The Scribe, The Tear-Stained Map, The Gnarled Chestnut

03 Feb 2021

The Scribe, The Tear-Stained Map, The Gnarled Chestnut

This blog post is my attempt to create a chunk, compressing fairly large descriptions into something that I can think of and maybe eventually a tool that I can think with.

Here are three images, which I think of as visualizations of the same thing. Let's start with the third, the gnarled chestnut.

Once upon a time, Sartre took mescaline and looked at a gnarled chestnut. He described his trip in a book, "Nausea". I admit haven't read it, but I have looked at gnarled trees, and they do look wild. Hope Jahren, in her book "Lab Girl", explains that plants have more adaptable bodyplans as a direct consequence of their immobility. To be concrete, if you are a chestnut, and you grow up with hard slab of something 2 inches to your northeast, then you have to work around it.

The second image is from Greg Egan's "Diaspora", where an orphan, Yatima, contemplates the task of learning mathematics well enough, deeply enough, personally enough, to eventually push the frontiers of mathematics:

"If ve ever wanted to be a miner in vis own right – making and testing vis own conjectures at the coal face, like Gauss and Euler, Riemann and Levi-Civita, deRham and Cartan, Radiya and Blanca – then Yatima knew there were no shortcuts, no alternatives to exploring the Mines firsthand. Ve couldn't hope to strike out in a fresh direction, a route no one had ever chosen before, wihtout a new take on the old results. Only once ve'd constructed vis own map of the Mines – idiosyncratically crumpled and stained, adorned and annotated like no one else's – could ve begin to guess where the next rich vein of undiscovered truths lay buried."

The third image is from Charlie Stross's "Glasshouse", where the main character remembers a message that they (their previous self) wrote to themselves (the future self):

"I watch myself writing this letter to myself. I can read it as clearly as if it's engraved in my own flesh. But I can't see any marks in the paper, because my old self has forgotten to dip his pen in the ink, and he's long since fallen to scratching invisible indentations on the coarse sheets. I seem to stand behind his shoulder although his head is nowhere in my field of vision, and I try to scream at him, No! No! That isn’t how you do it! But nothing comes out because this is a dream, and when I try to grab the pen, my hand passes right through his wrist, and he keeps writing on my naked brain with his ink of blood and neurotransmitters."

My idea of the combined meaning pointed to by these three images is something like: The intensity, strain, or mental pain of deliberate self-modification to accomodate uncomfortable, asymmetric, or disharmonious truths, the kind of truths that are out there in the world: "givens" or "data". A genuine attempt to learn or remember something can feel fairly horrible, and there is no guarantee that the truth is symmetrical, pretty or fits nicely with your existing understanding.

Various people, who are either self-deceiving, or working ecstatically and/or gnostically, have created very symmetrical systems, sometimes "systems of the world". For example, aligning four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) to four elements (earth, fire, water, and air), or acupuncture, reflexology, or iridology maps are recognizable by their superficial completeness. That is, every disease has a corresponding organ, every organ has a corresponding location in the map; if it's too good to be true, it probably isn't true.

Similarly, if a theologian thinks in an armchair and then writes down how they think the cosmos works, the same motifs, such as "trinity", or "hierarchy", or "motion", or any other concept central to their religion, will come up over and over again. The theologian will relate one occurrence of their preferred motif to another occurrence of the motif and be ecstatically delighted to have their preconceptions confirmed.