Category Archives: Leonard Shelby

The truth and unicorns, part 1

unicorn-2

Unicorns are mythical creatures, but many people believe in them.  They don’t necessarily believe in the immanent possibility of seeing a unicorn on the street or in the woods any time soon.  They believe in believing in unicorns.

Myth speaks truth to reality, and the truth is that we need unicorns.  In the dialogue between myth and reality, we see the supposedly real world for what it really is:  impermanent, ever changing, mutable, a place that doesn’t have to be what it seems.  A place that isn’t really all that real, if by real you mean solid, concrete, tangible, or certain.

Without myth, the present is all we have (hello, Leonard Shelby).  Myth helps us to understand the world of now by freeing our dreams of worlds that might be, quite apart from whether or not they ever really happen.  Myth allows us the reveries of worlds lost, races won, loves cherished, sufferings endured.  Myth makes livable the stresses and oppressions of the moment.  Myth binds the present to the possible – the past that was, the past that could have been, the futures that may and may not come to pass, and the imaginary worlds that, without ever existing, will feed our passions and determine which future of the real world will, in fact, come to pass.

Myth is to our mundane world what relativity and quantum mechanics are to the world of Newtonian physics.  Newton’s laws work very well to explain the world of human-level sensory experience.  There’s a reason why an apple hits you on the head, and why every hanging apple on earth will do the same if you put a person under it at the right moment.  Newton explained the stuff we all see and helped us understand what was happening.  His laws extended our vision beyond the moment, predicting futures and explaining pasts.

Then came Einstein, whose Newtonian gaze extended much further than Newton could have dreamt, and in turn demanded a new reckoning.  With the theory of relativity, Einstein pushed our sight into the world of massive bodies – stars and galaxies – and the astronomical distances between them.  At the same time, Einstein’s discoveries also helped others (Max Plank, Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and more) to gaze into the world of the infinitesimally small, smaller than the atom itself, and quantum mechanics was born.
The Unicorn in Captivity

The Unicorn in Captivity

At either end of the spectrum – the massive or the tiny – Newton’s laws don’t make sense, even though they explain the world in between quite well.  In relativity, things that happen now might occur before something that happened already, depending on where you’re looking from.  At the quantum level of subatomic particles like electrons and quarks, things can be in two places at the same time.  To believe in the physics of the massive, or of the tiny, is to suspend belief in the world we can see and touch.  And we can deal with that, because our minds constantly ask for more than what’s just beyond our noses.

This is why we have relativity, the 10 or 11 dimensions of string theory, the superposition of quantum particles, positrons and anti-matter, quarks, and unicorns.

Afternote: For a real treat on the marriage of design, art, and Isaac Newton, go to The Newton Project at the Dutch Art Institute.  Click on the artists’ names and see their designs.  My favorite is the one by Meiyu Tao.

Credits

Leonard Shelby:  See the post, “The truth and tattoos” and Memento.

Gold unicorn:  Norman Walsh, photographer, Bristol, England,  http://norman.walsh.name/2003/10/08/bristol.

The Unicorn in Captivity, from “The Hunt Tapestries,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters.  Image from:  http://www.geocities.com/area51/corridor/5177/hunt.html.

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Filed under Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, ideas, Isaac Newton, Leonard Shelby, myth, philosophy, superposition

The truth and tattoos

Case #1. I once had a friend who had a small tattoo on his ankle.  This was his only tattoo, but it was important to him.  It was a set of Chinese characters, and I asked him what they meant.  He told me, “truth.”  We’d met in a bar, medicating our sadness over lost loves.  I never asked what the tattoo was for, but he told me that it had something to do with his first wife and his daughters, who lived in another town several hours distant, and not the second wife who had thrown him out around the time we met.

Case #2. Ashley Alexandra Dupré has tattoos in different languages (but not English) on different parts of her body.  One of them, tutela valui, had the Latin scholars in New York stumped for a while.  Seems to mean something like I had strong protection, or I was strong by means of a protector.  She has others that are life-affirming sayings and others still that are said to have served as reminders to stay off drugs and clean up her life.  She was the call girl, known as Kristen, whose life style led her in and out of escort service and eventually entangled her in Eliot Spitzer’s downfall in March 2008.

Case #3. Leonard Shelby has facts tattooed on his body so that he’ll remember them.   Shelby has a mental condition, anterograde amnesia, that prevents him from forming new memories.  Along with the tat’s, he “remembers” other facts with Polaroid photographs and paper notes.  This doesn’t work that well for him, until he meets a woman with normal memory, who can help him keep it all straight.  Along the way, she uses Leonard’s condition to manipulate him into scaring off a man who was harassing her.  The fight nearly kills Leonard, who will soon enough find himself back at the place he started.  Leonard is a fictional character in a movie.

In a moral sense, we’re all Leonard Shelby, to one degree or another.  Whether we’re shooting ink into our skin or not, most of us are doing something to remind ourselves of what we think is true, what we want to be, and what or who we would like to honor.  It doesn’t mean that we’re naturally bad, because we’re not.  It just means we all need some help to remember things that are important.

It’s fitting that people would turn to tattoos for the toughest truths.  Getting a tattoo is an aesthetic pleasure that takes shape with pain, breaks skin, must heal, and, if infected with the right bacteria, just might kill you.  Like tattoos, the truth gets under your skin; it gets stuck to you and is hard to remove.  Try to remove it, and you’ll probably have a scar, though of course rich people can get the right kind of surgery to permanently remove truth with very little pain and almost no scarring.

For most of us, though, the tattoos remain.  Just like we do, they get old and fade with time.  The meanings that the tattoos once had are no longer relevant.  Whatever the case, we do with a tattoo what we do with the truth – live with it, figure out how to change it, or ignore it.

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Filed under Ashley Alexandra Dupré, body, Leonard Shelby, truth hurts

The truth and fingerprints

Inside all things, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a unique code.  It might be a genetic code.  It might be the traces of carbon-14 in tiny plant spores embedded in the rocks at the bottom of an ancient lake.  The layered patterns of sediment that tell you this could only be the Grand Canyon, for no other place on Earth has this precise pattern.  Or the tips of your own fingers.  Like zebra stripes and leopard spots, our fingerprints are indistinguishable from a distance but unique up close.  There’s something elegant and utterly beautiful in all this.

Fingerprints, of whatever kind, help us find out things that are true.  Fingerprints help us identify who committed a crime.  Fingerprints can become keys that open doors to secure places, protecting those spaces from harm or wrong-doing.  DNA fingerprints help us know who really fathered a child, or where our ancestors lived.  Fingerprints help us know things we couldn’t otherwise know.  Fingerprints are hard to erase without deformation.  Fingerprints keep us honest.

But that’s not all.  As long as we have fingerprints, we know we’re alive.  Whether DNA, carbon-14, or the tips of our fingers, fingerprints are very high-level expressions of order, and rocket scientists will tell you that order is intimately connected to life.

Here’s what they mean by order:  fingerprints carry information that can only be in one place.  This is the epitome of order.  Fingerprints tell you what to count on, so that nothing is unexpected and everything is predictable.  It’s the way mom wanted your room to be:  everything in its own place.  The opposite of order is randomness.  In a random world, there are no patterns, nothing you can recognize, and nothing you can count on.  Everything is new, everywhere you turn.  Memory ceases to be useful in a random world, and we’re all Leonard Shelby.

Stepping down from fingerprints, there are many other forms of order, which can occur in multiple places – making them a little more random than fingerprints, but somewhat orderly, nonetheless.  For example:  the behavior of electrons along copper wires or in magnets.  Wallpaper.  Or the herd-like behavior of people, who at the social level are every bit as predictable as they are “unique” at the individual level.

This is where individuality and order begin to clash, because they’re not supposed to be related to each other.  Fingerprints = individuality.  Fingerprints = order.  Therefore, individuality = order.  How can that be?  Individuality is the opposite of order, right?  Back to Leonard Shelby:  in complete randomness, everything and everyone is different but totally lifeless.  Recognition is meaningless, knowledge is impossible, and therefore individuality is impossible.  What we call “individuality” must be a symptom of order, for without order nothing could exist.  Individuality, as an experience, must be somewhere between the expression of complete uniqueness (a fingerprint seen up close) and a kind of order that says “this is a pattern” (fingerprints seen from a distance).  People are like wallpaper.

The trouble is that order is everywhere on the decline, and this has life-threatening possibilities.  Orderly things are signs that the universe hasn’t exhausted the energy that makes non-randomness (e.g. life or fingerprints) possible.  Orderly things are not always “alive” by our definition, but they make life possible if we can tap their energy.  Atoms, for example, are orderly things that contain a lot of energy.  Try splitting one (but don’t do it at home).  Order = energy.  And energy = life.  Without energy there would be no life.  Living things are, by definition, orderly and full of energy, but they get their energy by consuming it from somewhere.  The laws of rocket science tell us that this is a losing game:  energy can only ever be spent and never really recovered or recreated.  This is what the rocket scientists call entropy.

So here’s the paradox:  life stands in contrast to entropy.  Life takes and spends energy, and spending energy only increases the entropy of the world.  Life is the struggle against entropy, but no matter how you cut it, the truth about life is that living can only contribute to entropy.  To live is the act of dimming the possibility of life in the future.  It’s an awful, yet beautiful, burden to live with.

The beauty of uniqueness – of the self, of being alive, captured in the fingerprint as the epitome of order and therefore the fullest expression of living being – is itself an act of destruction.  Preserved, it is not life.  Moving and living, it only contributes to our mutual undoing, but it is all we really have.  As Keats reminded us:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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Filed under beauty, entropy, John Keats, Leonard Shelby, order