Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Vincente in Headphones




I pulled myself into the present. My eyes suddenly uncrossed. Dots unhitched from each other as my eyes hunted for a new focus. In a dizzying moment they had created a new grid.

Vincente. That was me, my name in Spanish class. "Si. Estoy aqui." I managed. I heard Mr Gordon sigh in my headphones. It was a state-of-the-art language lab, such as the art was in 1966. He could listen to the whole class, or just to one of us. When he listened to just me, what he heard was mostly silence.

It was not that I was not paying attention. It's just that I was paying attention to something else. The sound booths were made of blond pressboard that was pierced with a grid of little ladybug-sized holes. If you let your eyes cross, the images held by each eye would float independently for a moment, and then the dots would align and my eyes would snap into focus. The image formed was complete and completely convincing, but the one hole I was focusing on was in fact two holes -- my left and right eye were looking at different holes; it was just my mind's determination that the two images couldn't look so alike without being the same that made it certain there was only one image. I could let my eyes travel over this made-up surface clear to the corner of the booth. When I hit the corner, though, my eyes would panic -- something was not right; there were two corners where there should be one. They would unmoor and refocus correctly. They did this without any perceptible volition on my part. In fact it took a great deal of concentration to prevent them from attempting to refocus. But I found that with some practice I could do it. I practiced and experimented continually with those holes, with cutting the images of the left and right eyes loose from each other, and letting their patterns drift into various configurations. It was not, I guess, the educational end envisioned by the school district, but I learned a lot from those booths.

I remain fascinated by the phenomenon. I find it difficult to refrain from playing that way with any repetitively-patterned surface -- wallpapers, ceiling tiles. I immediately begin unfocusing and refocusing. It is almost impossible to convince myself that the images are fabricated, that what I'm seeing is not in fact what's there. Once enough things match, my eyes do a splendid job of ignoring the things that don't.

Sitting in those booths was the first time I understood, down in my bones, that my mind was actively creating the world that I perceived, that it was filtering out things it didn't expect and doing whatever it had to in the way of distortion in order to present an orderly image to me. Light values would be doctored, imperfections in the wood would be smoothed away, in order that I might see an intelligible image. My mind needed intelligibility, and it would get it, by God, no matter what the cost in accuracy.

With some exertion of will, right there at the point of data-entry, as you might say, I could make myself see the divergences. But with story and memory, it's nearly hopeless. Very soon after an event, I'm remembering my memory of it, not the event itself. At every remembrance more incongruities will be tidied up. Soon I have a smooth story, a complete memory, self-consistent in every detail. The only problem with it is that it will be fake. And most of the stories and memories we have, we get second-hand. They've already gone through this process many times, in other people's minds, before they get to us. The stories and memories we steer by are fakes made of fakes. And it doesn't really matter if they're revealed as fakes. We still steer by them, because we have to. But we don't have to believe in them.

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