Sunday, August 13, 2017

Platonic Forms in Everyday Life

In various of Plato’s Dialogues he has Socrates address the notion of “ideal forms.” This is the theory that we can recognize everyday objects because we hold in our minds—and, in some interpretations, because there separately exists, perhaps somewhere in the stratosphere—a perfect form or prototype of the object. According to this theory, the physical thing before us is just an imperfect copy of the ideal form. Thus, for all the horses on Earth, from the dog-sized “dawn horse” Eohippus up through the race-winning Quarter Horses, wagon-pulling Clydesdales, playground ponies, donkeys, and zebras, there exists somewhere in heaven the perfect Horse, of which these living examples are only pale and imperfect copies. Similarly, for all the oaks, maples, birches, cypresses, and bristlecone pines, there is an ideal Tree somewhere in an imagined forest that all of these specimens are trying to be.1

As I’ve noted before,2 when it comes to living examples, there is no ideal form toward which the various species of a genus or family are striving. Each one is a product of adaptation to a niche in the environment, whether by accidental mutation or selective breeding. Mutations gave rise to the Eohippus, donkey, and zebra. Judicious breeding gave us the Quarter Horse for speed and the Clydesdale for pulling power. Sure, when the average person thinks of a horse—just daydreaming, without context or the prompting of a picture—he or she probably pictures Secretariat, Sea Biscuit, or some other famous racehorse. But that no more makes these celebrities an “ideal form” than movie stardom has made Marilyn Monroe or Scarlett Johansson the ideal woman anywhere but in the adolescent imagination.

The same goes for trees and every other living thing. Those we find in the wild have been shaped in every feature and part by adaptation to some aspect of the local environment. Those we find in the barnyard and or in our homes have been removed from the wild and selectively bred—not always wisely—for some feature of appearance, intelligence, temperament, strength, or taste. There is no ideal form of a tree, a dog, or a beef cow anywhere.

So does the ideal, Platonic form have any meaning in life, except as a bit of naïve Greek philosophy? I can think of a couple of examples.

The first is in the arts. Michelangelo famously said of his statues that he did not carve them so much as release the figure that already lived in the marble. Well, maybe. And to the extent that a particular piece of recrystallized calcium carbonate may have had streaks, veins, and fissures, or the block itself may have some critical defect—like the awkward indentation that yielded the bent knee of the David—this may well be true. But other than that, I’m pretty sure Michelangelo’s figures resided first in his own mind, an image of what he was about to carve, and he merely removed stone, first in big chunks, then in grains and flakes, and finally in softly polishing strokes, until the figure he had conceived stood before him.

Thus every artist—painter, writer, musician—pursues an image, a thought, or a sound that he or she carries in the mind and works to reproduce on canvas, paper, or the keystrokes and fingerings of a chosen instrument. However, the image or thought might not always be as clear as Michelangelo’s stone people. I know from experience that my conception of the book I’m writing usually remains hazy—just big chunks somewhere out there in the fog—until I sit down to compose and actually live vicariously through the action and hear in my mind the dialogue as my fingers are flying over the keyboard. Even a fairly extensive outline is, for me, just a suggestion of where the book might go. Many times I have carried a scene in the outline that I thought was fixed, and the writing of which would be practically a job of just finding the opening line and then fleshing out the details—only to discover that, when I sat down to experience the action at first hand, it wanted to go in another direction and cover different ground. And I’ve learned to trust this instinct, because the scene as it gets written is usually richer and more satisfying than whatever thought I had in mind before.

Another, and perhaps better, example of the ideal form is found in karate. The style I practice, Isshinryu, relies heavily on the katas, or forms, as developed and adapted by the master, Tatsuo Shimabuku. These are practice routines for an individual, laid out as a series of punches, blocks, kicks, and other movements in sequence against the imagined attacks of an invisible opponent. In the dojo I attended back in Pennsylvania—now almost fifty years ago—learning and mastering the hand-and-foot and weapons katas were the main course of study. Yes, the practice included sparring, or kumite, with a partner, where blows were simulated at two inches to a light tap. Sparring gives the student a feel for the timing, reach, ranging, and reactions of a live human attacker. But the essence of Isshinryu was carried out in the katas.3

As a creation in the mind of Master Shimabuku, each kata is an ideal form, the perfect combination of stance, movement, balance, and rhythm representing a certain aspect of the style or emphasizing a certain pattern of defense. There is only one way to perform the kata. Or is there? When I was in training, we practiced the twist punch, with the hand rotating from a palm-up position at the hip to a palm-down position in the last quarter of the arm’s extension. This was my sensei’s teaching, and he had studied personally with Master Shimabuku. But after the master died, his sons took over the style. They decided that the twist punch was archaic or impractical or something—I don’t know their minds—and so introduced the vertical punch, in which the hand moves like a piston with the knuckles aligned vertically in a single plane from beginning to end. The vertical punch is easier to throw and master, more practical in an actual brawl, and more in keeping with Isshinryu’s “one-heart-way” teaching—short and direct. But it’s not very elegant and, in my opinion, not as good as the twist punch for keeping your wrists flexible and exercising your forearms.

So … were the katas with all those twist punches the “real” mind of the master? And is the vertical punch a later corruption of the ideal form? Who can say? I do know that old movies of Master Shimabuku, taken when he visited this country in the early ’60s (you can see them at the site referenced above, but they are small and blurry after being copied over from eight-millimeter film into digital files) show him throwing punches that are sometimes twisting, sometimes vertical. In the same way his basic stance, the seisan, sometimes has the back foot parallel with the front, sometimes turned out—and our school taught parallel feet as if they were Holy Writ. Maybe the master had gone so deeply into the idea of Isshinryu that it didn’t mush matter if his punches and his stances were one thing or the other. Certainly, the kata would then depend on its shape in the mind of the student: what were you taught and how closely are you following it? So the “ideal form” of the kata really is just an expression of the school’s current practice and the student’s understanding.

A further example of ideal forms in everyday life draws on something I have learned from taking music lessons. As a boy, I played—well, attempted to play—the trombone. But I never learned the underlying structure of Western music itself, with is twelve notes, some in whole and some in half steps, laid out in the black and white keys of the piano. I never learned about key signatures and how they affect what notes I played; so my playing was a disaster. I could pick out the notes on the staff and in the positioning of the trombone’s slide, but I didn’t understand their relationships.4 After I retired from the business world, I determined to fix this hole in my education. I bought a keyboard instrument and started taking formal lessons. And one of the things that has come home to me through my teacher is that, although a song might be written down on the page in clear, precise notation, this isn’t always the way you play it.

I’m not talking here about the key signature, because that’s pretty well established in music. But sheet music as written is not always an exact copy of the composer’s original musical thought, his or her ideal form. For instance, the person transcribing the music is just as prone to making errors as someone typing up a manuscript. So my teacher, who has edited music scores professionally, is constantly correcting chords called out in my music book: “That’s not a dominant chord, it should be a major.”

And then, every piece of sheet music—especially those lead sheets in which most popular music is published—shows both the melody and the harmony, and the harmony can be further broken down into the root note and the accompanying chord (third, fifth, and seventh notes). A person playing the piece as a solo might play the melody in one hand and the chords in the other, or her or she might “voice lead” the song—stacking the harmonics of the chord’s root below the melody note in the right hand, and then playing the root note in some rhythmic variation or a “bass walk” for timekeeping. And when playing as part of a group, the keyboardist might perform just the bass walk and chords, letting a singer or lead guitarist carry the melody. Or if the group already has a bass player, the keyboardist might not even bother with the root at all. So the song itself, that ideal piece of music written on the sheet, might change according to where and when it’s played. And we’re not even talking yet about changes in tempo and jazz improvisation.

Chords themselves are subject to much variation, too. For example, the harmonics around the root can be played on the keyboard in the order third-fifth-seventh or inverted as seventh-third-fifth, creating the correct notes but with a different sound and feel. And the player might have to move quickly between two chords, or adapt the harmonics when voice leading. So it’s always acceptable, my teacher tells me, to drop the fifth note. The chord may also be marked to play with a ninth, a sixth, or some other note included—and then usually dropping the fifth—which creates a wholly different sound. And finally, pairs of chords that are commonly associated in music often shift from one to the other through the movement of just a single finger from note to note, without changing the whole hand. So the “ideal form” of every piece of music really is just an expression of the song’s setting and the player’s immediate needs.

Of course, karate katas and popular songs are not physical objects, such as Plato was describing. These are sequences and ideas that start out and live in the human imagination and travel from one head to another by the means of crude copies: physically demonstrating the movement, or humming and playing the tune, or making abstract notations on paper. But even there, in the mind of the karate master or the music composer, the process of evolution—yielding subtle changes in structure, timing, and sequence—work against any fixed, immutable form that might live in the stratosphere or in heaven forever.

1. Of course, on an individual and personal level, this is a perfectly valid—if somewhat obvious—point of psychology. Each of us does build up, in our own minds, based on our varied experiences, an idealized image of a horse or any other object of which the world has offered us repeated examples with minor variations. When we think of a horse without a living specimen before us, we picture this mental composite. And the image is less specific and more fanciful the farther a person is removed from the world of the barnyard and the paddock. It is this sort of mental extrapolation that lets woodcarvers and painters create the horses that children delight to ride on carousels.

2. See, for example, The Point of Evolution from April 27, 2014.

3. The forms are so complete a statement of the style that I can still use them to practice Isshinryu karate fifty years later, at least for their benefit in cardio exercise, balance, and coordination, if not for actual fighting skill. Although I haven’t stepped inside a dojo in all that time, I can still throw punches, blocks, and kicks with relative speed—although probably not to any modern teacher’s satisfaction.

4. That those sharps and flats at the left end of the staff in the first line of music might affect how you were supposed to play all the other notes on the staff further down in the piece—this was a mystery to me as a boy. My teachers had either assumed I understood the relationship of the different keys in the Circle of Fifths—a bit of arcanum, like the Rosetta Stone, that they never actually discussed—or else they taught the key signature as a kind of just-so story. And as a rational young man, I tended to ignore anything I didn’t understand.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Blooms in Season

Our condominium has lower-level elevator lobbies adjoining a garage structure that has an open-air plaza with swimming pool and tennis courts built on top of it. This structure connects the three groups of buildings in the complex. Ramps between the actual garage floor and each of the lobby floors—about a four-foot height difference—wind around large planter areas. The architectural plan calls these planters “atriums.” Each one is a lined concrete box, about twenty by thirty feet in area, with its own irrigation and drainage systems and glass walls, but is open to the sky at the plaza level. Think of the atriums as life-size terrariums.

As a starting point for landscaping, the atriums are a blank slate. They are not visually or organically connected to the rest of the property, where the grounds are a mix of planned flowerbeds and potted trees on the garage-top plaza level; stretches of ivy and cultivated rockscapes along the driveway and around the outer perimeter of the garage base and buildings; and at the back of the property, large unplanned areas of rock cliff, eucalyptus trees, grasses, thistles, and weeds. All of the landscaping, or lack of it, has been turned over to a commercial contractor for monthly maintenance. The grounds contractor will do whatever the Architecture or Landscaping committees or—failing any clear directive from these resident committees—the complex’s general manager and the city fire marshal tell them to do.

Given these conditions, we could choose to grow wheat or a Christmas tree farm in the atriums—and indeed, several of them support sizable and long-standing trees chosen from among the decorative varieties. But since these adjuncts to the lobbies are the only part of the complex that every resident sees every day, people pay them special attention. Almost everyone believes that, because these planter boxes are essentially on our front doorstep, they should reflect the community’s artistic standards, our property values, our status as a “luxury condominium,” and our collective taste in horticulture.

In the past, we’ve had various professional and semi-professional landscape architects step in to create artistic designs for the atriums. The last was a noted professional, active in the local area, who created a “river” theme for these enclosed spaces. The main feature is an abstract French curve filled with jagged pieces of electric-blue glass, intended to suggest a jungle or forest stream. This pattern is bordered on one side or the other with reciprocal curves holding rounded, gray pebbles, meant to look like banks or shoals. Along these visual streams, the design originally called for green, vaguely tropical shrubs1 and, in one atrium, a stand of bamboo.

Of course, like everything else open to discussion in a condominium association, a large and vocal group immediately hated the design, especially the bright-blue strips. A focal point of discussion, also, was that the green plants weren’t pretty enough. And when one of the shrubs suddenly broke out in slender stalks with clusters of tiny yellow blooms for about a week, the criticism increased. Even the flowers weren’t very pretty!

As I said, the grounds contractor will do whatever they’re told. The landscape architect who designed, sketched, and painstakingly specified the plantings around each of these faux Amazons was long gone from the site, and the condo association had made no contractual arrangements to maintain the plantings with the design for which they were intended. So the tropical shrubs were soon tossed out and a collection of colorful azaleas, hydrangeas, and other flowering plants was installed.

And for the first month or two in spring when they bloomed, everyone said how nice the atriums looked. But spring fades, and now we have stone rivers with not-so-tropical, not-so-pretty—in fact, kind of lonely and spindly—plants growing beside them. In another couple of months, when the rains come back and people are spending more time indoors, the agitation will begin for more “color” in the atriums. And then soon enough it will be Christmas, and the Great Poinsettia Debate will begin again.

As a lapsed libertarian, I generally consider myself a “little-D democrat.” I’m not an active party person, but I believe that the mass of people are pretty sensible and, if allowed to converse and find consensus among themselves, will usually come up with a workable solution. That is, I generally trust the wisdom of crowds2—at least when they are not in an agitated state.

As evidence, I present the paths that generations of walkers have scoured through the woods. If a hundred or a thousand people walking across a hillside are left to find their own way, flattening the grass, the new green shoots, and the dirt as they go, they will most likely tread out a line that combines the shortest possible distance with the gentlest possible slopes and the fewest necessary switchbacks. Compare this to an artfully designed park, where some architect has laid out concrete paths across the grass. Architects like geometry, so they create right angles and pleasing diagonals. But come back in a year or two, and you will find bare paths in the dirt where the people actually doing the walking have taken shortcuts and found their own least resistance.

As further evidence, consider the free-market system, where the wisdom—or at least the fickle tastes—of the public decides what gets produced and put onto store shelves. Yes, there are glitches: sometimes public tastes change immediately after a product has been conceived, researched, designed, produced, and distributed. This sometimes results in waste going into a landfill somewhere. More often, though, the changing tastes that have orphaned a product line will result in lower prices that eventually attract somebody, anybody, who doesn’t care about taste and can still use the underlying product. And yes, popular products often cost more than we would like, or go out of stock sooner than we would expect, because people flock to these products rather than to the less desirable brands and designs. And finally, yes, a lot of products get made for which no one has a rational excuse—for example, see Bernie Sanders’s famous “twenty-three brands of deodorant.” But somebody must be buying each one of those brands, or else they wouldn’t get shelf space for long.

On the surface, it might seem that the capitalist system pushes all these brands and taste choices because the rich white men behind it are either evil or stupid. These men must be evil because they create unworthy desires that foment in the public mind a consumerist lust and run the average American buyer around in blind circles following the latest fads. These men must also be stupid because they lack the foresight to design that single, most serviceable product which everyone will want at a price everyone can afford and then supply it to the satisfaction of all. This current confusion and profusion of product choices must be a bad thing, right? Especially, as Sanders said, “when children are going hungry.” A command-and-control economy run by wise and benevolent men in the employ of the state always seems like the antidote to this waste and confusion—until you examine the store shelves in the old Soviet Russia or in today’s Cuba and Venezuela.

Socialists will say that the lapses and shortages resulting from their system are attributable to the stubbornness of non-government producers. Socialists believe that recalcitrant farmers, lazy factory workers, and negligent store clerks simply refuse to follow government dictates about how much food and other necessities to produce, at what cost, where to sell them, and at what price. But Margaret Thatcher was wrong: Socialism doesn’t fail because “sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” Socialism fails because resources are concrete and finite, while desires are illusory and infinite. Sooner or later you run out of people willing to provide goods and services in the quantities and at the prices that some government middleman—who has no actual responsibility for matching production to consumption, and who pays no penalty for being wrong—decides constitute a “reasonable” amount of stock to put on the shelves (that is, enough to satisfy everybody) at a “fair” price (that is, low enough for everyone to buy as much as they like). Sooner or later, the producers get tired of being the goat and go out of business. In all the societies that try socialism, the producers and distributors who survive are doing business at the point of a gun.

But in the matter of flowering plants, I’m not so sure little-D democracy works. We end up with the stub-ends of floral designs and with flowers that go dormant for most of the year. But this might be the failure, not of democracy itself, but of a landscaping system that listens to a few loud voices who want “color” in their gardens year-round and don’t understand growing seasons and blooming cycles. They don’t realize that most plants have flowers, not just to be pretty, but in order to sustain reproduction as part of a complete life cycle that includes gestation and dormancy for the plant’s own benefit. And these wiser heads screaming for more “color” take no responsibility and pay no penalty when the atriums look like a mess.

But the situation is really not such a tragedy. In the off-season, the rest of the residents suffer only from a lack of exciting and vibrant color—which is a situation most of us seem able to endure. After all, it’s not as if we had to eat the flowers.

1. Although I am the son of a landscape architect, I confess that I can’t recognize one decorative plant from another, no matter how many trips my mother took me on to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, or the photography shoots I have taken with my brother to the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco.

2. See People Ain’t Stupid from September 2, 2012.