Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

I’m puzzled –it seems to be happening a lot nowadays despite my age. But maybe that’s what retirement is for –to sort through things previously deemed obvious but which, on closer scrutiny, are not. Or, at least, not anymore… Same thing, I suppose.

The latest effort of digging roots seems to have arisen after telling a friend that I hadn’t visited a recent exhibition of a famous painter because I’d thought the admission price was a bit steep for something which I could admire in as much detail online. My friend, of course, was shocked and subjected me to an unwarranted rebuke for thinking the two modalities were in any way comparable.

I have to admit to a certain agnosticism in the matter of Art, but, as art is wont to do, it started me wondering. What qualities, if any, does the original of anything, have that is so special that it has to be experienced in person? But I’m not advocating virtual reality, or proxy visitations, so much as an explanation of what makes the thing-in-itself seem so valuable.

I’m reminded of a podcast discussion I once heard about an exhibition of a Viking long boat. To see the real boat, the host of the program said -even if it was displayed behind a rope fence- was like experiencing the boat pulled up on a beach in Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. when they first raided Britain.

“But some of the boat had to be restored,” the expert explained. “In the original style and using the same type of wood, of course…” he quickly added, lest the magic seem to slip away. “But you’re right, it’s a Viking boat that they used for raids.”

Then someone –another expert, perhaps, spoke up. “So… Just to add a note of caution here… Let me ask how much of it was restored?”

“Pardon me?” The first expert seemed aghast that it would even matter.

“How much…? I mean, if you restored, say six boards on the deck, but the rest was original, could you still call it the original boat…?”

“Of course,” the first man blustered.

“Suppose you replaced the entire deck as well as a few boards of the gunwale? Still the same original boat…?”

“Yes…” he replied, but hesitantly. He could see where these questions were leading.

“Tell me,” the skeptic said quietly. “At what point –at what board, if you will- does it cease to be the original boat?”

I don’t remember the answer now, so many years later, but it was an interesting point. What is it about the ‘real’ thing that fosters the awe? If someone had simply built another boat, even using the same techniques and period tools, it would be admired, I’m sure –but not in the same way. Something would be missing… But what? For all intents and purposes, it would be the ‘same’ thing as the original.

Upon deeper reflection, I am reminded of another concept that intrigued me as a much younger student: Plato’s idea of Forms –a simple example being that of, say, triangleness; all triangles are examples –manifestations- of this, but not the thing-in-itself which is unknowable. Or, perhaps more illustrative: boatness. How is it that we can recognize a thing as a boat, even though boats have many designs, sizes, and shapes? What is it about boatness that permits its attribution to something, even if we have never seen anything like it before?

I think it’s easy to get lost in this, especially for an amateur like me, but I suspect that what I am wondering is whether ‘original’ might capture some of this idealized yet still intangible feeling of Form.

I tried the idea out on a couple of friends one evening at a pub. It was probably not a great place to discuss anything as nuanced as Plato, or Viking boats, but I get excited about things.

“Why is it better to see the actual painting in an exhibition rather than a picture of it?” I had to yell, because there was a lot going on around us that night.

“We were talking about Facebook news… How did art exhibitions get into this?” John, who was a recently retired lawyer, usually wanted to talk about politics, so I’m not surprised he was the first to notice my not so subtle segue.

In fact, I wasn’t sure what triggered the painting thing –maybe it was John’s insistence on going to the original news source and not relying on third hand copies. He had a point I thought, but I wondered if it also applied to paintings. And if so, why?

“But that’s a good example of why you go to the source, eh?” he added, smiling broadly at my perspicacity.

“With news, yes,” I yelled, as someone shrieked with laughter close by. “But why is it the same with a painting? Why isn’t it just as good looking at a high-quality photograph of it? They’re identical, aren’t they?”

Jason, a retired accountant put his empty glass on the table and tried to signal a waitress. “Are they?” he asked, turning to me when the waitress ignored him.

I shrugged. “I don’t know… that’s why I’m asking. Why are they different, Jason?”

He leaned over the table so we could both hear each other in the melee. “A photograph is just a copy.”

“Is what the painting contains –the image, the colour, the composition, and so on- not exactly the same in the photo?”

He thought about it for a moment, but started shaking his head. “I don’t know… somehow, there’s something missing in the photo, don’t you think?”

“What?” I was hoping he could narrow it down for me.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe it’s that the painter –the creator– actually touched it…”

I smiled and had a sip of my wine. “Do you remember Plato from university?”

“I remember the allegory of the Cave… Loved that one…” John piped up, but quietly and Jason and I had difficulty hearing him.

I was thinking more of his Forms. Remember?” The blank looks on both their faces told me they didn’t. “Triangleness?” I offered as a hint.

“Oh yeah,” John said, obviously pleased at himself. “The ideal -of which something like any triangle you could draw would only be an example…”

“Didn’t Kant…” Jason was deep in memories. “… Something about noumena… Oh yeah, and the ‘thing-in-itself’ or whatever…”

“Uhmm, what I remember about his Critique of Pure Reason, I could write on a grain of salt,” John yelled to nobody in particular.

Jason mounted a condescending smile and launched his eyes on another search for the waitress.

“But I did love the Cave thing,” John continued, this time turning to me. “I always got it mixed up with the Forms, because I figured they were actually saying the same thing.” He leaned over the table so he wouldn’t have to talk as loud –I think he found the topic an embarrassing one for a pub. “I mean, think about it. All those prisoners in the cave chained so they can’t see the fire behind them, or the people holding up puppets that cast shadows on the only wall the prisoners can see. Naturally the prisoners think the shadows are the authentic world. And then one of the prisoners slips his chains and escapes to the sunlight outside and sees the real thing –not copies of it…”

Jason had given up by now and stared at John. “So, where do the Forms come into it…?”

It was John’s turn to look haughty as he rolled his eyes. “He sees reality, Jason. In a sense, he sees the Forms… the prisoners only saw the facsimiles –the copies, if you like!”

Jason just blinked at him. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought he didn’t understand. “You know, this all started with G’s question about why it was better to see a painting in an exhibition than a copy of it somewhere else… How did we get to Plato’s Cave?”

“I think we just answered his question,” John said quietly, as we all leaned over the table to hear him in the noisy room. “It’s like experiencing reality, rather than the shadows it casts.”

“But…” I could see Jason was struggling with the idea. “…But couldn’t the prisoner just go back into the Cave and tell the others what he saw? That they were just looking at copies…?”

John smiled his best lawyerly smile. “Would they believe him if they hadn’t experienced what he had?”

I sat back in my seat with a big smile on my face and finished my wine. Sometimes it’s good to have a drink with people. Sometimes you just have to leave the Cave…





Frailty -Thy Name is Woman?

There seems to be no end in the struggle to differentiate men from women. You’d have thought that by now, we would have settled the boundary disputes, agreed on who owns what, and set up market stalls on anything remaining. It’s all shared territory anyway. Of course, maybe that’s naive. Maybe there are fundamental discrepancies that admit to only superficial comparisons. Relativities…We are, when all is said and done, different from each other not in terms of value, or worth, or intelligence -or anything like that- but physiologically. And there’s the wonder.

That we complement each other seems so adaptive, so perfect… And yet, do others that interact with us -microorganisms, for example- see it the same way? Are infections as unbiased, fair and equal as we are striving for in our societal evolution? Human laws be damned -do they see us as the same, or do their rules change depending on our sex? Do they discriminate?

We’ve all sniggered about the unequal fury of ‘man colds’ and the like, but whatever evidence supported or rejected this contention has always been subject to the confirmation bias of those studying it. An article in the BBC News seems to have uncovered yet another layer of the Matryoshka doll:

They have reported on a 2016 article in Nature Communications by Ubeda and Jansen which suggests that ‘Viruses can evolve to become more aggressive in men than in women’. This has usually been attributed to hormonal differences, and the effects these might have on the immune response, and no doubt this does play an important role. But suppose one were to examine this from a different perspective?

‘Viruses have ways of spreading that are unique to women – such as to a child in the womb, during birth or breastfeeding.’ From the invading organism’s point of view, this is important. ‘Scientists at Royal Holloway University in London used mathematics to model whether this altered the way viruses behaved. Their findings suggest there may be an advantage to infections being less aggressive in women as reducing the risk of killing the mother increases the chance of infecting the child.’

They’re not meaning to suggest some form of microbial intelligence of course -other than that those who happen upon a better way to survive and more successfully propagate their kind will be able to continue passing on their genes. ‘”Viruses may be evolving to be less dangerous to women, looking to preserve the female population, the virus wants to be passed from mother to child, either through breastfeeding, or just through giving birth.”’ The Selfish Gene kind of thing -survival of the most adaptive.

All this is very interesting, but for me, it also raises the question of the nature of intelligence, and whether we have truly cornered the market. Without becoming unduly tautologically entangled, how should we define intelligence -and therefore decide who, or what, possesses it?

I suspect it is no longer sufficient to equate mentality (to use an obviously autological word) with brain size, and neuronal density… Or maybe even neurons –trees, for example, have interconnecting root systems, often associated with fungal networks, that are able to communicate after a fashion. Trees and plants are also often able to signal to each other about threatening insect infestations, allowing the production of defensive chemicals. But they live in a different Magisterium almost -they cannot run or hide, so another mechanism was required for survival in an ever-changing environment.

Humans, with our recently evolved Weltanschauung, tend to frame the capacity of other organisms in terms of our own, and their intelligence by what we judge they have accomplished in their own environment. The fact that they have been successful at survival has often been seen as irrelevant to the discussion. Whether an organism can reason –if we can ever peel away the inbuilt hubris implied by the word- is surely another way of saying, ‘learns from its mistakes and adapts appropriately’ -even if that is only in terms of the next generation enabled by the survivor. We have adjusted in our fashion, and they in theirs.

Still, I don’t mean to attribute our characteristics to microorganisms who could care less what we think. Sometimes, it is enough to survive and create the next generation; sometimes adaptation-whether over time and generations, or in one lifetime- can be seen as a goal achieved. So, is it too much to believe that there may be an effective strategy that is gender-modifiable? And is it too much to call it a strategy? Is this such stuff as dreams are made on…?

However much we hesitate to anthropomorphize an issue, a change of perspective is often heuristic. It may well lead to a new understanding and hence a novel approach to a hitherto unsolvable problem. Although this is purely speculative at this stage, the researchers in that article suggest ‘that eventually it may be possible to use drugs to trick viruses into thinking they were infecting women in order to make them less aggressive.’

What an exciting prospect that we may no longer feel a need to completely ignore gender in our dealings with the world -that we may finally be able to shed the guilt of being unable to meld the two into a seamless fabric, and feel embarrassed that, like a poorly executed pentimento, traces of the discrepancy continue to persist.

Recognition and concession of difference does not imply censure or stigmatization -rather, it invites a celebration of the unique patterns each can offer. A realization that a recipe with only one ingredient is uninteresting and bland. And, given the conjecture in the Nature and Communication paper, it’s an awareness of something suspected since antiquity: that our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.

Sometimes, like Robert Frost we just have to take the road not taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Trippingly on the Tongue

I’ve always liked the poetry of metaphor with its imagery revealing nuances hiding shyly in the background. Words alone sometimes convey their meanings too narrowly, whereas metaphors allow imagination to roam more freely, only loosely tethered to definitions. After all, depending on the context of its use, meaning is often reliant on Weltanschauung. Such is communication; language is only the messenger.

Usually one can imprison meaning, of course -confine it in a cramped little box from which, should it ever escape, it would cease to be useful. Indeed, it would be a Pandora’s box from which it escaped. And yet, even there, what remained inside after all the mischief and malevolence had escaped, was Hope. Maybe that’s what metaphors are: unexpected colours leaking from behind the bars… Liberations.

Of course, metaphor is value-laden as well as culture-dependent. One society’s metaphors do not always translate into that of another -hence the difficulty of truly understanding and appreciating the poetry of another nation, especially if it must be converted into a different language. It made me wonder whether there may be similar disparities with gendered interpretations of metaphor.

There was an interesting article in BBC Future a while ago that caught my eye: It made me realize that there are many ways the genders differ. Of course, it may be that when we hear an unusual expression for the first time, we (either sex) cling too firmly to denotative -definitional- aspects of the words for interpretational safety, when the more imaginative and unexpected connotative sense is what was intended all along. And it’s in the connotation -the metaphoric significance- where we differ…

For example, what is a ‘glass ceiling’? ‘Originally popularised by Gay Bryant at the height of the feminist movement in the 1980s, it’s a widely used term today that describes an invisible barrier that keeps women from occupying executive positions. The metaphor suggests that women should aspire to ‘break through’ the ceiling – but the problem is that it describes only the women reaching up, rather than, say, the men that are peering down from the top. This arguably places unfair responsibility on women to smash the ceiling, rather than focusing on the role of men in creating and maintaining it.’

There are other metaphors in use of course, often involving glass -presumably to convey the idea of invisible barriers to movement for women. So, the ‘glass cliff’ which depicts the idea of  ‘how senior women are often hired for risky and precarious roles at times of crises’ and therefore making them look bad if they fail to succeed. Or, the non-glass example of the ‘sticky floor’, which describes how women often feel stuck in low-wage jobs where career ascension is unlikely.’ 

But, handy as they are in explaining often complex topics, metaphors -in these contexts anyway- tend to oversimplify the problems ‘offering only a specific angle or viewpoint that isn’t the full picture.’ They confine us to viewing the world through a narrow aperture -a spotlight that illuminates only one small part of the stage. ‘“Women are the effect to be explained,” says Michelle Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Exeter. “We never talk about men being overconfident, we always talk about women being underconfident. And we never talk about men having privilege or finding it easy; we always talk about women finding it difficult.” Ryan believes that the metaphors we’re using to describe women at work reflect the world’s androcentricism [sic] – our insistence that, even in 2017, we consider the male experience as “the norm”’

The issue is not entirely one-gendered, though. There is the concept of the ‘glass escalator’, a term occasionally applied to men in female-dominated industries that ascend to upper ranks more quickly than women. And yet, as Caren Goldberg of Bowie State University in Maryland points out, metaphors are employed when there is an “exception” to the rule or gender stereotype.’ So in the example she cites, it was applied to a male nurse (in a predominantly female dominated profession at the time) and implied that he probably chose nursing because he wasn’t able to get in to medical school.

‘The obvious upside of any these metaphors, however, is that they highlight social phenomena that might otherwise remain invisible and therefore impossible to resolve. But in order to address the circumstances that lead to women being held back, and men rising seamlessly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that metaphors simplify complexity.’

In an admittedly convoluted way, it reminds me of a woman I met the other day at a bus stop. I suppose I only met her by default, really -nobody would stand beside her because she was exhibiting a rather odd behaviour -probably Tourette’s syndrome, I’d thought at the time. She would be standing quietly at the curb, and then suddenly bend forward and seem to be vigorously cleaning and polishing something above her. This would last for a few seconds, often becoming more and more frantic, and then subside, leaving her once again peaceful, although by the look on her face, perhaps not content.

She was in her thirties, I would guess, and dressed quite respectably in a blue pant-suit, with a spotless white blouse and short stubby earrings that would be unlikely to achieve any unwanted momentum during her seemingly randomly timed tics. Her auburn hair was sensibly short and her makeup intact as far as I could tell. Apart from her odd movements, she seemed like a typical business woman on her way home from work.

And, when she moved beside me in the now-disrupted line up, she smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said -hurriedly, I thought, in order to explain herself before she was once again overcome by the movement. “It’s just my latest tic…”

At that point and without any obvious warning, she launched into another bout of scrubbing something invisible over her head. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice, but she wasn’t fooled.

“I think stuff at work must have kicked this one off,” she said and then blushed.

“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely interested.

She stared at me for a moment, perhaps wondering if it was something appropriate to confess to a stranger at a bus stop. Then her smile returned briefly before the tic arrived again.

“They’re all used to me at work,” she explained when she was able to. “But the boss isn’t.” She risked a sigh to indicate her frustration. “I mostly just repeat words to myself so they’re not as disruptive. But occasionally a movement takes over, and that’s what he doesn’t understand… Or like. I think he wonders if I’m actually mentally handicapped, or something.

“Anyway, even though I’ve been working there as an accountant for almost ten years, he’s never promoted me. I’m well regarded by my colleagues, and they’re almost all men…but…”

I could see a sudden change in her face as she leaned over the curb and the tic began again.

“But my friend Amrita thinks it’s just the glass ceiling that’s holding me back,” she said, once again in temporary control. “And yet, I’m not certain that reassures me…”

Her bus pulled up suddenly, and she stepped onto it like any other passenger, and was gone. I saw her smile at me through the window when she found a seat though, and I nodded in a friendly recognition of what she’d shared with me. But, like her, I’m not sure her friend was right -ceilings are not the only battles.