Tag Archives: Scandinavian culture

Stumbling upon M.C. Escher’s garden in Bohuslän

A very rough,  preliminary sketch of an apology to Socrates for the arts

What does the art of M.C Escher have in common with Bohus knits?  Surprisingly much, if you ask me.  While most people, even if they don’t know the name, would probably recall having seen at least a few of M.C. Escher’s prints, the same is not true of Bohus Knitting.  Because many people, at least outside of Sweden and outside of knitting circles, are likely to be wholly unfamiliar with Bohus knits, a short history is in order.

The history begins in 1939, when a group of Swedish women living in Bohuslän (the Göteborg area in the southwestern part of Sweden) formed a knitting (“stickning”) cooperative.  Many of their husbands – miners and farmers – lost their jobs due to the Depression, so they hoped to supplement their income.  Their venture turned out to be a tremendous success both at home and abroad.  Bohus knits were widely exhibited internationally and presented as gifts to visiting kings and dignitaries in Sweden.   The cooperative closed in 1969, but many of the patterns are still in circulation today.  The Bohusläns Museum (click here for an English version of the page) also has a fairly extensive collection of patterns on display and knitting kits on sale.  Additional patterns can be found here.  The two images below are examples of the intricate patterns and color work that became the signature of this knitting style. (Clicking on the image redirects to a more detailed picture on the Museum website.)

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Bohus "Skogsmörkret" pattern (Forest Darkness)

Bohus "vävnaden" pattern

Bohus "Vävnaden" pattern

I have been posting some of my knitting and crochet projects in my blog gallery, and I was browsing through the Bohus patterns in search of something new to knit.  It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that these patterns were well beyond my current skill level.  As I am often blown away by the ingenuity of even some of the most basic knitting motifs and the sheer number of possibilities unlocked by the use of just two fundamental stitches, I surmised that the woman tho created the first Bohus pattern must have been a mathematical genius, and a quote from M.C. Escher, which had once deeply impressed me, leapt to mind.  I went to look up the passage, which was as follows:

Mathematicians have theoretically mapped out the regular division of a plane because this is part of crystallography.  Does it therefore belong exclusively to mathematics?  I do not think so.  Crystallographers have given us a definition of the concept and have researched and determined what and how many systems and methods exist for dividing a plane regularly.  By doing this they have opened the gate that gives access to a vast domain, but they themselves have not entered.  Their nature is such that they are more interested in the way the gate is opened than in the garden that lies behind it.  Let me continue with this analogy for a while.  Long ago during my wanderings I happened to come into the neighborhood of that domain.  I saw a high wall and, because I had a presentiment of something enigmatic and hidden that might lie behind it,  I climbed it with difficultly.  However, on the other side I landed in a wilderness through which I had to make my way with much effort until I arrived via detours at the open gate, the open mathematical gate.  From there well-cleared paths extended in various directions, and since then I often spend time there.  Sometimes I think I have covered the entire domain and trod all the paths and admired all the views.  Then all of a sudden I find another new way, and I taste a new delight.

-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plain, as compiled in Escher on Escher

It occurred to me that the Bohus knitters were playing in, or at least on the perimeter of, that very same garden described by Escher.  Knitters must knit their own canvas, so in a way, the very nature of knitting assures that the background will not be reduced to an inferior status.   And, repetition and multiplication, which Escher credited for “everything we love, learn, order, recognize, and accept,” is also central to the knitters craft.

One of my favorite plane-filling motifs by M.C. Escher

One of my favorite plane-filling motifs by M.C. Escher

Plane-filling Motif on Bohus Mitten

Plane-filling motif on Bohus mitten

While Escher was a graphic artist (so the template for his individual prints was contained in an etching),  a knitter reproduces his or her work by means of codifying the pattern in a set of instructions which look something like this:   K1, p1, [p4, k4] twice, k5, p1 (the preceding symbols representing a single row in a pattern for a scarf).  Or, more complicated patterns can be represented in charts, using symbols like these:

Chart from scarf pattern on knitty.com

Chart from scarf pattern on knitty.com

To the uninitiated, these symbols appear fairly daunting:  there is nothing to connect it with, it is a language that stands on its own.  Yet, at least knitters possess a language into which they can translate their visual creations and share them among themselves.  This allows for the creation of vibrant knitting communities and the development of distinctive styles of knitting, such as that exemplified by Bohus Stickning.  Escher, on the other hand, expresses frustration in what follows with his inability to communicate thoughts which he, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, viewed as essentially objective:

It is not part of my profession to make use of letter symbols, but in this case I am forced to.  However, I have not received any training for this, as I have in the use of illustrations that serve as a means of expressing thoughts in a more direct way than the word.  Still, my images require explanation because without it they remain too hermetic and too much of a formula for the uninitiated observer. The interplay of thoughts they translate is essentially completely objective and impersonal.  To my unending amazement, however, this is apparently so unusual and in a sense so new that I am unable to identify any “expert” in addition to myself who is sufficiently comfortable with it to give a written explanation.

-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plane, as compiled in Escher on Escher

Escher found a certain degree of comity with mathematicians, however, with whom he sometimes collaborated. I don’t even think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that his collaboration with the physicist Roger Penrose, among others, is quite possibly the closest link between art and math and the natural sciences since the time of Leonardo da Vinci’s collaboration with the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli. The resulting book, De Divina Proportione (The Divine Proportion), written by Pacioli and illustrated by Da Vinci, carried an immeasurable influence on the trajectory of art and architecture that followed, up until today.  It is an astonishing shame, therefore, that although any property right maintained in that work should have long since expired, the book appears to be unavailable today, either in hard copy or as scanned in databases such as Project Gutenberg or Google Books. (If anyone knows anything about this, please comment or email me!)

The preceding thoughts all led me to wonder:  why, apart from a few notable exceptions, is there such a large divide between art on the one hand, and math and the natural sciences on the other?  This divide traces back at least to the time of Plato, who, in his Republic, famously argued for the censorship of all art that didn’t pass his rather strict criteria. This, I believe, was Plato’s greatest error, as I will try to explain.

In the single most profound statement of educational philosophy I have ever encountered, in Book VII of The Republic, Plato claims that education is not “putt[ing] into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it,” but rather a redirection, a “turning around.” Plato thought that the soul must be turned away from the material world, or what “is coming into being,”  and instead turned towards the forms, which for Plato were true being, or what is.  A significant part of The Republic is thus devoted to the problem of ensuring that able people remain faced in the right direction, so to speak.  To accomplish this, Plato resorts to all kinds of contortions, including the extreme censorship mentioned previously, but also the so-called “noble lie,”  the deprivation of wages and all forms of private property for the upper-classes, communal living (no spouses, no one to know whose children belong to who), and the suggestion that knowledge of the forms will allow one to reap rewards posthumously.  All of these measures were outlined as means to blunt the all too human desire for material gain.  But, these measures also transformed Plato’s noble aristocracy into a regime that had all too much in common with a tyranny.

Plato didn’t need to resort to so many contortions to accomplish his objective.  What he needed was art.  Although he devoted much of his work in defence of philosophy, in part by drawing a clear distinction between true philosophy and philosophy corrupted by worldly values, he apparently failed to allow that art too, could become corrupt.  In keeping with an analogy used by Plato in the Gorgias:  sophistry: justice :: cookery: medicine :: entertainment : art.  Or, too put it in another way, a lawyer has about as much in common with a true philosopher as an entertainer has with an artist.

Although I do not of course subscribe to Plato’s view of the forms, I do think that there is still a certain sense in which philosophy (and more generally, the natural sciences, which were not distinct in Plato’s time) need art.  Art is the natural motivating factor that forms the counter-balance to the material drives that Plato so desperately tried to control.  Escher expresses this point so perfectly by his garden analogy to which the mathematicians opened the gate but did not enter.  Unfortunately, Escher’s words resonated with all too few, and today a connection between art and science is often very difficult to find.

Instead, it is science and technology that are bound so tightly that it is sometimes hard to tell when science ends and technology begins.  This is all good and well, but I cannot help but feel that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was on to something with his essay The Question Concerning Technology:  there are other ways of relating to being that we might do well to remember.  Art is one of these ways.

To borrow a useful distinction from Berkeley Professor John Searle concerning ontological and epistemic subjectivity and objectivity, albeit in an unintended context:   technology is created roughly by taking something given, something which is ontologically objective, and then manipulating it to perform a function which is ontologically subjective.  Recall now Escher’s statement that the thoughts he represented were essentially objective.  True art, I believe, takes care to maintain ontological objectivity – there is no change on a fundamental ontological level.  Instead, with art, the change occurs on the epistemic level.  The artist shows us a different way of looking at – of knowing – something ontologically objective.  Art is thus epistemically subjective, but an underlying ontologically objective structure must be maintained, or it is not art. [When an epistemic change is brought about to an underlying structure that is ontologically subjective (e.g., buildings, furniture, clothes, etc.), it is design.]*

It is this epistemically subjective feature of art that accounts for another interesting observation of Escher’s.  He notes:

The plastic arts have not experienced an evolution.  In everything else that man makes and in much of what he thinks, he adds his contribution to what has been done by previous generations.  In everything he strives toward perfection.  The development of his spirit and his increasing mental grasp are staggering in all aspects — except in the plastic arts.  It seems to me that here each individual has to start from scratch each time, without ever taking anything of really primary importance from a predecessor.

-M.C. Escher, from Newsletter of the Dutch Circle of Graphic Artists and Illustrators as compiled in Escher on Escher.

While one might certainly argue against Escher and hold that art has evolved and artists, just as scientists, also “stand on the shoulders of giants,” I think this is missing the point.  There is undeniably a sense in which art is not cumulative in the same sense as that of progress in technology.  This argument is all too often used against art, to show its inferiority (or perhaps more often, it’s unworthiness for funding).  I suppose this is what prompts patrons of the arts to argue that art has “evolved,” as well as other arguments attempting to show the material usefulness of art.  However, any defense of art that proceeds by attaching an ontologically subjective function to it could only result in a Pyrrhic victory:  such a win could only come at the cost of denying to art its defining and most-worthy feature.

A proper defense of art must redress Aristophanes’ affront to Socrates which so enraged Plato. Such a defense would necessarily invoke the same difficulties Plato had in The Republic with defending philosophy generally, but if we are to avoid the contortions Plato resorted to, art must take its rightful place beside philosophy as the one motivational factor capable of “turning around” the intellect  and providing a counter-balance in the individual’s life to the drive for material gain.  The roots for such a defense, I think, are there to be found in the writings and work of M.C. Escher and the Bohus knitters.

* These distinctions are not always so clear due to the fact that there can also be art on top of (or even, e.g., on the walls of) a design, as is the case with knitting, but this simply recasts the age-old form-function-ornament debate, which is beyond the scope of this draft.

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Scandinavian Literature: Knut Hamsun

Thoughts after reading the novels Hunger, Mysteries, and Victoria by the Nobel-prize winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun

Every July, the inhabitants of Stockholm pour out of the city and tourists come streaming in.  It sometimes seems as if everyone in Stockholm must take the entire month off work.  In our district, the few children without vacation plans for July (including my son) were all moved to a central daycare, the only one that remained open.  The daycare my son attended was located next to a nature reserve by the Igelbäcken stream, so the walk there, although quite a bit longer than usual, was absolutely beautiful.  There were also two water fountains located along our route where my son always insisted on stopping in the afternoons on the way back home.  We were never in any hurry, so when the weather was nice (which it often was this July), we stopped at the water fountains so Anton could chase after birds and I could read.  I chose several short novels by the renowned Norwegian author, Knut Hamsun, as my reading material. The novels were very quick reads, both because they were short, only a few hundred pages each, and because they so easily absorbed the reader in the story.  I was finished with each one in only a few sittings, and Anton was happy to play outside by the fountains while I read.

The first novel I read, Victoria, was a tragic love story with a twist.  Unlike, say for example, Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers are doomed because of external factors entirely beyond their control, the plot in Victoria is set up so that the external obstacles, while compelling enough to provoke sympathy for the characters, are by no means insurmountable.  Unfortunately, however, the lovers do not have enough faith in their love to take the leap, and they end up torturing each other in a perverse attempt to find some kind of objective proof capable of giving them the will to overcome these obstacles. Of course, such proof does not exist, and in the end, it is the lovers themselves, and not the obstacles per se, that bring about their own doom.

The contrast between inner life and perceived reality is also brilliantly portrayed by Hamsun.  To spectators, Victoria’s sudden decline in physical demeanor – her pale look and faded beauty – were due to her fiance’s tragic hunting accident.  In reality, her appearance reflected the news that her true love had, in the mean time, also promised himself to someone else.  Likewise, to the outside world, the narrator of the book was a wildly successful author and entertainer, but in reality, all of his books and poems were inspired by and written to one person:  Victoria.  She was the only reader he cared about.

The second book I read, Mysteries, I think I enjoyed even more than Victoria. The book centered around a stranger’s visit to a coastal Norwegian town. The stranger possessed striking intuitive insights, which often unnerved the local residents.  This book also contains elements of a tragic love story, but unlike Victoria, the book is not centered around love, but has a more expanded scope on intuition in general.

Finally, the last book I read, Hunger, now ranks easily as one of my favorite books of all-time.  Hunger’s main theme was artistic inspiration, although again, elements of tragic love and intuitive insight also appear in the book.  The main character, a writer who would sooner starve than suffer spiritual or moral corruption, could have been a guardian or philosopher king in Plato’s ideal city-state.  Hamsun, however, caught his hero in an all -too-plausible inversion of Plato’s ideal, and left him dependent on the vulgar and base for shelter and bread.

The genius of all three books, in my opinion, lies in Hamsun’s ability to portray both the extreme fragility and the supreme importance in those phenomenon which, although outside the scope of scientific enquiry, in practice play a large role in human affairs.  According to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, these are the things which “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  Or, as put by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger:

Earlier I have commented on the fact that for this same reason the physical world picture lacks all the sensual qualities that go to make up the Subject of Cognizance.  The model is colourless and soundless and unpalpable.  In the same way and for the same reason the world of science lacks, or is deprived of, everything that has a meaning only in relation to the consciously contemplating, perceiving and feeling subject.  I mean in the first place the ethical and aesthetical values, any values of any kind, everything related to the meaning and scope of the whole display. All this is not only absent but it cannot, from the purely scientific point of view, be inserted organically.  If one tries to put it in or on, as a child puts colour on his uncoloured painting copies, it will not fit.  For anything that is made to enter this world model willy-nilly takes the form of scientific assertion of facts, and as such it becomes wrong.

-Erwin Schrödinger, from What is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches

Hamsun transports us out of the realm of science and into to the realm of the ideal – into the arms of art, religion, and philosophy -and shows us how these things can be everything and nothing at the same time.  And so love, for example, “is only a wind whispering among the roses and dying away,” but also “an inviolable seal that endures for life, endures till death.”  How does one know whether one is in the presence of the former or the latter?  From a scientific perspective, it is a meaningless love affair – a firing of neurons,  a release of chemicals.  The possibility of the latter exists only subjectively, in the mind or spirit of an individual.

The subjective nature of Hamsun’s themes is what makes them so extremely delicate.  Love, intuition, inspiration:  how fleeting the feeling, how easy it is to doubt, to dismiss.  There can never be an objective confirmation of the meaningfulness of these occurrences in an individual’s life. But one ignores them, or analyzes them from a scientific perspective (which at best amounts to the same thing, and at worst can drive a person insane*) at one’s own peril.  Hamsun here enters the domain of Kierkegaard’s repetition and Dostoevsky’s miracles. While the notions are somewhat different for all three authors, there is a common thread.  For Kierkegaard, “repetition is the raising of [ ] consciousness to the second power.”  It is “the movement by virtue of the absurd that commences when one has reached the border of the wondrous,” and it occurs when:

. . .being has been split . . . the moment it is apparent that the individual can lose himself in events, fate, lose himself in such a way that he therefore by no means stops contemplating but loses himself in such a way that freedom is taken up completely in life’s fractions without leaving a remainder, then the issue becomes manifest . . .

– Soren Kierkegaard, A Little Contribution by Constantin Constantius, Author of Repetition

This point, when the crisis comes, when “being has been split” is the same point at which Dostoevsky saves his hero in The Brothers Karamazov by a miracle in the guise of a meaningful coincidence linked to a dream.  And time and time again in Hunger, Hamsun’s hero also reaches this point of absolute despair, but as soon as this point arrives – the moment he begins to curse God and welcome his death – he is saved by a sudden flash of inspiration or an unexpected act of kindness.  Such occurrences appear as a lifeline thrown out to the character which, if he does not reach out and grab, will leave him to fall and drown in the dizzying depths below.

Hamsun is a brilliant writer, but his stories are dark and his characters profoundly unhappy.  The mood of the novels contrasted sharply with the idyllic scenery surrounding me, and I often found myself worrying whether so much happiness was bound to be cursed.  I think I have had my fill of Hamsun now for a while, but am sure to pick him up again when I feel capable of reading Pan in Swedish (much, much closer to the original Norwegian than is possible with an English translation).

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," Swedish for daycare

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," the Swedish expression for daycare.

* The trap of analyzing such phenomenon from a scientific perspective is, I think, masterfully demonstrated by Vladimir Nabokov in The Defense.

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