Sunday, May 27, 2012

peculiar stuff

Because the television offered little more than the cardboard war movies of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood yesterday and because I wanted some story or other to excite some alpha waves of relaxation, I scanned Netflix, a movie library that offers freebies, and settled on the 1998 movie "Pi." I didn't know what to expect, but, even to a mathematical illiterate like me, the numerical designator pi is more interesting than flag-waving, set-piece war movies.

The movie -- a low-budget, black-and-white creation -- concerns a young man who is smitten by numbers. Everything can be explained and described in numbers ... and protagonist Max pushes the envelope of this thesis. I can't recommend the movie to anyone, but I watched it from end to end (unusual) and felt the kinship that it offered. The ending was a bit pat, but ... what the hell ... in the world of courage, pablum is as acceptable and apt as any other sun fading into the west and the rolling of the credits.

The movie was gratifying in the sense that, to me, it tried to depict a difficult world that anyone might enter ... a world in which the particulars of life lead naturally and without effort into the realms of what might be called the peculiar.

The movie stirred my own associations and among those associations was the "peculiar" ... that drifting into a new and revised perspective that anyone, with any background, might easily enjoy or fear or perhaps fear and enjoy in a flickering, on-off sequence ....

Suddenly, the meaning and import and essence of the coffee cup is no longer found in the portion that contains the coffee. Suddenly the handle stands out in stark obviousness, containing and describing the whole scene and meaning ... touching an essence that was always there yet only lately noticed ... and it feels peculiar.

And the same might be true of employment or love or money or marriage or automobiles or tool boxes whose well-established limits aroused nothing so much as comforting, comfortable assumptions ... until suddenly, for one reason or another, the limits no longer work because ... because ... the coffee cup has a handle; the Mozart piano concerto contains a C-sharp; the enormous landscape painting of a summer field contains a single, unremarkable dot of alizaron crimson; the shoes have laces ....

What was secondary leaps into first-place relief. What was part is now the whole. What was understood becomes curious. What filled out the middle is now some sine-qua-non beginning. It is not that anything is "new." It's just that its inescapable newness becomes apparent.

Is this genius? Is this insanity? It hardly matters that others may see it all as peculiar or even that the individual himself finds it peculiar. Everyone is a genius, always, and no matter how peculiar the journey may seem, still it is a journey that no one else can judge or assess or praise or blame. On the up side, what is peculiar is fresh and revised. On the downside, who knows where this revision will lead?

In my mind, my neighbor's Japanese maple tree presents itself. The tree, which I can see from my chair on the porch, is perhaps fifty feet tall. It is rich and ruddy, a healthy critter peopled with squirrels and birds as time passes. Its lower branches are sturdy hard wood -- like the places of assumption in any genius life. Politics and education, profession and bias, marital status and bank account, philosophy and religion ... it's all sturdy in the lower branches of a genius life, a place to rest and perhaps spend a whole life.

But as the tree reaches towards the sky, the limbs get thinner and thinner. They are new. Their perspectives are not yet as formed and sturdy. Higher and higher and thinner and thinner until the climber of the tree and the tree itself reaches some gossamer thread of a branch -- a branch on which the climber edges out gingerly ... will this branch sustain me? One thing's for sure: On the tip of that single, gossamer branch there is no room for so much as an atom of extra weight. A single mention of philosophy or theology would be too much ... too much weight and the climber would fall and fall and fall to his doom.  Here, the oneness of art and science is a threateningly-freighted overstatement and what is "peculiar" can no longer be allowed.

Born a genius, I guess most spend their lifetimes asserting and assuring that genius. And when the "peculiar" asserts itself, when the revised ways of seeing come calling, there is always the invitation to turn back to the sturdy limbs below, the hard-wood places where people use words like "peculiar" or "genius" or "lunatic" ... the places where everyone sips coffee from coffee cups and things are settled and cozy and "God" is reassuringly not to be asserted. What the hell ... a coffee cup is just a coffee cup, shoes have shoe laces, and Mozart employed a C-sharp.

The genius is perfectly equipped for genius. No life lacks anything, least of all genius. From sturdy lower branches -- from "two plus two equals four" or the configuration of a coffee cup -- each is perfectly endowed and capable of the peculiarities of intellect or emotion or circumstance. Attempts to describe it or to find a happy ending -- such things live among the sturdy lower branches, among what is not peculiar or gossamer or imperative. The atoms of extra weight -- the things that are sturdy and yet promise a long, long fall -- cannot fit or find purchase in this world that our "peculiarities" have brought us to.

Anyway ... I liked the movie enough to watch it through. I liked its willingness to try. I liked it as I liked "Apocalypse Now," a movie I think of as being as close as anyone might come to depicting the hilarious and horrific environment of a nightmare. I liked it for its gutsy-ness. I liked it for its quirky humanity ... as when the sturdy branches of greed and religion are turned away in favor of this very peculiar peculiarity... in this case, numbers theory... MY numbers theory or YOURS.

It was a movie that stirred my pot in ways I am obviously not equipped to describe. I was grateful.

How could genius be something as mundane or peculiar as Albert Einstein?
How peculiar that anyone's peculiarity might be thought peculiar.

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