Saturday, October 16, 2010


Einstein put to rest the idea of a single, knowable, objective reality. Einstein rejected the notion of absolute time, arguing that tune itself was a perspectival effect determined by the relative motion between an observer and the object being observed.

It was the artists of the period, however, who had the biggest impact on changing the perspective on perspective. Recall that the invention of perspective in art was perhaps the single most important development of the Renaissance. The artists broke with medieval renderings of the world as a great chain of being ascending floating from the depths of earthly existence to the heavenly gates. The use of perspective took the human gaze away from the heavens toward the linear plane of an earthly world populated by subjects and objects. The gaze was no longer meant to conjure up the exultant expectation of ascending to the world above but, rather, an impartial ordering of the objective world below. Francis Bacon’s scientific method and, later on, the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophers flowed inexorably and, in no small part, from the reorientation of time and space rendered by Renaissance artists on their canvases.

Paul Cezanne was the first to break ranks with the long tradition of the single perspective in art. His Still Life with a Basket of Apples, depicts a table from different perspectives. The artist became obsessed with the multiperspective approach to the canvas. He wrote his son in 1906, conveying his sense of excitement:

Here on the edge of the river, the motifs are plentiful the same subject seen from a different angle gives a subject for study of the highest interest and so varied that I think I could be occupied for months without changing my place, simply bending more to the right or left.

Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon introduced the new idea of Cubism in art. In the painting, two figures are shown frontally, “but with noses in sharp profile. The seated figure has her back to the viewer but her head is seen from the front.”

Cubism was a highbrow artistic expression that appealed far more to the avant-garde elites in Paris, London, and New York. The masses, however, were introduced to changes in temporal and spatial orientation by way of a lowbrow artistic medium—the cinema. Movies played with temporal and spatial orientations in ways that more resembled what occur in the unconscious during dreams. The linearity of everyday experience gave way to scenes that cut effortlessly to the past and future and to other places and times, forcing the viewer to readjust the way he or she absorbed and integrated temporal and spatial information that was out of sequence. Splitting the screen allowed one to view two events unfolding simultaneously in different places. By freezing frames, the director could give the sense slowing time to a halt. Comedies often sped up the movement into a madcap romp or reversed movement: for example, showing a diver coming out of the water and up onto the diving board—to the howls of the audience.

The manipulation of temporal and spatial orientation took moviegoers out of their conscious reality of normal temporal and sequential order and into a fantasy world where all sorts of new realities are possible to imagine. It’s no accident that Hollywood came to be known as the “dream factory.” Like dreams, where temporal and spatial boundaries are nonexistent and one’s mind floats in and out of the past, future, and present, so too in the cinema. By the time Freud began articulating his theory about the importance of dreams and the workings of one’s unconscious, his ideas didn’t seem so far to a generation that had already spent countless hours viewing movies and reprogramming their brains to think in dreamlike ways.

James Joyce played with time and space and multiple perspectives in his literary works, with similar effect to what Cezanne, Picasso, and the Cubists were able to do on canvas. In Ulysses, Joyce’s protagonist, Bloom, jumps in and out of a dizzying array of places, times, and realities as his mind wanders through the universe over galaxies far away and the tiniest realm of the molecule the course of a very average day in Dublin. With Joyce we are introduced, for the first time, to stream of consciousness, the kind we all experience every waking and sleeping moment, as our own minds wander off into different time dimensions and distant spaces, of which we are not always in control. What Joyce is suggesting is that every individual is experiencing multiple perspectives and realities and occupying different places and times in his own mind throughout the day, just like Bloom. Our minds simply won’t let us settle on a single perspective or, for that matter, allow us to accommodate a seamless objective reality. Edmund Wilson caught the brilliance of Joyce’s accomplishment when he wrote:

Joyce is indeed really the great poet of a new phase of of human consciousness. Like Proust’s or Whitehead’s or Einstein’s world, Joyce’s world is always changing as it is perceived by different observers and by them at different times.

Although like the Romantics Joyce believed that consciousness is an embodied experience, and that the expression of love and compassion is a natural predisposition, his view of human vulnerability amid imperfection differs in an important respect. While Romantics like Whitman celebrate human vulnerability and pay homage to the importance of erotic sexuality as a way of getting in touch with one’s natural vitality, there is a tendency to romanticize human potential by creating an ideal transcendent self that no one can ever hope to live up to.

Joyce’s protagonists remind us far more of ourselves, it’s not that Leopold and Molly aren’t desirous of ascent. But, as Martha Nussbaum reminds us, life keeps interrupting in all of its unanticipated twists and turns. Life is messy, chaotic, and full of banality, some of it rising to comic levels of hysteria rather than cosmic levels of transcendence. We all soldier on—but in the midst of our desire for transcendence, we need to take time out for a stool or relieve our stress with five minutes of masturbation. In the real world, our lives are lived out like the puck of a yo-yo. We’re up--we’re down. We have moments of brilliant insight and moments of stupefying despair.

What Joyce and Nussbaum understand is that the ordinariness of our individual lives--with all of its imperfections and neediness--that we find our common humanity and the emotional wherewithal to empathize with others. By putting too much emphasis on transcendence, the Romantics risked leaving the subtle impression that the imperfections of human beings are intolerable, even disgusting Joyce put it best when he wrote, “Life we must accept as we see it before our eyes, men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as we apprehend them in the world of faery.”

When we emphatize with each other, we are acknowledging each other’s day-to-day struggle to be and celebrating each other’s desire to succeed and transcend ourselves. But more than that—we recognize in others’ struggles that they are human beings, like us, who are trying to ascend to new heights, even as they wrestle with imperfections, flaws, and demons that weigh them down. We don’t judge them for their weaknesses but, rather, extend our generosity. We know that it’s difficult overcoming all of the obstacles put in the way of our becoming what we’d like to be. Joyce’s characters are like the rest of us, real people, full of contradictions, allowing readers to empathize with them, without being maudlin.

It seems as if the entire period from 1882 to World War I was but a dress rehearsal for Freud’s entrance onto the world stage and the official raising of the curtain on the Age of Psychological Consciousness. Kern points out that in architecture, the stuffy Victorian sensibility, with its emphasis on walled-off, closed spaces tucked away from the outside world, gave way to the new architecture of openness and transparency. The new skyscrapers, the first to use steel girders, eliminated supporting walls. Glass was used to open up interiors and create the sense of boundless space between inside and outside. Whereas Victorian architecture accentuated the bourgeoisie’s sense of privacy, featuring buildings with so many nooks and crannies that one needed a detailed map not to get lost in the maze, the new architecture knocked down walls, opened up spaces to daylight, and even exposed internal structures, which traditionally were concealed with facades.

Frank Lloyd Wright best expressed the new sensibility, explaining that his architecture was designed with the goal of creating a seamless integration of the interior and exterior worlds he called “the inside” becoming “outside”.
In this snippet of time—less than a third of a century—human consciousness was irrevocably altered. The new technologies and modes of perception broke through barriers that had long separated people, partially leveling traditional social hierarchies while democratizing access to and control over time and space. The telephone, cinema, radio, the motor car, and other twentieth technologies gave the average man and woman the same access to speed, mobility, and different spatial realities as the well-to-do. Moreover, the new technologies also brought people into increasingly close proximity, exposed them to an increasing range of others, and fostered a range of relationships that could never have occurred before.

The leveling of social hierarchies, the introduction of multiperspectivism, the democratization of human experience, and the increasing exposure to diverse others laid the way for the great empathic surge that would flare up momentarily in the Roaring Twenties—with the flappers—and blow up into a full-bodied social phenomenon that would define a generation in the 1960’s.

- Jeremy Rifkin

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