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Sargy Mann, blind painter

Here’s a story I have never encountered before. Sargy Mann spends 25 years as a painter and ends up losing his sight. But he decides to keep painting.

From an article about Mann by Tim Adams in the Guardian:

“After a bit I thought: ‘Well here goes,’ and loaded a brush with ultramarine,” he recalls. “What followed was one of the strangest sensations of my life: I ‘saw’ the canvas turn blue as I put the paint down. Next I put my Schminke magenta, and ‘saw’ it turn rose. The colour sensation didn’t last, it was only there while I was putting the paint down, but it went on happening with different colours…”

He didn’t look back. “Once I had started painting blind, there was no stopping me. It just became the new way of doing it. It was difficult, but art had always been difficult, and having a new set of difficulties was no bad thing.” It was, he thought, a bit like a deaf composer hearing orchestra parts in his head.

Adams’ piece includes some of the research being done by Semir Zeki, a pioneer in “neuroaesthetics” (a word he created) and an authority on how minds, in particular artists’ minds, understand the world. Zeki believes that all great artists are instinctive neruoscientists: “They have an innate understanding of how the brain “sees” the world, and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a correspondent visual language.” As Zeki points out, seeing is not a passive process.

When we look at a painting, as his sensitive MRI scanning proves, different bits of information are immediately separated and sent to discrete anatomical corners of our brains for processing. Our brains respond to this compartmentalised information at slightly different rates; colour is processed before form, for example, and form before motion. Having been taken apart, as it were, a painting that we love is never simply put back together again in our heads; rather it “exists” dynamically in the interplay between responses of different parts of the brain. That combination of responses can create a puzzling, powerful and lasting engagement with the image, an emotional response.

Mann also shares a quote originally made about poetry, by Philip Larkin, that describes his view of painting: “Painting is a visual device for preserving an experience from oblivion. For me that means making the world look more like itself. Now that is obviously nonsense, because I can no longer see. But I don’t really feel that I have had to abandon any of these thoughts.”

A great thought, and a courageous human being.


If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.

Richard Rorty, from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

What a provocative quote from the philosophical giant himself, and one that I have been pondering all day after spending some time on Mind Lab, a beautifully constructed site that enables you to experience firsthand the mysteries and vagaries of how the mind and eye collude. (And thank you to vetting machine extraordinaire, Maureen of Writing Without Paper, for this find.) What we think we see, we don’t. Do the experiments on Mind Lab and you will be aghast at how actively your mind is creating a reality for you that is just plain bogus. I kept thinking of a recent piece in the Boston Globe by Joe Keohane that demonstrates how difficult it is for most people to admit they are wrong. We trust our senses and yet it is clear from this site that making that assumption is a big mistake.

An earlier post here referred to architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s provocations around the role of peripheral vision in architectural design. I’m even more intrigued now about how peripheral vision really works and how it impacts our visual experience. And I don’t think the understanding I am looking for is just a scientific one. It has so many layers to it, bafflingly so.

Body. Mind. Seeing. Knowing. Who can say what is what?

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley describes her mother thus: “She was always pointing out colours: in the sea; the sparkle of dew: changes of colour when the dew was brushed away. If she arranged anything on the table like a bowl of fruit […] she would point out the colours. ‘Look it’s almost got a blue on it.’ She wasn’t a painter, she was a ‘looker’. The pleasure that one could get from looking was part of her personality.” Riley’s mother and I have this in common. Visible Invisible: Against the Security of the Real, just opened at Parasol Unit in London, is an exhibition irresistible to lookers, because they are made to feel important – more important, perhaps, than they actually are – rewarded, intrigued and thwarted by looking, and looking long.

This wonderful quote is from a review of the referenced show by Laura McLean-Ferris. As the phrase goes, most people with eyes can see, but a smaller subset has the ability to look.

A few one-liners on this same topic:

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. (Henri Bergson)\

Vision is the art of seeing things invisible. (Jonathan Swift)

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. (Henry David Thoreau)

Sight is a faculty; seeing is an art. (George Perkins Marsh)

A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears. (Gertrude Stein)

And one more addendum to this, more a comment on being seen than on seeing: Deborah Sontag of New York Times recently highlighted the late in life success of Carmen Herrera. She sold her first painting at age 89. Now, at 94, she is being heralded as the talent she has been for years.

Rothko Chapel, Houston

The truly great ones are fresh continuously, repeatedly. Like a painting you can sit in front of for hours and never fully grasp.

When I was just beginning to study art, I asked my professor about Mark Rothko. He and de Kooning were the giants of the generation of artists who inspired my teachers, and they were both spoken of with palpable reverence. When I asked the naif’s question of why, my teacher simply said, “Go to the museum and sit in front of a Rothko painting for one hour. Then let’s talk.”

Simple exercise, and the perfect way to introduce a newbie to what has since that day been a guiding influence in my view of how the visual experience can transform consciousness. Rothko didn’t want spiritual dimensions attributed to his work, and yet he knew he was touching into something so profound it had no reliable words to describe it. And that experience still happens to me. When many of his paintings are gathered together as they are at the Rothko Chapel in Houston or in the Rothko room at the Tate Modern in London, it is the visual equivalent of breaking the vibration level of what the human ear can hear. Utterly exquisite but also utterly intense.

I first read Emerson when I was 12 or 13, along with the awakening that was my encounter with Walden. I took that 19th century Concord crowd on as my cotravelers and like-minded forebears, and I wrote about them and their work whenever I had a term paper assignment. Amazingly, rereading Thoreau and Emerson later in life has convinced me that their real message was lost on my adolescent mind. They write so poignantly to the wizened, the well traveled and well worn, the “I know a thousand ways it doesn’t work” crowd. I could hardly imagine what I was thinking when I was 15 and their work spoke so deeply to me. Prescient foreknowledge of who I would be at a later point in time? Who knows.

Here are a few memorable paragraphs from Emerson’s Nature, published in 1836.

The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep. But in actual life, the marriage is not celebrated. There are innocent men who worship God after the tradition of their fathers, but their sense of duty has not yet extended to the use of all their faculties. And there are patient naturalists, but they freeze their subject under the wintry light of the understanding. Is not prayer also a study of truth, — a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite? No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something. But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation.

It will not need, when the mind is prepared for study, to search for objects. The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. What is a day? What is a year? What is summer? What is woman? What is a child? What is sleep? To our blindness, these things seem unaffecting. We make fables to hide the baldness of the fact and conform it, as we say, to the higher law of the mind. But when the fact is seen under the light of an idea, the gaudy fable fades and shrivels. We behold the real higher law. To the wise, therefore, a fact is true poetry, and the most beautiful of fables. These wonders are brought to our own door. You also are a man. Man and woman, and their social life, poverty, labor, sleep, fear, fortune, are known to you. Learn that none of these things is superficial, but that each phenomenon has its roots in the faculties and affections of the mind. Whilst the abstract question occupies your intellect, nature brings it in the concrete to be solved by your hands. It were a wise inquiry for the closet, to compare, point by point, especially at remarkable crises in life, our daily history, with the rise and progress of ideas in the mind.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. Then shall come to pass what my poet said; “Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up, and the wind exhale. As when the summer comes from the south; the snow-banks melt, and the face of the earth becomes green before it, so shall the advancing spirit create its ornaments along its path, and carry with it the beauty it visits, and the song which enchants it; it shall draw beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts, around its way, until evil is no more seen. The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation, — a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God, — he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The New York Times’ architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff captured it all in the title of his review: The Chanel Pavilion: Clear folly in lean times.

Look how quickly everything in our lives has shifted. In just a matter of weeks, the vox populi has traded its old laissez-faire lens for a sharp edged one, one that perceives excess and inappropriateness with rapier alacrity and angry mob rage. Some people have been caught off guard by this rapid change, like the ill-advised Republican “strategist” (must be in quotes, after all) who didn’t think through how the public would respond to a $150,000 clothing makeover for their mavericky vice presidential candidate. Others have found themselves hopelessly caught in the final arc of a project that just doesn’t fit in this newly harsh, lean world. There’s just no quick way to redirect a tanker that is barrelling in the wrong direction. Call it karma. Or timing. But these elements that live outside the controllable zone are the guerrilla fighters in life. In a way, they always win.

The Chanel Pavilion, a temporary structure designed by Zaha Hadid and currently viewable in Central Park, is a memorable example of a timing hijack. It is a harbinger, with implications on so many levels.

Here’s a fitting excerpt from Ouroussoff’s article:

The wild, delirious ride that architecture has been on for the last decade looks as if it’s finally coming to an end. And after a visit to the Chanel Pavilion that opened this week in Central Park, you may think it hasn’t come soon enough.

Designed to display artworks that were inspired by Chanel’s 2.55, a quilted chain-strap handbag, the pavilion certainly oozes glamour. Its mysterious nautiluslike form, which can be easily dismantled and shipped to the next city on its global tour, reflects the keen architectural intelligence we have come to expect from its creator, Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who lives in London.

Yet if devoting so much intellectual effort to such a dubious undertaking might have seemed indulgent a year ago, today it looks delusional.

It’s not just that New York and much of the rest of the world are preoccupied by economic turmoil and a recession, although the timing could hardly be worse. It’s that the pavilion sets out to drape an aura of refinement over a cynical marketing gimmick. Surveying its self-important exhibits, you can’t help but hope that the era of exploiting the so-called intersection of architecture, art and fashion is finally over…

It’s not that hard to see why Hadid accepted the commission. One of architecture’s most magical aspects is the range of subjects it allows you to engage, from the complex social relationships embodied in a single-family house to the intense communal focus of a concert hall. Great talents want to explore them all; it is what allows them to flex their intellectual muscles.

But traumatic events have a way of making you see things more clearly. When Rem Koolhaas’s Prada shop opened in SoHo three months after the World Trade Center attacks, it was immediately lampooned as a symbol of the fashion world’s clueless self-absorption. The shop was dominated by a swooping stage that was conceived as a great communal theater, a kind of melding of shopping and civic life. Instead, it conjured Champagne-swilling fashionistas parading across a stage, oblivious to the suffering around them.

The Chanel Pavilion may be less convoluted in its aims, but its message is no less noxious. When I first heard about it, I thought of the scene in the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce” when the parasitic playboy Monte Beragon sneeringly tells the Joan Crawford character, a waitress toiling to give her spoiled daughter a better life, that no matter how hard she scrubs, she will never be able to remove the smell of grease. We have been living in an age of Montes for more than a decade now. For strivers aching to separate themselves from the masses, the mix of architecture, art and fashion has had a nearly irresistible pull, promising a veneer of cultural sophistication.

Opening the pavilion in Central Park only aggravates the wince factor. Frederick Law Olmsted planned the park as a great democratic experiment, an immense social mixing place as well as an instrument of psychological healing for the weary. The Chanel project reminds us how far we have traveled from those ideals.

The pavilion’s coiled form, in which visitors spiral ever deeper into a black hole of bad art and superficial temptations is an elaborate mousetrap for consumers. The effortless flow between one space and the next, which in earlier projects suggested a desire to break down unwanted barriers, here suggests a surrender of individual will. Even the surfaces seem overly sleek by Hadid’s normal standards; they lack the occasional raw-material touch common to her best buildings, which imbued them with a human dimension.

One would hope that our economic crisis leads us to a new level of introspection and that architects will feel compelled to devote their talents to more worthwhile – dare I say idealistic? – causes.

Robert Irwin

The books stacked by my bed may appear to be pliantly passive, but don’t be fooled: the daily jostling that rotates one to the top spot is a highly competitive challenge. Feelings have been hurt, I can sense it, when that slim volume of finely chiseled poetry gets usurped by, dare I say it, non-fiction. There’s something touchingly poignant about being shunted aside—especially after having provided hours of sensuous pleasure—by a brazen and confident competitor whose voluptuous content titillates the mind into delirium.

The latest interloper to command control of my bedstand stack is Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler. I’ve quoted from this book on this blog before (see my posting on May 12, 2008), and have read parts of it in the past. But as is the case with so many things in life, timing is everything. This book fell back into my hands recently, and I can’t put it down. I’m smitten. No doubt the other bedside volumes are murmuring their frustration with an infatuation that is lasting a little too long. Sorry, but this one is so seductive and provocative, and it is speaking to me right down to my bones.

During my formative years growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robert Irwin—along with his cohorts Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price et al—were running their own art solar system out of Southern California with no fealty paid to that putative (and to some degree, self-anointed) center of the art world, New York. Their approach was insouciant, non-pedigree, fresh. As a young artist living outside the power grid of the East Coast, I was compelled by their confidence and transgressive points of view. And what a willful proclivity to be persnickety! For example, Irwin forbade any photographic reproduction of his work for a number of years, convinced that a photograph can only convey image, not presence. Cataloging and marketing be damned. I remember thinking, wow. Those guys were just so…cool.

Now, years later, I am reading the “story about the story” of Irwin and his crew during that extremely important period in their artistic evolution. What keeps striking me is how extraordinarily aligned I am with many of the issues they championed. I didn’t fully comprehend the full import as a much younger artist. Now seems to be the time when I am most able to understand, really understand, what Irwin was saying.

So many salient quotes could be offered here from this fascinating book. I’m sure I’ll be posting more from Weschler’s account in the weeks to come. But here is a start to give you some sense of Irwin’s point of view:

Irwin sometimes singles out a particular achievement of Willem de Kooning’s. “Really the best abstract expressionist paintings ever—in my opinion the best single ones—were an at-the-time recent series of large paintings by de Kooning. And one of the things about them is that they have this quality: it’s as if they were done in ten minutes. They look utterly spontaneous. A few simple gestures just explode on the canvas. But the control is amazing! The stroke stops and the paint splashes, but with the precision of the lace on a Vermeer collar. I mean, having done those kinds of paintings and tried to get that kind of freshness, I know the guy was really a master. He really knew what he was doing.”

And another:

“The big challenge for me,” he recalls, “starting around then, the ‘less is more’ challenge, was simply always to try to maximize the energy, the physicality of the painting, and to minimize the imagery. It could all be looked at essentially as turning the entire question upside down: moving away from the literate, conceptual rationale and really reestablishing the inquiry on the perceptual, tactile level. Nobody quite understood that at the time, because they were still thinking in image terms and in terms of literate connotations. When they talked about a painting, they translated it into subject matter, in a way, but it’s not only about that. It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

More to come, to be sure.

During a time when I am still sitting in the silence—in the thinking and feeling rather than the doing, making, manifesting—my thoughts have been drawn to examples of significant disruptions in the flow of artistic output. Not just my own, but others.

Probably the standout example from the recent past that is pointed to most frequently (and which I have written about here previously) is the painter Philip Guston. In the early 1970s his work turned rather quickly from a career of lyrical abstraction to the caricatured world of goons, rednecks and Klansmen, a Southern version of a Mad Maxian nightmare. He said he wanted to “paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet…to paint as a cave man would.” I was a young painter at the time, and the shock of that shift is one of my most salient memories of reoriented response to an artist whose earlier work I adored.

Thoughts about this radical shift were prompted by reading a Ken Johnson review in the New York Times of a current show of his drawings at the Morgan Library. (An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting today.) According to the review, Guston stopped painting in 1966 and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted to “clear the decks.”

Although it took me years, I did finally come to terms with Guston’s last phase (he died in 1980.) I “came to terms” in the sense that I spent hours looking at his work and reading what he wrote about it. At a retrospective of his work at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge several years ago, I watched several documentaries made about this shift, and the evolution came to make more sense to me. As Johnson states in his review of this phase of Guston’s output, “suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out.”

I’m not contemplating a shift in my own work of that magnitude, but I do feel a sea change that is still unnamed and more inchoate than clear. Unlike Guston, I do not have a sense that there are ideas and preoccupations that my life long interest in non-representationalism cannot hold. But Guston’s willingness to “go naked” and follow where his sensibilities led regardless is an extraordinary gesture of guts. Overidentification with a particular aesthetic, technique or process results in the same troubles that we encounter in our psyches when we overidentify with our own story, our highly subjective (and usually painfully inaccurate) sense of who we think we are. As the spiritual traditions advise, achieving wisdom means you have to give up your story, your safe concept of what reality is. The wisdom path demands that you start the day by breaking yourself apart. Then the next morning, you wake up and break yourself apart again.

To all this I say yes. Notwithstanding, this passage about Guston’s earlier work, written by Lawrence Weschler in his book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, still rings true for what a great piece of art does for me:

I remember one time, for instance, seeing this small Philip Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. Now, the Brooks was a big painting on every scale: it had five major shapes in it — a black shape, a reed, a green — big areas, big shapes, with strong, major value changes, hue changes. Next to it was this small painting, with mute pinks and greys and greens, very subtle. It was one of those funny little Guston kind of scrumbly paintings, a very French kind of painting…[m]y discovery was that from 100 yards away — this was just one of those little breakthroughs — that from this distance of 100 yards, I looked over, and that godd*mned Guston… Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum… Well, that godd*mned Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall.

Luc Tuymans’ paintings have an atmosphere all their own. They stand out whenever I have seen them on display, with that signatory diluted palette and the painterly, brushstroked surface. His content is usually identifiable and yet the paintings have a mystery to them that makes them feel more aligned to non-representational work. Although much younger than Gerhard Richter, the giant of German contemporary painting, Tuymans shares similarities with Richter (another artist whose work I adore) in the way he uses photographs as source material, the cropping of images and the highlightly of subject matter that is often, on the surface, rather mundane.

Tuymans has achieved that rarefied success in the international art world that is reserved for a select few. I have seen his work on display in museums and galleries everywhere–Europe, Asia, Australia, the United States. So it is rather interesting that he agreed to conduct a version of the “Joshua Bell playing in the subway” experiment in his home town of Antwerp. (A description and link to the video are posted on Slow Painting.)

While the design of the “experiment” that anonymousizes great art or music in public spaces can be criticized, the issue of art and context is still relevant. And the visibility of these stagings with the likes of a Joshua Bell and a Luc Tuymans may shift what we as mere pedestrians on a city street expect. I’d like to think that more people have been opened up to the possibility of seeing and hearing a moment of greatness outside the context of a concert hall or gallery.

Silence and solitude, as great teachers have always advised, open us up to new layers of consciousness. This week the layer I have been in features a cast of animals, each bringing its own meaning and significance.

A few days ago I opened the door of my studio and was overwhelmed by the smell of skunk. Being trespassed upon without warning can feel like its own small violation, but I felt more respect than discomfort. For a four legged, not necessarily at home in the industrial landscape that is South Boston, to find its way into my studio… Well that’s just plain heroic.

The next day at dusk my husband David and I sat on an isolated bench in the sanctuary near my home. As soon as the light faded, three or four raccoons appeared. We stayed and watched their self-absorbed scavenging beneath the bushes along the pond’s edge. Our presence there was effortlessly disregarded. We were, after all, the interlopers into their ‘hood who could be overlooked as long as we sat still.

This week I read through my dream journal, and it was full of images of animals–sometimes with starring roles and sometimes just lurking under foot. But as I reconnected with these dream sequences, the power of these animal presences brought me deeper into four legged respect.

I am acutely aware these days of how much we shove down, choose to ignore, refuse to see or feel. Being pragmatic, committed to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, requires a specialized version of selective neglect. Meanwhile so much is going on, in us as well as around us, that we simply chose not to pay attention to. I need and want more receptivity, more sensitivity, not less.

The legendary symbolism of skunks and raccoons, Native American and otherwise, brought another layer of meaning to my encounters this week. This account rang true for me:

Of course a chunk of animal symbolism of the skunk deals with the pungent odor of its spray let off when it’s threatened.

Just think what a remarkable defense mechanism: Nonviolent, passive, effective. The skunk sends a message to would-be predators: “Nothing personal, just back off and nobody gets hurt.”

This unique method of self-protection and the way a skunk handles its predators is symbolic of:
· Defense
· Prudence
· Protection
· Confidence
· Awareness
· Pacification
· Effectiveness
· Good judgement

We would all do well to take this animal symbolism from the skunk: Do no harm. Indeed, as a totem animal, the skunk asks us to defend ourselves effectively, without causing further conflict.

Interestingly, the skunk would prefer to be even less assertive. You see, it takes over a week to reproduce its stinky juices after using them (their glands are only good for about 4 sprays). Ergo, the skunk is 100% sure it must spray before doing so as this defense tool is a commodity in the wild – not to be wasted on false alarms.

In recognizing this, we see the skunk is the ultimate pacifist, and by adopting its peace-loving ways we may obtain the carefree lifestyle this creature enjoys.

Carefree indeed, the skunk has very few predators because most of the animal kingdom recognize its tell-tale markings and know from wildlife scuttlebutt the skunk is not to be fooled with. As such, the skunk goes about its business with aplomb, and has an innocent quality that few wild creatures have the luxury of exhibiting.

Other animal symbolism of the skunk include:
· Introspection
· Innocence
· Assurance
· Patience
· Silence
· Peace

Those with the skunk as their animal totem are naturally buoyant. They go through life with a calm assurance, and exude a peaceful energy that is extremely attractive to others.

Call upon the spirit of the skunk when you need quality judgment in a situation – particularly if you’re in a stressful state, or someone is pushing your buttons. The skunk will ease you out of the situation with deft and diplomacy.

The skunk can also help calm jangled nerves, and help to center ourselves into a quiet, peaceful state.

Claims to portentious meaning are not quite as generous for the raccoon as they are for the skunk. A number of traditions refer to the symbolism of disguise, to misleading appearances and the masking of truth. On a more positive note, reference is also made to the raccoon’s legendary ability to thrive in a variety of environments and situations.

I feel schooled by the four leggeds, and grateful for it.


More from David Batchelor’s Chromophobia:

In the chapter titled “Whitescapes”, Batchelor describes going to a party at the home of an art collector in London. His description of that experience is hauntingly familiar to me, but one that I have never thought through in such explicit detail:

The house looked ordinary enough from the outside: red brick, nineteenth or early twentieth century, substantial but unostentatious. Inside was different. Inside seemed to have no connection with outside. Inside was, in one sense, inside-out, but I only realized that much later. At first, inside looked endless. Endless like an egg must look endless from the inside; endless because seamless, continuous, empty, uninterrupted. Or rather: uninterruptible. There is a difference. Uninterrupted might mean overlooked, passed by, inconspicuous, insignificant. Uninterruptible passes by you, renders you inconspicuous and insignificant…It was a strategic emptiness, but it was also accusatory.

Inside this house was a whole world, a very particular kind of world, a very clean, clear and orderly universe. But it was also a very paradoxical, inside-out world, a world where open was also closed, simplicity was also complication, and clarity was also confusion. It was a world that didn’t readily admit the existence of other worlds. Or it did so grudgingly and resentfully, and absolutely without compassion. In particular, it was a world that would remind you, there and then, in an instant, of everything you were not, everything you had failed to become, everything you had not got around to doing, everything you might as well never bother to get around to doing because everything was made to seem somehow beyond reach, as when you look through the wrong end of a telescope…

There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was the kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white.

An emptiness that is accusatory. A white that is compassionless. I know of what he speaks.