Dylan’s Lyrics: Written for the ears not the eyes

On a recent episode of the charming Start the Week BBC Radio 4 program we heard Frances Wilson, Salman Rushdie and Simon Armitage discuss the rehabilitation of DH Lawrence and the relationship between the writer and their work. In the closing minutes (approx 37:00) host Andrew Marr asks Armitage about an essay that claims Bob Dylan’s lyrics “don’t really hold up as great poetry, you have to listen to the songs in order to understand the interleaving of the music and the words….can you tell us what you think doesn’t work on the page? Is it repetition, is it sloppiness of the language, evasiveness?”

Armitage responds that in a poem “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really…it has to be done with the alphabet.” Whereas songwriters can “write the lyric and even ‘la-la-la’ might sound very good if you put it to the right chord progression. It can be utterly transcendent if it’s working well with the music and if you’re wearing the right cowboy boots and if you’ve got the right voice.”

He reports taking Dylan lyrics into his poetry class where younger students (unfamiliar with the tune) might appreciate the poetic aspects, nevertheless see cheesy rhymes, repetition, tautology and other elements “that you can’t get away with on the printed page.”

Speechwriters as songwriters

In many ways Armitage is stating the obvious. Songs are created to be listened to, not read (as rewarding as a close reading of Dylan’s lyrics can be). As with great songs, so with great speeches.

Speechwriting authorities Nancy Duarte and Bob Lehrman drive home the message that speeches (like songs) need to be written for the ear not, (as are poems) for the eye.

Sparklines

Nancy Duarte’s seminal 2010 book Resonate focuses on visual storytelling. With the use of what she calls ‘sparklines’ she graphically illustrates the arc of a speech and maps the emotion and delivery by tracking the laughter and applause alongside the words (lyrics) of great speeches such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It would be fascinating to apply a sparkline mapping audience reaction to live musical performances.

Political speechwriting

Political pundit and speechwriting professor Bob Lehrman (literally) wrote the book on speechwriting. In examining why persuasive speeches work, he lists the various forms of repetition (anaphora, epistrope, antimetabol, and climatic order) and forms of vivid language (simile and metaphor, understatement and irony) that work on the heartstrings, not just the head space, of the audience.

While these techniques can be employed by poets, they resonate differently when delivered by a compelling speaker.

In the beginning was the word

In claiming that “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really” Armitage overlooks the pre-literate origins of poetry, when bards of old, the minstrels of Medieval times, recited epic poems which the tellers knew by heart. The literary techniques they used provided aide memoirs for themselves and for their listeners.

Writing in the New York Times, history professor Molly Worthen notes:

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine.

Sorry, Simon, the origins of the poem are with the word, not the page.

Desolation Row

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889

Dylan’s recording of Desolation Row was the longest track (at just over 11 minutes) on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. While I can’t remember the first time I heard it, it’s been in my head for most of my adult life. It’s one of my defining anthems that, together with Roy Harper and Leonard Cohen’s songs, I love more for the lyrics than the melodies. It’s pure poetry set to music.

The Getty Museum owns the Ensor painting and paired it with Dylan’s song with it in the book The Superhuman Crew, noting

Ensor’s huge, vibrant, and startling canvas presents a scene filled with clowns, masked figures, and barely visible amid the swirling crowds the tiny figure of Christ on a donkey entering the city of Brussels. “Desolation Row,” from Dylan’s classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, presents its own surreal portrait of modern life in strangely similar terms.

That “surreal portrait of modern life” becomes more appropriate with each passing year. As I listened again to the song I know so well, themes emerged. It is a song rooted in the time Dylan wrote when cracks were appearing in 50s America, and those with open eyes and ears witnessed the “chimes of freedom flashing.”

Dylan sings of the contrast between two world-views: those embracing emerging freedoms and the guardians of the old order. He paints this contrast in both stark black and white terms (Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”)  as well as shades of grey.

There have been endless interpretations about the meaning of the lyrics.

This is my response to what I hear.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown

The dystopian scene is set. Repression, autocracy, and violence rule in a time when hangings were public events. These might be images of lynching’s in the Deep South or scenes from The Handmaids Tale. What sort of society trades in picture postcards of the dead? One where individual identity is subject to a brown-out. Arguments about the color of passports were part of the Brexit debate that consumed Britain. Painting passports is something “they” do to restrict our liberty to travel and escape the dystopia. Internal passports restricted movement in apartheid-era South Africa, North Korea, and modern China.


The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Yet, the scene is not monochrome. There’s a rambunctiousness in a world where the sailors (presumably men) fill the beauty parlors, and the circus is in town. Dylan sets the scene in a port city–one he visits again in 1974 when he tells of a man who “Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in” (Simple Twist of Fate from Blood on the Tracks). What would groups of sailors want in a beauty parlor? More than a haircut. Hello sailor! Perhaps some eye shadow, a waxing, or lip gloss? Anything to juice up their shore leave.

The opening two lines contrast repression with freedom, heralding an awakening sense of personal expression at the dawn of the ’60s. Soon enough, many would choose the option to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free (Mr. Tambourine Man--recorded six months earlier.) Meanwhile, the representatives of the old order are on parade, like Shriners striding down Main Street in Anytown, USA.


Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

The first of the old order makes an entrance. I see the blind commissioner four rows back in the Ensor painting — the man with the handlebar mustache, center stage. An authority figure (perhaps the port commissioner?) who is both literally and metaphorically blind. Blind like Lady Justice holding her scales. Except “they” (the ones selling postcards of hangings and painting passports) have him in a trance. Hypnotized. In their power. Unable to function.


One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

Not only blind and hypnotized but bound. Guided by the tight-rope walker from the circus, accomplished at balancing in his own way, just as Lady Justice balances her scales. He is leading the blind commissioner, who is all the while pleasuring himself with his free hand. While some might see his free hand resting innocently in a trouser pocket, the words “in his pants” always implied something far raunchier to me — long before Borat filmed the blind commissioner Rudy Giuliani in the hotel room with one hand in his pants.


And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

Three years before the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention and decades before the last US President stirred the restlessness of his own rioting squad and suggested somewhere they could go (down Pennsylvania Avenue and up the steps of the Capitol), Dylan has the measure of the inherent restlessness of the enforcement arm of the old order.


As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Meanwhile, above it all, the poet sits with his “Lady” looking out over the unfolding nighttime scene, not “on” but “from” Desolation Row. The home of the residents of the emerging zeitgeist. I see Desolation Row as the New York apartment Dylan writes about in Visions of Johanna:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

They look out over the dystopian landscape of blind commissioners and riot squads, perched on an island of sanity, observing the crazy world.

Lady is the mythical companion of the Tramp in the Disney film of a decade earlier. Dylan as the Chaplinesque Everyman “Tramp” alongside a woman who might be slumming from the aristocracy in those timeless dystopian times.

Desolation Row might also be a knowing reference to California’s Cannery Row, described by Steinbeck as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” The sardine industry had collapsed, in desolation, a decade before Dylan wrote his song. Cross-referenced with Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, which declared, “Everything’ll be all right, desolation is desolation everywhere and desolation is all we got and desolation ain’t so bad.”

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style

Alongside Lady, Cinderella is another Disney character, an archetype of emerging freedom. She is ignored by her establishment sisters, standing free, knowing the power of her sexuality. A woman who only “seems so easy” (as in easy to seduce, or perhaps at her ease?) acknowledging others (like Dylan?) who hold the same appeal. Insouciant, seductive, captivating. Someone who would have turned heads in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village.


And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave.”

Cinderella’s anthesis arrives on the scene. Romeo sans Juliet, desperate to own whatever woman he can find. Down on his luck, off his game, and “moaning.” A visitor from the dark side. His inappropriate advances earning a rebuke–not only to put him in his place but to tell him, with the threatening tone of a nightclub bouncer or mobster’s bodyguard, that he needs to leave. The two lines of dialog tied together in rhyme are polar opposite in intention. Those who claim ownership (capitalists, The Man?) having no place in the communal world of Desolation Row.


And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
.

And so we come to the end of Act One. The sirens are silenced. The riot squad has done its worst. Chaos has reigned off-screen. We’re witness to the cleaning-up operations, with Cinders doing what her stepmother required — sweeping up the broken glass on the street. Indeed, it must be broken glass. After all, if it was just the

empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.

The Waste Land, Fire Sermon, lines 177-178

of Eliot’s Fire Sermon, we wouldn’t hear her at work.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide

The night is growing darker, colder, older. Clouds are moving in.


The fortune-telling lady has even taken all her things inside

Another circus refugee has called it a night, signaling the transition from one part of the day to another. Her tarot cards, crystal ball, and tasseled gown are now inside whatever she calls home – gypsy caravan, tent, or tenement building. Minus the fortune teller, the future is an unknown.


All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
/ Everybody is making love or else expecting rain

But wait, not everyone has quit the scene. Three more archetypes of the old order are introduced. The brothers from the Bible and Quasimodo –monsters in their own way–are the exception to others, engaged in the trivial and the profound. When is making love as trivial as expecting rain? Family members from my English childhood often commented on the weather. They rarely spoke about lovemaking. Depending on which group of people this describes the juxtaposition either challenges the romantic ideal of lovemaking as no more significant an option than commenting on the weather (“Do you want to make out or put on your Wellingtons? It’s all the same to me…”) or the hipsters are making love while the squares look to the cloudy sky. Dylan is unclear about which “everybody” it is — everybody in the apartment, everyone on the street, or the whole world? Shades of grey.


And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row

Again, a contrast. While the fratricidal boys in the Bible represent murder and martyrdom, the Good Samaritan signifies freedom, preparing for the evening’s entertainment (the night is young). Whether the “show” is something the circus is putting on or the carnival Ensor painted is unclear. However, Desolation Row seems like the fun side of town, more benign than the disorder in the debris-filled streets.

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row
.

Switching back to Shakespearean archetypes, Dylan notices Ophelia beneath the window (that Lady and he looks out of, standing where Romeo would have wooed his Juliet on her balcony). He’s empathetic, concerned, aware of the limitations playing out in her young life. A tragic career woman (her profession’s her religion), she is a lifeless “old maid” — one of Shakespeare’s ‘cold maids’ in Ophelia’s death scene:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7

She’s fixated on her namesakes’ romantic death, armored against feelings of passion, or trapped like youthful Polio victims in an iron lung? Her goal cemented by Old Testament certainty:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

Genesis, 9-13

Ophelia is missing the mark, the juice having been squeezed out of her life, denying her true feelings, but trying to make a break, curious about what she’s missing. Despite being an uptight career girl, she can’t help “peeking into Desolation Row.

This echoes Dylan’s admonition in the opening track on the album (Like a Rolling Stone) to embrace our feelings, recognize our freedoms:

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

While there are those like Ophelia who sense the possibility of freedom and might be tempted to overcome their fears to experience it, other sad unfortunates have been destroyed by madness. Among them, as Ginsburg noted, “the best minds of my generation.” (Howl, 1956). What more impressive mind than Einstein?

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk

Archetypes nest like Matryoshka dolls. The father of relativity, whose theories upended the certainties of space and time itself, now disguised as the folk-hero of Sherwood Forest, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, accompanied by Friar Tuck. There’s a nod to Einstein’s lot as a refugee, forced to stay in the United States in the 1930s to avoid Hitler’s Germany, who would have no doubt have a store of photographs and diaries from the Europe of his youth in a trunk.


Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet

This heroic figure is down at heel, a hobo like those who rode the rails Dylan’s mentor Woody Guthrie sang about. As disheveled as he might be, he appears “immaculately frightful” (a state of dishabille that perfectly describes a street person I once saw in Paris, where a sense of fashion doesn’t desert those without the means to buy new clothes)—now compelled to neurotically sniff drainpipes and recite the alphabet—a far cry from authoring the Theory of Relativity.


You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
.

Just as you’d say about any down-and-out who was once a person of note, “you would not think to look at him, but…” he was once a banker, school principal, a respected member of the community, Nobel Laureate in Theoretical Physics. Or, in the case of a musician like Dylan, a violinist he shared the stage with before things took a turn for the worse.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up

We now come to one of the central characters on the dark side of the street. Dr. Filth is a name straight out of a Marvel comic book. The leather cup could be an athletic support cup around his manhood that his “sexless patients” are trying to blow (pun intended?). Or it could be a leather liar’s dice cup sitting on a barroom counter that the patients want to dynamite. Anyone who needs to keep their world inside anything as small as a cup must have a paranoid need to keep it safe. Like memories in a trunk, they might well be keepsakes. Or patient records. I wonder what HIPPA regulations require? What insecurities drive this?


Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”

The doctor’s assistant is “some local loser”—more likely to be found working as a waitress in a greasy spoon or matinee movie theatre attendant than as a qualified nurse. She guards (and administers?) a toxic substance whose only use in emergency medical situations is to effect a rapid decrease in blood pressure.  She’s also representative of the local losers recruited to administer gas into the cyanide holes above the Nazi death camps’ shower stalls. Coupled with overseeing the cards that judges read from when pronouncing the death sentence, we are firmly in a dystopian hell realm.


They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

These nightmare characters (Dr. Filth and the local loser employed as his poison dispensing, capital-punishment enabling nurse) create discordant noise blowing on penny whistles—discernable when you “lean your head out far enough” to catch the vague traces of the distant spinning wheels of sound.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast

Back in the low-rent district (Greenwich Village being affordable back then), neighbors nail curtains across their windows–cheap privacy for their nighttime feast.  Neighbors who also feature in Visions of Johanna:

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough

Next, we meet the Paris opera house’s ghost, invited to the feast to berate Casanova, given form as a man of God, able to dispense judgment. Introduced in a line that hangs suspended in the song, held back for a beat.

The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest

Casanova–an archetype of masculine power and a master of seduction is reduced to the level of an invalid needing to be spoon-fed assurances.


They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words

He’s destined to be sacrificed on the self-improvement altar of positive thinking, poisoned by the words of authors such as Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill.


And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get outta here if you don’t know.”
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row

The Phantom is reanimated, announcing that Casanova’s transgression is to have crossed over from the conventional world and embraced Desolation Row’s freedoms. His audience is the “skinny girls” who might welcome Casanova’s attention, but, like Romeo before them, have to leave. The stage is set: a group of girls, the Phantom and Casanova with his attendants. This echoes Deputy Duperret’s advice to Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play The Marat/Sade. Both women are ignorant of the politics of revenge and repression.

Dearest Charlotte you must return

Return to your friends the pious nuns

And live in prayer and contemplation

You cannot fight

The hard-faced enemies surrounding us.

The Marat/Sade, Act 1

Casanova, Jean-Paul Marat, the Marquis de Sade—three European libertines at odds with Middle America’s morality.

At midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do

The dystopian frenzy is unleashed at the stroke of midnight. Scenes similar to those portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and lived by the victims of the Chilean dictators and Hitler’s brownshirts. Victims of a group of the Übermensch who accompany J. Edgar’s agents. The deplorables against the elites. The revenge of the conspiracy theorists against those with knowledge of the facts. Punishment Park a possibility.


Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders, and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

Conformity is enforced on the salt of the earth workers, whole-life policies for those with no life to live. Orwell’s’ 1984. Dictates from the mansions of the one percent keeping the workers from their freedom. A theme explored by John Lennon five years later:

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

~~

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear

~~

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
.

Working Class Hero, 1970.

The conclusion, but not the coda, is in the next six lines.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”

The emperor who fiddled while Rome burned sets sail on the doomed liner. The pretentions of the entitled end up at the bottom of the ocean. Division in the land – Red states and Blue, Proud Boys and Antifa, them and us. Is any of it more than rearranging the deckchairs?


And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row.

Ivory tower intellectuals battle for supremacy while artists and artisans celebrate life in the wonderous watery reaches of this blue planet, an ocean of bliss, feeling without limitation, freed from analysis of current and future conflicts.

After an interlude on the harmonica, Dylan delivers a footnote, responding to a letter the mailman delivered.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.

While the battle between the forces of good and evil rage, trite domesticity occupies others. He confesses that he sang about the people he knew, anonymized with archetypes and aliases. He admonishes his correspondent to stop sending trivial news. And only write if, and when, they have stepped out of their suburban cocoon.

Take a listen

If you’ve got this far in my endless screed about the song, you deserve a treat. Take a listen to Dylan as he sings the lines that so inspired me.

I read the news today, oh boy…

I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh.
— The Beatles, A Day In The Life

I’ve made a decision to avoid reading the news for the rest of 2016. This might strike some as an eccentric, even foolhardy, decision. After all, things are happening in the world: a Presidential election is underway in the USA, Brexit in the UK, conflicts in Syria, refugees in the Med.

The News book coverI’m inspired by reading the provocative book The News: A Users Manual, by Alain de Botton which suggests a number of reasons to treat the ‘news’ with caution. In a trenchant analysis of the news de Botton not only takes issue with the selectivity and bias of the news in the usual way of political critique from various quarters, he raises fundamental questions about the philosophical underpinnings of the activity of reporting and editorial control:

The news may present itself as the authoritative portraitist of reality. It may claim to have an answer to the impossible question of what has really been going on, but it has no overarching ability to transcribe reality. It merely selectively *fashions* reality through the choices it makes about which stories to cast its spotlight on and which ones to leave out.

The news knows how to render its own mechanisms almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. it fails to disclose that it does not merely *report* on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own highly distinctive priorities.

As important as the stories the news covers, claims de Botton, are those stories that are not considered ‘newsworthy’:

…the cloud floating right now unattended over the church spire, the gentle thought in the doctor’s mind as he approaches the patient’s bare arm with a needle, the field mice by the hedgerow, the small child tapping the surface of a newly hard-bolied egg while her mother looks on lovingly, the nuclear submarine patrolling the maritime borders with efficiency and courage, the factory producing the first prototypes of a new kind of engine and the spouse who, despite extraordinary provocations and unkind words, discovers fresh reserves of patience and forgiveness.

So as an experiment I’ll be cancelling my FT subscription, avoiding the TV, unplugging from social media and turning off radio bulletins. I’m not completely alone in this, as I’ve discovered others who have made the same decision, some many years ago. Instead of reading and watching the news, I’ll be paying more attention to the ebb and flow of the tides, phases of the moon and birdsong.

I hope to fill the evening hours considering the Dharma, perhaps reading Proust for the first time, or tackling an epic like the Mahabharata or The Bible.

I might blog as the experiment unfolds, but you won’t find me on social media as I ease into the experience of this fast from the headlines de Botton has enjoyed:

We need relief from the news-filled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premier parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to rise up into the space of our imagination, many kilometers above the mantel of the earth, to a place where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us — and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against the aeons of time to which the view of other galaxies attests.

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Riding

Tour de FranceAs the Tour de France peleton rolls through the Alps towards the final stage on the Champs Elysee this Sunday, it’s worth remembering there are other ways in which a bicycle can be ridden. It’s not all high-speed descents of Alpine passes and 100-mile dashes through the French countryside.

Mark HarrisMark Harris is as far from the Lycra-clad racers as he is from the average carnivorous American. As I noted back in February, he has attached a blender to the rear wheel of his bike and is touring the country living off the land on a diet of raw green smoothies.

He has posted a wonderful poem to his blog on The Art Of Transcendental Bicycle Blender Touring which communicates, from the heart, how bicycle touring can liberate us from the concerns of everyday life:

What goes in the bicycle blender is wild and raw,
It is immediate and distinct, unblemished by names,
It goes in at the top, and whirs all the way down the mountain.
It reaches the valley, smooth and creamy,
Having acquired the essence of taste.

The bicycle blender tourist has nowhere to go,
Each moment is a drop in time,
Somehow the mountain descends and rises up again,
With each undulation of the landscape
More names are forgotten

When the bicycle blender heads up the mountain
Much effort is required.
When it coasts down the other side,
There is only ease.
Effort and ease are thrown in the bicycle blender too,
Before long they can’t even be told apart.

But the real magic begins
When the bicycle blender is put in reverse.
Pedaling backwards up the mountain slope,
Eyes wide open, not knowing where anything is,
Green Smoothie is spewed out, over everything,

By the top of the mountain every seeming separate thing,
Has been coated through and through with Green Smoothie,
So that substance itself is a delicious and refreshing drink.

Book Review: A Whole New Mind, by Daniel H. Pink

A Whole New Mind CoverAfter reading Leonardo’s Brain I was inspired by the practical advice for overcoming limited left-brained thinking in Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. While this might not enable us to evolve an integrated body and mind to the level of da Vinci, at least it offers a place to start on the journey that Leonard Shlain says is required if we are to survive as a species.

The Conceptual Age

The first part of the book argues that Western societies are undergoing a change from a left-brain dominant Information Age to a right-brained Conceptual Age. The abundance of material goods and information, where obscure facts can be retrieved instantly with a search engine, lessens the value placed on linear “just the facts Ma’am” thinking. Highly paid knowledge workers are being displaced by low-cost workers in Asia, and routine tasks that rewarded those who excel at left-brained logic and sequential thinking are being automated. According to Pink, the yes men of yesteryear will soon disappear (or at least, move to India and China).

Today’s winners in the West need to explore patterns, abstractions, and designs if they are to “rule the future”. The MFA is the new MBA. The age of the image replaces the alphabetic mind. A picture is worth a thousand words. The Conceptual Age requires we cultivate creativity over calculation. The second half of the book investigates six ways to do this.

The Six Senses

Pink inventories six abilities we can cultivate to succeed in the Conceptual Age:

Design or the cultivation of an artistic sensibility, shaping our environment in ways that give meaning to our lives.

Storytelling to make our communications memorable by putting things into context, enriched by emotion and structured for maximum impact.

Symphony or synthesis of relationships and patterns, crossing boundaries and making bold leaps of imagination. Viewing the big picture and not obsessing over details. (Indeed, he celebrates dyslexia as an indicator of superior intuition and big-picture insights.)

Empathy imagining ourselves in someone else’s position, reading faces not just spreadsheets.

Play as we move away from sober seriousness to experience what happens when humor suddenly returns.

Meaning in our lives including the willingness to embrace our spiritual side.

Practical Portfolios

At the end of each of the six chapters in Part Two, Pink lists a portfolio of practical ways we can help to sharpen that ability in our own lives. here’s a wonderfully eclectic series of suggestions, any one of which has the capability to begin to change how we engage a whole new mind. There’s at least a dozen suggestions at in each portfolio. I especially loved:

Design which includes his audacious recommendation that we choose a household item that annoys us in some way, sketch out an improvement and send the suggestion to the manufacturer to see what happens. (I could start with the iced water dispenser in our refrigerator which *will* leak onto the floor…)

Story Write a 50-word mini saga (or, better yet, tell your life story in six words.) For example, this mini saga titled The Talking Fingers of my Great Greek Grandfather by Bob Thurber. Or, perhaps this 50-word extract of verse from a Welsh poet:

..I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns.

Draw on the Right Side of the Brain.

Empathy by taking an acting or improv class.

Play By visiting a laughter club.

Meaning by taking a technology sabbath one day a week.

At the end of the day, however, muting the left brain in favor of a more integrated view of reality will probably require more profound changes than any of us are capable of in an afternoon acting or drawing class. Indeed, in the decade that has passed since Pink wrote this book, the rise of image-based communication via smartphones and internet video has started to eclipse the stranglehold the written word has on us. It remains to be seen if future Leonardo’s are being incubated in this new environment.

Book Review: Leonardo’s Brain, by Leonard Shlain

Leonardo's Brain CoverLeonard Shlain’s latest, and final, book is a tour-de-force. Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius follows from the spirit of the author’s previous books, most notably The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image and Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light. Taken together, the three books examine the way alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations; review the ways art interprets the visible world while science charts its unseen workings; and describe the manner in which a unique individual transcended the divisions between left and right-brained approaches to the world to achieve exceptional genius.

A Celebration of Genius

Shlain’s work is an unabashed celebration of da Vincis’ staggering range of achievements in the art, science and invention. Despite the five centuries that have passed since da Vinci lived, Shlain marshals evidence to show the scope of his genius resulted on the unique physiology of his brain that allowed him to achieve all he did in both art and science.

Much of the evidence is based on the neuroscience with which the author, a practicing laparoscopic surgeon, extrapolates from the fact that da Vinci was a gay left-handed (but ambidextrous) man and a vegetarian pacifist. From both his paintings and his scientific journals, Shlain infers that da Vinci was able to transcend the division between the left and right hemispheres of his brain and achieve a synthesis that was the engine of his genius:

For creativity to manifest itself, the right brain must free itself from the deadening hand of the inhibitory left brain and do its work, unimpeded… (p.92)

This synthesis unleashed a creative force that allowed da Vinci to recognize novel patterns in the world, seeing with a heightened level of alertness and clarity.

Remote Viewing

Beyond this level of appreciation, however, Shlain proposes a truly startling argument that some of da Vinci’s work, such as the drawings of the town plan of Imola and the scheme for a canal to bypass the Arno could only have been made if he was capable of “remote viewing”, or:

…the skill to enter a space-time consciousness, discard the rational left brain, and acquire a quantum look at the world. (p.157)

This extraordinary level of perception might also explain how he was able to draw a bird’s trajectory in slow motion or stop time to draw water caught in midair, even drawing how it appeared beneath the surface.

Prior Unity

Shlain sees da Vinci’s achievements as a sign of hope for humanity at the start of the twenty-first century, experiencing a transitional stage of evolution as a species. He speculates that we are entering a period in which humanity is changing:

The absence or presence of creativity determines what we believe…Perhaps we will develop into an improved version of Homo sapiens as more of us become less interested in power and more interested in matters of the heart. (p. 194)

As the Western-born Spiritual Adept Adi Da Samraj has written:

I am interested in finding men and women who are free of every kind of seeking, who are attendant only to understanding, and who will devote themselves to the intentional creation of human life in the form and logic of Reality, rather than the form and logic of Narcissus. Such men are the unexploitable Presence of Reality … They will create in the aesthetics of Reality, turning all things into radical relationship and enjoyment. They will remove the effects of separative existence and restore the Form of things. They will engineer every kind of stability and beauty. They will create a Presence of Peace. Their eye will be on present form and not on exaggerated notions of artifice. Their idea of form is stable and whole, not a gesture toward some other event. They will not make the world seem but a symbol for higher and other things.

Shalin’s Legacy

Shlain’s life ended just as he was finishing the manuscript for this book. The terrible irony is that he, who shared so many insights about the brain, passed away from brain cancer. The book was finished with the help of his three children: Kimberley, Jordan and Tiffany. We owe them, and their father, an immense debt for sharing his insights with us.

Reciprocity

StairsEver since I studied the sociology of sociology I’ve been fascinated by recursive activity. I’ve heard professional speakers speaking about speaking and read writers writing about writing.

The current edition of the New Yorker features a translation of Wislawa Szymborska’s compelling poem Reciprocity (subscription required). It is a wonderful play on the idea of recursive activity. Of worlds within worlds. Mirror shades.

I found this Italian translation which I have rendered into English for the benefit of anyone who does not have a New Yorker subscription.

There are catalogs of catalogs.
There are poems about poems.
There are plays about actors played by actors.
Letters in response to letters.
Words used to clarify words.
Brains occupied with studying brains.
There are griefs as infectious as laughter.
Paper emerging from waste papers.
Seen glances.
Conditions conditioned by the conditional.
Large rivers with abundant contributions from small ones.
Forests overgrown by forests.
Machines designed to make machines.
Dreams wake us suddenly from dreams.
Health needed for regaining health.
Stairs leading as much up as down.
Glasses for finding glasses.
Inspiration born of expiration.
And even if only from time to time
hatred of hatred.
All in all,
ignorance of ignorance.
and hands employed to wash hands.

The last two lines alone summoned, for me, images of manicurists who don’t know what they don’t know, but (working backwards through the stanza) with every breath they take, have an opportunity to speak tolerantly with occasional customers.

And, of course, the whole silicon chip industry and Moore’s Law has been driven by machines designed to make machines that have enabled tremendous advances in cognitive science by corporations where careers are downsized as often as they advance; where patents filled with footnotes are written on recycled paper; where the sum of knowledge is made up of a multitude of small contributions; where the Light of Consciousness itself can awaken us from this dream of our limited and limiting conditional existence. Klik-Klak, pattern patterning.

At least that’s what the poem seems to be saying, at first glance.

Open systems born of counter-culture (redux)

In response to an interview with Silicon Valley VC Peter Thiel in the Weekend FT on Dec 20, 2013 my letter defending hippie values was published a week later:

Of the many sweeping statements made by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel during his “Lunch with the FT” interview (“People are not trying hard enough”, Life & Arts, December 21), none seems as wide of the mark as his claim that “when the hippies won … the idea of progress came to an end”. As someone who lives and invests in Silicon Valley, Mr Thiel should be familiar with the well-documented connection between 1960s radicals and innovations around open systems computing and the origins of the personal computer.

Open systems grew out of the variation of the Unix operating system developed at the University of California at Berkeley – hotbed of the 1960s counter-culture in the US. Open systems innovation led to a revolution every bit as real as the one hoped for by those manning the barricades on Telegraph Avenue.

Homebrew Computer Club founder Fred Moore was an anti-war activist. Club members Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs engaged in “hippie pastimes” such as phone phreaking, experimenting with LSD, and seeking spiritual enlightenment in India. They then went on to found Apple Computers, hardly a sign that progress had come to an end.

New YorkerNow, a long article in the Jan 13 edition of the New Yorker by Evgeny Morozov, details various elements of the rebellion against establishment ownership of the means of production–from the Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th Century through the Whole Earth Catalog of the 1960s to the hackers of the 70’s and the Maker Movement today.

Whole Earth Catalog founder and computer revolutionary Stewart Brand contrasts the nature of the rebellion on different sides of the San Francisco Bay:

Around Berkeley, it was Free Speech Movement, “power to the people.” Around Stanford, it was “Whole Earth Catalog,” Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, people like that, and they were just power to people. They just wanted to power anybody who was interested, not “the people.” Well, it turns out there is no, probably, “the people.” So the political blind alley that Berkeley went down was interesting, we were all taking the same drugs, the same length of hair, but the stuff came out of the Stanford area, I think because it took a Buckminster Fuller access-to-tools angle on things.

Morozov writes that, in addition to Fred Moore, another leader of the Homebrew Computer Club was Lee Felsenstein. A veteran of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, he wanted to build a communication infrastructure that would allow citizens to swap information in a decentralized manner, bypassing the mistrusted traditional media. He founded the Club to help counter the power of IBM, then the dominant manufacturer of large and expensive computers, and make computers smaller, cheaper, and more useful in political struggles.

Morozov’s notes the irony that today “we carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets.”

While he criticizes the lack of a willingness of these movements to address institutional and political change, the overwhelming impact of the innovations that the counter-culture unleashed is undeniable.

Interview: Austin Hill Shaw – Creativity Instigator

Austin Hill ShawFor as long as he can remember, San Francisco Bay Area-based Austin Hill Shaw has been enraptured by creativity and the creative process. In 2004, stemming from a life-changing insight gained during a three-month meditation retreat, he began exploring the subject of creativity in earnest, wanting to understand the opportunities and challenges behind creativity’s seemingly universal appeal. Since then, he has amassed a wealth of knowledge regarding creative expression in art, science, and religion, in childhood development and adult maturation, in business and the economy, in product innovation, in both intimate and organizational relationships, and in non-ordinary states of consciousness, delving into the very core of what is means to be human. More importantly, he has striven to embody all that he’s learned, using his own life as an ongoing experiment, testing and refining his methods in his own pursuits as a writer and architectural designer.

Between The Bridge and the WaterToday, in a time of rampant job automation and outsourcing, Austin’s message regarding the importance of creativity and how to activate it is swiftly making its way out into the world. Drawing upon an innovative mix of cutting-edge science, artistic expression, and age-old spiritual wisdom, Austin presents a timely and enlivening understanding of creativity, one that ignites the full-person creative potential of individuals and organizations alike. He just released his provocative first book in his Awakening Creativity Series, a book entitled, Between The Bridge and The Water: Death, Rebirth, and Creative Awakening, and will be releasing his next book, The Shoreline of Wonder: The Path of Creativity later this summer.

Whether he is addressing a large audience or working with an individual one-on-one, Austin combines visionary insight with heartfelt empathy, profound ideas with unexpected humor, sobering seriousness with joyful irreverence, all with a remarkable sense of presence. He is a gifted story teller, one with the ability to unpack the complex subtleties of the creative process and present them in a way that can be put to use immediately. Through his keynote presentations, writing, and one-on-one coaching, and through his work with his architecture clients, Austin Hill Shaw is dedicated to helping others awaken their natural creative capacities and to share their creative gifts with others.

Find out more about Austin, his speaking and coaching offerings, and his other creative pursuits at www.austinhillshaw.com.

Pro-Track Profile

I recently talked with Austin about his background. To hear what he told me, and the plans he has to instigate creativity in the world, as well as his impressions of the National Speakers Association Pro-Track class that he is part of, click on the podcast icon below.

Tiffany Shlain’s stunning autobiographical film

Connected the FilmOn Sunday I invited my daughter to the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley for the opening weekend of Tiffany Shlain’s latest film Connected. Since we both work at Cisco, and the movie trailer promised a discussion of internet and connectivity, I thought we’d both find it interesting and relevant to our day jobs. “It’ll be a nice Father-Daughter afternoon out,” I mentioned to Emily.

I had no idea.

Tiffany Shlain is the daughter of Dr. Leonard Shlain, a Renaissance man who was a surgeon, inventor and author. In May 2009 he passed away after a two-year battle with brain cancer. This film is an emotionally raw account of her father’s life and death; of his influence on her and the ideas on language and the brain he developed in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image; of
her own struggle to conceive a second child and of her eldest child’s brush with a life-threatening medical emergency.

She started work on the film five years ago, at that time her Dad was one of her principal advisers on the script. His passing both challenged her ability to complete the film and offered an opportunity to make her autobiography a point of departure for a wide-ranging consideration of the effect of the internet, connectivity and collaboration on society today.

Tiffany has been involved in the promotion of the web as the founder of the “Webby Awards” as well as an early proponent of distance learning.

The film uses animated timelines to span developments in science, technology and innovation from the Big Bang to the present day. She focuses on historical figures such as Einstein, Marie Curie and James Lovelock to detail the evolution of ideas from the era of the printing press to the web. The decline of the honeybee is seen as a leitmotif for the many threats to the planet that patriarchal, left-brained thinking has led to.

However, Tiffany takes an optimistic view of the potential for the interconnected world we inhabit to discover a way out of the crisis. By focusing less on linear text and more on pattern recognition and images, she suggests the Web might begin to undo the centuries exaltation of the masculine, left-brained approach to problems.

As Adi Da Samraj has written in Not-Two Is Peace, Only everybody-all-at-once can change the current chaos. Tiffany’s stunning autobiographical film holds hope that the interconnectivity made possible by the network will indeed become a platform for a sensible resolution to the challenges we all face.

Coming to Theaters

Connected is currently playing at selected theaters in San Francisco, Berkeley and Mill Valley, CA. Over the next six weeks it opens in Portland, OR; Monterey, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Seattle, WA; New York, NY and Denver, CO.