Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Books not t-shirts!

There is an online petition whose text reads as follows:

Caltech used to have one of the very best scientific bookstores in the country. Three years ago the Caltech administration, without consulting faculty and students, decided to close it down. Not only the bookstore was important to the faculty in their research and to students for the selling of textbooks and other reference books, but closing down the bookstore in one of the most prestigious universities also sends a terribly wrong signal to the general public and the community. We increasingly live in a time where anti-scientific and anti-intellectual feelings and attitudes are on the rise, and where cultural and intellectual values need the strongest possible endorsement from our centers of scientific excellence. Caltech had a model bookstore that delivered to its community of scholars and to the general public the best of our scientific and technological culture. Despite requests from the faculty and the recommendation of the appointed committee, and despite a promise from the administration that the bookstore would reopen, three years have gone by with no credible sign of its reopening. Its place has been occupied by a travesty of store selling t-shirts and flip-flops. Tell Caltech: Books not t-shirts!

I urge all to add their signatures to this petition who agree with the statement that a world-renown university without a hint of an academic bookstore is a tragic sign of a very worrisome anti-cultural trend that is taking hold of even the places that should stand firm in defense of intellectual values. You can sign the petition here:

Caltech Bookstore Petition

The petition is by no means restricted to members of the Caltech community. It is of direct interest to anyone who values books and values culture and who understands the importance of having a place where one can browse real books and make those precious random serendipitous encounters with unexpected books, encounters that have the power to ignite our creativity, to spark a new direction of thought, unexpectedly.

People these days easily object that one can buy books online and Amazon has better prices. Sure thing it often does, but in order to buy something there you need to know which book you want to buy. The automated generator of recommendations works rather poorly and, especially when it comes to the scientific literature, the possibility to browse the whole text and not a selected handful of pages from the introduction makes a crucial difference. There is more: in a physical bookstore books are arranged on shelves according to some criterion of proximity, which (except for literature, where it is often nothing else than the alphabetical order of the author's name) often is arranged to reflect proximity of content. This is what often produces new mental associations and leads us to new encounters and discoveries, in ways that are impossible to reproduce in online retailers of physical and electronic books.

I can supply from my own experience at scientific research a large collection of examples of ideas that became research papers that were generated by random encounters with books in physical bookstores. This is why, whenever I visit a university or a city anywhere, the very first thing I check out are the bookstores.

The US have seen the recent collapse of the Borders national chain of bookstores. They were quick to blame the economic crisis, the competition of the online stores like Amazon, and the rise of the e-books. That all of these may have contributed is likely true, but they completely failed to see one other major cause: in the last few years the quality of the books available in Borders stores around the country has consistently gone down the drain! What can beat the online competitors is not a mediocre lousy bookstore with more expensive prices, obviously, but a high quality and highly selected bookstore that offers the alternative to the online stores where you have to sort through endless crap to get to find in their catalog the valuable books (which you will never find unless you knew already exactly what you were looking for). This is what Borders utterly failed to comprehend. Not surprisingly, when their stores began to liquidate, the "good quality products" (the few serious science titles, the philosophy and linguistics section, the best picks in the literature, the Oxford series of the Latin and Greek authors, the Criterion Collection DVDs, foreign movies, etc) where gone within hours, while the piles and piles of unsellable crap they filled the rest of their stores with stayed on the shelf up until the moment when they started selling it off at more than 80% discount. I have observed this happening in exactly the same way at several different locations I had the occasion of visiting in different parts of the country.

What this says is clear: the public (at least in the US) is becoming more polarized, like the whole of American society. The few who read are those who are highly educated and want high quality products. Those are the ones a bookstore can live off, because they are those who buy books frequently. The others don't read, period. There is no point having large bookstores filled with crap that can be found in every magazine stand in any regional airport, and which can easily be located online at lower prices, but it does pay to have smaller, very high quality, somewhat more specialized bookstores that aim at a particular kind of public (which exists, at least in the proximity of any university campus, or in any sufficiently urbanized area).

Those who claimed that the book is dead are mistaken. The book plays a fundamental role in culture and learning and in the fostering of our intellectual curiosity and pleasure, as much now as it ever did, but it demands attention and intelligence in the handling of its distribution and selling. Intelligence is exactly what the big chains like Borders lack, and what the bureaucrats that administer universities are also sadly deprived of.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dream and the Underworld

One of the most interesting modern developments of Jungian style psychology can be found in James Hillman's book "The Dream and the Underworld". Starting from the classical psychoanalytic premise of dreams as the bridge between the conscious mind and the depths of the unconscious, Hillman moves away from concepts like Freudian repression or Jungian compensation, towards a different and perhaps more intriguing view, that links the inward journey into the dream world to the soul searching journeys to the Underworld of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Eliot.

Whether or not dreams really belong to the world of Hades and our experience of them compares to the famous descents to the Underworld of the literary masterpieces of antiquity and of our time, certainly the Underground exists in our minds as a pervasive metaphor of the Underworld and of the unconscious, in compensatory opposition and tense dialog with the conscious mind that lives out in the daylight its above-ground existence.

The Underground is a place of hiding, or resistance, to the point that it has become the very synonym of the Resistance movements that fight against oppressive regimes, starting from the heroic World War II anti-nazi resistance movement across Europe. The Underworld, on the other hand, is not only the realm of the dead. It has also become, in our modern city life, a synonym of the low life, the one that we imagine intent at carrying out shady deals in dark alleys, the living dead of the urban frontier, cast at the margins of society. Exclusion, resistance, opposition, diversity, hunted souls living in hiding, plotting in the darkness: this is all that the world below our world suggests to the imagination.

The Underground is also an image of highly elaborate structures: the subway lines that form the arteries of transportation in our big cities and the intricate texture of pipes and cables that form the nervous system of the information age and the functioning infrastructure of our daily life.

How the emergence of modern society shaped the imagination of the Underground is a theme beautifully analyzed in Rosalind Williams' remarkable book "Notes on the Underground", where the evolution of modern technology goes hand in hand with the evolution of the symbolic significance that our minds project onto the Underworld, while human beings came to penetrate more substantially the space below and transform it with the indelible signature of human presence and intervention. Starting with the dawn of the industrial era and moving on into the information age, the mineshaft, the sewer, the subway, and the more and more extensive urban infrastructure have accompanied the literary worlds created by Verne, Wells, and Hugo, in providing us with the modern imagination of the Underworld.

Yet our dealings with the darkness of caves and the world below the earth surface date as far back as the dawn of humanity and so is, possibly, its connection to dreams and the inner journeys of the mind. The earliest signature of human culture we can trace back into the ages is in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, recently beautifully portrayed in Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". In the depth of this cave a human hand of 30,000 years ago drew spectacular images: groups of galloping horses, cave lions, woolly rhinos, bears, bisons. Animal species that no longer are, but whose traces are still preserved, fossilized in the cave rocks, as well as narrated by the hand of the human being who dared to penetrate a dark nest of predatory bears to live a signature of our presence, an act of triumph over fear, or symbolic conquest of animal souls and spirits captured in an immortal narrative.

(paintings of Chauvet Cave from Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

The birth of art, of culture, of human expression could only happen in the darkness of an Underworld populated by monsters. That was the very first descent into the Underworld and the one to which all others, conjured in more modern literate times, ultimately conform to. We are all that 30,000 years old human being who walked into the depths of the underground caves and drew paintings on the walls, and signed that acts with ochre colored palm prints.

(paintings of Chauvet Cave from Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

A hand, a signature, repeated many times on the rocky surface, a cluster of signs, a form of writing, a cry, a name. We are the same human beings who used to walk in those caves so far back in history that the word "history" itself ceases to make sense. We carry those dreams in our minds, in our species' mind. Call it "the collective unconscious" if you wish, or "the collective psyche", as Jung used to. It is part of us and it lives on.

Our "collective conscious" has evolved above the surface of the earth and in the daylight of our conscious minds. It has generated our modern scientific and technological world. Below the surface, we continue to visit caves, confront our monsters, conduct our rituals of artistic creation, and leave our signature there.

Under the surface of one of the focal points of our solar scientific dream, one of the world's best and most selective universities, powerhouse of scientific research and technological invention, there lies a network of tunnels and steampipes, ventilation systems that feed the labs, a net of infrastructure made of dark labyrinths of concrete and steel, water leaks, abandoned pieces of equipment, discharged office furniture, gaping holes and narrow passages.

Every night, the young men and women, who are going through the harsh and rigorous training of their scientific education in the classrooms and labs of the university above the ground, descend deep beneath the surface. They meet and travel together along the steam tunnels.

They draw paintings on the walls and write poems in many languages of the past and present time. They sign with their hand prints like their ancestors did on cave walls 30,000 years ago.

They perform rituals in dark passageways to prove their courage, running and screaming in dark tunnels, or to prove their cleverness, setting up complicated labyrinths of laser beams. The modern mind and the ancient mind find their meeting ground.

The pressure accumulated in the days of harsh challenges that constitute our modern initiation rites to the elite of the scientific world come to find their nocturnal release down the tangle of pipes in the hot and wet tunnels below the surface. The images and words on the walls tell stories not unlike those Ur-stories of the ancient caves. Bears and lions have been replaced by other monsters, by other fears, but the Underground remains the ritual place of descent, where fears are conquered by a creative act and where our human wholeness is finally restored.

The Underground is the place where life and death come face to face, the place for conquering fear, for gaining the strength of Resistance and endurance. A descent to the Underworld is a rite of passage: for Dante it was the crossing of that middle point of our life, for Odysseus and Aeneas the dialog with the shadows of the Underworld brought knowledge, in Eliot's "Waste Land" it is already our modern psychic Underworld, though still populated by the ancient Sybil and Tiresias. It is no coincidence that the entrance door to the Caltech Underground, in the basement of the undergraduate dorm, is inscribed with Dante's words, "Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi che entrate". It is the gateway to Dante's Inferno that opens the doors to the transformative experience that leads one on, eventually, to the discovery of worlds: conquering fear, facing the darkness without and within, just like our ancestors did, in the cave of the bears. We are modern and ancient, our mind is primitive and intellectual, and each needs the other for the alchemy of the creative process to take place. Science is a world of refined marvels and of cruel conflicts and we need an adequate language to express both.

The rites of passage, as the journeys to the Underworld, and deeply personal and yet they are shared experiences. They are transmitted on from one generation to the next. The art of painting on the cave walls in the early days of humanity was taught and learned and transmitted across the generations. The modern language of science is taught and learned and we hope to transmit it and preserve it across the encroaching obscurantism of the dark ages. Those who have already experienced their rite of passage also act as guides to the routes of the Underworld, like Dante's Virgil or Homer's Tiresias, who, without seeing, could see with the mind.

Another apt metaphor of our time for the journey to the Underworld is Tarkovsky's movie "Stalker", where the theme of the guide that offers a safe passage across the Waste Land and its obscure perils is expanded in its most profound and captivating form.

The premise is the story in the Strugatsky brothers' novel "Roadside picnic": amidst the destruction brought to "the Zone" by a encounter with an alien civilization, whether leftovers of a brief passage or accidental wreck, the "stalkers" guide people deep into the territory affected by frightening and incomprehensible phenomena. Its margins populated with mutated and traumatized people, its inaccessible interior scattered with strange artifacts, the zone is an Underworld of the nuclear age and the voyage described in "Stalker" a poetic retelling of the descent, of the facing of fear and death, and of ultimate transformation.