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The prisoner’s cinema

September 9, 2012

The ancient Pythagorean mystics would, apparently, retreat into dark caves and stare at the darkness until they began to see lights and colors and even shapes, which they would, of course, interpret in mystical fashion. This is made possible through something called the Ganzfeld, meaning “complete field,” effect, in which the mind seeks to identify patterns in a uniform field, and ends up interpreting the noise generated by the retina itself into meaningful figures. So saith Wikipedia.

An interesting property of Ganzfeld effects, as opposed to mirages or dreams, for example, is that the illusory object appears sans context, an isolated anomaly in what is otherwise, one might say, an infinite field of uniform density. If reading poetry or fiction does make our minds mimic actually seeing something (which I’m not entirely convinced is true), they do so in a way more like a Ganzfeld effect than a dream. “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote”: reading this we may see “in our mind’s eye” showers of rain and the roots of trees, but we don’t fill in the entire scene, not until Chaucer fills the rest of it in for us. We see rain and roots and their interaction, but not in a specific setting; they’re just, sort of… there. But “there” where? This difficulty of describing what it is we do “see” is why I’m not so convinced we “see” anything at all.

I’ve always been fascinated with issues of visual perception, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suppose I just did some Wikipedia trawling and posted the results here. But no; I came across these concepts while researching for a paper I plan to re-write on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And somehow that seems fitting. Trying to make sense of Blood Meridian can often feel like interpreting the apparitions one sees in a prisoner’s cinema. A thought which immediately prompts one to the thought: sometimes black is just black.

But sometimes black is Eigengrau. Now this is another concept ripe for poetic interpretation. The absence of light is not when we see the darkest black; in utter darkness, we see a shade brighter than that of the black seen between the stars. Because dark and light are perceived in terms of contrast. In a way, doesn’t this gives the lie to “We are not our own light!”?

I may never understand what it would be like to think, along with Keats, that Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow “by reducing it to the prismatic colors”. Optics are so much fun to learn about!

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