A farewell to Winter

I wanted to revisit something that I have previously thought to be of great importance, and that is the concept of negative capability as defined by the poet Keats. This popped up in Orna Ross' blog on creative intelligence (http://www.ornaross.com/). While I am not really in sync with Orna's design aesthetic, or I suspect her fiction, some interesting things turn up in her blog from time to time, and I enjoy her regular email.

Recently Orna reminded her readers of the concept of negative capability, which Keats defined as being ’when a man (sic) is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts — without any irritable reaching out after fact and reason." I knew this quote well, and have long considered that negative capability is one of the most underrated and overlooked thinking concepts of the last few centuries. This is a powerful counterpoint to the searching, visually probing, post-enlightenment scientific gaze, a dissenting voice in a time where scientific thinking sought nothing more than a constant, exhausting and 'irritable reaching out after fact and reason".

Keats himself clearly understood the capacity of his concept to offend the man of science, when he said that 'what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet."

It gets better. I had never read the later part of the quotation, where Keats goes on to say the following: "It [negative capability] does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one, because both end in speculation." What a fantastic appeal to the aesthetics of the Gothic: to joyously relish the dark side of things. This is the essential nature of my love of the winter season, that it is the time of darkness and brooding fascination. Now, of course, Spring is upon us, and so we bid farewell to the darkness for another year. Nevertheless, it will be good to keep hold of Keat's negative capability as we enter the new seasonal cycle. This is a potent time of year creatively, when darkness turns towards light, and the days lengthen - and I look forward to the coming regeneration, hopefully without an irritable reaching after facts and reason.

A Project for the New Year

A new year begins, and the heart turns to the question: what is the creative project for this year? Of course, the day job keeps me in plenty of creative work - architectural and urban design, to be specific - but there is always a personal project or projects of some type bubbling away in the background, to be serviced after hours, run wholly on passion. First, the little stuff: I would like to learn how to use my beautiful Sony DSLR properly some time this year, and I am thinking of doing a private course at a local photography outfit. The shop is called 'Michaels' and they have been selling cameras and promoting photography in Melbourne city since early in the 20th Century. They run interesting courses for photographers of all levels. The city is my subject: Melbourne is very photogenic, and there is much to discover behind the lens. So that's strike one.

I would also like to attempt some random sketching and drawing around the city, something that I have neglected in the last few years. I always used to draw, but now I seldom find time to do so outside of work, which is not a good state of affairs. The tools need sharpening, as they say. Strike two: drawing.

The major project is neither drawing nor photography. My major project this year, like last year, is writing. Late last year I began to investigate the process of writing fiction. There is a book project inside my head, and I suspect that fiction will happen some time in the near future, but this year I want to expand my freelance writing activities into a related non-fictional project.

Here is what I know so far. The book will be about design. The book will be personal, and something akin to a personal philosophy of design as a process and an activity. The book will be an exorcism of some of the more noxious habits of thought and process that I picked up at University, and although that is now some 12 years in the past, I am still processing the lessons - good and bad - learnt at the institution. I recently described this post-educational state of mind as a 'hangover'. It is time to move on.

Such a quaint project would never have occurred to me before now, as I was raised academically on the gloomy post-structuralist perspective that subjectivity is unavoidable, but irretrievably flawed. In a world where all value is relative and all knowledge subjective, what is the point of staking out a personal territory? We might as well mire ourselves in irony, cynicism and the particularity of the banal, or so the argument goes. Now I am not so sure, and I would like to explore my set of values in relation to my native field, which is architecture. So using this as my starting point, my creative project for 2011 is to start digging back into my past, to re-engage with the less-burdened creative self of my childhood and teenage years, and rediscover the simple magic of making and discovering, unencumbered by the constant self-doubt of a post-structuralist education. This is indeed a personal project, and I can only take it on faith that there will be something in it for the reader, who may relate to my situation.

2011: here I come, ready or not.

The first point of reference

This weekend I am working on some sketches of the study carrol, which I might refer to simply as the St Jerome from now on. The first seed of this idea, of a tiny space dedicated to writing, came from a 2001 visit to Rhinestein Castle, above the middle Rhine in Germany. The castle was charming enough in its way, and possessed a fairy-tale quality - at least it did to this ex-suburban Brisbane boy at large in the world. The moment of clarity came when I entered the small room within the narrow tower shown at the left of the image below.



The room just beneath the battlements is a tiny circular chamber,  accessed by a thick timber door from the terrace, positioned beneath the steep little iron stair that takes you up onto the battlement proper. The room contained a writing desk and a chair, and it had small lead-lined windows looking out and down to the River. I opened one, and saw some boats steaming along in the current many hundreds of feet below. The room felt suspended in mid air, between heaven and earth, and its austerity and simplicity impressed themselves upon me. Apparently Kaiser Wilhelm II had used that very room to write in, and while he is not my favourite historical personage I cannot fault his taste in 'perches' for writing. Overlooking the Rhine placed the room on one of the principal arteries of industry and trade, and one of the signature natural features of Germany. The castle behind provided a psychological security, and yet the room itself was tiny.

Basically, I want one.

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.

What happens in the space between thoughts

Have you ever been startled by an audible but faint noise, or the unexpected movement of an inanimate object? What is going on in your consciousness when this occurs?

The studio is quiet this week, people are hushed and the phones generally aren't ringing. I was drawing, using the computer to copy ethereal digital circles of pale green, when the roll of yellow tracing paper sitting on my desk slowly unfurled in my peripheral vision. It made a tiny noise, a kind of scratchy wheezing as the edge of the trace was drawn across a piece of creased bond paper on my desk.

It happened in one of those fleeting micro-moments of sudden stillness, and due to the meditative nature of the drawing exercise I was immersed in this strangely drawn-out, tiny, sudden movement startled me. This was a personal moment, a tiny sliver of time of about three seconds, and yet I felt my perception suddenly shift as if the floor had dropped out beneath my feet.

Call me odd for saying so, but I like that sensation. It is the diametric opposite of being in control, and I only ever experience it when I am relaxed. I don't think the insignificance of the experience (for it is certainly insignificant) disqualifies it from consideration. It is a cliché to say that life is made up of such moments, but it remains true nonetheless: just hanging around and being is quite a rich experience, if we can tune our senses to its subtleties.

Of course, most of the time I, and I imagine you, are far too busy to smell such invisible roses. While we are on that topic, and speaking of clichés, have you ever stopped to smell the roses? It has become something of a superstition that I must do this whenever a rose presents itself. It’s true: I really do. This obsessive little habit has rules, though – cut roses do not invoke the reaction, and going to a rose-garden would also not satisfy the conditions of the act, as it would be far too obvious. However, if I am on site, or wandering out in the world, and I unexpectedly come across a rosebush, I almost always stop to smell it.

I attribute this to the notion that much of my inner life is lived in language, and a phrase ‘stop and smell the roses’ is something of a provocation or challenge, as well as being a well-worn cliché. I experience a tiny moment of reflective pleasure when I am able to make physical and real a concept with a meaning so debased and diluted that it scarcely conjures the image of a real rose when said aloud. It is as if the act strips the phrase of its cliché, if only for a moment – and the words are recharged with descriptive power. Don’t you think that is fascinating? In a similar vein, there have been days when I have left a lunch appointment and said ‘back to the drawing board’, and meant it quite literally.

Like most of the things that fascinate me, I have no idea what this means. Yet still, I like it.

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.