Today I did something radical

I did something radical this morning. I went to Church. Now, I don't want to alarm the people who know me well, I haven't undergone a sudden conversion to this or that creed or dogma. I have certainly not been 'born again', at least not in the last 25 years. This isn't Dylan goes electric.

What I have done, though, is realised that the spiritual dimension of my life needs some attention, and I am interested in particular in what one might call the spiritual dimension of creativity. This is a quiet feeling, and one that I can scarcely account for. In this regard I have recently been reading a lot on topics as wide as kabbala, witchcraft, paganism, ritual and high magic, meditation, Epicureanism, depth and archetypal psychology, and indeed the life and thoughts of Carl Gustav Jung, the master of the archetypes himself.

The strange crossover between psychology and spirituality led me in a roundabout way to the figure of Dr. Francis McNab, Melbourne's very own radical cleric - albeit of the apparently mild-mannered, Uniting Church variety. Interested in hearing first hand what Dr. McNab had to say, I wandered up Collins Street to St Michaels. The experience was quite engaging. Not a bit like paganism or witchcraft, it must be said, although some of his critics might suggest that it is a slippery slope. I was made very welcome, I got to sit in a beautiful space and listen to some glorious Bach and cheeky Mozart, and I found the sermon intriguing.

There was also something deeply reassuring and engaging about using my city in a new way - entering and using a sacred space for its intended purpose, even if only for a while. Well, it's new for me. From this little outing - unexpected as it was, even to me - I have much to think about. More in due course, my faithful pagan readers.

Dumb, simple, wonderful

The view from my sofa

Thursday night after ten pm I spent more than an hour watching clouds scud by the tops of the highrise towers outside my apartment. I was so intrigued by the appearance of the cloud banks, the tops of the buildings and the occasional visible star (there were two, but I think one was a planet) that I dug out my Sony DSLR and experimented with some long exposure shots.


As a photography session it was of limited success. I don't really know what I am doing with that camera, but I managed to get some mildly interesting and evocative snaps, more of interest as documentation than art. One is shown above. In one respect, however, the evening was a complete success: it was really relaxing doing something so harmless and random. I had a similar sensation at Christmas, when I spent about half an hour blowing soap bubbles with my niece Orli and my dog Lucy. Both Orli and Lucy liked to chase the bubbles, and I liked to see how many I could blow with one breath. There is something so engaging about doing...harmless, stupid nothing! I recommend it.

Of course, my evening came good last night almost as soon as I had turned off the television. It is so liberating to suddenly silence that dreadful device, and a calm settles on the apartment almost instantaneously. The room 'depolarises' - it is no longer a tunnel pointed at the screen - and I can hear myself think. In this state I turned my mind to alternative forms of entertainment - I'm not a monk, after all - and I settled on the digital comic. The iPad was made for comics, but they take quite a while to download. While I was waiting I got in the habit of staring up at the clouds, which I could just see from my reclined position on the sofa. Waiting for comics slowly became more interesting than reading comics, and the aforementioned photo session ensued.

This particular patch of sky is, relatively speaking, tiny - but no less captivating for that. Certainly I can see more sky out of my western windows. However, given the choice of being down near the street or up near the clouds, I think I would still stick with down near the street, looking up at the clouds. What's that Wilde quote - we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars? That's how I like it. In my apartment, my floor level is about ten feet above the heads of pedestrians walking on the pavement below, so I am not too low, but I still feel connected to what is going on. Certainly I hear and see everything that happens outside, but safe in my perch, passersby can't really hear or see me going about my business. To be just above street life, and yet able to see the sky - that's the perfect balance.


In the last few years, I have probably only had half a dozen nights spent in without the television to provide its chattering company. I would like to see the television become the exception, rather than the rule, of a night spent alone in the company of my various companion animals. I don't see any real obstacles to this: I enjoy a measure of evening and weekend solitude, which balances out my busy, people-filled week days. Quite apart from the refreshing contrast, I am also interested in this condition of solitude that Rainer Maria Rilke discusses in his 'Letters to a Young Poet'. Rilke speaks of a need to 'scale the depths of solitude' in order to find the inner impulse to be creative. I like this, not the least for which it forms such a pleasant contrast to the relentlessly 'social' agenda of new media and technology. The idea of creative production being deeply personal and driven by a quiet solitude is a contradictory note in these collaborative, connected times, and this alone recommends it for further attention.

Alternatively, I might invest in some detergent, bend a wire coat-hanger and spend my evenings blowing bubbles at my dog. It's all good.

When seeing is doing

The Laws of Attraction 1: Pantheon

The Laws of Attraction 2: Lyttleton Harbour

I have been thinking about something that connects both of these images. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these two photographs are depictions of the same phenomena. This is a discussion about a personal experience, or perception: it may not be universal, but it is certainly shared.

One photograph is of Lyttleton Harbour in New Zealand, on the outskirts of Christchurch, as seen from the balcony of a small house. The other is of the Pantheon in Rome. More precisely, it is a photograph taken from the western side of the Pantheon looking over the crowds in the Piazza della Rotonda, who have been drawn to the building like metal filings to a magnet.

That's a clue to what I am talking about. The Pantheon generates a field of attraction - both as an idea, or a story, and as a building. People flock to see it, undoubtedly for a host of sensible reasons: it is so intact, and it is such a fine, direct and unequivocal public building. That might explain why people travel to see it.

It does not explain why the space of the Piazza is so charged, and that people feel compelled to just sit there in the building's presence. People drink coffee and beer, and consume pasta and pizza, in the presence of this building. Such things happen in other piazza(s), for sure - but there is a palpable sense of moment surrounding the Pantheon, similar to the atmosphere of anticipation in a theatre when the crowd is building and the house lights are still up. People sit in front of the building, doing something or nothing. The dependability of this behaviour is unquestionable, and the individual is part of the whole; something is happening.

Then there is Lyttleton Harbour. The working dock shown in the distance, there at the water's edge, exerted a familiar field of attraction on my recent visit. I felt that I could be perfectly satisfied just watching it as the light changed, and much like the cafés around the Pantheon, the houses on the hill are all oriented towards it.

Here's the thing: what is it about these two situations that is able to cut through the jaded, stuporous gaze of the contemporary viewer or tourist with such a potent charge? I am speaking of myself, of course. I am drowning in visual and other sensory stimulation, and yet both of these two situations exerted an influence over me that was almost mesmeric: a sense that to look was to be a part of something happening, that to be looking was to be doing.

What does this mean? I am not sure, but it is there, deep in my gut: the same thing is happening in both photos. I will write about this again, and perhaps speculate as to why architects and other designers expect the 'Pantheon effect' to hold true with every individual work, despite the fact that this obviously cannot be the case.

But if we don't aim to create a mesmerised, enraptured viewer for our design work, what do we aim for? I think it matters. Let me know what you think.

On aesthetic transgression

Why would you not illustrate a jazz festival with a certain aesthetic? Why wouldn't you use a conservative 'American country club' serif font in gilt, with mahogany highlights, to illustrate a jazz festival? I don't mean an ironic aesthetic, but the real thing - uptight and frankly bad. Why wouldn't you do this, and what would happen if you did? I will come back to that last question.

I am interested in the aesthetic 'force fields' connected to cultural forms, or for that matter any kind of activity...systems of aesthetic orthodoxy, at the edges of which we find the limits of acceptability and the point where the apparent aesthetic permissiveness of the genre or practice is shown to be anything but. The vigour with which such system are protected against 'corruption'.

We can look back in time and think of the Futurists or the first Bauhaus students as idealistic and in some way understand their zealous protection of an aesthetic objective. Somehow I understand, and I sympathise. More than this, I 'get it' visually - I instinctively know when something is 'not Bauhaus-like', even if such a thing is absolutely impossible to define, and I might in fact get it completely wrong. Still, I know that there is a syntax and a system, and that there are rules that extend well beyond the visual or aesthetic. These rules are social and cultural as much as they are aesthetic, in fact.

Which leads us back to this question: what happens if you transgress, if you move beyond the limits of acceptability for a given form or activity? Well, that's pretty straightforward. Ostracism: expulsion from the tribe.

Interesting.

Credit: Photo of poster by Francesco Basile

On pocket watches and the salvage of time

As part of my intermittent and yet ongoing programme of peronal obtuseness, I have begun to wear a pocket watch, and leave all of my twelve wristwatches at home. There are many fine pocket watches available to the contemporary consumer, including an androgynous and unisex Skagen watch with a leather 'chain', but I wanted none of this. The point of wearing a pocket watch in 2010 is not to politely transmute such an anachronistic object from its past incarnations into the present. No.

The point of wearing a pocket watch is to be capable of taking time in hand, literally, and then putting it away in your pocket. The first of four watches I have purchased as part of this programme is a Swiss watch with a quartz movement. After I had purchased it I realised that this was a mistake. For the experience to really resonate with my position on this topic the watches need to be mechanical mechanisms, and requiring hand winding.

As a result I have purchased three additional watches, which I intend to wear in rotation as the fancy takes me. The first is a French Charles Hubert watch not dissimilar to the one illustrated on this page. The second is a rather more expensive German watch, made by Kienzle, finished as a skeleton case. The third is something of a gem, it is an Elgin watch from 1915, which carries an engraving explaining that it was awarded as the first prize in the Los Angeles Amateur Boxing Championship of that same year. The engraving is very fine, possessing the quality of copperplate handwriting.

So with this small arsenal of timekeeping devices I intend to take charge of my time, safe in the knowledge that if I choose to stop winding the watches, then time will dilate and run down until it finally creeps to a halt. There is something inordinately comforting about this: I am implicated in the entrapment of modern timekeeping, and yet I can make the decision to let it all grind to a halt. Working as I do in deadline-focused environment, and facing the relentless pressure to constantly gain efficiency, there is a grain of comfort in this.

What do you think: futile gesture in the face of crushing obligation? Yes, it probably is.

Instance of the flea

An etching of a plague-transmitting flea Something small to cause something big

If we are to believe the code of the Samurai as filtered through the narration of the movie Ghost Dog (I wasn't interested enough to check primary texts) then thinking about death is not a bad thing to do. Now let me get one thing straight, right up front: I am not 'half in love with easeful death' as Keats put it, and I am pleased to report that I have never contemplated suicide. There but for the grace of the gods go I. This post is not about such vexed matters, and I would refer anyone troubled by thoughts of self-harm to Beyond Blue, a good site for help and information.

No, this post is not about hastening the approach of death, something I am keen to avoid. This post is about life, and the enrichment of same that can be yielded by a quiet, sober awareness of death's inevitability. This is certainly not an original thought, but an important one to touch on early in this blog nevertheless. At any rate, too much time is spent avoiding thinking about obvious or unoriginal things: I have expounded my thoughts on this issue here. Death certainly fits this category.

So what's with the flea? Of course, there is the obvious - this tiny agent of chaos was instrumental in the decimation of the population of Europe in the mid 14th Century. How many prodigies of art, music and science were culled from our history? Several centuries later the poet and polymath John Donne (1572-1631) understood the metaphysical potential of this diminutive creature, although in his case the metaphor was one of sex, evoked by the image of the mixing of blood in the flea's mouth, rather than death.

There is something about these two aspects of the flea that seem intrinsic to its nature. It is a mere fleck or mote, and yet with a long enough lever it may shift the foundations of the entire world. Death is never far away, and as vain and superfluous as it is to say so, I think that's ok. It's not like any of us have a choice about it! The presence of death in my personal network over the last two years has made the following very clear: some things matter, and many things really don't. Friends and family fit the former category, while career and most other things do not.

I've been thinking...

Cropped portrait of Marcus

Welcome. This is it, post one of A Flawed Mind, the blog I am dedicating to the deceptively simple phrase 'I've been thinking...'

I am a thinker by habit, but it has not necessarily always been a comfort. In fact I was recently told by a friend that I tend to 'think a bit too much'. This is undoubtedly true, and in the past I suffered from a far more obsessive strain of thought than I currently enjoy. There were dark times, and I occasionally wished that my head would explode and be done with, at least in a figurative sense.

Despite the shadows, happily somewhat distant now, I continued to prize thinking highly. Thinking, and its more casual cousin 'reflection', are central to my job, or jobs, which have become a personal vocation. I am in the creativity business, working right now as an architect and an itinerant freelance journalist. Both crafts require a surprising amount of reflection, or at least they do the way I practise them. Up until recently I was also a design teacher at an architecture school. That too required a great deal of thought before, during and after contact with students.

Now entering the third year of a self-imposed sabbatical from teaching, I find that I have a great deal of extra time in the week, and I am keen to use this time to lead a richer life. To help make this happen I have been slowly re-engineering my life (and my lifestyle) to include more time and space for reflection. Reducing my daily total commute to (literally) about three minutes is a great improvement on the previous record of three hours a day, and this too has liberated my body and mind for many more hours each week.

Thinking and reflection (I might use these terms interchangeably in this blog, but not all the time) are only possible, of course, if they are nurtured and fed regularly. This requires a commitment to reading, looking, listening, photographing, writing and drawing on a regular basis. I am trying to dedicate more of each day to these activities. Fortunately may day job includes most items on the list.

Private reading and listening are particularly important, and I can generally do both every day. I am indebted to two quintessentially American and quintessentially 'new economy' business ideas for the enrichment of both activities. For reading, in addition to the many physical books I purchase I have just got my hands on an Amazon Kindle. This is an interesting device, and I have already subscribed to the MIT Technology Review, Salon and the Times Literary Supplement, just to kick things off. In fact the Christmas shopping season just ended saw digital books for the first time outsell physical books on Amazon: could the oft-predicted e-book revolution finally be upon us?

For listening purposes I rely on one of the most successful internet startups of all time, Audible.com. This fantastic subscription service for audiobooks and other listening goodies has managed to secure $US20 of my personal funds each month for about three years now, and I have enjoyed interacting with an online business that actually does create new value where none previously existed. The whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

On a domestic front Radio National remains the stimulation source of choice. Chafing at its perceived intellectual authority I recently tried to pen a polemic entitled 'Why we must turn off Radio National and start thinking for ourselves'. Good soundbite, but in the process of researching it I increased my listening time, and came to the conclusion that Radio National actually is generally good for my brain.

In case this is all sounding a little too highbrow (and on second reading of the above, it is) let me hasten to introduce you to the soft, stripy underbelly of these more intellectual habits. The 'underbelly' is where I attend to the workings of the subconscious or unconscious minds, and for reflection to occur these 'other' minds need their own kind of feeding and love. The techniques I prefer all have these things in common: they are apparently trivial, superficially time-wasting, gently distracting and largely harmless. Three such techniques are 1 - mindless television crime drama in general; 2 - watching endless repeats of The Simpsons; and 3 - driving in the country while recording rambling, unfocused monologues grounded in stating the obvious. These all serve a purpose, and that purpose is to occupy the conscious mind so the unconscious, or subconscious, can go to work. This is the reason that you always remember a forgotten name when you have stopped trying to think about it directly. But you knew that already, I suspect.

And what sterling work the subconscious can do if it is only left alone for a spell, every now and then. This leads us of course to the thorny issue of creative problem solving - but that, as they say, is a whole different kettle of poisson. And it is a kettle that we will stir together many times as this blog evolves. Thinking keeps my dog and cat in expensive imported dry vittles, and me in sparkly drinks and party pies, but it's not all work. Ultimately it is quite fun to spend your time thinking about stuff and working things out. I recommend it as an ideal vocation.

So that's it: post one. Join me again for the next instalment, all in good time.