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VISUAL RHETORIC

stanley.lieber's picture

 

VISUAL RHETORIC
2485 words by Stanley Lieber

 

Thomas Bright's disembodied head regarded me from the other side of the port hole.

I made a little waving gesture and he smiled.

"Don't just stand there," he said. "You've got to help me!"

 

"First of all, they're not voices."

"In the fall of 1980, fast approaching my twenty-third birthday, I had become enamored with the irrational certainty that something dramatically and disturbingly... well, bad... was going to happen during the course of the coming year. I had weathered a series of nightmares about tornadoes and hurricanes, which had lately been joined by a progression of graphically detailed plane crashes. Eventually, the two dream-streams collided and morphed into a single, recurring narrative. The twin tornadoes (one comprised of dust and the other comprised of water) inched down a gravel road to demolish a giant diorama of Manhattan. This diorama had been laid out like a room-sized map across the altar of the Methodist church I attended as a child. Curious, right? I could see the destruction making its way slowly towards the church. A seemingly random sampling of individuals I'd known throughout my childhood were each down on the floor with me, playing with an assortment of plastic military toys -– planes -– flying them around the diorama city. We would throw the toy planes like footballs and crash them into the buildings. This distracted us from the impending arrival of the tornadoes. The floor of the giant map was complete with a legend, compass, and an elaborate island airstrip (which seemed to be noticed only by me). Usually, the dream cut off when I spotted the island and walked over to stand on it. I would invariably become convinced that there was something of great importance buried underneath its surface. The last thing I would see as I woke up was the bold script of the name of the island, stubbornly obscured by my feet. I could never quite make out the words...

"Earlier in my childhood I had convinced myself that a number of disembodied intelligences (perhaps the most intriguing of which was a sentient idea referring to itself as the avatar of Sarcasm) had repeatedly, and quite insistently, presented me with the opportunity to become the living Anti-Christ. The world could be mine if only I were willing to perform a series of simple tasks which would demonstrate my dedication to their service. Horrified, I of course vehemently refused and took measures I believed would prevent my proposed political career from ever getting far off the ground. To this day I still can't secure a credit card. The tasks I was given were to have been a simple set of mundane actions which would harm no one and which would have caused me no undue personal hardship. And yet, I was not enthused with this idea of becoming the personification of a Scriptural prophecy whose study had generated such distress in me as a child. Sarcasm was usually amused, and –- well -- would sarcastically counter my adamant refusals by multicasting vivid images of the nuclear holocaust described in the book of Revelation. I have to say, it didn't take long for the Biblical stuff to wear thin on me. By 1975, I had become convinced that these images depicted the aftermath of attacks perpetrated by Islamic terrorists. I was certain these attacks would occur sometime within the next fifty years. I privately told my girlfriend at the time that the next major war involving the United States would be centered upon Iraq, and that I hoped that conscription would not be re-instated (as it had been in my 'vision,' or whatever you want to call it). In light of all this, I wasn't sure I could keep saying no to Sarcasm forever.

"Of course, while I was well aware that this was all make-believe -- made-up nonsense -- the impact it had upon my disposition and outlook was similar to what might have been expected if the situation had, in fact, been real. The metaphorical tabs had started fitting into the metaphorical slots and they had become impossible to ignore as they made themselves apparent everywhere I looked. I was starting to detect the seams in the walls. Stress points in theoretical structures I had never before questioned.

"Perhaps here I should stop and explain how this communication between Sarcasm and myself most often took form:

"Generally, I do not think in words. Cognition for me has always involved a series of images which fit together into multi-dimensional shapes, each distinguished by size, color and texture rather than by subject matter or meaning. For example, for as long as I can remember, I have associated certain colors with the numerals zero through nine. Zero is white, one is black, two is yellow, three is orange, four is blue, five is red -- and so on. As a youth I would store and recall long strings of arbitrary numbers simply by arranging the colored blocks into the appropriate collage and then recalling that image upon demand. So, groups of numbers naturally took on an aesthetic as well as a symbolic meaning. Four quarters (yellow-red, yellow-red, yellow-red, yellow-red) made up one dollar (black-white-white). Adding or subtracting blocks of colors was faster for me than learning 'real' math. It was mostly a subconscious substitution, but it worked well approximately up until middle school, when we started to be taught branches of mathematics that cannot typically be solved 'all in your head.' I had read an article in Popular Science or Scientific American or some other magazine around this time that stated the structure of the human brain made it impossible to solve complex algebra or geometry problems by simply thinking about them visually. Well, this had the unfortunate stink of truth about it and I was sold on the idea from that moment forward. To this day, the colors go dead when I try to envision linear equations. Silly, right? Anyway. Incoming ideas typically flow across the ridges, valleys and other topographical surfaces of my consciousness and are molded into multi-dimensional shapes which are then stored as visual memories. Reasoning and deduction are simply a matter of arranging these shapes into aesthetically 'correct' sequences and compositions. Somehow, the visual logic seems to map to structures that are at least marginally functional in the real world. It's a firm validation of the Platonic whateveryoucallit. Placing all of the shapes into their natural positions, and then abstracting that visual record into a sequence of English words which are human-readable, seems to produce lucid thought that I am told is often remarkable for its clarity and insight. Or, maybe I'm deluding myself and I am only mimicking bits of language that I've managed to pick up from normal humans. Maybe it's all crap. Either way, I have somehow managed to scratch out a modest survival for close to twenty-seven years. No one has had to help me wipe my ass. I often wonder if other human beings think in the same way that I do but have merely failed to articulate the process in a recognizable manner. Perhaps they instead create descriptions of their thought processes out of the more typical, flawed vernaculars, which unfortunately proceed to dominate their cognition and leave them striving to fulfill those false accounts with aggressive action. All of this is of course at the expense of their own more naturally occurring mental rhythms. The virus of language is a parasite living off the fat of the human organism. In any case, my own communications with the archetypal ideas such as Sarcasm and Messiah seems to have occurred on this sub-linguistic level of colors and shapes, which I have come to believe is nearer to our wetware than the instruction sets (in my case, the English language) which we are trained from birth to hypnotize ourselves with. What if, through some fundamentally subterranean mechanism, we are unconsciously grouping items into structures that alter our English even before it bubbles into our internal stream of thinking? Which is to say nothing of what then spurts out of our mouths. It was a sudden preponderance of recognizable patterns in my own linguistic reflexes –- it seemed that someone had been sleeping in my bed, if you will -– which, when decoded into English, produced a convincing resemblance to direct communication between myself and an outside force. Was it apophenia? Who knows? While it is true that there is an element of tea leaf reading in all of this, the elaborate motifs which seemed to emerge in my reflexive patterns cannot merely be dismissed as broadcast irritants, disrupting my mental space like the rumble of bass from a car down the street. These patterns I've been describing also responded to my probing. Responded intelligibly, I should say. Two-way communication occurred. Hence my references to a running dialogue. Hence my mentions of their offers and of my rejections.

"So, back at the end of the world, having taken several months to mull over the myriad of proportions and relationships which were emerging, screeching like peacocks, from the amorphous collection of data swirling about in my brain case, fall 1980 finally drug itself into the room. I awoke one September morning full of the realization that I had somehow crept into my twenty-third year. Relatively healthy and still firmly planted upon the surface of the planet. Characteristically, my right brain responded to this happy circumstance by letting loose a sudden inundation of random stimulation. Quantum foam fired in the widest possible distribution pattern. My left brain, shocked by this lack of etiquette evinced by its squirrel-in-the-wheel sibling, responded to the affront by frantically (though outwardly exuding the very essence of calm) sorting overflowing folders into overflowing drawers as quickly as was possible, spontaneously divining a slipshod, though astonishingly practical organizational grammar with which to categorize all of the incoming mental paperwork. A dazzling display, to be sure, but almost immediately it was time to shift into Good Cop/Bad Cop hour down at the cognitive interrogation room. A blinding light was seen to appear and there were repeated demands to make sense of the incoming torrent of data. The flow of the inundation was steadily increasing. My left brain, bristling now at how quickly its facade of calm had unraveled, suddenly dropped everything and burrowed itself into the soft bosom of psychoanalytic jargon. To whit: lacking further resources, it fell back upon the 19th century conception of the Ego.

A rhetorical demilitarized zone had been hastily erected between the two cranial hemispheres.

"Turning to all of this hubub consciously for the first time, I (that is to say, me) examined these goings-on, and after some amount of solemn consideration, fueled by the almost instantaneous sense of how ridiculous the whole thing had become, I decided to simply ignore the situation and to relegate the embarrassing circus to the convenient category of troublesome, yet ultimately irrelevant mental noise. I would put it out of my head and move on to whatever new, interesting and (no doubt) more entertaining thoughts were sure to come hobbling along. My friend, I say this plainly and it is true: ideas are a dime a dozen. Even if they are going to address me audibly and directly, well, that doesn't mean I am bound to listen. I don't owe them anything. Life is too short to indulge every pointless discrepancy of logic. Better to simply put your fingers in your ears. No, I am not available to come to the phone, and please do not call again. Thank you for your consideration. Say, honey, what's for dinner?

"The year slunk by. Under the stern tutelage of that conscientious ring-master, Ego, the serendipitous connections began to fade. Mind the gap, right brain, it would say, and so on. This system kept things close in check. I devised an arsenal of clever rhetorical tricks for identifying and severing new spacial connections before their roots could take hold. This proved to be surprisingly effective. Almost before I knew it, my twenty-fourth birthday was upon me. I looked back on the previous year with a certain contempt for the time spent culling all of this useless cruft from my thought processes, but overall I retained a sense of accomplishment. I allowed some occasional rays of satisfaction to seep through. Gently pulling back the curtain, the sunshine felt good in my cold, gray room.

"The morning of September 11, 1981, I awoke alone in my bed. (I was on vacation from work that week.) I pulled sweet breaths through a sincere smile and let the top of my head rest against the cool metal bars of my bed frame. Before opening my eyes, I smashed my face back into my pillow and relished that I was finally (almost) home free. One day to go and it would all be over. I relaxed, sighed richly, and thought to myself (in English), Well, I've made it. Nothing horrendous is going to happen to me just because I survived to twenty-three. I guess it's time to outgrow all of this superstitious horseshit and get on with my life. So what if the symbols and syntax of temporal reality continue to combine in an obvious manner that seems to beg acknowledgment and/or comment? I will ignore it all, straighten my posture and affirm that, on the contrary, all of this 'clairvoyant' nonsense and all of this 'spacial reasoning' bollocks is just so much convenient hallucination. It was really quite simple in the end to walk away and to get on with my life. Now, I admonished myself, let's get up, go out, and get ourselves something to eat. I should say, it was quite a relief to finally be rid of the shit-flinging, psychic monkey on my back. No more looking for the seams in things. No more seeing the seams whether I wanted to or not. From that morning on I would resolve to simply translate the multi-dimensional shapes and colors into English prior to becoming consciously aware of them. It would all be so much easier.

"Groggily, I pulled on my socks and made my way into the living room, where I clicked on the television just in time to see the second plane bury itself in the World Trade Center and explode."

"The next day I turned twenty-four."

"Sarcasm was always a great practical joker."

 

All of this from the other side of the port hole.

I edged backwards, involuntarily, then bolted forward and yanked down on the curtain. Tom's babbling cut off with the arc of my downward motion. I had barely escaped with my life.

A few moments later I decided to take another peek.

That was a mistake.

 

To be continued...

 

 

creative.commons.attribution-noncommercial-noderivs.3.0

 

1OCT1993 | INDEX