Saturday, September 19, 2015

Life, the Matrix and Everything

"What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, 
that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, 
like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."
- Morpheus, The Matrix

Most of us will agree that there's probably more to reality than meets the eye. Many will even go so far as to say it's all just an illusion. It's the lingering suspicion that fuels our disparate fascinations from sci-fi movies and the scientific quest to pull back Nature's veil, to mass skepticism of the government, UFO junkies, white middle-class shamans, or even our eternal artistic quest for "authenticity." It's the belief that there's something out there that's more real

DiCaprio in Inception used a 'totem' to determine whether he was dreaming or not. [image source]

But when our vision is so obscured by the veil we drape over the world, how can we ever know what's "real"? Every now and then, the unconscious fabrications we use to navigate space in our day to day lives can be glimpsed through cracks exposed by those on the outside peering in. Outsiders reveal our version of reality for the cultural invention that it is. It's outsiders who enable us to see ourselves. There are two stories that have always illustrated this perfectly for me. Here they are - and don't worry, they both relate to art in their own way.

Piercing the Veil

The first comes via Colin Turnbull, from his classic book Forest People, where the young anthropologist introduces Kenge, his rainforest-born Pygmy friend, to wide open space for the very first time. 

"When Kenge topped the rise, he stopped dead. Every smallest sign of mirth suddenly left his face. He opened his mouth but could say nothing. He moved his head and eyes slowly and unbelievingly.  
Down below us, on the far side of the hill, stretched mile after mile of rolling grasslands, a lush, fresh green, with an occasional shrub or tree standing out like a sentinel into a sky that had suddenly become brilliantly clear. It was like nothing Kenge had ever seen before. On the plains, animals were grazing everywhere—a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes staring curiously at us from straight ahead, and down to the right a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them."  
Then he saw the buffalo, still grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, "What insects are those?" At first I hardly understood; then I realized that in the forest the range of vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, however, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison.  
When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies. When Henri, who was thoroughly puzzled, told him the same thing and explained that visitors to the park had to have a guide with them at all times because there were so many dangerous animals, Kenge still did not believe, but he strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo were so small. I told him they were sometimes nearly twice the size of a forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said we would not be standing out there in the open if they were. I tried telling him they were possibly as far away as from Epulu to the village of Kopu, beyond Eboyo. He began scraping the mud off his arms and legs, no longer interested in such fantasies.  
The road led on down to within about half a mile of where the herd was grazing, and as we got closer, the "insects" must have seemed to get bigger and bigger. Kenge kept his face glued to the window. I was never able to discover just what he thought was happening—whether he thought that the insects were changing into buffalo, or that they were miniature buffalo growing rapidly as we approached. His comment was that they were not real buffalo, and he was not going to get out of the car again until we left the park." [Turnbull, Colin, The Forest People, Pages 251-3]

Some people who've been born blind but had their sight return later in life need induction into the same "small = far" rule that had so baffled Kenge. When Brunelleschi and Alberti quantified it all mathematically for artists and named it Linear Perspective back in the 15th Century, they were simply formulating the same handy guidelines for getting around that every Western child is taught from day one. Thomas Eakins later reduced the rule to, "twice as far = half as big," but it didn't make it any less of a culturally specific and learned fiction just by turning it into a simple equation.

Home, for Kenge, is for us a unoriented and indistinguishable mass of green.

For example, elderly people and war veterans suffering from PTSD occasionally lose their grip on the world. I'm not talking about amnesia or Alzheimer's. I'm talking about an utter disorientation that comes when they don't know where they are, what day or time it is, or the difference between reality and dreams - what are known clinically as "self-directed behavioral disturbances." 

Reality Orientation Therapy is a modality employed to treat these patients. It involves constantly reminding them of their orientation in space and time. We're talking big signs and over-sized clocks with the day and date, or repeatedly using prompts in conversation like, "I feel so full after lunch," or, "isn't it warm for April?"
"Without the information of where they are, what time it is, and who they are dealing with, a person has a feeling that they may be lost - they will lack a sense of control and understanding. Remember when you were a kid and the adults made decisions without your input? It is sort of like that." [source]

Using standardized Western fictions such as calendar dates, the 24 hour clock, gridded space and arbitrary map locations, we reconstruct for these "lost" souls the same orienting information that the rest of us were brainwashed with as children.

Alice Through the Looking Glass [source]

The second story comes from the diaries of T. E. Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame. But you'll have to wait for the next blog post to read it - this one has already gotten too long.


  1. Thank you once again for a most interesting post. This is a very beautiful and fascinating blog.

  2. Exciting subject, as usual here ;-) Thanks for sharing, Alan.

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