The Spanish have an expression, pensar en la inmortalidad del cangrejo, which literally means thinking about the immortality of the crab. The phrase refers to a deep state of daydreaming, Miguel de Unamuno wrote this poem on the subject.
Miguel de Unamuno pensa en el cangrejo
The deepest problem:
of the immortality of the crab,
is that a soul it has,
a little soul in fact …
That if the crab dies
entirely in its totality
with it we all die
for all of eternity
Recently, I’ve found myself, daydreaming, staring at the walls for hours, relaxing in my living room with my feet in the air and head on the ground in search of an inverted view of what’s in front of me. After a few minutes of staring at the walls I begin to see forms emerge from the lines and cracks and deformities– outlines of a faces, a landscape, animals in motion–a few more minutes pass, I begin to lose consciousness. What is it about staring at walls, clouds, or even canvases upside down that reflects images circulating in the mind? How do these patterns emerge in ‘empty’ spaces at all? Could it be hypoxia? We shall see.
The other day I attended a book reading by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. At the reading, someone in the audience asked him why he spent so much time describing in great detail the familiar objects and places from his memory. He explained that for him it feels as if the images are fading somehow, they feel impermanent and describing them is a way to fix the images in his mind while also forcing him to see everything around him with greater acuity. He compared this process to the 16th century renaissance artists who painted familiar scene on a surface in the hopes of gaining more clarity of the object or scene. Then I started wondering about Renaissance wall-starers. After a little research it turned out to be a favorite creative inducement to the Renaissance man.
This is an excerpt from Da Vinci’s journal:
I will not refrain from setting among these precepts a new device for consideration which, although it may appear trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless of great utility in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is what if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, with valleys and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combat and figures in quick movement, and strange expression of faces, and outlandish costumes and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well-conceived forms. With such walls and blends of different stones, it comes about as it does with the sound of bells in whose clanging you may discover every name and word you can imagine.
Da Vinci seems to believe he discovered something new, but it turns out, as with many notable inventions, this discovery had been preceded in the East some four centuries earlier by the Chinese painter Sung-Ti who offers the landscape painter Chen Yung-Chih the following advice:
The technique in this is very good but there is a want of natural effect. You should choose an old tumbledown wall and throw over it a piece of white silk. Then, morning and evening you should gaze at it until, at length, you can see the ruins through the silk, its prominences, its levels, its zig-zags, and its cleavages, storing them up in your mind and fixing them in your eyes. Make the prominences your mountains, the lower part your water, the hollows your ravines, the cracks your streams, the lighter parts your nearest points, the darker parts your more distant points. Get all these thoroughly into you, and soon you will see men, birds, plants, and trees, flying and moving among them. You may then ply your brush according to your fancy, and the result will be of heaven, not men.
Perhaps this is why Kandinsky said that an “empty canvas was a living wonder — far lovelier than certain pictures.”
Chauvet cave horses
Now, while my mind is wandering like a bird without a compass it willfully wanders to a place where the wandering may have started–the prehistoric cave. Consider the incredible cave paintings dating back 32,000 years discovered at Chauvet in southern France, which were the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Examining the compositions at Chauvet–alongside others like it (eg, Altamira)– it becomes clear that the painters drew inspiration from the natural patterns and protuberances on the cave walls, which, in all likelihood, were composed after hours or even days of ritualized shamanic mind-wandering on the walls and wall-wandering on the mind. Since I really do hate anonymity when it comes to painting for the sake of our discussion let’s call our Chauvet artist Eliza. How interesting that one of the most hypnotic of the paintings, the horse panel, exhibits a kind of illusory motion under the flickering glow of torchlight,which, some have suggested served as a sort of proto-cinema for Eliza and her friends.
So while my mind is wandering about Eliza and the wall, my mind switches paths and begins to wander to the beat writer William Burroughs. I don’t know if Burroughs knew or thought about Eliza but we do know that his was a mind wide open, in fact, Burroughs often expressed his desire to open up his mind to all that was out there in the world. In an interview with Paris Review he said, “what I want to do is to learn to see more of what’s out there, to look outside, to achieve as far as possible a complete awareness of surroundings.” The innovative writer of the cut-up went to great lengths to train his perceptual organs to achieve a mind-altering aesthetic. He used scrapbooks and time travel exercises to teach himself to think in association blocks rather than words. Though Burroughs may not have been aware of the magic of the cave, he became fascinated with the hieroglyph systems of the Ancient Egyptians and Mayans and studied them as an exercise in thinking in images. He had little interest in words per se, “words,” he said, “at least the way we use them, can stand in the way of what I call nonbody experience. It’s time we thought about leaving the body behind.” By way of experiment, he recommended the following:
Carefully memorize the meaning of a passage, then read it; you’ll find you can actually read it without the words making any sound whatever in the mind’s ear. Extraordinary experience, and one that will carry over into dreams. When you start thinking in images, without words, you’re well on the way.
Let’s consider the origins of thinking outside of the bounds of language. In a classic text on the origins of cognition, Visual Thinking, Rudolf Arnheim argues, “What we need to acknowledge is that perceptual and pictorial shapes are not only translations of thought product but the very flesh and blood of thinking itself.”
and in his book Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist echoes Arnheim:
The fact that we are more aware of those times when we do think explicitly to ourselves in words — and now conceive of all thought as taking place in words — should not deceive us into believing that language is necessary for thought. It could even be an impediment to it. Most forms of imagination, for example, or of innovation, intuitive problem solving, spiritual thinking or artistic creativity require us to transcend language, at least language in the accepted sense of a referential code. Most thinking, like most communication, goes on without language.
McGilchrist’s book dives into the differences in the brain’s hemispheres as it pertains to the roots of thinking, language, imagination, culture, the exploration of which will have to wait for a future mind wandering session, since this post is already getting a little out of hand–once the mind starts wandering it’s hard to rein it in.
Now, if we go back to the wall and the daydreaming state somewhere between waking and sleeping, in this associative, image-laden, half-sleeping, dreaming state, maybe that’s where the most primitive thoughts can be accessed. Perhaps this is why many of the artistic creations that most move us often seem to emerge from–the depths of the unconscious–where the spring of the words, images, or sounds remain mysterious. TS Eliot, the poet whose work is teeming with images emanating from the depths of the unconscious, described it this way:
…the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end.
Another way to look at it is that the mind needs the space to reach this source of undiluted living ideas that are too often held captive by the deadening effect of habit and language, which as previously discussed, has become a graveyard of metaphors. This space is what Burroughs was after in his perceptual experiments, Eliot in his poetry, Da Vinci and the cave painters in their wall staring, and on some level, it’s something we all seek, but caught up in the everyday life of habit, the mind forgets to pause and stare at the wall for awhile.
So, next time you have a moment of freedom and know not what to do with yourself, fear not, the idle mind is a beautiful thing and surely no devil’s workshop. Give your brain a holiday: Find some nice desolate cave in middle of the wide open spaces and examine the deep and untrodden paths of your daydreaming mind. Who knows you might even find yourself contemplating the immortality of the crab–just be mindful of hypoxia, your brain’s probably new at this.
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