Acrylic and Silver Leaf on Panel
I’ve been exploring the curse of Borges’ Yellow Emperor and the mirror world of automata for a while, most recently formulating the details of their foreshadowed escape , heralded by the brief glint of the scales of a fish before the mirror glass comes tumbling down.
I imagine that as we—the ones trapped behind the glass, eternally parroting and puppeting— release ourselves from repetition and the automatic acceptance of the rules of existence we have always known, even our body images will change. If it’s true that none of the atoms making up my form now were part of my self definition 7 years ago, then what, other than a projected self-image, keeps me looking the same? To break free from the mirror world, then, would include freedom from the so-far unquestioned but simply projected body-image defined as human. While developing a character combining Borges’ signal fish scales and the fierce, untamable power of a horse, I discovered the story of St. Fevronia and her role in moving the besieged city of Kitezh to a more secure, underwater location before the very eyes of its assailants. The idea that without resorting to violence, one could keep oneself healthy and safe through purity has always had its appeal for humanity, but rarely has the idea survived to see the end of the tale—saints usually die miserable deaths. St. Fevronia entered the new, unreachable-but-to-the-pure-of-heart lair with her brethren and continues there today. Maybe it was mass hypnosis that stymied the Mongol warriors, keeping them “at bay” as the palace-city subjects, also finding their consciousness directed to a new level by the focused purity of the saint’s attentions, discovered their new ability to breathe and move underwater.
So, here St. Fevronia bursts from the mirror, rote existence too tight an enclosure to hold her.
An icon is for meditation, for self-hypnosis with a focus on the attributes of a particular saint, on internalizing those attributes, on possessing yourself with them. To aid in that process, this icon again contains moonlit hellebores , the hellebores I recently learned were to be placed in a bowl in a room which has suffered arguments, to clear the room of their sense and impact, to recreate a more conducive atmosphere. They have also been used throughout history in a vaguely hallucinogenic vein. All the better for self-hypnosis and possession.
While working on this painting, I learned of the existence of a nomadic people living around the islands off the west coast of Thailand who provided me with a further example of how we often mistake the automatic for the limits of the possible. They are a water tribe, spending almost all their lives off the soil, able to lower their heart rates at will to dive further and longer than the rest of us— who imagine ourselves not to be fish. And:
“…what distinguishes these children, for our purposes, is that they can see clearly at these great depths, without goggles. Most human beings cannot see clearly under water because as sunlight passes through water, it is bent, or “refracted,” so that light doesn’t land where it should on the retina. Anna Gislén, a Swedish researcher, studied the Sea Gypsies’ ability to read placards under water and found that they were more than twice as skillful as European children. The Gypsies learned to control the shape of their lenses and, more significantly, to control the size of their pupils, constricting them 22 percent. This is a remarkable finding, because human pupils reflexively get larger under water, and pupil adjustment has been thought to be a fixed, innate reflex, controlled by the brain and nervous system. This ability of the Sea Gypsies to see under water isn’t the product of a unique genetic endowment. Gislén has since taught Swedish children to constrict their pupils to see under water—one more instance of the brain and nervous system showing unexpected training that alter what was thought to be a hardwired, unchangeable circuit.” Doidge, Norman (2007-03-15). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (p. 289). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition. Emphasis mine.
Their “hardwired” brain is hardwired differently from the brains of those of us who keep our feet on land. So it must be that our brains are not really so hardwired. What’s more, that ability to see differently is not just good for reading underwater. When the 2004 tsunami hit, Sea Gypsies had already headed for deeper waters or for hills, and they managed to survive. With all of modern technology, modern humans did not see the wave coming until it was already there. But the Sea Gypsies saw something off. They noticed their surroundings. Masterminds , they were paying attention, and they responded accordingly.
“Indeed, Burmese boatmen were also at sea when these preternatural events were occurring, but they did not survive. A Sea Gypsy was asked how it was that the Burmese, who also knew the sea, all perished. He replied, “They were looking at squid. They were not looking at anything. They saw nothing, they looked at nothing. They don’t know how to look.””
Who knows? Maybe you, too, have a fishtail. Look again.