Sunday, May 6, 2012

The dreams of others

Méfiez-vous du rêve de l'autre, parce que si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutu
(Gilles Deleuze)

Science is a vast tapestry woven out of a texture of shared dreams. It would not exist, it would not progress, without our capacity to share of our aspirations, dreams, ideas, our poetry of reality, to partake of the subtle substance that makes thoughts fly. Science is a collective enterprise, without our capacity to share it would not survive. We walk together, collectively, on unmarked paths. We see vague shapes in the fog, in the darkness. We guess, we imagine, we hope. Without our capacity to share such hopes with others, we would never proceed, never find our way through the thick mist, through the dense forest undergrowth. In order to share one needs to be able to trust, and this is why there is an ethic of science, a special comradery that makes us all part of a common destiny. Yet there are too many instances where dreams are hijacked in the service of power, where the dream of one becomes the imposed nightmare on the lives of others. Dreams are powerful weapons, when they take over like weeds, to weaken and suffocate the dreams of those who are not quite as power hungry, as unscrupulous at imposing their own will on others. Sharing can quickly become imposing, and instead of working together towards the construction of a common dream, one ends up trapped inside an alien nightmare: the dreams of others, no longer shared on equal ground with ours, become poison.

Только мы видим,
Видим мы седую тучу,
Вражья злоба из-за леса,
Эх, да вражья злоба, словно туча.

That path in the mist, which is the natural mode of exploration, where one senses the beauty of undiscovered forms, slowly taking shape, finally emerging, is too easily transformed into a battlefield. A battle in the fog, where shapeless forms are friends or foes, where hate itself becomes a visible thickness of vapor, as in this old song from the time of the Russian Civil War. I have spent too much of my recent time in that battlefield in the fog, and I long to return to a sense of peaceful exploration, a landscape where the mist conceals only beautiful new forms, where you no longer have to watch your back for the attacks of those who had been once pretending to be your fellow travelers.

A beautiful recent documentary movie on the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, "Over your cities grass will grow", starts with a long sequence of stunning visual beauty, accompanied with music of György Ligeti, where the camera runs through a maze of underground tunnels and art work created by Kiefer on the grounds of a dismissed industrial site in the South of France. It then focuses largely on some monumental work created by the artist in the same compound, which resembles the ruins of a city, with towers built out of an apparently precarious equilibrium of concrete blocs, resting over enormous books made of lead. It is the city of Lilith, who lives among the ruins, in the fog, as the biblical text suggests.

וּפָגְשׁוּ צִיִּים אֶת-אִיִּים, וְשָׂעִיר עַל-רֵעֵהוּ יִקְרָא; אַךְ-שָׁם הִרְגִּיעָה לִּילִית, וּמָצְאָה לָהּ מָנוֹח
(Book of Isaiah 34:13–15)

(Anselm Kiefer, "Lilith of the ruins")

Lilith is a dark and intriguing character of Hebrew mythology. According to the Kabbalistic tradition, as well as in the Gnostic versions of the myth of Genesis, where it merges with the figure of Pistis Sophia, at the beginning Adam and Lilith, a man and a woman, were created equal. They shared life and intellect. Then Adam rejected her and had her conveniently replaced by a more subservient Eve. Lilith continued to live as an outcast in the ruins, at the margins of Hebrew mythology, and yet Lilith is the Sephirah Malkuth in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the root, the earth.

(Davide Tonato, "Albero della Vita")

It is easy to understand why Lilith refuses to submit to a power hungry narcissistic Adam. They are made of the same substance, with equal right and opportunities, with equal claim to access the worlds of the intellect. It is far less clear why Eve, now conveniently created out of a piece of Adam's body, hence deprived of her own independent existence, would accept her subjugated role. Far better the company of the jackals and the owls, the city of ruins where improbable towers rest upon the open pages of giant books, than being forever condemned to the role of clapping mirror for a revulsive first hominid with an overgrown ego complex. The books of lead are heavy, as the search for true knowledge is, but the tree of life is also the tree of knowledge and at its root lies freedom from oppression and the capacity to read, yes, to read peacefully and quietly among the ruins, beneath the crumbling towers. Turning the enormous pages of those books of lead, the heavy metal, leads Lilith, step by step, through a slow process of growth, the growth of the Kabbalistic tree, out of the Malkuth root and up towards the sky.

Certo bisogna farne di strada
da una ginnastica d'obbedienza
fino ad un gesto molto più umano
che ti dia il senso della violenza
però bisogna farne altrettanta
per diventare così coglioni
da non riuscire più a capire
che non ci sono poteri buoni.

(Fabrizio de Andrè, "Storia di un Impiegato", 1973)

I spent a few days in Polynesia last month. Just enough to learn a few interesting things about the structure of Polynesian languages, give the inevitable talk, buy a few books, and of course swim in a warm Pacific Ocean: the Ocean, that immense enormous presence, out of which islands momentarily emerge like accidental events scattered through the realm of waters. To the indigenous populations of Oceania, the vast mass of water was a broad information highway, alive with streams, navigational routes across immense distances. The Hawaiian language is among those closest to Maori, despite being geographically far more distant from New Zealand than the rest of Polynesia. People navigated the Pacific, belonged to it, knew it intimately: the immensity of water was their homeland. Then came the imposition of the "nation states", that horrid invention of European 19th century nationalisms. With it, the islands became states, the ocean was divided into territorial units that made no sense in reality. With it, the islands became suddenly isolated, the ocean no longer connecting them but dividing, separating; an impenetrable barrier of water, as it had first appeared to the European colonizers with their continental and territorial mentality. Imposed territoriality destroyed unity in the name of power. In the collection of essays "We are the Ocean", Polynesian artist, poet, writer and political activist Epeli Hau`ofa challenges the prevalent notion of Oceania as a impoverished and isolated region, with little to offer to the modern world, and advocates a return to a global vision of the region that goes beyond the imposed logic of the nation states and restores the sense of wholeness, the sense of the Ocean as an information transmitting medium that transcends insignificant territorial subdivisions. A logic imposed from the outside forces the polynesian people to feel isolated and powerless. A remedy lies in the destruction of this dominant ideology of power, a restoration of unity in diversity.

So why am I telling this story of a struggle for Polynesian identity? Because, as I was reading "We are the Ocean" on the flight back to the continent, it sounded true on so many levels. One is tempted to recall a metaphor used by Grothendieck in "Récoltes et semailles" of the mathematician as a child playing with pebbles on the shore of a vast and unexplored ocean. It is easy to view the activity of doing research like that, and yet one can see in it the same hidden message about territoriality: the island, the territory, the shore, separated, isolated by the ocean of the unknown. Territoriality in science is the worse manifestation of power. It is the key to the exercise of power. By subdividing our knowledge more and more into little island, each dominated by its little banana dictator, we are forced into always looking down at the ground, we are taught to fear the Ocean: out there there are those other people (savages? cannibals?) who do not "do things the way we do", who do not worship the same monkey king. Whenever we accept this logic we become "prisoners of power" and the Ocean of the unknown becomes frightening instead of being inviting. It separates and isolates us, instead of being a large information highway that leads us through an enormous and heroic journey, following its streams and currents wherever they may lead us. It is not for monkey kings and banana dictators to control the currents of the great Ocean. They simply are. They go wherever global climate and planetary forces beyond the human scale shape them to lead us. They are unthinking, and therefore they do not act in the interest of anyone's lust for power. So my advise to anyone engaged in research is to leave the shore behind: leave the small tribes of baboons to where they belong and sail the oceans. There are marvels out there where the power hungry violence and manipulative exploitations of all the banana dictators of the little islands will never reach you and you'll be free. No little tyrant of the little island can push you off shore again, because the Ocean is already where you belong. Let the currents flow and go with them. You will discover a marvelous universe of rich archipelagos, of deep volcanic rocks emerging amidst the waves, of winds and multicolored clouds, of constellations populating the vault of the night.

So, while the seasonal circus is once again in session, and grotesque parades of clowns proceed through the islands of power, for the amusement of emperors, with all their courts of lackeys and fools playing once again their danse macabre of obsequious reverence of tyranny, I watch their Totentanz as a dark silhouette against that foggy sky, somewhere far away, dissolving into rain.

Ja! diesem Sinne bin ich ganz ergeben,
Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluß:
Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
Der täglich sie erobern muß.

(Goethe, Faust, II.V)