Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mild but persistent torture

In his masterful 1979 opus on the High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, Serpent in the Sky, John Anthony West explains the power of harmony and proportion in art and architecture this way:
In the cathedrals and sacred art and architecture of the past, we see the knowledge of harmony and proportion employed rightly, provoking in all men who have not had their emotions permanently crippled or destroyed by modern education a sense of the sacred. It therefore takes no great leap in imagination to conceive of the same knowledge put to an opposite use by the unscrupulous. In principle, buildings, dances, chants and music could be devised that would reduce the mass of any given population to helplessness. 38.
We have written before about Mr. West's extraordinary vision of what the ancients were up to in Egypt -- his view that their "massive works were designed from the onset to provide insights into the wisdom of the temple, upon every level from the humblest quarryman to the master sculptor, printer and mason," that their entire society and its art and architecture was designed to be "a continuous exercise in the development of individual consciousness" (90) -- for instance in this previous post.

He explains that the Egyptians and later inheritors of the same art used mathematical and harmonic proportion to deliberately evoke certain vibrations in the human body and the human spirit. He examines extensive evidence supporting his assertion that
in ancient civilizations, a class of initiates had precise knowledge of harmonic laws. They knew how to manipulate them to create the precise effect they wanted. And they wrote this knowledge into architecture, art, music, paintings, rituals and incenses, producing Gothic cathedrals, vast Hindu temples, all the marvels of Egypt and many other sacred works that even today, in ruins, produce a powerful effect upon us. This effect is produced because these men knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it: it was done entirely through a complex of sensory manipulation. 37.
Let us now examine the opposite effect that he alleges can be evoked by the use of disharmonic proportions and bad vibrations. To do so will not be difficult: the reader can step outside his door in nearly any city in the modern world and find familiar examples of exactly what the author is talking about. Mr. West continues: "Now if we look at our twentieth century, we find no masterpieces of sacred art, but we do see countless examples of scientifically proven harmful effects resulting from a misuse of sensory data" (37).

The photograph above is from a middle school in California, by no means unusual or exceptional in its absolutely hideous proportions and oppressive architecture. It is not from a particularly impoverished neighborhood: quite the contrary -- this architecture is absolutely typical of the school architecture that is found all over the state. The public schools I attended from elementary school to middle school to high school were equally depressing to the human spirit in their external form.

To show that this is not simply a California phenomenon, below is a photograph of a school in Spain, educating students at the secondary school level or what Americans would recognize as the high-school level. Apparently, the same architectural genius of benighted design has been at work across the Atlantic as well, far from the Pacific coast of California.

Is it any wonder that, when the institutions where we send our children day-in and day-out are built along such architecturally repulsive lines, the effect is not to uplift or to inspire but rather to beat down, to oppress, and to alienate?

Even at the highest levels of education such disharmonious and monstrous proportions are often prevalent, although in older campuses with buildings erected before the second two-thirds of the twentieth century some remnants of the time when architecture still followed the harmonic Golden Ratios handed down from the ancients are still in evidence. The picture below is from the campus of Texas A&M University, a campus replete with glowering lumps of concrete, corrugated dividing walls, and beetling overhangs similar to the green monstrosity in the Spanish high school above (but drab yellow instead), all done on an industrial scale.

Again, this building is from the halls of higher learning, where students are encouraged to "reach for the stars," where the highest ideals of our civilization are supposedly being passed on to the next generation and where our children are participating in the highest levels of academic inquiry that they will probably ever encounter, at least in a formal setting*.

But perhaps this emphasis on the exterior appearance and proportion of modern academic environments is unfair -- after all, it is inside the classrooms that the real encounters with ideas and ideals take place. Perhaps there, inside the actual temples of learning, the "knowledge of harmony and proportion applied rightly" of which Mr. West speaks so eloquently in regards to ancient Egypt can be found today.

Not likely. In fact, it is difficult to conclude that these environments are not deliberately designed to oppress the children that occupy them. For example, here is an image from inside a classroom of the same California middle school pictured at the top of this page.

The desks of this classroom feature chairs connected to the writing surface by a thick tube of metal (we are probably all familiar with such desks, although we may have blocked them out of our memory since the seventh grade), such that there is no adjustment possible of the direction of the chair or its distance from the table surface: one size fits all.

In this particular classroom, the desks have all been pushed together into clusters of four, with the students facing one another, a not-uncommon arrangement designed to facilitate group interaction or some other worthy community goal. Note, however, that the teacher and the front of the classroom are located at right angles to the direction of the chairs (at right angles, in fact, both to the pair of chairs shown in the photo, and to the other pair that face these desks, in which case the teacher is at right angles to the left instead of at right angles to the right).

The twelve-year-old consigned to one of these unmovable chairs cannot turn his chair to listen to the teacher talking at the blackboard (in this classroom it is not really a blackboard anymore, but rather a whiteboard for dry-erase markers instead of chalk). Instead, he must either turn his neck and upper back the entire time, or swivel his body in the chair into a slumping contorted position in which half his butt is off of the seat and one arm is draped over the back of the chair, which is no longer supporting his back but is now an ill-designed armrest used to hold him in place from falling off.

If the designer of this environment is seeking to stimulate a conducive landscape for learning and intellectual inquiry, he has failed. If he instead was seeking to try to beat down young minds and the human spirit, he may be onto something.

These are just a few photographs, taken from a few representative institutions of learning, but they are by no means isolated examples in our society -- a similar set of images could be gathered from a stroll through the high-rise districts of many large cities, or from a trip on public transit systems consisting of buses and subways, or even from a comparison of the architecture of a typical family home or apartment built in the past few decades versus a typical home or apartment designed in the 1930s, 1920s, or even the 1890s (in fact, since the ascendency of Darwinism and its vision of mankind's past mirroring the evolution of species from primitive to advanced).

In light of what they show us, John Anthony West's allegations of a modern environment replete with "countless examples of scientifically proven harmful effects resulting from a misuse of sensory data" become undeniable. He continues: "Torture is a misuse of sensory data. [ . . . ] In effect, then, the daily life of city dwellers today is technically a form of mild but persistent torture, in which victims and victimisers are equally affected. And all call it 'progress.' The result is similar to that wrought by deliberate torture" (37-38).

Later, returning to the same theme, he writes: "And this is a contributory cause to the product that is twentieth-century man: devoid of direction, faith or understanding, his head stuffed with facts, his only response to the inevitable stirrings of humanity within him violence, sex, or apathy" (91).

While such lines of argument may seem profoundly negative and pessimistic, Mr. West's work is actually deeply positive. He is laboring to demonstrate that the awesome works of the ancients were not merely some "organised delusion carried out to satisfy priestly and pharaonic megalomania" (as he explains on page 90) or the primitive and superstitious efforts of a society obsessed with death (as he explains on page 95).

He is arguing that by accepting a false storyline of mankind's past, we have been duped into thinking that history is one long and generally uninterrupted march from primitive superstition to modern progress, and that because we uncritically swallow this lie (which is pounded into children's heads in the very same sorts of schools as those pictured above, from the earliest elementary levels to the highest halls of the college and the university), we are unwittingly abandoning the very knowledge and wisdom that can uplift and inspire us.

By calling attention to this false history and false vision of progress (false because all the evidence shows that the very earliest civilizations had unbelievably advanced understanding of medicine, architecture, harmony and proportion, mathematics, geodesy, and ocean navigation), he is trying to help shake us out of the grip of the false paradigm that we have been locked into. This is not a negative effort, but a positive one. We cannot begin to examine the ancient wisdom if we don't even accept that it exists.

This is an urgent message. The images above make it clear that, either deliberately or through ignorance, disproportion and disharmony surround us on a very pervasive and almost inescapable level. That is why the examination of the evidence supporting a very different timeline of mankind's ancient past is no mere discussion of "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin," so to speak. It is a very practical and profoundly important issue.

Everyone who realizes this should be spreading the word!

* The students at Texas A&M have succeeded in creating a decades-old culture that is in many ways inspiring and uplifting in spite of the architecture that has been inflicted upon them, but there is no denying the ugliness of almost all of the buildings on the campus.