Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bamboo Shoot: Close Encounters

I’m not given to superstition or unsupported flights of imagination, but not so long ago, I had a strange experience, the details of which greatly amused my friends. Even now, the story still gains me much-needed status in chance conversation.

At a rather grand poetry festival, a well-known poet had recounted to us how, one day, he had opened the morning paper to see his own name spread across the front page in stark black capitals: ANTHONY THWAITE. Much intrigued, he had prepared his breakfast and returned to find the headline now saying ANTHRAX THREAT. Imagine my surprise then, when, only days later, the same trick was played on me.

I was sitting quietly in an almost empty reception area of the eye-clinic at my local hospital. To my left was a large reception desk, between which and the swing doors to my right, a young nurse was scurrying to and fro carrying files and forms; sometimes equipment. And on the desk was a large notice which said I’M GOING MAD. Well, after she had passed me for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t resist. ‘I’m not surprised’, I said.

She paused, ‘Pardon?’

‘I said, I’m not surprised’. . . and I smiled to reassure her of my normality.

She frowned as if perplexed; and when she next appeared, she stopped, ‘What were you on about?’

I smiled again, ‘Sorry, I just said that I’m not surprised, really . . . about your going mad’, and I pointed to the notice, which now read INCOMING MAIL . . .

Is it any wonder that our long gone ancestors sometimes suspected an infinitely bored God of poking a divine finger into our human affairs? Wasn’t that, after all, why I had raised my eyes, then, in a mix of mock horror and amused embarrassment, to the thin blue shield separating us from that imponderable blackness?

that damned cat again –
it knows me through doubled glass
at 50 yards


Close Encounters references Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Man meets extraterrestrial visitors). The misreading of words has nothing to do with poor eyesight; this part of my tale is about the nature of perception—in this case visual perception. The retina of the eye is an extension of the brain; and it only receives various wavelengths of light. These are computerised at various brain levels, making reference to the memory banks of past experience, in order to provide the ‘mind’ with a consistent view of the world (there is no real objective view of things—only a useful illusion of reality). But visual ‘mistakes’ can be made, and probably everyone has experienced such mistakes. First, something seen at distance may change into something else on closer inspection. But also sometimes, ‘pressed for time’ perhaps, the eye takes in insufficient information to make accurate perception possible; and the eye-brain makes its best guess. This is what has happened in my story (the fact that I was in an eye hospital is just one of those coincidental quirks of life). Note, that possibly something similar happened to Soseki in his Grass Pillow (BS 10.3; Sep 2000, pp44/45) when he thinks that he has seen a woman—his eye-brain deceived his mind. In the final paragraph, my looking upwards in embarrassment is an example of what psychologists would call ‘displacement activity’ (many other animals use it)—a superficially pointless action to relieve stress or avoid aggression etc. However, I am willing to bet that in Man’s case the act of looking upwards also has its roots in the history of religious culture—we look up to curse or thank our God. The ‘thin blue shield’ is, of course, Earth’s atmosphere—and parallels the double-glazing separating me from the cat who may be regarding me as some vengeful god.

by Bamboo Shoot
Salisbury, Wiltshire, England

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