Do drugs explain George Orwell’s ability to ‘communicate with the future’ from 1949 — and if so, have micro-dosing technologists or other intellectuals shown any sign of matching it?

 

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Through a glass, darkly: dystopian anxiety casts a pall of dread over the most innocent scenes, these days

A question for everyone ready to scream from the tedium of seeing George Orwell’s name coupled yet again with dystopia: yes, yes, but have you tried re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four lately?  If for instance you, like the writer of this pG entry, last immersed yourself in it decades ago, aged about fourteen, shouting with laughter as you read out to your mother passages that struck you as fiendishly funny, which nearly always mentioned Big Brother, an outlandish caricature you couldn’t conceive of as connected in any way to your own rather boring life? 

At the start of 2020, there is not much to laugh about in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It has become too alarming and depressing to re-read voluntarily. Why? Because of its underestimations of the nastiest possibilities of intimate Big Brother surveillance, for one thing; and because we have no believable protection from its deployment by either governments or oversized corporations.

In the novel’s opening pages, when its protagonist Winston Smith starts a diary in a blank notebook — an out-of-date and semi-illicit ‘compromising possession’ — he can carefully seat himself in his living room outside the field of the spying telescreen that is capable of receiving and transmitting simultaneously: ‘Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it.’ Extrapolating from today’s ‘internet of things,’ there will soon be nowhere for a Winston Smith or any of us to hide, as any number of networked ordinary household objects could be doing the telescreen’s job. On the page before that scene, he turns back from the window where he has been reflecting on the malign, barbed wire-clad Ministry of Love and, on his way to his kitchen, ‘set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen,’ on which Big Brother could be watching him. 

Only last month, a prominent UK newspaper reported behind its paywall, that ‘emotion recognition is the latest thing in surveillance,’ and that systems designed for this form of monitoring have been installed in the Chinese province of Xinjiang to ‘identify signs of aggression and nervousness as well as stress levels …’.

Orwell, writing in the late 1940s, has Winston worrying, as he begins his diary and considers its prospective readers far off in time, ‘How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible.’ He fears that it could be so different from the present as to make his dystopian predicament ‘meaningless’. Very much to the contrary, as we nearly all realise by now, it could hardly be more significant. Winston’s creator has no equal for writerly prescience about our moment, almost anywhere on the globe, even if one participant in an online discussion last January, @WMD, remarked that in the West, ‘we do seem to be much closer to the drug-induced, zonked out, sheep-like mentality’ of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Worldwhich was published in 1932, nearly two decades before Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Narcotics, the indispensable element in Huxley’s nightmare future — his imaginary drug called soma, used by World Controllers to lull the population into blissful, hazy, submissive detachment from the consequences of their manipulations — came to mind recently in an untidy clump of wondering about how reminders of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and only that work of futuristic literary fiction, become more unavoidable each day. This led naturally to the question of what explains the steel-tipped accuracy of so much of its envisioning. Recalling Orwell’s four years as an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1920s was part of the associative clump, and trailing in its wake came thoughts of opium, of which Burma was then and is to this day a dominant producer. Ah! But then, what was the generally accepted understanding among Orwell experts about any connection — or lack thereof — between George and this narcotic, or any other mind-altering substance stronger than nicotine, caffeine or alcohol? 

The specific trigger for the meditation was probably a casual, intermittent discussion over several weeks about a friend who made a first pilgrimage to Burning Man last summer, and reportedly came away impressed by the high-wattage brainiacs from Silicon Valley, investment banking, and academia with whom he shared an ultra-exclusive tent for the duration of the celebration in the Nevada desert — with some of those minds seemingly amplified by full doses of psychedelics, not the micro-dosing said to be part of the ordinary work week at the office, for many of them. 

Imagine the surprise of finding no consideration by Orwell scholars of any role that drugs might have played in shaping Orwell’s flow of ideas about Nineteen Eighty-Four — unless anything like that is beyond easy reach, through search engines. Nothing, that is, except for a diligently researched, persuasive argument on the website of Darcy Moore  — an Australian school administrator, Orwell-admirer and memorabilia collector — that the novelist almost certainly had more than theoretical and imaginative experience of opium use. It reminds us that because Sonia Orwell, his widow, ensured at his request that no one was able to write his biography for over thirty years after he died, attempts to sift through his personal habits were obstructed while the information about them was still fresh. 

Among the facts Moore has assembled are these:

• Orwell’s father spent his working life as a supervisor of opium production, quality control and trade in India, when it was part of the British Empire.

• Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘has the protagonist agreeing “to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases…” before being given a political manifesto which mentions “the truth-producing effects of drugs”.’

• In reviewing the memoir of a well-known opium addict of his time, Orwell said that the bliss of using this substance was ‘indescribable,’ and Moore asks — reasonably — whether a man ‘who was prepared to quit his career against his father’s wishes to become a writer, steel himself to go down a coal mine with working men, get purposefully arrested, associate with a criminal underclass in Paris and London, spend time with the poor and homeless as well as risk his life in a time of civil war in Spain …’ would have hesitated to sample the drug himself. 

But none of the known facts about the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World establish any direct connection between drug use and sublime artistic inspiration. Those of us who are abysmally ignorant about risky, habit-forming drugs — and who have been shocked by observing their worst effects directly — find it easier to relate to Aldous Huxley’s depictions of their deeply negative consequences in his famous futurama, apparently written before he had any personal experience of ingesting them. He did, however, become a radical convert to, and advocate of, the joys of psychedelics after he lost his virginity as an experimenter with controlled substances. Sadly for him, his novel Island, published in 1962, exactly three decades after Brave New World and a radical contradiction of it — since it depicts a drug-enhanced utopia — appears to have had few readers (not including this writer). The novelist and literary scholar Margaret Drabble has summed up the justifiable criticism by detractors of Huxley’s works — other than BNW — that they are ‘smart and superficial, a symptom rather than an interpretation of a hollow age.’

If only that were not so. If only experimenters with mind-expanding chemicals among today’s policy-shapers and influencers had more to offer us than testimonials virtually identical to Huxley’s about glorious, life-changing alterations in perspectives on the world and fellow human beings, but — also like him — with no specific great work in any field to point to for an illustration of such benefits. If only the British Psychological Society Research Digest, last August, had not concluded, about the most recent scientific investigations into this trend, that ‘no placebo-controlled study has found statistically significant effects of microdosing on creativity.’

If only the opposite were true, and someone was capable of writing, now, a counter-imagining of Nineteen Eighty-Four powerful enough and influential enough to accomplish what Orwell hoped to, when he wrote it — which was to head off the possibility of privacy-smashing, totalitarian mind control that instead, looks well set for conditioning our everyday existence in the not so distant future.

Have digital cameras condemned us to looking at ever more pixels, ever less art?

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Scrolling through machine-tooled, precision die-cast supermoons photographed by engineer-robots and posted on Twitter

Sorry, that’s not quite right. We meant to say that in inspecting other photographers’ pictures of the same moon to which we were trying to pay homage in our own inept way, in recent entries here, we wondered whether anyone else had noticed that skyscapes with too many pixels can be like high-definition digital portraits that make beautiful people ugly. Also, that while it is growing more common for photographers clicking away on digital cameras to think that you can never have too many pixels, sharpness can be ruinous — making photography steadily more workmanlike and less like art.

The answer from an online search was — yes, at least one other person had noticed both the trend and its effect. His guesses about the explanation for the epidemic of pixelholism were identical to ours but unlike us, he couldn’t be accused of sounding superior about the aesthetic judgements of people with different interests and inclinations. He was brave enough to chide his own tribe. On the Peta Pixel site,  we saw that Eric Kim, too, wishes that members of it would think of the magic that the Impressionist painters wrought with inexactness if not brazen fuzziness. He said:

A lot of us who get started in photography are gadget-nerds or geeks. I myself have always been obsessed with technology … [A] lot of us nerdy photographers come from sciences, engineering, or computer-programming. We think we can quantify the “quality” of a photograph by the technical settings—the sharpness or resolution of an image.

Designers of digital cameras are apt to be gadget nerds, which could be why maximising precision appears to rank higher than other conceivable improvements in successive generations of these products. It was heartening to see a techie suggest why this has gone too far. Kim’s post also observed:

Here’s the thing: good art is often un-sharp.

Consider the impressionists. They didn’t seek to make picture-perfect images of reality. Rather, they used dreamy and imperfect brush-strokes to evoke a mood; to evoke a feeling.

They realized that the importance of a picture or an image wasn’t whether it reflected reality or not. The more important thing: whether it reflected their personal mood, or view of the world.

We once saw a parallel to what the Impressionists achieved in a headline somewhere that encapsulated it as outing the inside of an artist.

Kim’s post concluded:

Avoid gear review sites, sharpness tests, and all those nerdy places. Be satisfied with the gear you (already have), and remember what photography is all about: making meaning in your life; not making photos.

Well said. But did he foresee the sour reaction to his advice in Peta Pixel’s comments section — and a 21st-century equivalent of tarring-and-feathering? One reply read:

Kim may have his own obsessions (demons), but that does not mean everyone else shares them. He seems to trying to convince himself why he should change his mindset by projecting it onto us.

The obsessive discussion of sharpness can be as seductive for outsiders as a conversation between cement mixer-truck mechanics. For instance, this snippet from one commenter (who must have had Spellcheck turned off) — someone partially supporting Kim:

I prefer to have a slightly unsharp lens (comparitively) but one that works nearly as well in the corners as the centre. This is why, for much of my landscape photography with a digital camera, I prefer to use f/16 rather than the ‘sharpest’ aperture which is supposedly f/4 or f/5.6. That’s because at f/16 most abberations are subdued and I can sharpen back to get enough acuity. It’s also why I shoot large format where the corner sharpness is almost identical to the center sharpness for nearly all size prints. (OK, not true for some tele lenses and cheaper ultra wide large format lenses but for most semi-symmetric lenses it’s a given)

It is time to ask, are we going backwards?

Thirty-two years ago, John Russell, the English art critic of The New York Times, wrote about the Impressionists’ rebellion — which, he explained, was not just about refusing to submit to the dead hand of convention in classical painting, but tossing out what would now be called the marketing or business model that shaped the economic lives of professional painters in late 19th-century Paris (described in detail here). Some might recognise a parallel to the most successful indie writers rejecting traditional publishers in our day.

We see differently, and we see better, because those painters lived.

[…]

They proved that it was possible for painters to break the monopoly of the Paris Salons by showing on their own, on a regular basis, and prosper.

When they defied the once-sacrosanct old rules for painting, the Impressionists were rejecting excessive orderliness and precision — that is, moving in the reverse direction from the shift towards hyper-precise, hyperrealism among many, if not most photographers today.

[T]hey introduced a completely new mode of expression — one based […] on ”the brush moving at will in any direction, freed from traditional centered drawing […]”.

This movement of the Impressionist brush is by now so much a part of our universal inheritance that we no longer think of it as something that could present a difficulty. Yet it is the achievement of Monet and his colleagues that, more than 100 years ago, they broke a monopoly far more deeply entrenched than the monopoly of the Salon painters. This was the monopoly of traditional Western composition, with its centered pictorial structure, its balanced and rhythmic ordering of forms, and its careful, preordained, seamless presentation of what are in reality the wandering, disorderly, often frantic procedures of seeing.

Seamless, yes – pixelholics love that. Some of them insist that their work is inspired by the Photorealism school of painting, which dates from the 1960s. That seems reasonable enough, even if one condition a painter must satisfy to qualify as a bona fide worker in this tradition is confusing — with a touch of tail-wags-dog-why-bother about it. According to experts cited in the Wikipedia: ‘The Photo-Realist must have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic.’

In other words, some of Eric Kim’s photographer-nerds are imitating painters whose rules require that their paintings must resemble photographs as closely as possible.

Right. So glad we’ve got that sorted!

We hope to return to these subjects soon, in a future post — not necessarily our next one.

Surely they aren’t trying to reinvent the mandala? A pictorial entertainment on computerised visions by cosmologists of gravitational waves

Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1600-1800, Tibet, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1600-1800, Tibet, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Computer simulation by NASA of gravity waves emanating from two orbiting black holes, slightly modified by postgutenberg@gmail.com. Compare with the original image: here

Computer simulation by NASA of gravity waves emanating from two orbiting black holes, slightly modified by postgutenberg@gmail.com. Compare with the original image: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/images/content/146977main_gwave_lg4.jpg

mandala_17 soutien67.free.fr

mandala in square img1.etsystatic.com il_570xN.701326921_2yu0

Mandala patterns floating about on the net

mandala google dictionary

Didn’t nearly everyone notice the close resemblance to mandalas of some images cosmologists published last week to tell us what confirming Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves meant to them? Strangely, we have found scant evidence of that on Google.

In very old Buddhist and Hindu metaphysics a mandala represents the cosmos.

But, as most scientists abhor religion — or say that they do — wouldn’t they consider any such connection a besmirching?

Not necessarily. Not all of them.

We found a mention of mandalas on a German site, Einstein Online — belonging to the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics — on a page with a charming animation of a ‘simple gravitational wave traversing [a] mandala’. Fitted to the circle in this visualisation is a tribute to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a diagram as mystical as it was an accurate geometric anatomisation of the human body. The Encyclopedia Britannica:

Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man in a mandala -- Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man in a mandala
Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

… That Einstein Online link was nearly all that showed up in searches using the string ‘mandala gravitational waves’ — except for a Google Books offering in which someone called Choudhur Satyanarayana Moorthy has reinterpreted parts of Hindu scripture to make long-ago sages — rishis — experts on the cutting edge of quantum mechanics. He even has a Rishi Kutsah Angirasah describing gravitational force deified as ‘Rudra’:

With his firm limbs … he is forceful. He is ruddy brown, but has taken the bright golden form. He is the supreme ruler of the vast universe.

Ahem!

Stick to your linear algebra, Charles Dodgson — and calling yourself Lewis Carroll won’t make any difference, you’ll never succeed as a writer!

lewis carroll MS PAGE 20150626ALICE-slide-RJ8U-jumbo

A page of the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland

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Some of us would pay far more for an explanation from neuroscience, some day, of how Lewis Carroll’s brain worked, than to satisfy the more conventional curiosity about Albert Einstein’s noddle. Glance at the manuscript page at the top of this post. Who, writing in a hand so obedient to the laws of tidiness, is ever capable of wildness in storytelling more easily explained by an existence of Bohemian excess – say, getting through a case of good Burgundy every week, then smashing all the bottles — than by this writer’s mousey actual life, including twenty-six years as an Oxford theoretical mathematician of the first rank?

The most imaginative story in the English canon of which there are near-daily reminders, in the madness of reality, had to be rescued from becoming a discarded publishing artefact. As either Charles Dodgson or – his pen name – Lewis Carroll, the author would certainly have trouble publishing himself, today. As noted in a recent review of an exhibition in New York’s Morgan Library, built around the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, he was ‘socially maladroit’. Goodbye, social media! — as a helper or crutch.

Some other points in Randy Kennedy’s witty report worth a special mention:

• An editor had to rule out the first — wondrous — pseudonym the author chose: Edgar Cuthwellis (though admittedly, referring to oneself as ‘post-Gutenberg’ is far worse).

• These were some other titles he mulled before a friend steered him towards the one we know and love: Alice’s Doings in Elf-Land, Alice Among the Goblins, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and Alice’s Hour in Elf-Land.

• John Tenniel, one of the most celebrated and successful illustrators of the day, who accepted the publisher’s commission of a set of pictures for a story by an obscure Oxford don with no track record in literature, rejected all twenty copies of the first edition of the book in 1865 – because it was badly printed. Though Macmillan had accepted the book after an editor’s first inspection of the manuscript, it was Carroll and not his publisher who paid the large sum of money for its reprinting.

• It was Tenniel, not the author, who chose the principal characters in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ poem in Alice. Carroll had been toying with other possibilities – a walrus and a butterfly – or baronet.

• Sadly – or so it seems to us – the too-powerful Tenniel also persuaded Carroll (whose original drawings we actually prefer) to drop a chapter in Alice’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, a segment whose working title was ‘The Wasp in a Wig’. Why? Because he was incapable of drawing a being he considered ‘altogether beyond the appliances of art’. Bah: pure humbug. If only Dali had been hatched, by then: he could have drawn a wigged-out wasp in his sleep.