Deep Surface

by Brooks Riley

ScreenHunter_782 Sep. 01 11.58Jean-Luc Godard once inscribed a picture to me with these words: “This is the surface, Brooks, and that’s why it’s deep.” At the time, I was skimming the surface, darting from one life experience to another without stopping to sink down or dive deeper—or give his jeu de mots much thought. While I always relished his love of word play in both English and French, this time I was suspicious of what sounded to me like a facile paradox.

As a man of cinema, Godard must first have thought of that great cinematic paradox, the flat screen and the depth of field that miraculously occurs when a film is projected onto it. In the photograph, he stands in front of a blank wall, very like the blank screen he would soon use for a shadow play to the opening bars of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor, defying the double-entendre of flatness and cinematic depth with a chiaroscuro ballet in front of the screen—a crane operator and his crane moving the camera and cameraman slowly up, over and then down again, a graceful pas de deux silhouetted against the flat white surface—a two-dimensional triumph.

ScreenHunter_781 Sep. 01 11.40How appropriate that this holy moment was filmed in the soundstage where the glitzy streets of Las Vegas had been built for Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart. The crew, borrowed for a Saturday from that bigger film, consisted of Italians—Vittorio Storaro and his Italian crew—and the hardboiled Hollywood mainstream pros who had seen it all—or thought they had. As Godard piped Mozart over the loudspeakers, and the camera rolled, a cathedral hush permeated the vast interior of the soundstage as the middle-aged, elegant crane operator began to move in front of the screen with the assurance of a dancer, or a man who knows his job. When the music faded out at the end, the hush prevailed. No one, not the crew, not the visitors, not the cast, had ever seen anything like it. It was surface magic, deep beyond words. Now I knew that his inscription made sense.

(As a 9-year-old with not enough movie experience I could easily have retorted, ‘This is the surface, Jean-Luc, and it’s a grande illusion,’ as I waited in vain for Marlon Brando to emerge from the back door of my local movie theatre after a showing of Desiree.)

Too often surface is a euphemism for superficial. But living on the surface makes it easier to be ubiquitous. The assumption that one has to dig or dive for treasures is not necessarily reliable. Analogies can also be arrived at by moving far afield over a surface, like the gerridae, those bugs who walk on water, always finding what they need on top, not deep down. Knowledge is like that body of water: You can dive down into it, but to see clearly, you have to rise to the surface.

Roots, family, expertise, a life-long profession, a single hobby, all those elements that make people stand fast and dive deep, have eluded me. And I have eluded them to the best of my ability, driven by a thirst for diversity of knowledge and eclectic experience, for beauty in all its forms. I guess that makes me a dilettante in the most positive sense–one who delights in what I learn and experience as well as what I do

On the trail of various subjects on the German Wikipedia, I suddenly realized just how many 18th and 19th century men of arts, science and letters were multitasking on a grand scale. Take the poet Justinus Kerner, whose works were immortalized by Robert Schumann: He also invented klecksography, the art of turning ink stains into recognizable forms, what Rorschach would later apply to psychological testing. He wrote the first diagnostic paper on botulism poisoning. In his spare time he was a doctor, an author of books about medicine and about animal magnetism. Or Otto von Guericke, Mayor of Magdeburg, physicist, politician, inventor, jurist, who made great strides in the study of vacuum and staged a grand experiment with 30 horses to prove his point. Or the multifarious Friedrich Nietzsche.

Like them, I love too many things to stay put or sit still intellectually. I suffer from distraction–without a trendy diagnosis like ADHD–diverted by the promise of some new edification around the corner, be it scientific, musical, aesthetic, cinematic, historical or literary. To travel, I don’t even have to leave home. Surface and surfing have different etymologies, but they both enable broad coverage of terrain and the random discovery of resources that can initiate a pursuit for yet more knowledge, one thing leading to another in a seemingly never-ending reserve of revelations.

Those who devote their lives to one endeavor, discovering new secrets in their chosen field, have established their own paradise within the confines of a chosen métier. Eric Kandel comes to mind, getting to the bottom of memory on the ocean floor, assisted by the lowly sea slug Aplysia californica and its gigantic nerve cells. I too love this slug for all that it represents for Kandel, and for its unique properties. I might even love it for its behavioral idiosyncracies if I knew more about them. But it is only one of many delights on my quest to know more about everything. And its value as analogy gives me an extra tool with which to weave my many interests into an ever-expanding, singular, personal world view. Kandel, too, understands the value of analogy—not only in his scientific work but also in the seemingly unrelated world of art and the understanding of the human psyche.

Analogy and apophenia go hand in hand: I see things in objects that otherwise seem to have no meaning or point of reference. As a lonely child, I developed a form of apophenic drawing. Using a ball point pen, I would scribble wildly on a page, haphazardly and without intent. Then I set about to find something recognizable in the chaos. When I found it, the application of two dots (for eyes) might turn the chaos into a sweet dog, or an unholy monster, or a smug schoolmaster. There was always something to be found in the chaos. I’ve recently taken up the practice again, using MS Paint. The chaos is more sophisticated now and interpretation is no longer about a hidden face (forget the two dots) but about identifiable movement, attitude, and quite often, memory.

Where did it begin? After an early childhood in the city, I found the chaos of nature on a farm overwhelming at first. But still I searched for signs of intelligence, of civilization. The first time I found a bird’s nest in the bushes, I knew I’d found what I was looking for. Like our chickens, I could probably learn to feed myself on leftovers. Like our horses, I could probably find a clever way to let myself out of the stable. But a bird’s nest? I could never build a bird’s nest. If I put my mind to it, I might understand the principles of building a bird’s nest—as Ai Wei Wei did, together with Herzog & de Meuron, for a stadium in Beijing. But only the bird knew how to build a real nest and what an achievement that was—not just the perfect conjunction of form and function, but a knowledge of materials and sophisticated construction techniques. As an infantile Eureka moment, it was like finding intelligent life somewhere else in the universe, or a sudden face in the clouds.

The search for knowledge and meaning are individual endeavors. Their starting point is sum ergo cogito, not the other way around. The inexplicable always lingers somewhere, driving the expert and the amateur ever onward. Some of us dive down to the ocean floor. Others of us dance over the surface to gather as much as we can in the short time we’ve got. I’m weaving my motley shroud with all that I know and will know, like a Norn before the Riss. It won’t change the world, but it makes mine worth living.

Godard knows this too.