudy, sunny-skied brochure pictures — nor of the vacation snapshots we bring home to show friends, but photographs made by artists, trying to find the visual metaphor for city-ness or life, or an armature to hang their shapes, colors and textures. These are photographers for whom the purpose of clicking their shutters is to capture some human emotion or intricate design.
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The city is also lucky to have had many photographers whose names are intimately tied to it and whose images have practically defined Paris for many of us. New York City may have had Joel Meyerowitz and Weegee, but Paris had Charles Marville, Eugene Atget, Brassai, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, among many others.
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The earliest known photograph to contain an image of a human being was made in Paris in 1838 by Louis-Jacques Daguerre (the exposure was so long, no one on the busy street registered on the plate but a man standing still to have his shoes shined).
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So many others: Edouard Boubat; Jeanloup Sieff; George Hoyningen-Huene; Guy Bourdin; William Klein; Germaine Krull; Lucien Clergue; Gisele Freund; Edouard Baldus; Hippolyte Bayard; and Nadar (Gaspard-Felix Tournachon) who made the first aerial photos of Paris, from a gas-filled balloon in 1858.
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The greatest of the early photographers who have given us our Paris is Atget (1857-1927), a strange little man who took upon himself the project of archiving images of a city he saw disappearing before his eyes. The old city was giving way to the modern, and he dragged his camera all over the city to capture buildings, streets, doorways, windows, door knockers, fences — even peculiar trees and people. His work was little regarded as anything but the hobby of an eccentric, until American photographer Berenice Abbott discovered him as an old man, and bought his surviving prints and negatives and persuaded galleries and museums to exhibit them.
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But Atget was not the first to try to document old Paris. In 1851, author Prosper Mérimeé commissioned the Missions Héliographiques, to photograph French monuments needing restoration. He hired five photographers: Baldus, Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and Auguste Mestral, who divided up the city and surrounding country to create a catalog.
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Better known is the work of Charles Marville (1813-1879), named official photographer of Paris in 1862, who was hired to photograph the city before the radical urban renewal undertaken by Baron Haussmann (the prototype of Robert Moses), who widened boulevards and tore down slums and narrow alleys.
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During La Belle Epoque, Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) began photographing at the age of seven and captured life in Pre-WWI Paris. As an adult, he mostly gave up photography to be a painter, but it is the irrepressible pictures he made as a boy that he is remembered for.
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   After the War to End All Wars, Paris became the home of emigres and artists. A Hungarian, who called himself Brassai (1899-1984), came to love the bohemian underworld of the city and between the wars made the memorable photos of bars, prostitutes, artists and the city at night. His most famous book, Paris de Nuit (1933) practically invented the way we see the Paris of Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Henry Miller.
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In 1925, another Hungarian, André Kertész (1894-1985), moved to Paris and carved out a career as a photojournalist with an experimental and artistic bent, often using unusual angles and designs. He later moved to the U.S., but his Paris is one of the visual landmarks of the century.
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Robert Doisneau (1912-1994) began photographing in the late 1930s, but the war interrupted his career and it is his photographs from the 1950s and after that are his legacy — a collection of photographs of visual puns, gentle mimicry and humanist concern. His jokes are never simply gags, but moments captured seemingly at random while people do the things that people do.
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It is that instant, called the “decisive moment” by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) that define his work. One of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th Century, HCB, as he is sometimes called, filled his inch-by-inch-and-a-half Leica frame with designs so perfect, they seemed assembled like jigsaw puzzles. He intended to catch the perfect interaction of subject and motion to make a photograph that stands on its own as art, even when commissioned as an illustration to a magazine story or book.
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This is all a very short precis of Parisian art photography. There is so much more to say about it, including Richard Avedon’s use of the city as a backdrop to his animated fashion photos of the Fifties, and the crazy energy of the often out-of-focus black and white of William Klein. Or the photographs Swiss-born Robert Frank made in Paris before he moved to the U.S. and defined Eisenhower’s era in his book, The Americans(1958).
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Of course, Paris is a perfect subject for a camera. Many cities are interchangeable, and dropped into their downtowns unannounced, you would be hard pressed to tell which city it was. But Paris is unquestionably Paris, to the point of almost being a parody of itself. There is romance:
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There is the eucharist of bread and wine:
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When you enter Paris with your camera, you find there is little change between then and now:
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There are cafes, markets, fountains, boulevards, architecture and, most of all, people. The camera still has plenty to make a meal of.
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I’ve been to the city many times, and have made thousands of photographs, and almost every one of them says the one word, whispered in my welcoming ear: “Paris.”
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Perhaps you have a different favorite. Perhaps it is Rome that holds you tight, or Prague, or Dayton, Ohio. The job is to use your eyes and your lens to find what defines that spot, not only on the map, but in your affections and mind. Manhattan is surprisingly filled with trees; Chicago has its trains; New Orleans is framed by bridges; and Las Vegas is … well … very much itself.
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Even Phoenix has its visual soul, although it is often fried by the Sol. Take your camera out (or your phone — I know a photographer who has published an entire book of photographs of Havana taken entirely with his iPhone. The images are stunning). It matters less if it is Johannesburg, South Africa, or downtown Phoenix. There is something for the frame.
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Although in my book, Paris beats them all.
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Click on any image to enlarge
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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 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

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There is hardly a buzzword more ubiquitous these days among thinking people than “empathy.” From Oprah to Dr. Phil, it is the panacea for the world’s psychological ills and the quality that the bad portions of existence most lack.
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The problem for us is that any time a word becomes so widely used, it surrenders its meaning and becomes a hollow ringing in our ears. Just take those other frequent labels, “conservative” and “liberal.” Those who label themselves conservative have little in common with the conservatism of Edmund Burke — in fact, their small-government position is classically  labeled “liberal.” And in reaction, “liberal” has just been a pejorative tossed around aimlessly, forcing those on that side of the aisle to find a new word — “progressive” — to wear as a badge. “Liberal” may nowadays satisfactorily be defined as “Nyah-nyah.”
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And so with “empathy.” It is one of those words that is understood differently by each, meaning that we all agree it is a good thing, without ever agreeing on what it is. It is a “safe” word to rally behind.
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Empathy is whatever we mean by it. Perhaps it is best understood as an umbrella term, covering many virtues and many sins. Sometimes we use the word when we really mean “sympathy,” or “pity” or “compassion.” Or just the willingness to listen.
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While strictly speaking, to empathize means to share the feelings of someone else, it is more commonly used in a more metaphorical sense: to share the beliefs, ideas and prejudices of some other person or group. In that way, I can “empathize” with the plight of American Muslims or the LGBTQ community.
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In this version, it has been defined as: “being aware of and understanding another person’s feelings or other inner states.” This isn’t truly empathy, however valuable and virtuous it be. We can “know” another’s situation without taking on its burdens as our own. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is a good thing, but it isn’t quite the same thing as “empathy.”
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Empathy is actually feeling the pain, emotions or suffering of others, as if they were our own. A classical example is watching a child fall off a bicycle and skin her knee and feeling an electrical pang in our own knee, and perhaps rubbing our own knee while we wince.
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That is a kind of autonomic empathy, a muscle empathy. We might also feel that watching ballet and feeling the torsioned muscled of the dancers in our own legs. I know that I have at times needed something like liniment the day after attending the dance.
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There is a second version of empathy that we get from seeing the emotions of others, like sympathetic vibrations in a violin string. It may be from seeing the weeping students on TV after yet another school shooting, and we weep too. Or from seeing a drama and feeling the fellow suffering of the protagonist.
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But there is also a kind of intellectual empathy, which is coming to understand the suffering and its cause. We imagine what it must be like. I liken this to the distinction Samuel Coleridge makes between primary and secondary imaginations. The primary is spontaneous, isn’t even thought of as an imagination, but simply as perception. We use that imagination when we see a tree rather than branches and leaves: In other words we gestalt the danged thing.
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The secondary imagination, he says, is like the primary, except that it is voluntary. We do it on purpose — “an echo of the of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation,” as Coleridge puts it.
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It is what we do when we make metaphor: find the unseen correspondences, hidden similitudes. And in empathy, it is when we parse out the cause and effect of the emotions of others to come to understand them.
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There is another distinction to be made between emotional empathy and this intellectualized version, which is that knowing what someone else is thinking or feeling may be used by the unscrupulous to gain advantage. The psychopath — a Ted Bundy, for instance — is often a good reader of someone else’s thoughts or feelings, but he doesn’t share those feelings. For this reason, some may disallow this version as actual empathy.
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We can spot those who lack empathy by several warning signs: 1) Frequency of finding oneself in prolonged arguments; 2) Forming opinions early and
defending them vigorously; 3) Thinking that other people are overly sensitive; 4) Refusing to listen to other points of view; 5) Blaming others for mistakes; 6) Not listening when spoken to; 7) Holding grudges and having difficulty forgiving; 8) Inability to work in a team.
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Does this sound like anyone we know?
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We tend to think of empathy in individual cases. To paraphrase: When one person suffers, it is a tragedy; when thousands suffer, it is a statistic. And so, in art, we tend to think of Oedipus or Willy Loman and empathize with their fates. And so much art has been about the suffering of the artist.
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But there is a classical form of empathy, too: the empathy of the human condition. We can feel for the pain of all life. Schubert’s String Quintet fills us with emotion for his suffering; Haydn’s Seven Last Words for the suffering that humankind is born into. It is empathy at a remove: felt, but also understood.
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In my experience, there are two things that foster empathy: One is age and experience. The older I get, the more I find myself feeling the pain of others and wanting to ameliorate that suffering. This is not simply a moral outrage at injustice, but rather a fellow-feeling that comes over me, now that I am in my seventh decade of drawing breath.
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(It has been suggested that the mechanism for this is either the existence of grandchildren and the thought of life heading into an uncertain future; or it is the loss of testosterone in senescence.)
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The other seed of empathy is art. When we give ourselves over to a novel, or a play or to music, we are given a direct pipeline to that which is not ourselves, or which is ourselves but we haven’t previously had access to that part.
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As author Neil Gaiman says, “A book is a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out of the world through somebody else’s eyes. It’s very hard to hate people of a certain kind when you’ve just read a book by one of those people.”
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Percy Shelley took this ability of art to put us in someone else’s existence as the root source of human morality. It is the core message of his Defence of Poetry.
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“The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.”
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It is the imagination, he says, that is “the great instrument of moral good.”
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Poetry (and by this he means all art) “strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”
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He argues that art is not moral because it is didactic. It does not give us rules to live by, but rather opens our experience to the wider world and reenforces our connection — our “oneness” — with it.
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Joseph Campbell notes something of the same when he quotes the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “How is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another that without thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life to the other? How can it happen that what we normally think of as the first law of nature and self-preservation is suddenly dissolved?”
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Schopenhauer answers his own question: “Psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, which is that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life, and that your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life. This is a metaphysical truth which may become spontaneously realized under circumstances of crisis.”
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It is something that can also be realized, sometimes even unconsciously, while reading a book, watching a dance, seeing Michelangelo’sPieta or Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion or Goya’s Third of May, 1808 or Picasso’s Guernica. Listening to Bach’s Matthew Passion or Brahms’ German Requiem.
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Each of us is an island, and we will never know the world if we don’t occasionally get off our tiny spot in the vast ocean. Read more. See more. Feel more.
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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 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
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While Juno was asleep, the great god Jupiter brought Hercules, the illegitimate baby he sired on Alcmene, to suckle on the breast of his sister-wife and thus become immortal. But the baby bit down too hard on her nipple and Juno woke with a start and pushed the child away from her, leaving her milk to spew into the heavens, creating the Milky Way. The 16th-Century Venetian artist Tintoretto painted the scene in the 1570s.
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At least, that’s one version the Romans told. In another, told by Eratosthenes, Juno woke to see the love-child of her husband at her teat and in anger and jealousy, threw him down: same result.
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But there are many versions of the origin of the Milky Way, or galaxy, as it was known. In one, the sun, which circles the daytime sky from east to west, leaves behind a trail of sparks which are seen at night as the Milky Way.
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Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, says it is a road lined with the homes of the gods, the way the Palatine Hill in Rome was home to the wealthy elite.
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 The Roman word for the streak of light across the sky is Via Lactea, or the Milk Road, although they more commonly called it “Galactos,” or Galaxy, from the Greek Γαλαξίας κύκλος (Galaxias Kyklos) — “Milky Circle.”
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In his magnum opus, Astronomica, the Second Century Latin poet Manlius catalogs many versions. One suggests the Milky Way is the seam where the two half-globes of the heavens are welded. Or it might be the abode of the souls of heroes who have died. He noted the bioluminescent glow of a ship’s wake and surmised the bright path in the night sky might be the same.
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Or, he cites Democritus from the Fifth Century BCE, that it might be the accumulation of myriad stars too faint to see individually. Which is surprisingly the way we know it now.
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The Milky Way is a spiral collection of stars in a Frisbee disc about 180,000 light years across — that is more than a million trillion miles (yes, a million, one trillion times over). It contains between 100 billion and 400 billion stars (counting is hard because of dust obscuring parts, and also because counting that high is exhausting). And it is one of billions of similar collections of stars in the visible universe. Each is called a galaxy.
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The sun and earth sit about halfway out from the center of the circle and spin around the galactic center about once every 240 million years, traveling at a speed of 140 miles per second.
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That spiral shape is iconic, and found over and over in nature, like in the cloud spiral of a hurricane.
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But as I was going to say when truth broke in with all her astonishing matter-of-fact, it is the mythology of the Milky Way that is found in religion and poetry. The spilled milk is common to many cultures, but it is not the only primordial explanation for the spew of light that courses the heavens.
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In China, it is the Silver River; in Japan, the River of Heaven. The Sanskrit name is the Ganges of the Sky. In Scandinavia, it is called theVintergatan or “Winter Street,” because it can be seen only in the winter, since the long summer days never darken black enough at night to make it visible. In Medieval Europe, it was known as “The Road to Santiago,” as it was used to guide pilgrims to the church of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. (Conversely, the actual road to Compostela the pilgrims walked was called La Voje Ladee, or “The Milky Way.” And Compostella itself bears a folk etymology from Latin: field of stars.)
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In Australia, one Aboriginal peoples in Queensland consider the streak of light as a swarm of termites blown into the night by primordial hero Bur Buk Boon, through a hollowed log that became the first didgeridoo.
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In ancient Babylonia, the god Marduk sliced off the tail of the evil dragon Tiamat and threw it into the sky, forming the Milky Way.
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 After the Milky Way, the second most common name is “The Birds’ Path,” after a belief that migrating birds used the glow in the night sky to navigate. It is called that in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkey, Kazakhstan, parts of Ukraine and Poland, and in variation in the Tatar language.
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When you build a campfire at night and poke the logs, a cloud of sparks fly up with the smoke. In Spanish, these sparks are chispas, in French, étincelles, in Latin, scintillae. (In Vulgar Latin, this became ‘scintilia, into Medieval French as estancele and hence our word, “tinsel.” Who knew?) I imagine those flying sparks in my imagination continue upwards, blowing and whirling, to become the band of scintillae in the sky.
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There are those of scientific mind, and those of esthetic. In school, my best friend was a math and science whiz — we called him “Gizmo.” We shared an interest in astronomy, although his was objective and filled with numbers, and mine was a delight in the vastness, the beauty and the cosmic. Giz had a Criterion Dynascope 6-inch reflecting telescope and we spent many nights pointing the thing at the sky, looking at the rings of Saturn or the craters of the moon. And the nebulae, including the fuzzy spot in the sky we call the Andromeda Galaxy. To this day, on a dark moonless night, I can still make out with my naked eye among the buckshot of stars, the sublime blur in the sky.
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I would spend hours at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, part of my spiritual home a the American Museum of Natural History. It is much changed now, rebuilt as the Rose Center. I loved the old halls, including the black-light murals, the orrery, the meteorites, the scales to compare your weights on other planets and the famous sign:
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But most of all, I loved the photographs. Black and white images taken with the Wilson and Palomar observatories’ telescopes, framed and lit from behind to make them glow. The image of the Andromeda Galaxy was stunning.
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It may be hard to conceive the magic those old images had, now that we are so used to the full-color pictures sent down to us from the Hubble Telescope in orbit. Those images are stunning, even though they are often presented to us in false color.
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But the real thing can be even more awe inspiring than the pictures. I remember a night I spent north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, in back country 60 miles from the nearest paved road, on the way to the Toroweap Overlook. The night sky was intense; I sensed stars numbered in Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions.”
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At 6:30 exactly, with the sun already below the planet’s edge, the first star came out, directly overhead. It was Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The rest of the sky is still a glowing cyan with an orange wedge in the west.
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So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I hadn’t seen so many stars since I was a child. The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius.
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I sat on the car hood, leaning back with my head against the windshield and looked straight up. For two-and-a-half hours I sat there, looking up, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look.
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What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. As I reclined on the hood, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars.
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And, of course, I was. It was true. I was having my vision, as it were. But it is my particular stubborn sensibility that my vision turned out to be factual. This has happened to me before. Each time I enter the visionary world, it turns out that the transforming image I am given is grounded in simple fact.
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I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent.
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When my joints were finally too stiff from sitting in one position for so long, I decided it was time to sleep. I crawled in the tent and dozed off in the silence.
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At 3:30 in the morning, awakened by coyotes and owls, I got out of the tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled.
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The night went on like that: One sense input after another, so busy through the nocturnal time-sluice that I hardly got any sleep at all. At 6 in the morning, the coyotes yowled again, and the east was whitening, although the sun was behind the mesa. It had rained briefly during the night and when I drew open the tent flap, I saw the blue sky patched with gray-brown clouds, and dangling from one of them was a rainbow. It was not much more than a yellowish bright spot against the angry cloud, but I saw its familiar arc and promise.
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Astronomy has moved ahead, working with computer images now instead of photographic plates. Perhaps because I grew up and became a writer rather than a scientist, I miss the awe and beauty of those million-dotted pictures, glowing white hot, like Moses’ bush, and giving a visual, esthetic image of the majesty and immensity of the universe.
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The great color images from the Hubble telescope have replaced the old Mt. Wilson pictures in the popular imagination of most younger students, giving a newer, more rainbowed sense of the awe of the universe. Like so much else, the images have become just more “media.” They are too pretty.
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But for me, there is the reality of a night sky that city lights blot away, leaving us only with the snapshots. The spinning Milky Way traversing the inner dome of heaven and the spatter of stars, so far away they cannot be measured in any sense meaningful to our lives on this planet, are the very ground of reality.
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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 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 world’s most famous novel addresses war and peace, but it begins, oddly, in a lady’s salon in St. Petersburg.
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Anna Pavlovna had sent out the invitations: “If you have nothing better to do, Count (or Prince) … I shall be very charmed to see you tonight between 7 and 10.”
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Then: “Anna Pavlovna’s drawing-room was gradually filling. The highest Petersburg society was assembled there.” Subjects of great pitch and moment were discussed among the men and women, including war and peace.
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In the novel, it is 1805 and near the end of two centuries of such salons, almost always run by women, and a gathering place for the best and brightest —  philosophers, writers, politicians and theologians.
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Their purpose was, as laid down by the Roman poet Horace, “aut delectare aut prodesse” — “to entertain and to educate.” All across Europe, such gatherings were where the latest ideas were hashed out, usually by the people with the means and power to bring them to practical fruition.
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It was in these salons, and their all-male counterpart, the coffeehouses, that the Enlightenment took shape.
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In recent years, Justine Kolata has attempted to resurrect the salon in contemporary London, in a group called The Public Sphere. She explains those of the

Justine Kolata

18th century: “They took place in the private homes of bourgeois women opened to a public, and occurred regularly, usually every week but sometimes every day, often over an extended meal for a group of approximately 20 to 40 people. Salons typically had a dedicated core membership, but were always open to new participants and contributors. Ideas and works in various subjects from science, philosophy, and politics to literature, art, and morality were vigorously debated in the salon.”

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Further, she says, “Some salons were focused on specific philosophical, cultural and political themes, while others remained generic. … Salons were far more than pleasant social gatherings; they were serious spaces for intellectual projects and advanced ambitious utopian ideals.”
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Sound familiar?
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Historian Susan Herbst writes: “Strong women remade the salons. They became central information nodes in the communication network that was 18th century Paris. Salons were soon news agencies, workshops for writers and centers for patronage. Many of the salonnières worked actively to make their gatherings simulate the classroom. Although discussion was the key mode of communication at the salon, lecturing followed by close questioning of the speaker was not uncommon… Women used the salons strategically to learn, to be entertained and to escape the boredom that characterized many of their lives.”
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It is said the central drives of human life are food, shelter and procreation, but there is another: the drive to learn. We too often think of education as something provided for children, continuing perhaps through college, but then having been fully formed, we go out into the world to make our way. But the fact is, we never stop learning, or more important, wanting to learn. That can be by study or by experience. It can be as simple as learning how to plant potatoes or as complex as parsing Sanskrit.
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The formal salon was originated in Europe among already educated classes, but the desire to learn is not so restricted. In the United States, a more democratic version grew. Middle-class people, wanting to better themselves, attended the lyceum or the chautauqua, where they paid to hear lecturers discuss subjects from history to travel to what we would now call “life hacks.”
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During this period, primarily the middle years of the 19th century,  these lyceums were established for the purpose of improving the social, intellectual, and moral fabric of society. They featured lectures, dramatic performances, class instructions, and debates, by noted lecturers, entertainers and readers. It was possible for someone to make a living traveling the lecture circuit, traveling from town to town or state to state to entertain, speak, or debate in a variety of locations, never staying in one place for too long. Their appearances were open to the public, which caused them to contribute significantly to the education of the adult American in years before and after the Civil War.
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Later in the century and into the early years of the 20th, the lyceum gave way to the chautauqua, which was traditionally held over several days under a tent, rather like a religious revival meeting. Speakers were often inspirational or reformist, touting such things as temperance, women’s rights, and moral uplift. Often, there was music: bands or spirituals. (It was in the chautauquas that white middle-class northerners were exposed to African-American music beyond the insulting parodies of the minstrel shows).
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The chautauqua began in 1874 on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York State. It was known as the “Mother Chautauqua,” because there were soon many “daughter chautauquas” springing up around the country.
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“Given the values, technology and geography of its time,” wrote educator Peter Feinman, “Chautauqua was perfectly designed as an instrument of hope and progress through education for the people of America.
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“The Chautauqua founders recognized that many middle-class Americans with no access to higher education, especially in rural areas, were thirsting for knowledge in an accessible format.
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“It brought people new things to talk about: For a brief moment a small town could become a cultural center linked to the larger world, much as radio, movies, television and the Internet would later do.”
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Theodore Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
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They were an alternative entertainment to the vaudeville shows, a kind of middle-brow version of highbrow. Eventually, though, the vaudeville won out and the chautauquas faded. (They do still exist, in reduced form).
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Yet, the desire for adult education did not cease. An America striving for improvement, moral and intellectual, found other means, including the Carnegie libraries, and later, the Book of the Month Club (founded in 1926) and the Literary Guild (founded in 1927). There were the Harvard Five-Foot-Shelf and the rise of popular encyclopedias — Compton’s and Funk and Wagnall’s, among others.
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But even the salon concept persisted — and still persists. In the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Logan Roberts and Georgia Douglas Johnson brought together the stars of African-American culture and literature.
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And now, groups in England, such as Salon London, The Public Sphere and Pindrop Studios continue the tradition. And in the Arab world, salons in private homes offer women the chance for learning, and allowed for mixed-gender socializing. Within the confines of the salon, the free-flow of conversation and reciprocity is encouraged, and a sense of equality is fostered.
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Keith David Watenpaugh writes in his 2006 book, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism and the Arab Middle Class of  the opulent evenings spent in a Syrian salon: “Wearing either all black or all white dresses ordered from Paris, Marrash hosted the mixed evening get-togethers in which literary topics as varied as the Mu’allaqat, a cycle of seven pre-Islamic poems or the work of Rabelais were discussed. Chess and card games were played, and complicated poetry competitions took place; wine and ’araq flowed freely; participants sang, danced, and listened to records played on a phonograph.”
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And Iranian author Azar Nafisi wrote about discussing Western authors in a salon group in her best-selling book, Reading Lolita in Tehran.
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The lust for learning is unquenchable. Hence the popularity of TED Talks, the rise of The Great Courses and streaming Great Courses Plus, and the flow of

Amanda Podany; Great Courses

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Horace had it right: entertain and educate. The two are not at odds. To an inquisitive mind, little is as entertaining as learning. We should not be shy about the power of being amused.lectures and panel discussions telecast on C-Span Book TV and now, C-Span History TV, which fill up the Congress-free weekend hours.
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I remember my college roommate who said the goal of life is to be amused. He meant nothing shallow by this: His idea of amusement was to enter the Peace Corps for two go-rounds, and spent seven years in Korea. He spent his time learning Korean, Japanese and Mandarin — to add to his collection of Spanish, German and Italian. He later got his graduate degrees in Spanish Linguistics and wound up teaching at Indiana University. Amusement was never sitting in front of a TV watching sitcoms and eating Doritos.
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Being amused, in this sense, is being engaged, being connected to the world, being interested. It leads to cosmopolitanism and a drastic reduction in bigotry, prejudice and ignorance.
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Finally, on a personal note, I always felt I learned a great deal preparing and talking to the members of the Spirit of the Senses. I miss that very much.  My hunger is not quenched.
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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 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
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I am not smart enough to have a meaningful opinion about Artificial Intelligence. I’m not sure anyone is.
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Thought on the matter is all over the place: Savior of humankind; destroyer of the world; future slavemaster of downtrodden muggles; insurer of the easy life; purloiner of jobs; next stop on the evolutionary bus.
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It may give us gifts in health care, transportation and scientific research, but it also can fuel mass surveillance, false news, robocalls, and online phishing attacks.
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Supporters say that AI will help the military make battles more precise and accurate, reducing both civilian death and harm to soldiers; but for the same reason, it also could wind up making wars more frequent.
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Ethics is a primary concern, but as one corporate spokesman pointed out, “Ethics is in the eye of the beholder.”
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One of the problems is that the subject is so huge, and so multifarious, that even experts tend to specialize in this area or that, meaning that the whole is the elephant and the blind men. Another problem is that we seem to be at the threshold of the subject: If you were to predict in 1957 where the microchip would take us, I doubt you would have foreseen millions of teenagers with their faces lit celadon by the screens of their iPhones while they play Pokemon Go, or take photos of each other with bunny ears or cat whiskers.
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Or that the biggest outrage of etiquette at a symphony concert or opera would be the uninvited sound of a ringtone — always at the most inopportune moments.
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But the biggest problem is that we cannot decide what intelligence actually is. Whether it is artificial or natural hardly matters, if we cannot agree on what we mean by the word.
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Robot thinker artificial intelligence progress pop art retro style. Antique pose. science fiction and the robot character.

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There are so many kinds of intelligence, ranging from mathematical genius to the spatial sense of certain athletes who can put a 9.4-inch ball through an 18-inch hoop from the three-point line — whoosh. Or the ability of certain people to empathize or read facial expressions, or to find directions instantly in a new city — without the help of GPS.
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For the masses, intelligence is about how much you know. If you can win at Jeopardy, you must be smart. Well, perhaps you need to have a quotient of intelligence to learn so much, but the information is not the intelligence. It is merely a byproduct. There’s a lot of people who know a lot who you scratch your head over because they just don’t seem all that bright. A good memory is one thing … but only one thing.
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Proponents of AI tell us that given time, there will be digital parallels to all these faces of intelligence. Computer prophet Lawrence Tesler first noted this in the 1970s, when he proposed his theorem: “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.”
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Opponents cling on to the belief that there is something special about the human mind that can never be duplicated synthetically. (Neurobiologists seem to keep finding evidence contradicting that proud belief — perhaps the brain really is only a supercomputer; perhaps we recognize faces the same way a street camera in London does.)
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Judging by the past, the future will just be a continuous incremental nibbling away of what we think makes us human.
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Or perhaps, the future will sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll pea pack.” Will you have to give every phone call a Turing test? How many men already have erotic dreams about Siri or Alexa?
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If AI can fully mimic human intelligence, will it be able to forget what it knows? Forgetting is an important human quality; it makes forgiveness possible.
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So, what is intelligence? I was once asked that by a fresh-faced young woman after a panel discussion I was part of.
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I said at the time that for me, intelligence can best be found in forgetting. I called it “volitional ignorance,” or a willed erasure of everything you know. I still believe this: to learn anything new, you have to unlearn what you already thought you understood: What you know prevents learning.
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People create for themselves a model of reality, or more accurately, many models. These models derive from experience. When anything new makes itself felt, it is immediately tested against the model most appropriate.
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If no model is right, the new fact can be dealt with in one of two ways. Most commonly, it is squeezed into the model like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The new is shaved and jiggered until it conforms with what we already know. In the end, we have learned nothing; we may only have renamed what we already knew.
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William Blake made this a centerpiece of his poetry and his way of understanding the world. “Man by his reasoning power can only compare and judge of what he has already perceiv’d,” he wrote. “From of perception of only three senses or three elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth. … and would soon be at the ratio of all things and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”
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But intelligence is what makes us throw out the old category rather than mangle the nonconforming fact.
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And those who are genuinely brilliant throw out the categories before even considering the new fact. This is what I mean by “volitional ignorance.” It forces us to reinvent the wheel every single time and is the only way to discover anything genuine about the problem of wheels.
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Something of the same is sometimes called “zen mind/beginner’s mind” and means that you accept the experience fresh and start for yourself rather than relying on the culturally accepted model.
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The young woman said at the time, “You mean, like coloring outside the lines,” and I agreed. But I soon realized, I was doing exactly what I said I shouldn’t. I was using a cliche to understand something beyond conventional tropes.
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For it is not like coloring outside the lines, not at all.
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When she said that, she was in fact squeezing my square peg into a round hole, translating what I was saying into something she already understood.
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We all do this constantly, and I am not criticizing her for it. I am frequently guilty of the same thing. In fact, we cannot do otherwise without becoming yammering idiots. A certain amount of structure is needed to function in our daily lives: We cannot question the egg at every breakfast.
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But still, intelligence is the ability to get past the quotidian. I call the ignorance “volitional” because it is something I make a choice about. Those who are forced to see everything fresh at every second of their lives are called schizophrenic; they cannot edit the information coming into their brains.
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Yet, we need to be able to allow ourselves to enter that state on cue if we are ever to learn anything new and genuine.
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Coloring outside the lines implies a disregard of the structure of the drawing we are coloring. Intelligence doesn’t mean the mere disregard of structure, but the discovery of yet another structure, as if, looking up at the night sky, we were able to ignore all the constellations and create new ones, entirely our own and what is more, that the ones we create are better and truer than the old ones, just as the Big Dipper is easier to see than the Great Bear.
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There are also several other aspects of intelligence that need mentioning, I think, although they are all related.
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First is that intelligence can apprehend the similarities of disparate things. It recognizes in what way the horse is the same as the fork. It makes us transcend the accepted categories of things and redefine the categories. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the categories “mammal” and “silverware,” we might discover that through human history, both horse and fork have been used as parts of the common category “tool.”
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Or perhaps: four legs; four tines.
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“A vast similitude interlocks all,” thought Walt Whitman standing on the beach at night and imagining the planets and comets spinning over his head.
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I remember a segment on Sesame Street where they played the game, “Three of these things are kind of the same,” where they show us four items and ask which doesn’t belong, and which three do belong.
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In this case, they had a red ball, a tomato, a green apple and a ruddy pear. Well, there are four different answers: The ball is not edible; the apple is not red; the pear is not round; and the tomato was not known in Europe before Columbus: Each is different in its own way.
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The ability to see multiple answers is another sign of intelligence. Intelligence embraces ambiguity.
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The digital world is built of zeros and ones — either/or — it is by design inimical to ambiguity. Certainly, ambiguity can be designed in, but it has to be jiggered to do so. If you ask “which of these is different?,” you confuse the program.
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And finally, intelligence understands things metaphorically, that is, it thinks in images and discovers in them reductions of complex thoughts in small, understandable packages that resonate emotionally.
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Einstein first discovered his theory of relativity not in a mathematical equation, but in a mental picture. It gave him the insight he needed to later forge the math proving his insight. But the picture came first.
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Prod DB © UFA / DRMETROPOLIS (METROPOLIS) de Fritz Lang 1926 ALLavec Brigitte Helmclassique, science fiction, anticipation, robot, androide, pentacled’après le roman de Thea Von Harbou

Speaking of one thing while meaning another is the heart of intelligence.

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This is not a game, merely substituting one thing for another as in a rebus, but rather it is the recognition that our vocabulary is limited by what we know already. When we confront something genuinely new, we cannot speak of it in language we already have, we must speak of what it is “like.”
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In each case, we are trying to convey something of the complexity and subtlety of what we feel, not allowing it to die the death of the normal, the bland, the banal. We are insisting that the particular emotion be understood and felt by the stranger to whom we are talking. We want exactness in our language and we can only reach it through inexactness. The more precise a word is, the less it describes. We need ambiguity to communicate: Metaphor is the means of doing it.
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All our highest and best thoughts are metaphorical. All the most banal come straight from the dictionary.
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So far, AI seems stuck in ever more complex rewirings of what is already input. Can it finagle those ones and zeros and come up withHamlet, or will monkeys do it first?
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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 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
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In 1966, I invented the Gaia principle. Me. That the earth is a single living organism. But more on that later.
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First, of course, I’m not the only one to figure this out. At about the same time, chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis gave the idea its name, after the primeval Greek goddess of the Earth and the primordial mother of all life. But I beat them out and claim my primacy.  But again, later.
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It turns out, it is not unusual for ideas to pop up simultaneously and independently. Science and technology are littered with such examples. For instance, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz worked out the calculus at the same time, although Newton called the process fluxions — which I think is a much catchier name. They did not get on, and Newton always felt that Leibniz must have cadged the process from his notes. (Leibniz didn’t).
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Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace came up with the concept of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution at the same time. In this case, the two worked it out between them amicably.
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These are the most famous examples of ideas welling up separately, but there are many more.
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Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered oxygen both in the 1770s. Both Nettie Stevens and Edmund Wilson submitted papers that formed the modern view of genetic gender determination 10 days apart. Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald independently proved neutrinos have mass. Lothar Meyer and Dmitri Mendeleev each created the periodic table of elements — a year apart. The British Frank Whittle and the German Hans von Ohain each came up with the first jet engine, during World War II, on opposite sides of the conflict.
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I could go on: Within six months of each other, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce each invented the microchip in the late 1950s. Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749 and Czech theologian Prokop Divis came up with the same idea in 1754, independently. In 1953, both Daniel Fox of General Electric and Hermann Schnell of the German company Bayer invented polycarbonate plastic. American Don Wetzel and British John Shepherd both invented the automated teller machine (ATM) in the late ’60s. In 1902, Leon Teisserence de Bort from France and German Richard Assmann discovered the stratosphere just three days apart.
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At least five people came up with a mechanism for television in the 1920s.
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Clearly, something was in the air, besides oxygen.
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The same thing happens in movies. They are called “twin films,” and Wikipedia lists 173 pairs of them: movies that share the same plot made at the same time by different studios.
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Among the most notable: Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998; Tombstone and Wyatt Earp 1993 and ’94; Dangerous Liaisons andValmont in 1988 and ’89; Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997. Sometimes the pairing is quite specific: drag queens on a road trip across a continent to discover themselves — The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994 and To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar a year later.
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Just last year, there was Sink or Swim and Swimming With Men, both films about a man in midlife crisis joining an all-male synchronized swim team. And Skate Kitchen and Mid90s, both about skate boarders, both with non-actor skateboarders and young heroes dealing with difficult mothers.
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It seems the zeitgeist is pregnant with something and then it all coalesces with the birth pangs around the world.
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Of more import are those significant upwellings of political synchronicity. Probably the most famous is the year 1848, when revolutionary movements exploded in some 50 countries worldwide, from Ukraine to Brazil. It seemed to come from nowhere and suddenly, it was everywhere. Unfortunately for history, almost all of the revolutions failed.
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A lesser confluence of revolution had occurred in 1830, in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. In France, it brought the “citizen king,” Louis Philippe, that 1848 attempted to unseat.
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In our own time, 1968 was the focus of international disruption, protest and violence, not only with anti-war protests and civil rights unrest in the U.S., with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but major strikes in France, crises all through Western Europe, the beginning of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, guerrilla war in Brazil, the Prague Spring and the Red Square Demonstration in Moscow protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There were uprisings in Poland and Yugoslavia, student revolt in Pakistan, and the climax of the Cultural Revolution in China. The whole globe seemed to be in paroxysm: Gaia was having a heart attack.
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 An aftershock hit in the years on both sides of 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the complete collapse of the Soviet Empire. There was a sense that it all seemed to happen at once.
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And today, all across the planet, there is a simultaneous rise of populist authoritarianism. We could soon look back and see this moment as another one of those global seizures.
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So, it can seem at times that the Earth is a single thing, that suffers global events, seemingly unconnected, yet simultaneous. A shadow, like an eclipse, sweeps across its lands.
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Now, back to me and Gaia. It was 1966 and I was a freshman in college taking an intro to biology class with Richard Carleton Ward, a teacher of peculiar manners and prejudices. I could write a whole chapter on him, the way he spoke out of the side of his mouth in a gravelly grunt, the way he bought conspiracy theories, his suburban house blocked from view in a bourgeois neighborhood by a jungle of bamboo, vines and weeds.  He wrote an article for the underground newspaper I was publishing in which he complained ferociously about students’ inability to spell the word, “spaghetti.”
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In his class, were assigned to write a research paper on a living organism, animal or plant, complete with footnotes and citations, and following the Kate Turabian style manual. Points would be taken off for failing to properly spell, capitalize, indent, space margins, and italicize.
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I am basically a very lazy person, and all this sounded like work. Doing research meant digging through the library for books, scouring theReaders Guide to Periodical Literature for articles, and — worst of all — cataloging the findings and writing the bibliography and footnotes.
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So, I decided I would be “creative” instead. Please remember, this was 1966, and “creativity” was a buzzword more in evidence than “clickbait” is now.
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To avoid all the tedious detail that research would entail, I hit upon the idea that I could invent a new organism — the Earth. Our textbook listed a series of five or six essential qualities that define life, and I applied them to the planet. I could easily make the argument that the planet respires, that it metabolizes — that all the inhabitants of the world could be seen as the same as the individual cells that make up our body: The macro rhymes the micro.
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I hit the height of cleverness discussing reproduction. I wrote that at my age, I hadn’t yet reproduced (“as far as I know,” I threw in to be coy), but that didn’t mean I couldn’t, and just because the Earth had not yet reproduced didn’t mean it couldn’t. And I proceeded to hypothesize how the planet could bud like a hydra, planting new “cells” on another great, round, rocky skeleton or coral stone elsewhere in the solar system. Mars, for instance. And thus, the planet could duplicate itself.
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And so, I proved, at least to the satisfaction of my crackpot teacher, that the planet we lived upon could be taken as a single giant hyper-organism. He gave me a B-plus and I managed to avoid all the serious work and pass the course. I therefore invented, out of abject laziness and sideways thinking, the Gaia Principle. Credit where credit is due. I will be happy to share the Nobel with Margulis and Lovelock.
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Years later, my wife, Carole, had a different way of looking at it, which makes even more sense. She was bothered by a politician making a speech and talking about how we live on the planet and need to take care of it — a worthy idea, for sure — but her take was that we don’t live “on” the Earth, but rather, we are the Earth, along with, and no different from the birds and bees and rocks and trees.
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And that is now my mantra: We don’t live on the planet; we are the planet.
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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 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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