Art Class: Francisco de Goya’s ‘The Dog’

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This is one of my all time favourite Goya paintings. I keep coming back to this one. It’s a haunting picture don’t you think? Take a good look at it. Stare at it for 2 mins before reading on…

But what is it about? Why did he paint it? And why is it so powerful? These are the questions we will try and answer in our first (of many I hope!) Art Classes. Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to Goya’s ‘The Dog‘.

Its power lies in it’s simplicity. There’s nothing much there. Minimal. Never was minimal so maximal. This painting is a part of a whole series of paintings he did collectively known as his ‘black paintings’ and the artist painted it on the walls of his home, the Quinta del Sordo, outside Madrid. He painted it (with the other black paintings) on the walls of his home, because they were for him. They were never meant to be seen by the outside world. These black paintings were the equivalent of a personal diary entry. After Goya’s death the murals were detached from the wall; his home demolished, and they ended up (luckily for us) in the Prado Museum – where they remain to this day. Of all the black paintings, for me the dog, is of the very worst. The fact that the paint was flaking before they were removed seems to exacerbate the poor animals misfortune.


Where are we? Who knows. Because the scene is so minimal and non-specific. First, there is the shape of the whole picture, an exceptionally tall narrow upright oblong – indeed perversely tall, narrow and upright, considering that the scene is, after all, a kind of landscape. Secondly, there is the ratio of the areas within it: the upper area very deep, the lower area very shallow. These extreme proportions have an inherent drama. Whatever finds itself in the lower area is right down at the bottom of the vertiginous scene, as if it was at the bottom of a well or a cliff, or despair. The conceit works well.


OK, now let’s talk about the dog…


But of course we only see the head of the dog, poking into the upper area, its body in some way obscured by the lower one. It raises a snout hopefully. It has a most pathetic, anxious look in its eye. It gazes up, in the direction of the rising edge. And the uncertainties and proportions of the scene all fall upon it. You can see the creature as submerged in the lower area, up to its neck in it, buried in the ground. It raises its head, trying to keep itself “above water”. But the great empty gulf that towers above it only emphasises its helplessness. Alternatively, you can see the dog as cowering behind a ridge, trying to hide and protect itself. It raises its head in trepidation, looking up at the impending danger from above.Either way, it is a picture about bare survival in the face of hopeless doom. Whether the danger comes from below or from above, the picture tells us there is no escape. There is no way out of the drowning mire. And the fact that we see only the dog’s head, and nothing of its body and limbs, further reduces its chances of escape. It is deprived of any sense of movement or action. It is only a head, a consciousness, lost in a universe of terrors, afraid for its life – nobody cares. The universe is indifferent. Just like us perhaps? Who knows what Goya is saying. It’s all a mystery.

No it’s not. It’s clear to me what Goya is saying. I love this painting. It speaks to me in ways words cannot.

 

The essence of life is a statistical improbability on a colossal scale

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This is a post I wrote a while back. It is one of my favourites and one I feel is so important that it deserves another hearing. It deserves to be revisited. And perhaps even elaborated. Compared to my usual fare you might find it cold, logical, clinical and devoid of any feeling! But do not despair. You are about to receive a lesson in the highest kind of thinking the human brain is capable of! Vast swathes of existence can be explained through few concepts and ideas – and all from the comfort of your armchair.

So grab a seat. Grab a coffee. Or grab a whiskey. Put on your thinking cap. Sit back, and join me…on an extraordinary journey. To the limits!

You know I started of as a scientist and in many ways I am still at heart – a scientist. I know of no other field that explains so much with so little – especially when it comes down to the deepest questions and profundities of existence, science is our best tool.

So let’s begin:

Our brains are amazing. They are excellent at reading and recognising faces. They are excellent at making nuanced conclusions about people’s intentions in complex social situations: is he friendly, is he telling the truth, can I trust him, there’s something off centre about her…etc etc. Our brains are excellent at such thinking because we are social animals and to succeed, to procreate and have children, you have to be socially savvy and know where threats may lie or where opportunities may hide. So our brains evolved to be successful and make good decisions in a social environment.

But there is a certain class of thinking, where are brains fall flat, and frankly get it wrong. Spectacularly, mind-bogglingly wrong! So wrong that one wonders: how could we be so stupid? And that class of thinking I am talking about is the realm of making statistical judgement calls. I.e statistical thinking of what is possible, probable and improbable. This is where our brains fall flat on their face!

Let me elaborate:

Our subjective judgement of what is possible, probable and certain is dependent on how long we live. We humans typically live to about 70 years of age (on average). Thus, our entire subjective (subjective = how things appear to us. Objective = what things are in themselves independent of how they appear to us) experience of probability is shaped by our lifespan. It is shaped by how long humans live in general.

Let me explain. Because we only live for about seventy years the likelihood of us, as individuals, being run over by a car on the road is very slim. Most of us will never get run over by a car (fingers crossed). This is because in a life-span of 70 years we will cross the road ‘x’ number of times. Because ‘x’ is so small, so the risk of dying on the road is also very small. But what if ‘x’ is larger? i.e. what if we crossed the road a ‘y’ number of times? ‘Y’ being a number several orders of magnitude greater than ‘x’. Under what circumstances would ‘y’ be so large? Answer: If we lived much much longer. Imagine an alien race for whom the average life-span is a million years. Imagine that this alien race has roads. Also imagine that there are alien cars on these roads. Do you think the people of this long-living hypothetical alien race would cross roads? Of course not!

Why not?

Because, If they did, after a few thousand years, most of them would have perished in road accidents. How many times do you have to cross a road before it becomes more or less certain that you will get run over? Such million year living aliens would never cross roads. They would not take such silly risks. Nor would they for that matter sunbathe, or eat fatty foods, or fly in aeroplanes, or go for a swim, or smoke. Their subjective judgment of what is probable and possible would be very different to ours. We live for 70 years whereas they live for a million. This makes all the difference.

We humans cross roads because we only live for seventy years or so. Thus the probability of us dying in road accidents is very very small. But there is a reason I am discussing this. And a very telling reason too. Our whole subjective apparatus that allows us to calculate probabilities and feeds into our judgment of what is probable over vast expanses of time, over vast stretches of space, over many planetary solar syatems, in a galaxy of billions and billions of stars, in a multiverse of many universes; this subjective judgment of ours is wrong by huge error margins. When it comes to what we think is probable over such expanses of time – we will always be staggeringly wrong. On smaller scales of shorter distances and time – our subjective judgement is fairly accurate. The reason it is accurate is because this is the middle earth we live and have evolved in. If our judgement was wrong for events occurring in our 70 year life spans – i.e. if we couldn’t make an accurate judgement of whether something was risky we’d probably not live long. We’d more likely die of accidents. But when it comes to larger numbers; when it comes to immensely long geological epochs, interstellar distances – we have no clue. Because we don’t live for such long times and our brains don’t need to make risk assessments for such long times.

Life, our existing, our living, is a statistical improbability on a colossal scale. Life’s emergence is hugely improbable. But it requires no miracles. It requires no sleight of mind nor sleight of hand. It requires no spark of divinity. It requires nothing but time – time – time, and worlds – worlds – worlds. You are staggeringly improbable. So am I. So is that flower. So is that turgid bee hovering above it. So it is with our wonderful brains, and our wonderful eyes, and our fleshy ears, and our pointy bulbous noses and our disarming smiles. It’s all so wonderful. And it’s all so fucking improbable. Yet given plenty of time, and given plenty of worlds, it’s more or less inevitable,

Well at-least once anyway. And we are not equipped to see it.

How to travel – (some personal aphorisms to help you)

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Travelling as recreation is a luxury most people can’t afford. If you never forget this, you’ll never get frustrated when things go wrong.

If you come back the same person as when you left – you didn’t travel. You should have stayed at home.

Every man is a fortress with high walls and watchtowers. Lower the drawbridge. Lower the walls. Only then will you see the far horizon and the distant mountains with the white peaks.

We view the world and we view the people in it through the ‘lens’ of our preconceptions and personalities. Some see the world through a gloomy lens. Others through a sunny blue filter. Is the world sunny or gloomy – or is it your filter that makes it so?

When you arrive at a new place and don’t feel anything…you should have gone somewhere else.

Sights. Smells. Tastes. Touch. Hearing. These are your tools of exploration. But the biggest and best tool is your brain. Let it soak in everything. Let it be another skin.

To many people travel can seem like just ‘getting to a place’ and then ‘getting to another place’ followed by ‘getting to another place’. Yet it is the intervening period, when you are getting somewhere, en route, that takes up most of your time. The getting to a place and the finally being there are both just as important. It’s not only the destination, it’s also the journey.

Don’t join tour groups if you can help it. Go solo. Explore on your own two feet. Head down alleyways that don’t look inviting and knock on doors…who knows who might answer.

From a distance all places lack detail and seem smooth and perfect and like dreams. Once you’re there – the detail can hit you hard. That is a good thing.

If you don’t suffer any misery or difficulty or annoyance on a trip…you are not stepping outside your zone.

Always try and stay in cheap hotels and eat local food. It is not poisonous. The unique tastes of a place will dissolve into the sights in your memory scape.

People might look different abroad and speak a strange guttural tongue that seems barbarian. But they are like you and me. They want the same things: love, hope, food, shelter, a good fulfilling job and a smile now and again.

The brain. The most amazing thing in the universe. And I have one!

It seems an astonishing thought – one that astonishes me to this day – that everything you are – your memories, dreams, aspirations, thoughts – everything and everyone you love – all the feelings you have, your anger, your jealousies, your inner world rich and colourful as it no doubt is – your beliefs, your prejudices, your feelings of depression – your personality, your quirks, your IQ, your social skills, your creativity – everything, is all – your brain. And nothing else.

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This three pound squishy thing with the consistency and look of scrambled eggs – is without doubt one of the most impressive things in the universe.

And you are the proud owner of one!

You have one! I know this because you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t…

And so do I…because I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t.

We all – have one of these remarkable squishy things up there, above our eyes.

It is the seat of us.

The seat where ‘we’ sit.

But where exactly in the brain is this seat where ‘we’ sit? Is there a specific part of the brain which can be said to be the seat (or sofa) of Wasimness – or – Youness – or wheoeverness?

Different parts of the brain seem to be responsible for different aspects of our humanity – but from where is it all controlled from? Where is the control centre that sends out the commands and the instructions?

Is there such a place in the brain? A place where I am sitting?

Where are you up there?

Ahh, such is the beauty of mysteries…

I am up there, somewhere…who knows where. I might even be everywhere.

Right now as I type these words and see this white screen and think these thoughts – there is an electrical storm up there bursting and crackling with billions of neurons firing away.

I type this word and it is the result of some amazing stuff happening up there! Oh yes – as I type “oh yes” there is electrical and chemical stuff happening up there!

It feels so good to have a brain.

I feel so happy and proud to have a brain.

I feel so blessed and fortunate to know I have a brain.

I feel so lucky to live at a time where its mysteries are slowly being peeled and revealed.

I am smiling because I have a brain.

I have a big smile on my lips – and this smile, was born (surprise-surprise) somewhere in my brain.

The brain. The most amazing thing in the entire universe.

And I have one.

It’s lonely up here…

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According to Maslow’s theory, humans face a number of challenges in life, from the most basic needs (such as food and sleep), to safety, love, esteem, and ultimately self-actualisation. Only once a person’s circumstances and attitude have allowed them to pass one of the lower stages can they ascend to the next. For Maslow and the generations of humanistic psychologists who followed in his tradition, the self-actualised individual is someone who transcends all lower needs to achieve a state of complete personal and intellectual fulfillment.

Most of us never reach the rarefied heights on top of Maslow’s pyramid – instead we spend our lives thrashing it out in the lower tiers, searching for love, money, or social status; or if we’re less fortunate, simply struggling to survive.

The pinnacle is a privileged and lonely place, not that the self-actualised person who reaches it will mind. These fortunate few are cast as psychological demigods: fully secure at all lower levels while also being compassionate, creative, in complete control of their impulses, comfortable in solitude, socially harmonious, naturally powerful, beyond needing the approval of others, and highly aware of their own thoughts and the world beyond.

And, just as Nelson Mandela did in prison, the self-actualised person is thought to find meaning and purpose from life under even the most grievous suffering.

Mandela wasn’t the only famous figure to be regarded as self-actualised. Other examples have included Gandhi, Beethoven, Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt and Wasim Shafi. But until recently, Mandela may well have been one of the few who was publicly prominent and still alive.

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