Monday, October 22, 2007

Borgesian Labyrinths of Mystery

One of my favorite authors is Jorge Luis Borges; though the "category" of creative endeavor to which Borges belongs - or, better, the creative endeavor that Borges defines - is infinitely richer than what is rather blandly suggested by "mere" author. For Borges is philosopher, mathematician, dreamer, mystic, seeker, visionary ... (the list goes on, perhaps endlessly). If there is one word that immediately comes to mind when Borges' name is mentioned, even before author or philosopher, that word is surely book; for Borges adored books. He adored writing them (or at least writing stories about books that would later appear in them), collecting them, thinking about them, even working with them (as when he was Director of the National Library of Argentina). Among Borges' well known tales and musings about books and libraries are the Library of Babel and Book of Sand.

"I pray to the unknown gods that some man -- even a single man, tens of centuries ago -- has perused and read this book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place may be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification." - Jorge Luis Borges

Borges naturally came to mind recently, as I stumbled onto a lonely, deserted, out-of-the-way dilapidated two-room shack, full of withered old books, somewhere off Route 66 in northern VA. How perfectly Borgesian I thought to myself, as I gingerly stepped into a roomfull of dry, pebbled, half-decayed tomes, most strewn haphazardly over the sunken floorboards. Even more in tune with the "Borgesian" rhythms echoed by the physical forms of the books, was the kind of books that adorned this deserted little shanty. For these were not your run-of-the-mill thrillers and boddice rippers. Rather, almost all were on subjects distinctly Borges-like, and ranged from Dostoyevsky, to Kafka, to Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, to Carlos Castaneda, to Fritjof Capra, to Stanislaw Grof, to David Bohm, to a study of Dreams, to the latest (c.1980) research on consciousness.

"A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships." - Jorge Luis Borges

All arguably and quintessentially Borgesian subjects and authors, except for - ironically - Borges himself. Try as I might, I could not find a single volume of Borges' stories anywhere on these shelves. It is impossible to imagine the former owner/occupant of this decaying Borgesian labyrinth of books, which still palpably pulsates with ideas and visions that only a lover of Borges can appreciate and understand, not having the collected works of Borges standing somewhere on the shelves. But then, there is also the basic mystery of what happened to the owner. Why are his/her (remaining?) books still here, neglected and/or forgotten after all these years, quietly turning to so much dust? Did the owner seize his one prized volume of Borges' stories - which had to exist! - before being forced to quickly abandon this tiny shack for some mysterious reason? Why did the owner (or someone else?) return - looking at the empty carton apparently being readied for storing books - only to vanish once again? Or is the carton empty only because new books were brought in to replace those that had fallen (or stolen)? In either case, why? How long have these books been rotting here? Why are some shelves completely empty, while others are still full? Why does each of the five books lying flat on the floor with exposed pages contain the word "secret"?

"The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books." - Jorge Luis Borges

I was entranced by the siren call of the ghostly volumes beckoning from the shelves, and silently reaching out from broken drawers. Are they all clues to some unfathomable puzzle? Is their "orderless" arrangement perhaps a clever illusion, and not entirely random? Are they a subtle palimpsest of eternal truths and wisdom, fiendishly encoded by some long dead genius that history has failed to record (or intentionally wiped from memory)? Did I unknowingly break some sacred code when I accidentally kicked a small rock off a page of an old Bible, thus relegating its cosmic message unintelligible to the one destined to decode it? Or did I just as unknowingly, and merely by entering, encode my own presence onto this living labyrinth, ineffably committing the one cosmically meaningful act my birth was prophesied to yield in this incarnation? Or is the reason why all these volumes are here, in this particular place and time, in this particular arrangement, itself but an infinitesimally small piece of a larger, even deeper, puzzle? A puzzle to be only discovered - but never solved! - by someone whose birth the puzzle master himself had not foreseen? Or has the destined solver unexpectedly, and prematurely, passed through this as-yet unripened riddle; unwittingly rendering forever unsolvable the very puzzle he - and he alone - was born to solve? Is the puzzle-master, perhaps, the solver?

Such was the gravity of my thoughts and emotions as I solemnly packed up my humble gear and bade farewell to this Borgesian labyrinth of mystery. A single eye, staring upwards from the cover of a dusty book (whose spine had inexplicably entwined the rubber on the heal of my shoe), seemed to follow me before the light finally grew too dim for it to see. I imagine it shifted its gaze back inward toward itself, to continue meditating on the unimaginable fate that awaits these relics, trying to remember its own long forgotten role in creating them.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On the Art of Finding Rust in Landscapes

A few months ago, I posted an entry about my family's blackberry-picking trip, during which I managed to snag some shots of rusted relics in an old barn and peeling paint off an old door (startling the proprietors of the farm into thinking they had a madman on their property, interested more in old doors than blackberry bushes!) Well, a similar thing happened to me this past weekend, though thankfully minus any startled proprietors this time ;-) Perhaps there is a pattern to my madness...

Our most recent outing was apple picking this past weekend at Stribling Orchard, in northern Virginia. And again, though I took a few pictures of the kids and even helped out with a bit of the picking, my "photographer's eye" soon strayed elsewhere, with nary an apple in sight. Eventually I stumbled (quite literally, while backing out of a hole in the ground I accidentally stuck my foot into) across a dilapidated barn with some old equipment. My eyes immediately popped open with anticipation and excitement. Rust, beautiful rust! I was in heaven :-)

I am reminded of a story I once heard during a documentary on Brett Weston, the second of Edward Weston's sons and, of course, an accomplished photographer in his own right. Brett, who like his dad, spent most of his time taking photographs in California (in places like Point Lobos and Big Sur), was one day invited by a friend to join him on a trip to Europe. Agreeing to go, after some cajoling, Brett and his friend visited Ireland, then Scotland, and later London. But Brett's eye, perhaps even more so than his father's, was tuned strongly toward abstraction. Thus, despite traveling though some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet before arriving in London, Brett had not once pulled out his camera to take pictures! "And what did he eventually come home to California with?", you may be wondering. Why, rust, of course! Brett had been so mesmerized by a patch of rust on the London bridge, that on one of the very last days of their trip, he finally whipped out his camera and spent several hours in photographic ecstasy, exploring nothing but a small dilapidated metal plate.

All fine-art photographers have been afflicted with this strange disease at one time or another (though some more so than others, much to the amusement and consternation of their understanding spouses ;-)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Luminous Companion

One of the special joys of photography is to discover something transcendent in what "objectively speaking" is completely ordinary; and use the medium to share your vision with others. A case in point, is a simple, humble, little tree, that I always see just outside the first level of the garage I use to park my car for work, and as I make the first turn to find a spot to park. I see a bit less of it as I continue downward to the second level, and it disappears from view completely as I weave my way to the third, and final level. I almost always choose to walk up to the entrance of my building using the outside stairs, rather than take the elevator directly from the ground level, because I want to enjoy "seeing" this little tree for a few extra seconds before beginning my work day. It has thus been a quiet companion of mine for years; and always puts a smile on my face as I embark on my workday, readying myself mentally to be immersed in my usual sea of equations and computer code. I call it a humble tree, because that is how it appears to me. Its small and unassuming form is overshadowed by the thick trunks and dense foliage surrounding it. It is practically invisible, standing as it does just outside the garage, effectively lost among the scattered walkways, outside furniture and nearby construction. Sadly, it also does not appear to be doing particularly well physically this year, as its already lost most of its leaves, and very few achieved their usual rich autumn colors before falling. But there it stands, with its graceful arcs and branches serving as a subtle aesthetic ground to everything surrounding it. I silently lament how so few people ever seem to notice its delicate beauty. Though my coworkers frequently jog for exercise up and down the inclined hill on which it grows, few, if any, ever glance in its direction. I resolved to show others what this serene sentinel has generously provided me for so long. I waited for a nice day (which, in photographer's speak, means an overcast, moist day;-), started my commute to work a few minutes early to buy myself some extra time, set up my tripod on the first level and took a few exposures. Some friends passed by in their cars. Most smiled quizzically, and squinted from their seats to try to make out the source of my fascination. One, a fellow photographer, stopped by to take a closer look, and nodded appreciatively. Another, not a photographer, also stopped by and was visibly perplexed that this "unassuming tree" was really the subject of my focus. "I'll show you what I see later, when I've had a chance to express it," I said. "OK," he replied, "but its just a little tree, and not a terribly interesting one at that," and walked away. What my friend probably saw, was what my camera faithfully rendered with its CMOS circuitry, reproduced below... What I saw, and what I almost always see when I pass by my humble little friend, is the image that is reproduced at the top of this blog entry. The tree seems to be both bathed in and to emanate a soothing, ethereal glow; as though its roots are not just joined to the earth but stretch into something beyond as well. The mildly duotoned black and white conversion conveys something of what I see when I look at this tree; and it is not at all obvious from the "straight" color image. I admit to it being a very pure joy for me, as a photographer, to not only be able to "see" this tree in its more resplendently luminous form - to see its very soul, so to speak - but to be able to express (at least some semblance of) what I feel while communing with it. The tree thus now rewards me twice each day. Once, as it continues to paint a smile on my face when it greets me in the morning; and a second time, whenever someone comes into my office, notices the print I made of my luminous companion hanging on my wall, and says (usually, with some incredulity!), "That's not that little tree you were talking about, is it? Wow! Never thought much of it before. It's beautiful!" As others have observed, one does not have to travel to exotic far-away places to find beauty.