Closer to Hermes

Some years ago the exoskeleton was a thing of the future and could even be dismissed as the daydream of those who live in a Robocop world. But now, in April 2015, a walking device is presented and described in Nature, which is indeed a partial exoskeleton. It has been developed at North Carolina State University. Like a boot it envelops the foot up to the calf. The secret of its magic consists of a special spring, which runs outside the lower leg from the ankle to the calf muscle. The metal tension of the spring absorbs the energy of the stretching movement of walking and gives it back to strengthen the next take-off. The whole contraption weighs only 500 g and is expected to be of great help to people with impeded mobility. However, there is no reason why healthy people will not use it as well; it allows them to walk both easier and faster. (See Davide Castelvecchi’s contribution ‘Exoskeleton boots improve on evolution’, 1 April 2015, http://www.nature.com).

Again we are reminded of Freud’s conclusion that man is a Prothesengott. So many of our inventions can be called prostheses because they are artificial extensions of our natural organs, senses and limbs. If this new walking device is not making us more godlike, it at least brings us closer to Hermes, whose winged feet enabled him to be the messenger of the gods.

Hermes exoskeleton walking device

Hermes

The inventors call this partial exoskeleton an improvement on evolution. Its spring duplicates the function of the Achilles tendon and is supposed to be stronger. However, the secret workings of coincidence have achieved that, in the very same newspaper that announced the glorious arrival of the walking device, I stumbled on no less than three items that demonstrate the power of evolution. First there is ‘Little Foot’ (what’s in a name), the impressive skull and skeleton of an ape-man found in a cave in South-Africa’s Sterkfontein. Its age is calculated at 3.67 million years, so it is older than Lucy. Palaeontologist Ronald Clark, who discovered the first parts of ‘Little Foot’, thinks it represents a new species, and he gave it the beautiful name of Australopithecus prometheus. We may safely assume that this promethean was equipped with fully developed, natural legs, which proves that the Achilles tendon too is at least 3.67 million years old. Imperfection seems to have served us well.

Then there is the gecko. Another newspaper article reports that studying the gecko (Lucasium steindachneri) under an electron microscope has led to the discovery that its skin not just repels water, it literally makes water drops and dew bounce. This subtle process not only keeps the gecko dry, the bouncing drops also keep it unbelievably clean. The secret of this gecko’s own dry-cleaning lies in the hundreds of thousands tiny hairs (invisible to our naked eye) that cover its skin. Here evolution has devised a system that allows a small creature to go from wet grass to dry sand without a drop or grain clinging to its smooth skin. Man’s best fabrics do not equal the gecko’s skin. Nature, given enough time, can build something like an exoskeleton, in this case consisting of a protecting and streamlining ‘cover’ of very small hairs in immense density.

The third example of what the power of evolution can do comes, again, from the same newspaper. A North American songbird, the blackpoll warbler, likes to spend its winters in Colombia and Venezuela. GPS-tracking of these birds has shown that they can fly this distance of 2500 km non-stop. They cover it (in autumn mainly over the ocean, and back in spring mainly over land) in just three days. The nimble warbler, with its white cheeks and black capped head, on average weighs between 12 and 15 g. Any grown-up man can hold it between his thumb and forefinger. In evolution’s champions endurance and vulnerability often go together. This winged little friend is a true messenger of the gods, still closer to Hermes than modern techno-man.

Walter Benjamin reads Proust

Let’s consider the ninth sentence from Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, which is the second volume of In Search of Lost Time.

… our virtues themselves are not free and floating qualities over which we retain a permanent control and power of disposal; they come to be so closely linked in our minds with the actions in conjunction with which we have made it our duty to exercise them that if we come to engage in an activity of a different kind, it catches us off guard and without the slightest awareness that it might involve the application of those same virtues.

Whereas so many of Proust’s sentences are of great beauty, this one is not. (The sixteen words I have left out would not have made much of a difference in this respect). Still, it is typical of Proust. The most important words in the sentence, I believe, are ‘linked’ and ‘conjunction’. They make it pure Proust. From a philosophical point of view the sentence proclaims there is no such thing as a general ethics of virtues; since in our minds virtues ‘come to be so closely linked’ with certain actions or situations, in other situations we have to re-establish the link between action and virtue. Therefore the sentence is about the permanent act of forgetting and the ensuing need to remember. As Walter Benjamin observed: “Proust’s method is actualisation, not reflection.”

Benjamin published his essay ‘The Image of Proust’ in 1929. At that time it was already generally known that Proust was most interested in involuntary recollection, a spontaneous remembering triggered by a particular smell, sound, object, or by the play of light and shadow or some other image. Walter Benjamin, however, tried to convince his readers that what Proust really recorded in his writing was the constant role of forgetting. To forget and to remember are, essentially, the same thing.

To prove his point Benjamin began, most elegantly, to reconstruct the raison d’être for Proust’s unusually long sentences. He first called them “the Nile of language” which “overflows and fructifies the regions of truth”. Later on he described them as nets, cast into “the sea of the temps perdu” (Proust’s personal past) in order to catch memories. He also said that Proust developed his special way of writing for “the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection.” In a similar way Jean Cocteau, who often met Proust, said his sentences were ‘the honeycombs of memory’, a structure made to gather the swarming thoughts of remembrance.

Marcel Proust Venice 1900

Proust in Venice (1900)

‘Nets’, ‘weaving’, ‘honeycombs’: each image suggests the presence of open spaces. However dense Proust, with the help of his endless sentences, tried to make his structure of verbal threads or combs, he could never reach the point where all the blanks of forgetting were filled in. Walter Benjamin clarified how this inevitable process of forgetting takes place. Because our daily activities focus on certain purposes, and our deliberate acts of remembering too are purposive, there is much we almost immediately forget (because it is not connected to these purposes). Besides, during the following night, while sleeping, “the tapestry of lived life” is further reduced to “but a few fringes”.

Hence Proust preferred to write in the middle of the night, free from purposive action, and denying himself the sleep of forgetting. The no man’s land of the night, he found, was ideal for remembering. He was able then to enrich his sentences with all the wonderful observations of the not-purposeful that had not yet been forgotten. Still, despite these literary night flights Proust could not completely stop the ongoing process of forgetting, and his writings are just as much the product of such forgetting as they are of remembrance. Recollection’s work of weaving sentences inevitably reveals the gaps of forgetting. This should not surprise us: the Latin word textum means ‘web’, Benjamin informs us.

Behind all this nightly work, Benjamin – following Cocteau – believes, was Proust’s quest for happiness. Benjamin distinguishes between two forms of happiness: the ‘hymnic’ form derives happiness from “the height of bliss” in experiencing “the unheard-of, the unprecedented”. The ‘elegiac’ form, on the other hand, derives happiness from “the eternal restoration of the original, the first happiness”. It is this elegiac idea of happiness that Proust pursued. He was passionately interested in studying resemblances and in uncovering similarities (in actions, mannerisms, faces), stepping from the present to the past, to reconnect to an original source of former happiness. Nevertheless he knew that this world of resemblance would always be a distortion (a surrealist image) of the real former world he felt so homesick for.

In evoking involuntary memory, of which the dipping of a madeleine cake in a cup of lime tea is the most famous example, Proust opened up a world of resemblances, of correspondances. The unique taste and smell of the combination of madeleine and lime tea corresponded perfectly to that same combination he had experienced in boyhood. So, most of all, involuntary memory was an act of rejuvenating, Benjamin tells us. While life is an ongoing process of aging, the reliving of the past (during the magic moments of involuntary remembering) recapitulates experiences of a younger age.

“To observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution”, Benjamin states. Most characteristic of Proust is his idea of convoluted time, of time like a winding road, coiled up like a snake: at a certain moment you will reach a turning in the road that virtually brings you back to a place and a time where you were earlier, enabling you to ‘touch’ the past. The convolution of time (rolled-up in our memory, but also in objects from the past which are still present) enables a ‘re-turning’. The day dreamer and the night owl are time-travellers.

Knight to cockroach

The insect of the future is the cyborg insect. Scientists in the USA, China and probably elsewhere have been experimenting, for several years now, with the remote control of insects. At a university in Texas, with financial support of the military authorities, a system has been recently tested to control specimens of the cockroach (Blaberus discoidalis) in such a way that it can be directed to a specified target. To achieve this the tough little animal is equipped with a chip and a battery, while electrodes are planted in its minute brain. They ensure that the animal itself loses control over the movement of its limbs. It can be directed to any place within its reach that its human operator selects for it. What weighty task it is going to perform there is optional. It could ‘bug’ a place, or carry a tiny camera, manifesting itself as the perfect spy. Or, perhaps, it could even infest the enemy’s camp with some incapacitating disease. Let’s not forget it could also bring us useful information from spots where humans normally cannot go.

After this successful takeover of the cockroach, the bee may follow, or the drone, as well as the common fly. Even a poetical creature as the butterfly is under consideration to be digitally enslaved. It is attractive, of course, to speculate on all the uses and misuses of hijacked insects one can come up with. But what about the ethics of this whole endeavour? What would be our moral justification for using our finest technological skills to turn insects into robots? The utilitarian argument will not suffice, since the same objectives may probably be reached by miniaturized mechanical drones. Neither can referring to habit be of much help: certainly, we have been harnessing horses to coaches for many ages, but that is not the same thing. The Texan cyborg cockroach is not simply a matter of using the strength, speed or skill of an animal, out of necessity, by an act of ‘harnessing’ or training it. What the cockroach experiment comes down to is the zombification of living creatures. If I can train a dolphin to speedily deliver my message, there is no evil in that. But if I kill that dolphin’s ability to move by itself in planting a device in its brain that enables me to direct it to deliver that very same message, I will turn it into a zombie.

As far as I can see, the zombification of living creatures – whether they crawl, swim, fly or gallop – is without justification from the ethical point of view. If furthermore we would use this technique of implanting remote controls in animals to have them fight our wars for us, this would totally estrange us from the former ideal of the honourable fight. Obviously we no longer want to behave as knights. Nevertheless, we do nowadays quite often refer to the principle of the ‘level playing field’. That leaves room for some hope that chivalry as a principle of ethics has not yet been forgotten completely.

The rest of their days

Bretagne Brittany old boats

Though the image suggests speed, nautical downfall is slow. Somewhere in Brittany this bitter truth presented itself along the coastline. There is no way back to the sea, no more chance of bringing in loads of fish. They seem to know and, a pair for the rest of their days, gently bend over and support each other. They embrace in a last dance of decay.

Pearly muse

For some time the French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) had believed she was a Mexican. He first met her on March 6, 1930, probably in the late afternoon, in Passy, Paris, when she crossed his path, wearing a parasol. He would nickname her ‘my parasol’. She made an impression; at twenty-six she was tall, slim, and elegant, with a slightly provocative style of her own.

The next evening he took her out to dance. When she made her entrance she wore a fur coat and long gloves. Her name was Renee Perle, she was a Jewish girl from Romania. Her long neck and ‘dark porcelain eyes’ fascinated him, and when they danced her hair, though short and slick in the Gay Twenties way, touched his mouth as well as hers. By now he must have learned that she worked as a fashion model for a Parisian couturier. That explained her looks and her self-assured manner of the coquette. Renee Perle would become Lartigue’s muse. She also was his mistress, for the next two years, but in the very first place she was his muse. If a camera can caress, his camera certainly caressed her. And if a camera can seduce, she certainly was seduced by his. In 1930 and 1931 she would, for many hours, be looking into Lartigue’s lens like a female Narcissus, as if that lens were a reflecting pond. She probably distracted him from making his usual, now iconic, photographs of dazzling car races, clumsy aeroplanes, lanky tennis players, and numerous people in free movement, jumping or diving as if they didn’t notice they were somewhat overdressed for the occasion. His photo’s seemed to freeze them in mid-air, just like they seemed to make the upper-class ladies float a few inches above the walks of the Bois de Boulogne.

Lartigue took his beautiful Renee to the beaches and the beau monde of Biarritz, Cannes, and Juan-les-Pins. These must have been endless summers of doing nothing in particular. In this sunny world of uncertain glamour, this Tender is the Night atmosphere, he created his pictures of her. We see her wearing enormous flapping hats, slim fit shirts, and baggy trousers that make her seem sporty in that particular female way. Then again she’s wrapped in fur, posing on a balcony not far from the sea. Or she sits in an open window, in white flannel, Riviera pines in the background. Other photographs, taken inside and therefore darker, show the mystique of her face, sometimes half covered by a sensual veil. Always there is this contrast between her large nightclub eyes and her small mouth with the peculiarly curved upper lip. To catch the camera’s attention, she performed as the femme fatale, or, stretching her long legs on a couch, as a Matisse odalisque, bringing out her feline qualities.

Her appearance was her artistic instrument, and purely by her looks she succeeded in creating a unique mixture of Parisian chic, bathing beauty, femme fatale, emancipated flapper, and avant garde muse. Especially the black nail varnish she used and the bracelets she heaped on her wrists added an exotic modernity to complete her style. She liked to paint, and when she took up the brush it was to create self-portraits. Obviously, she was herself fascinated by her appearance, no less than Lartigue.
These photographs are not the result of a creative man – Lartigue – registering the passive beauty of a woman. They are the result of co-creation. Maybe this is what a muse does: in her repeated posing it is her ongoing effort at self-creation and self-invention that inspires the artist. A pearl shines both out and in.

Today, Renee Perle is on Facebook. Her own process of self-creation has stopped, probably long before she died, in 1977. Whoever put her, posthumously, on Facebook must somehow have understood that our modern media open up the possibility to continue a person’s process of inventing his or her image, and of exposing it, brilliantly, in the name of that person.

Kokoschka on the look-out

Because of the First World War, the painter Oskar Kokoschka’s awareness has fundamentally changed. In the documentary Oskar Kokoschka: Ein Selbstporträt (1966) he explained how, living in the stinking trenches, he had felt trapped like a rat. In these terrible circumstances he made a pledge: when I will come out of these trenches alive, with my eyes and my right arm intact, I will climb the steepest hill to paint from there what I see; and I will observe from this elevated position what the people – all these insane people – are up to. Indeed, Kokoschka would make several paintings of cities, seen from a distance and from a high viewpoint. These paintings celebrate space. He intended them to be the opposite of the muddy holes that had enclosed him as a soldier.

When as a cavalryman he was shot in the head, his sense of balance had for some time been severely upset. One late evening in Vienna, after the war, when the white moonlight was stroking the cobble-stones in the street, he re-experienced that wartime sensation of completely losing his equilibrium. It felt as if he were elevated, floating above the street. Afterwards he knew it must have been a hallucination, but what really impressed him was the intense sensation of moving around in space freely, at least for some moments. Kokoschka is generally seen as an expressionist painter, who brought his inner feelings to the canvas. His own testimony, though, suggests that his work is mainly about regaining space.

Oskar Kokoschka

It had to be regained, he felt, because modernity somehow seemed to fear space: the technological civilisation of modern times is a cage (Kokoschka explains in the documentary), because it shuts us up in a very limited repertoire of actions and things, which are all goal-oriented, subordinate to whatever is trendy, and tied to the simple and uniform truths of a surface reality. At this point Kokoschka connects his cultural analysis to the many portraits he painted: they were deliberate attempts to restore the classical view that a human being is intimately related to space. This ancient truth can be rediscovered when a man, like Kokoschka, climbs on a hill to paint a distant city, outstretching; or when that man paints the face or the body of another person, and tries to catch that person’s inner feelings, as well as his own. He then adds the space of the inner dimension to the body’s surface. Skin and traits become a manifestation of the inner space. Inner man is a dimension, our ‘deepest’ reality is space. Look again at Kokoschka’s famous ‘tiger-lion’ from 1926: you can see straight through it, right into the space in and behind it.

Opposite the Roman Theatre

plane-tree_orangeUnder a plane-tree in Orange. This morning was sunny and windy; it took the camera to arrest the rustling leafs. Across the street the Roman Theatre was still in its place after nearly two-thousand years. At this hour the wind was working hard to slim down the Theatre’s massive stones. It’s all a matter of time.

Beckett’s refuge

red_wall_roussillonNature’s red in Roussillon, a French village famous for its deep red rocks and soil. This is where Samuel Beckett took refuge during the Second World War, picking grapes nearby. His eyes may have met with this old wall, though he lived in the lower part of the village. Behind the house where he and his wife Suzanne Deschevaux had their rooms, you may find some typical rocks, eroded into statues. The red is the same.

Melodrama

lightning_struck_treeLightning struck and a tree turned into a statue. It points, in melodrama, at the skies that once produced the fires of destruction. The peace of Blaison-Gohier has not been disturbed.

The importance of stones

sans_famille

He could be a Nobody’s Boy, left alone in this world, sans famille. However, it’s the picture that isolates him. In fact, there were many people around, here in Brissac-Quincé. A film was being shot about the Liberation of France in 1944. That explains his old and dull clothes. What counts, in his world, is the importance of stones for kindling imagination.