Posts Tagged ‘The Ambassadors’

The World of Visual Illusions by Sarcone and WaeberThe World of Visual Illusions: Optical Tricks That Defy Belief!, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber (Arcturus 2012)

A bigger, better and brain-bendy-er version of Eye Bogglers by the same authors, The World of Visual Illusions has nine chapters of old and new illusions. The illusions aren’t just entertaining: they raise some very profound philosophical and scientific questions and teach you some important lessons. For example, on page 97 there’s a simple arrangement of multi-coloured blocks and thick black lines. But Sarcone and Waeber ask this: “Do you perceive bright ‘ghost’ blobs or smudges at the intersection of the lines?”

I do and so will almost everyone else. But when I look directly at a blob or smudge, it disappears. Why? What’s going on? No-one knows for sure: “there are many explanations and counter-explanations regarding this illusion, which is related to the Hermann grid illusion.” So this illusion is multum in parvo: much in little. It’s very simple, but it baffles modern science. And, like many other illusions here, it teaches you that your senses aren’t reliable. They can be subverted and you aren’t in control of what your eyes tell you. Even when you know that the lines on page 109 are “perfectly straight and parallel”, it’s impossible to see them like that because of the background they’re set against.

That kind of trickery can also be applied to words and ideas, and although Sarcone and Waeber don’t talk about advertising or politics, the implications are obvious. Appearances can be deceptive and simple things may have hidden depths. So may complicated things: Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) would be a rich and detailed painting even without the anamorphic skull that hovers between the feet of its two subjects. Sarcone and Waeber give the painting a page and a handful of words, but there’s enough there for a long book (John Carroll analyses the painting in a chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture).

There’s enough in the other illusions here for a library, but you don’t have to puzzle over how they work if you don’t want to. We aren’t all equal in intellect or education, but vision is much more egalitarian and this book will entertain all ages and all levels of intelligence. What you experience in an instant can take decades or even centuries for scientists to understand:

It looks like this cat has green eyes. Actually, only one eye is green – the other one is shown in black and white but seems tinted because of the purple context. Thanks to a mechanism of colour adaptation, the brain desensitizes itself to the purple veil which covers the right side of the cat’s face and by doing that it subtracts a bit of purple from the gray eye, which then become yellowish-green. (pg. 120)

I’d like to see Sarcone and Waeber look at other senses. Sight is the most important and powerful sense for human beings, but the ears, nose, mouth and skin can also be illuded. And what about the role of illusions in biological competition and evolution? It’s a big field, often fun, always fascinating.

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The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger

But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

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