A few years back I took a trip hosted by the art department at UT Tyler to the Rachofsky House. It was a private home belonging to a couple who were art collectors and they had amassed so much art they simply turned their home into a museum. There were many sculptures and paintings, one of which was a two story tall metal tower covered in what looked like blood but which was actually just paint, and in the yard there were stones cut into the shape of teeth. It was all terribly beautiful and weird and odd and wonderful, as any good art museum should be, but the most simple of the sculptress caught my attention. It was a square sandbox and in the middle of the piece was a small electric generator that pushed two blade across the surface of the sand. One was serrated and left little paths behind it, the other was just a straight edge and as it trailed after the serrated blade it wiped the ridges away leaving a smooth surface. The work didn’t even have a name. The title was simply “+ and –” and the name Mona Hatoum was the only proof that the “sculpture” had actually been crafted rather than simply left by some being of unknown quality or time. I’m getting a bit spacey now, but the point I’m simply trying to convey is that out of all the artwork in the house I recognized that “+ and –” had more of an artistic statement than every work in the house including that giant phallus, tower. Meh, same thing.
The paths were drawn in a circle, and as the eye got comfortable with them the second blade came and wiped it away.
I recently wrote about Circles, one of Emerson’s most popular and sometimes most difficult essays, and the opening passage was going to be just an elaboration about Emerson’s thought process. I like little lead-ins like that because it makes it appear that I’m actually doing things in life that aren’t just reading and writing non-stop. I suppose this is a bit of bluffery on my part, but if the reader had nothing else but my rambling thoughts they’re never have an excuse to read. Circles is an essay I read for an Emerson Douglass course, and while at the time I felt that Douglass’s work had more relevance overall I do believe I was making a mistake to suggest that Emerson’s writing had no relevance whatsoever. Circles is a brilliant essay that upon deeper reflection has great philosophical and mundane relevance. It also sinks beautifully with a song by the heavy metal band TOOL but I’ll get to that in a bit.
If the reader is unfamiliar with the essay or its concept it’s a little difficult to describe. Simply, the essay explores the figure of the circle and the way that the figure repeats itself in the experiences of human beings. He begins with a simple observation:
The Eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. (403)
In true Emersonian style this introduction is both simple and overly complex. Emerson would often pursue abstract ideas through his writing in an attempt to awake his fellow Americans to passions and ideas that would inspire them. Being one of, if not the, major players of the American Transcendentalist movement Emerson’s goal as a writer was always to instill principles, inspire action, produce contemplation, and finally to allow his reader to understand that they were their own being. The circle becomes an important figure for all of these because of its prolific occurrence in nature.
It’s not just that the eye is the first circle many human beings experience for it has been noted that the first sight a human being recognizes is the face of their parents. The face is the first circle we recognize and from that point we continually experience the circles of our mother’s nipples when we nurse, the sun that seems to chase after us as we run or ride in the car with our dads in the car, the moon that rises in the evenings. From these titan images we may experience sea shells on the beach from sand dollars to hermit crab shells, and if we follow the more land based arthropods such as Butterflys there is the experience of seeing owl or hawk eyes on a butterflies wings. A lady bug’s spots are an aesthetic in their own right, and compound bug eye is literally dozens to hundreds of small circles working together as a single unit. Past the bugs and planets and the shapes of galaxies there afre the abstract circles that we walk throughout our life without ever recognizing it. Summer turns into fall which becomes winter which eventually fades into spring which is the precursor to summer. The seasons fade seamlessly into one another and so human life moves in a circle following the moods, trends, holidays, and harvests that accompany each of these. Each ends and begins again, and while human beings acknowledge the end of a season it is never a complete end. Even human being’s existences follows a circle for while birth and death possess such a dramatic presence in our lives as a species we have developed a tremendous capacity to become inured or apathetic to it. Everyday someone dies and someone is born. While these lives are mourned and celebrated the larger picture is often ignored. All of existence follows the path of a circle, or as Dr. Manhattan so eloquently put it:
It’s no mistake Dave Gibbons draws Dr. Manhattan in a globe, and Emerson himself offers a similar sentiment in his essay when he notes that:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (403).
The reader may now object with the important question: what then becomes the meaning of life? If all of existence is simply a circle and my life is simply going to be one point on the larger circle of time and space that will ultimately be wiped away what good is it of living? What good is it doing anything?
I would caution the reader from compartmentalizing this observation because it will only lead to negative territory and larger epistemological doubt. My effort here isn’t to question whether or not life is worth living, because Emerson himself refuses to acknowledge this argument. The circle is not the end of individual existence, it’s just the figure that reduces the ego. If one takes an image like Yin/Yang, you know that symbol your ex had tattooed on her inner calf because she was like, so super deep into Eastern Philosophy because it was like, way better than western philosophy, don’t you know. The symbol was an image that I often reproduced as a kid because math was boring and I always enjoyed doodling. Part of the appeal of the symbol was its simplicity. All it required was three circles, the two within the negative sections of each other and then the larger circle. I would discover years later that the outer circle which contains the black and white was the representation of the Tao, a term which possesses many different meanings and contexts however the larger explanation I have heard is simply “way” or path.”
This idea of circle is also repeated in Western tradition however it holds a different function. The philosopher Aristotle fashioned a model of the universe that has been called geocentricity. In this model the earth was at the center of the universe and the Sun and planets revolved around it in perfect concentric circles. It was this model that was used to explain the concept of gravity (everything falls to earth). During the medieval and Renaissance period the Catholic church would adopt, appropriate, and recreate this model for themselves arguing that this model reflected god’s will that man should be the venter of creation. The circular movement of the planets was important however because the circle was seen as the most heavenly ideal form. Because a circle has no true beginning or end (think back to your high school geometry and try not to think of that girl, you know the one) many theologians felt that it best represented the will and shape of god because, like him, it was without beginning or end.
Emerson elaborates on the circle summoning this old theological ideas:
The natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations, which apprize us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed, but sliding. These manifold tenacious qualities, this chemistry and vegetation, these metals and animals, which seem to stand there for their own sake, are means and methods only, — are words of God, and as fugitive as other words. Has the naturalist or chemist learned his craft, who has explored the gravity of atoms and the elective affinities, who has not yet discerned the deeper law whereof this is only a partial or approximate statement, namely, that like draws to like; and that the goods which belong to you gravitate to you, and need not be pursued with pains and cost? Yet is that statement approximate also, and not final. Omnipresence is a higher fact. Not through subtle, subterranean channels need friend and fact be drawn to their counterpart, but, rightly considered, these things proceed from the eternal generation of the soul. Cause and effect are two sides of one fact. (409-10)(Italic by me)
I’ll be honest halfway through that passage even I lose Emerson. It’s not that the man has no good ideas in this passage it’s just that he enters the territory of thought where a person can become so close to their ideas that expressing them clearly becomes a bit of a challenge. That’s why I italicized a few of the words however because the sentiment he expresses is marvelously similar to TOOL’s song Lateralus.
There are few bands in existence like TOOL and the reason for this is because most of those bands are simply trying to replicate what TOOL does. The song Lateralus is one I stumbled upon while looking through YouTube for metal songs to play in the background while I cleaned and it has since become part of my permanent musical library. The reason for this is because there really is no song like it that possesses such musical and compositional complexity. For starters the rhythm of the song is actually broken in a pattern of 9/8, 8/8/ and 7/8 and when you combine the first three numbers you arrive at the number 987 which is the sixteenth integer of the Fibonacci sequence. If the reader is unfamiliar with this sequence it is a series of numbers that, when added together form what is known as The Golden Ratio. This symbol is best represented by a spiral that is formed through rectangles and this spiral has been observed in flowers, galaxies, The Mona Lisa, Nautilus shells, hurricanes, Trump’s haircut, and even your clenched fist. It’s this spiral that I want to focus on though because it connects Emerson to TOOL.
The song Lateralus is not just about the Fibonacci sequence, in fact it’s based upon Native American folklore as well as acid trips. The song begins:
Black then white are all I see in my infancy.
red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me.
lets me see.
As below, so above and beyond, I imagine
drawn beyond the lines of reason.
Push the envelope. Watch it bend.
Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must
Feed my will to feel my moment drawing way outside the lines.
At this point the stoner gives us the thumbs up and we enjoy a nice trip but reducing this song simply to a drug rush would be a gross disservice. The opening lines of black and white bring me back to the Tao as well as early infancy. My earliest memory is simply the color white. I remember floating in a space of white and feeling the presence of another being. There was fear, but also comfort that this space was not all and everything. Bodies of myself and the Other existed. The black and white contained within the circle of Tao provides the early framework of man’s consciousness.
Maynard concludes the song moving past the initial impression of the mind and body, by moving outward:
I embrace my desire to, I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected
enough to step aside and weep like a widow
to feel inspired, to fathom the power,
to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral, to swing on the spiral,
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.
With my feet upon the ground I lose myself
between the sounds and open wide to suck it in.
I feel it move across my skin.
I’m reaching up and reaching out.
I’m reaching for the random or whatever will bewilder me.
Whatever will bewilder me.
And following our will and wind we may just go where no one’s been.
We’ll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one’s been.
Spiral out. Keep going…
It’s these closing lines, accompanied by the actual music video which, like all TOOL music videos, is sure to leave the reader reeling and wondering what is reality for a few seconds before they download an Honest Trailer and remember that Frozen was a terrible movie. Lateralus is not just about a drug trip, though the artist Alex Grey which did the artwork for the album and video admits that the red and yellow played a significant part of an LSD trip which preceded him gravitating towards a spiral. While it’s not a circle, the Golden Ratio’s spiral is never ending for it will spiral both outward and inward even past man’s ability to calculate or even observe the shape of it. This figure, like the circle, regularly repeats in nature; it is a functioning construct of the natural world.
The reader may well ask then, what’s the point of observing it? The only answer I have to that is the ability to understand the complexity of reality and hopefully become inspired by it. Both Emerson’s Circles and TOOL’s Lateralus both speak to the desire to surpass understanding of life and reality and touch or access knowledge that is beyond mankind’s current reach. Many people will probably never appreciate or realize how much circles and spirals actually shape their reality and world despite the fact that everyday our reality is directly touched by them. No would object to the argument that Hurricane Katrina forever altered the lives of millions of people in irreparable and damaging ways. Yet the same construct that made up that hurricane is found within the shapes of sunflowers and roses, and even the galaxy in which we live.
Recognizing these shapes may not at first appear to possess any kind of utilitarian purpose, but Lateralus and Circles speaks to the human condition which drives us as a species to understand and shape our world. It inspires humans to push past what we know and have to try to imagine new worlds and possibilities which turn inspires the innovation that creates new technology, new art, and new ideas.
Circles can be damned puzzling, and Lateralus will probably continue to be the song your room-mate plays while he’s doing “paperwork,” but these works are too vital to philosophical discourse to be written off as esoteric bullshit. They are vital profound works which can alter the understanding of the reader’s notion of reality.
Going back to “+ and –” I remember how empty the rest of the art seemed. I had come to the house expecting Rembrandts, O’Keefe’s, and Turners. Instead I saw bronze teeth and a three story meaty steel phallus. Watching the blades slice through the sand, and then wipe it clean a moment later seemed to demonstrate something both beautiful and vapid in the house. The owners had spent a fortune filling their house with priceless art to the point they couldn’t even live in it anymore. Their purchases and creation of the house were ridges in the sand, and it was only a matter of time before the second blade would come around and wipe the whole surface clean.
I’ve posted a link to a small article about “+ and –” in case the reader is interested. It gives some background and also shows a video of the work as it moves:
I’ve also included a link to the Lateralus video if you are interested:
And finally here’s a link to the essay Circles: