The Simple Truth?

May 4, 2020

 

TRUTH-ELLIPSE-FLAT.jpgIn mainstream and social media, truth is frequently distorted or labeled ‘fake news’ and propagated by those with shadowy ulterior political and/or financial motives who view our well-being as an inconvenient roadblock to those motives. In 1994, I wrote this little story for my ‘Visual Fiction’ column in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that now seems naive, yet strangely relevant…

Everything Midas Moodle touched turned to gold.

Well, not literally; that’s just what the financial media gleefully trumpeted since the software entrepreneur was the most successful man in Wall Street history. Everyone wanted to be his friend and though he was nothing to look at, he suffered no lack of beautiful women. When he wasn’t attending board meetings or scanning spreadsheets, Midas indulged in fits of arcane software coding, ‘just for fun’ he told himself. Of course, he knew these electronic forays always became mega money-makers. Yet the King of CrabApple Computers was profoundly unhappy.

One day, in his office, as he scuffled despondently down the information highway, he heard something crunch beneath his mousepad. Cautiously lifting its corner, he discovered a half-eaten fortune cookie, its fortune still intact. Brushing away the crumbs, he read the simple words that would change his life forever: “Seek The Truth.”  

“Hmmph.” he muttered, then sat back and munched the cookie for a moment. Moodily, he reflected that as his empire had grown, the truth had quietly disappeared from his life. Midas had long ceased to worry about it as lies and unkept promises became the coin of his realm. Would my legendary ‘golden touch’ have survived otherwise?” he wondered. Impulsively, he decided to find out. Pouncing on the escape key, he veered off the internet and headed home.

Creeping impatiently through rush-hour traffic, Midas made up his mind to follow the cookie’s advice. Speeding up the labyrinthine driveway to his palatial estate, he headed for his home office where he sealed the slip of paper into a plastic amulet which he placed around his neck. He packed a small valise, then arranged to distribute his worldly goods to worthy causes. Finally, without a backward glance, he set out to scour the four corners of the earth, leaving no city, town or village unturned in his search of the ‘truth’.

Then, in the seventh month of the seventh year since he’d left home, he heard about a cave in a distant mountain where a strange old woman and her companion had lived for longer than anyone  could remember.

Laboring up the mountain towards a grassy plateau, Midas was unprepared for the chilling sight of a ghost-like figure that seemed to float towards him enveloped in an odd but compelling fragrance. Involuntarily, he shivered, then gazed curiously up at a tall, gaunt woman in a shabby grey tunic beneath a colorful, intricately patterned shawl. Bright azure eyes shone from a wizened face scored by a thousand wrinkles and framed by long, wispy white hair. The entrepreneur listened awestruck as her nearly toothless mouth parted to release a clear musical voice that welcomed him to her humble home.

Because Midas Moodle hadn’t a clue as to whether ‘truth’ was something tangible or merely an idea, he introduced himself and humbly stated the purpose of his quest. The strange old woman glanced shrewdly at his fortune cookie amulet with an inward smile and settled delicately onto a throne-like rock.

“Mr. Moodle, I am Truth”, she began. You simply didn’t recognize me because I left you years ago. You had no need of me as I appeared, naked as Eve in Eden without her fig leaf. At first, my plainspoken manner frightened and annoyed you. Later, as your lies grew more fanciful, I tried to embarrass and scandalize you but to no avail. You pretended that I didn’t exist, condemning me to a lonely eternal life. Midas cringed with guilt.

“Then one day,” she went on, “as I wandered sadly down an alley, I was nearly knocked over by an elegantly dressed fellow whose name turned out to be Parable. He apologized profusely. Then, noticing my wrinkled birthday suit and miserable slouch, he abruptly frowned, “Is there something I can do for you?” he asked solicitously. Sunk in self-pity, I wiped away a tear and moaned, “Oh, I’ve become so old and grungy that no one wants anything to do with me!”

“No kidding,” he sniffed delicately. “Forgive me for saying so, but your breath smells rather like a sewer, too. Anyway, listen; no one cares if you’re old! Look at me,” he preened. “I’m just as old as you are. Why, the older I get, the more attractive and interesting I become! Want to know my secret?”

I nodded half-heartedly.

“Well,” said Parable, “I’ve found that people just can’t handle a naked, truthful idea, but they’ll always entertain one that’s dressed up and smells good!” “Here, I have something for you.” From a deep pocket in his fine velvet cape, he drew out a packet that held a beautiful shawl and an atomizer of Eau de Mystique. “Here you go,” he patted my bony shoulder and turned around so I could try on his gifts. “Ah, that’s much better!” he smiled approvingly.  He then offered me his company and ever since, Parable and I now travel everywhere together! You see,” she continued, “When a truth cannot be told or accepted, we work our magic to make it easier to tell and a bit less painful to accept.”

“Will I ever see you again?” Midas asked hopefully. Truth laughed a lovely musical trill. She had divined that the entrepreneur, having lived without her for so long, wasn’t really sure he wanted her back. “That all depends on you,”  she answered. “We travel as a team, so you can summon us whenever you wish! By the way,” she added, “Don’t worry about your ‘golden touch’. When you employ our services, it will probably glow brighter than ever!” Sighing with relief, Midas admitted, “I’m so tired of living my life in virtual reality; lying and making promises I can’t keep!” “I know,” Truth nodded gently. Then she turned and chirped sweetly at the cave entrance.

An ancient man in an Elizabethan doublet and a russet velvet cape emerged. His deep green eyes and smile were those of a wise child as he quizzically regarded his companion and their visitor. With obvious affection, Truth introduced Parable and explained the nature of Midas’ quest. Parable tilted his head sympathetically and offered a taste of his own wisdom…

“Once you believed that lies were the only coin of your realm,” Parable said, “but you’ve forgotten that your coin really has two sides; truth and lies. Each side can be useful if the coin is flipped with good intentions! The choice was always yours to make!” “But,” he winked, “from now on, when you must tell a lie, remember that it will only be convincing if you mix in a little truth with it!”

Midas stood quietly for a long moment. Then, with a dawning sense of déjà vu, he understood that truth and lies had always been folded inside of him, rather like the fortune in the cookie.

At last, Truth and Parable said to their guest, ” Well, Mr. Moodle,  have we been of help in your quest?”

“Oh, yes!” Midas enthused, feeling reborn. He cordially thanked his hosts and promised to engage their services regularly. As he prepared for the long journey home, a worried expression creased the entrepreneur’s high forehead. He turned to Truth and Parable. ” I was a very wealthy man once,” he said, but thanks to you both,  I’ll be rich again soon enough. Is there anything I can do for you in return?”

Truth pursed her thin lips thoughtfully, shaking her head. But Parable, whose face crinkled mischievously, leaned over to whisper something in his companion’s ear.

Finally, her eyes glittering, the old woman answered, “Oh, okay. You can do just one thing for us. When you speak of us to your friends, tell them that we are as young and beautiful as a god and goddess!”

 

 

Evolutionary Amnesia?

April 9, 2020

BY our own estimates, human evolution has made vast progress over the millennia in our dominance of Earth as a species; particularly in the development, capacity and intuitive functionality of our brains. Which leads me to question, why, as clever and technologically astute as we have become, even in the face of historically evident patterns, can we not learn from our mistakes?

Inevitably, I have more questions than answers.

Driven by our good and evil inclinations, we repeatedly experience periods of war or peace as we veer between prosperity and paucity. Although we are now engaged in battling a global pandemic, this is not a traditional theater of war with a clearly visible, organized enemy; unless you have access to a scanning electron microscope and a fully equipped lab to make sense of it.

However, our conflicting responses to it make me wonder about that ancient argument of free will vs. determinism. Given my penchant for science fiction, are we ‘pre-programmed’ to behave this way by some incomprehensible ‘entity’? And might that ‘entity possess a dual nature that encompasses both good and evil that eternally vie for dominion over us?

Perhaps we were created to evolve with a ‘bug’ in our neural coding; ostensibly to help us navigate our way through life’s physical environment, develop civilizations and address the bombardment of misleading or insufficient information in each generation? For lack of a scientific term, have we dubbed this ‘bug’ ‘free will’?

Or, perhaps our overactive imaginations are merely a random side effect of our physical evolution? Since I have no philosophical or scientific creds to bolster technical arguments for either idea, my curiosity and incessant reading habits of both secular and religious literature will have to do.

I suppose that my religious beliefs urge me towards determinism but depending on the circumstance, I occasionally waver between the two ideas. And here is why:

In each go-round, we are presented with chains of man-made and/or environmental events that soon result in reduced populations, prejudiced political dogma and sometimes polemic leadership. The latter rises by promising that life will surely improve going forward under their watch (which it may briefly do). Still, when negative situations arise, our response remains confined to predictably static phases: denial, then outrage and finally, surrender to performing damage control while bemoaning our fate.

For centuries, historians have documented this cycle of events with their often tragic denouements yet offered only theoretical remedies for them.  Such remedies, beholden to hindsight rather than foresight leave us trapped in the disasters we’ve created through our complaisance, economic manipulation and deadly political mischief.

It would seem that while we have dramatically evolved physically from our knuckle-dragging forbears, we have remained psychologically frozen as teenagers; prone to impatience, addicted to excitement and often intolerant towards others.

Holocaust denial may be one of the most cited examples of this idea despite the copious historical evidence and heartfelt efforts of the few remaining victims of its atrocities. Nevertheless, in succeeding generations, individuals arise with a superficial understanding of Nazi culture and its role in these horrific events yet they know enough to twist the facts or form groups of like-minded acolytes in order to activate its worst malevolent characteristics.

Many years ago, this idea struck home when I was commissioned to draw caricatures by a local department store (remember those?) during the holiday shopping season. Taking a break, I was watching the zombified shoppers wander through the glittering aisles, when a young teenaged boy approached my table asking if I would draw him. Sure, I said. Then I noticed that he had inked the sign of a swastika on his hand. Not wishing to provoke a confrontation, I asked innocently as my eyes narrowed involuntarily. “What’s that?” Without hesitation he explained proudly that it was a sign worn by a group of his ‘friends’. “Oh,” I said. Never one to let a teaching opportunity pass, I further inquired, ” Do you know what it means?” “Not really,” he shrugged. ” I just did it because they said it would be cool.” “Uh-huh” I nodded, then proceeded to give him a brief but graphic history of the Holocaust. As I explained, I watched his face drain of color and without a word, he raced to the men’s room. Upon his return, he waved his hand in my face. “See?” he crowed, I scrubbed it off! I think I need to find some new friends!” In common social media parlance, SMH.

So, considering our long, fraught history (the ‘woke’ teenager notwithstanding) , to what extent does free will ‘bug’ exist, if it does? Do we not learn from our mistakes because in order for evolution to continue its mysterious trajectory, each iteration of humanity must be doomed to make its own mistakes? And could this be why ancestral wisdom gets poorly translated and/or misinterpreted in succeeding generations? Or, in simple street terms, does sh*t just happen?

I realize that this essay opens a pungent can of worms, but it’s just my opinion and I’m truly curious as to what you think…?

 

Quarantine Day 24: Flying In Place

April 5, 2020

I first became aware of the 17th century French philosopher and moralist Blaise Pascal in 1990 while working on the illustrations for ‘Sometimes I Am A Kite’, my first book for children. Under contract with Green Tiger Press in La Jolla, CA, I was assigned to work with a California book designer whose work habits were not only irritating, but hampered my own via time zones and her aversion to picking up her phone (no email or smartphone texting back then).

She left me no choice but to listen repeatedly to this odd message on her answering machine: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” There was no attribution given but I eventually located the source which only reinforced my notion of her eccentricity. Considering the circumstances, I found this quotation annoying but it must’ve resonated somewhere in my subconscious along with my penchant for illustrating the tales in classic mythology. Not long after the book project was completed, ‘The Memoirs Of Icarus’, an ink and watercolor drawing, came to be. 

Of course, I couldn’t have predicted the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, but Pascal’s philosophic bon mot seems apropos to the world now figuring out how to survive in isolation from the disease, so I decided to post that drawing here. In retrospect, it joins the other illustrations in my ‘Quarantine Portfolio’ that can be seen on Facebook and Instagram at the links below:

https://www.facebook.com/ilederer  https://www.instagram.com/ilenelederer/?hl=en

 

Looking Backwards To See Forward

March 17, 2020

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The idea that history repeats itself is not a new one, except when its lessons come back to bite us. So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at the rapid rise of the current coronavirus. Sure, we’ve all had our fill of constant media fear-mongering mixed with coping advice and though I don’t wish to downplay its seriousness, I have been particularly concerned because of late, a strong childhood memory has been haunting me…

As a child, I was made sharply aware that other children I knew had grandparents because my own maternal grandmother had been gone for a very long time. As a young, newly arrived Eastern European immigrant, she had been one of the millions of victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic or Spanish flu.

Although my grandfather had soon remarried, I was told that his new wife had treated my three-year old mother and her older brother cruelly. They were then brought up by my great aunt. Bitter at having no children of her own, she loved them in her own way but mostly tolerated them out of a sense of duty.

I remember being sad much of the time at having no close, extended family because although my paternal grandparents were still living, I had little physical contact with them due to other family dysfunctional relationships beyond my control at the time. Still, there  are times that I imagine hearing their voices arguing or cursing in Yiddish at each other and times when I can hear their softer tones expressing worry and affection.

Nevertheless, my brief experiences with those generations were surely part of the alchemy of who I’ve become whether through the mystery of memory or genetics.

Now that I am grandmother, those early memories have become more relevant since I am squarely within the demographics of those most vulnerable to Covid-19. With my own history of respiratory ailments and our grandson in pre-school, my husband and I have spent much of the past several months fighting off a repeating cycle of common colds courtesy of that pre-school environment.

Even as age brings a certain acceptance of so much that is beyond our control, particularly illnesses put in our path by global events, I find  that it is also important to search for spirituality, humor, positivity and beauty in our lives and allow it to mitigate these concerns. Accordingly, I’ve just published my new book, A Visual Amidah: An Essence Of Prayers & Blessings. The Amidah is my visual interpretation of the set of 19 prayers and blessings that form the core of the Jewish worship liturgy.

The book includes an artist’s preface, a brief history of The Amidah and artist’s notes on the intent of each prayer and blessing with explanations of the imagery chosen for each. Size: 8 x 10 inches Price: $36.00 To Order Your Signed Copy, visit: http://magiceyegallery.com/BookPage.aspx?id=1011

The book cover is shown below and the illustration shown above accompanies the ‘Elokai Netzor, a  prayer offered at the conclusion of the three-times daily recitation of the Amidah. In it, an ethereal angelic messenger reveals the dual nature of our choices for speech and behavior with the Hebrew letter ‘peh’ (which translates as ‘mouth’) and a mirror image of itself. The ‘peh’ at the right represents ‘loshen ha-ra (evil speech that may lead to evil actions) while the ‘peh’ on the left represents ‘loshen ha-tov’ (good speech that may lead to good deeds). The presence of the messenger indicates that all words have consequence since Gd hears, feels and responds to the effects of both.  I wish you all good health and safe passage through these perilous times. Take care!

 

 

 

 

 

Between Heaven & Earth: Availability Update

January 14, 2020

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Dear Readers:

I’ve noticed that many visitors to Imaginarius have attempted to locate or order my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) via a link that no longer exists. I’m sorry to say that this book is no longer in print, nor has it been re-issued.

HOWEVER, I do have a limited supply available through my online Magic Eye Gallery! If you wish to order an inscribed, signed copy, please visit: http://magiceyegallery.com/BookPage.aspx?id=2 

You may also email me at the gallery site if have a special request: http://magiceyegallery.com/Contact.aspx

Your other option, though it will not be signed or inscribed, is to order through Amazon: https://amzn.to/387lUsu You can read  reviews at Amazon, too.

Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary makes a unique and thoughtful gift for birthdays, Bar/Bat Mitzvot or special occasions. I hope you will check it out; supplies are limited!

Best Regards,

Imaginarius

ps. Here are some of the interior illustrations:

BHE-Exodus-Bo-Seder.jpgBHE-Numbers-Beha'alotekha-ShivitiDetail.jpgBHE-Deuteronomy-Akdamut.jpg

A Creative Dilemma

December 6, 2019

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ligature-o-rgb-4NE of the more common tropes in the creative process is ‘block’, usually prefaced by the words ‘writers’ or artists’. This ‘condition’, so to speak, and its ‘remedies’ have been documented so copiously that one would think it is a disease. So, considering the ‘disease’ metaphor, perhaps we can associate indecision as one of its major side effects.                  

The statement, “I have no idea.” is a common complaint, so often voiced that it has become a cliché,  is somewhat nonsensical. The problem is not that we have no ideas or that we have exhausted our store of them; the ‘block’ is empowered when we convince ourselves that we are incapable of CHOOSING which idea among myriads to develop.
 
Imagine that you’ve gone fishing in a well-stocked pond but the pond’s owner has set a daily limited time to fish and a maximum catch of only one per day. A school of potentially tasty fish approaches; how do you choose which one will make the best meal within your allotted fishing time? Mulling your choices, you eventually decide based on your experience and instincts, gifts that we sometimes tend to ignore.
 
Yet, I often think of indecision as a deep mistrust of those gifts in the belief that whatever we create will not meet the high standards we have set for ourselves or that we imagine others expect of us.
 
Combined with fear and loathing of blank surfaces, whether it is paper, canvas, a chunk of wood or marble, we may feel some combination of excitement and dread before our ideas are ready to manifest. Unpleasant and unsettling as this state may be, I suspect that its real purpose is as a device, an engine, if you will, to kickstart our creative flow. Indecision can also be a process akin to an appetizer before a meal, giving us a taste of the creative adventures that lie ahead.
 
 
As an illustrator, even when an assignment calls for very specific imagery, the ‘block’ may ‘materialize’ when trying to decide how to design that image for a specific audience, market, predetermined format or illustration style with which to present it in final art form.
 
A further complication is the challenge and pressure of externally set deadlines. Regarding an assignment whose subject matter is less than engaging, I have often felt the urge to rush a ‘quick and dirty’ solution to a project quickly off my physical or virtual drawing board merely to meet a deadline. But experience has taught me that the decision to do so usually comes back to bite me in the form of frustrating multiple revisions that rarely end well.
 
Even when I set out to create a personal work of art where no external pressures are present, I am assailed by a similar set of ‘symptoms of anxiety and indecision at least until I have laid a basic framework for this new venture.
 
To be fair, everyone suffers from indecision at various times in life. Still, I do know that those of us in the throes of indecision as we embark on creative journeys morph into a strange species of human to an observer. Watch us; we may be out and about in our neighborhoods getting coffee or doing mundane daily errands but rest assured we are out there mentally gathering and sorting images and ideas with which to dislodge our creative ‘blocks’. Our minds are virtually everywhere else, solving the problem of what to do with those blank surfaces we’ve temporarily abandoned in our workspaces.
 
And that’s ok, because among all creatures, we most certainly are human anomalies with a unique life task; to create mirrors and perhaps palliatives through our work that may help others see themselves more clearly; perhaps even understand and appreciate our collective role as stewards of our planet.

A Cure For Pessimism?

August 14, 2019

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Amidst the daily deluge of corrupt politics, death and disaster in the mainstream and social media feeds, I sometimes imagine being a passenger in the boat steered by the mythical Charon whose eternal task was to guide newly deceased souls across the dark River Styx* to their destination in the Underworld. These journeys were long and fraught with terrors, but these were a mere preview of what lay ahead in the Land of the Dead.

Medieval Woodcut Print from Johannes Grüninger's 1502 Edition of the Aeneid 

Photo Credit: danielgoodantiquarianbooks

Of course I’m being a bit melodramatic, yet keeping our heads above those fearful waters is a challenge we have faced for millennia as we watch and often suffer as world leaders cycle their countries through endlessly alternating phases of constructive good and deconstructive evil. As I suggested in my previous essay, The Nature Of Evil, (https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2019/05/06/on-the-nature-of-evil/), we are now firmly embroiled in the toxic immorality that informs evil, courtesy of numerous would-be dictators, their sycophants and their noisy ‘populist’ governments. I am not a scholar of history or politics, so I can only write as an aging observer regarding the inevitable phenomena of life and death that occur in tandem with both.

Armchair philosophers often post sentimental images and feel-good bon-mots at online venues in contrast to proponents of subcultures that revel in the certainties and vagaries of death proudly displaying memento mori as death’s head tattoos, arcane body modifications, clothing and jewelry. Ironically, I find this demographic interesting because I suspect that life is actually being celebrated here with such dark symbolism acting as an apotropaic ward against death.

Much is made of Death and the idea of it in the collective imagination whether it arrives via age, disease, accident, murder, ‘acts of god’ and nature or war and punishment for criminal acts. We variously honor it, celebrate it, welcome it or mourn for those who succumb to it via any of those vectors.

The Gaming Of Life & Death: from AIRPLAY: A Catch Of Jugglers (Imaginarius Editions, 2018)

 

The fear of death has been anthropomorphized to enhance or accompany the human dread of its occurrence. Legends and myths (like the illustration here that visualizes an ancient Egyptian concept of cosmic judgment) have been formulated to explain and assuage fear of it as though it were something that was subject to human influence or control. When it isn’t exploited for political gain, religion, too, helps us cope while encouraging us to live and live well.  

Even those who choose death over life when life becomes too challenging to endure overestimate their own importance as though their own death will matter beyond someone’s casual perusal of a printed obituary or a silent pause in subsequent conversation. Why? Because Death is indifferent; to wealth, fame, brilliance, youth or age. It merely has a job to do. And that job is to fill a blip in time, to punctuate the continuum, the vast, incomprehensible cosmic thread that serves as the referee between order and chaos. 

But lest you think my observations are meant to be discouraging or depressing,  I should note that any discussion of death must include the rationale of those who believe in the concept of a life after life, a ‘ world to come’ so to speak. Having read several ‘testimonial’ accounts (from an array of writers, including a well-respected neurosurgeon), that offer rational-sounding evidence of such a realm, I can only say that I am comforted to imagine that death is not the end of us and that the unknown is not necessarily to be feared. 

So, while many notable religious sages have put forth the idea that each day is a new chance to correct our errors and enhance our legacies, these words alone will not cure the world’s pessimism. In each of our actions, we have the ability to choose between positive and negative thoughts and enact behaviors that characterize either of these if we make ourselves aware of the consequences. 

I am only one person and have no medicine or cure for what currently ails the world, but I do know this: our existence will have merit if we can compartmentalize the world’s ills and choose to live, laugh, let live and be kind to all who aren’t or who don’t seem to want it.

If I can manage to make those sentiments complement the creative work to which I’ve devoted my life, well, so much the better. 

*https://mythology.net/greek/greek-concepts/river-styx/

On The Nature Of Evil…

May 6, 2019

When news broke of the long-anticipated release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 448 page report on aberrations in the presidency of Donald Trump, I indulged in a bit of schadenfreude, imagining how its evidence of the president’s lies and myriad misdeeds under the aegis of his craven administration might justify the suspicions that have become a noxious atmospheric miasma over us since the 2016 presidential elections.

Even as that report comes closer to the light of public scrutiny, we are still in the dark as to its true content because Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate regarding only his redacted version of it. His four-page version and verbal interpretation appeared manipulated to exonerate the president of treasonous activities. By doing so in classic stonewall mode, he revealed his true role as President Trump’s tool and de facto private attorney. This was made abundantly clear when he then refused to testify before the House of Representatives who had originally requested his cooperation.

While we wait to see whether Robert Mueller will be permitted to present his teams’ original version of their report to Congress and the issue of impeachment is tossed around by both governing bodies like a hot potato, many of us can agree that the reality we’ve always taken for granted is undergoing a paradigm shift.

As we are bombarded daily in mainstream and social media by frightening and often incredible developments in both domestic and international spheres, we are finding it more difficult to maintain our equilibrium and react rationally.

Though I risk sounding melodramatic, some days it feels as though life is coming to resemble a dystopian nightmare right out of those speculative science fiction novels in which the tropes of good and evil are woven into characters to reflect the cycling mores and mercurial nature of human history.

This impression assailed me earlier this week. I was out for a walk when I encountered a neighbor whose character has always been a bit dodgy. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he sniffed the air, then prosaically announced, “the devil is walking among us. Can’t you feel it?” What does one say to that? I just nodded, smiled politely and kept walking, marveling silently at the fragile line between reality and fantasy.

Still, that conversation and others shared with acquaintances in person and online these past couple of years have made me curious; have we been gradually spiraling back to a Dark Age mentality despite our technological advances, or perhaps by virtue of them?

With no offense intended towards those whose deep faith admits only God’s Goodness, I can’t help wondering: is what we know as Evil a sociopathic manifestation of the shadowy face of a God inextricably bound to, yet struggling with its own duality of Good and Evil?

Are our inclinations towards evil (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-ra’) and our inclinations towards good (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-tov’ (inclination towards good) actually two sides of that same ‘face’? Since we are capable of surrendering to both of these aspects with equal passion, we must recognize that we have two tasks to address. Our first task throughout our lives is to choose how we will behave and accept the consequences of our choices. Our second task is to understand how our actions affect that balance and work to heal the damaged before it is beyond repair.

Accordingly, the scale shown above is suspended by a ‘yad’ or Torah pointer whose black and white wings symbolize the duality of good and evil. Its pans support two Hebrew letters that represent the spiritual energies of Strength (Gevurah) and Lovingkindness (Chesed). The former is dragging down the latter indicating that these two energies have come out of balance negatively affecting world events.

This illustration is a detail from Leviticus: Parshat Shemini in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). It has been adapted to serve this essay.

As an illustrator and writer, I primarily draw and write in metaphor. My readings in Holocaust literature where God is alternately blamed and absolved of responsibility for those monstrous events are what led me to these notions.

So I’ve imagined that Evil’s destructive energy seems to emerge periodically throughout time, wreaking terror and havoc among us. When it is quiet, for periods of years, decades or centuries, good, productive energies are free to flourish. Meanwhile, that Evil aspect does not sleep; it is infinitely creative, intricately plotting and setting its compromised players on the world stage in the manner of a chessboard where its next move will again guarantee its own terrible victory over good.

Just as astrologers look to the positions of the stars to explain the vagaries of world events, scholars of Jewish mysticism understand them in terms of the dynamic ten sefirot or universal spiritual energies that underlie all life.

In this post Cold War era, while we sustain horrific memories of World War 2 and the Holocaust, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, we remain entrenched in relentless Middle East wars and diplomatic brinksmanship.

Willfully ignorant, the noisome Trumpian doctrine has emerged, currying favor with dictators, stoking the fires of moral degradation, racism, isolationism and a ‘fake news’ agenda that is encouraging an alarming rise in hate-driven mass shootings, cruelty towards immigrants, and dismissal of the health/welfare concerns of most Americans. These are the rumblings and tremors of Evil preparing its next move; one that will undermine democracy in our generation and become our legacy to our children and grandchildren.

Just yesterday, an illustrator friend whose thoughtful, well-crafted work reflects her own perceptive view of our current new-world order,** suggested that we may be living in a 21st century version of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Can we single out ten righteous men in our administration from the corrupt swamp that is our Republican Party ?” she asked.

She was referring to chapter 18:20-33 in the Book of Genesis where Abraham argues with God who had decided to destroy those ancient cities as punishment for their evil ways. The patriarch challenges God to withhold that destruction if he, Abraham, could prove the existence of at least 10 righteous men within them. Of course we know that the cities were destroyed, but a few individuals were warned to escape and so were spared.

Though her question was rhetorical, neither of us could think of even five people in the administration who fit that description, an idea that doesn’t bode well for our country from a biblical perspective.

The United States has long been a physical and psychological haven for immigrants and refugees fleeing their climate-ravaged and/or war-torn homes. Yet, despite our possession of updated papers and passports, given the machinations of our treacherous administration, where can or should we escape to? Who will offer us refuge?

In discussions with friends and relatives with differing opinions or of like mind, one dilemma seems clear; we cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that currently, life is but a nightmare from which we will eventually awaken.

If we reflexively act on our fears and prejudices, we risk our own safety and that of our loved ones. Rather, we must struggle not to remain quietly hopeless and helpless in the incomprehensible face of forces seemingly beyond our control to contain.

Moreover, if we surrender to those modalities, then destructive forces win by default. History will yet again be written by victors whose glorification of their deeds and questionable motives will leave our descendants to question its veracity and learn from our mistakes if they choose.

We will certainly vote with our consciences and/or our feet in the 2020 elections, even as we continue to struggle with the potentially corrupted results as we did in 2016 since there is talk of foreign governments again moving to interfere in our election process.

But this time we must truly understand that only through our unity and ability to question what we are told instead of grasping blindly to a limited ideology, do we hold the keys to repairing what we have allowed to break (Hebrew:’tikkun olam) and to overcoming Evil’s onslaught against our hard-won democracy.

**https://www.instagram.com/naomialiye/

*https://amzn.to/2VC70I7

Illustration: Between Choice & Consequence ©2019 Ilene Winn-Lederer

 

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The Mr. Roger’s Effect

August 29, 2018

In 1979, I was commissioned to illustrate the cover and main feature of Pittsburgh Magazine. The assignment was intriguing; it required concept images for an article by futurist Vance Packard that speculated what life might be like for the average person/family in the year 2001. 

Now, in 2018, it’s been many years since the publication of that article and Mr. Packard (who passed away in 1996) was more accurate in his prediction than he would live to know. Because our attention is so relentlessly engaged by the products of technology and marketing, we rarely stop to realize how deeply we are caught up in metaphorical perpetual motion machine.

Of course, that last statement probably makes me sound like a techno-phobe, yet I can assure you that my profession has required me to become way too familiar with digital devices in order to remain a viable creative. However, I have gained some of the perspective that age grants, which prompted this essay today.  

When that issue of the magazine was published, my children were very young and due to paradigm shifts in the advertising/ publishing industry, I was compelled to work out of my home studio as a freelance illustrator. Large blocks of time were often needed to prepare and/or complete an assignment.

Nevertheless, my husband and I did our best to insure that our children were not permitted an enormous amount of TV exposure because we felt that actual playtime was more important to their development than staring glassy-eyed at a television or at video game screens like the Super Mario Brothers.  Inevitably, such caution  has since surrendered to the digital eye/mind candy that has come to define our culture.

But I still remember the restful ambience brought to our early afternoons by the now-legendary TV show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. It was a dependable event that was usually followed by nap-time.

Fast-forward to a recent Tuesday, a regular babysitting day for our grandson. Noticing an ‘eye-rub’ and slowing physical coordination, I could see that he was reluctantly winding down from a morning of energetic play and would soon be ready for a nap. So I thought that a bit of light-hearted children’s programming might be the key to encourage it. However, when I turned to our local NPR station (always a reliable go-to for this), I realized that children’s programs had undergone a dramatic change in the last few decades.

From the quiet ambience of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the ‘children’s programming’, we now witness is a dizzying variety of fast-moving colorful graphics, changing scenery and animated characters noisily leaping around the screen at frenetic speed. Their chirpy falsetto voices (adults pretending to be children) are accompanied by frenzied, drumming dance ‘music’ that pervades our living room with the rare punctuation by a few bars of quiet notes is often enough to trigger a migraine headache.

Sure, no one is forcing me to watch this insane chaos, but as a certified crabby old grandma, I was annoyed and disappointed at the lack of calm, soothing content that we all need in order to relax from the onslaught of the 24/7 marketing and info-tainment industry.

Yes, children must learn to understand the world to function within it, but in the face of such constant stimulation and noise, think-time is becoming a rarity in our days. The intrusive graphics of the movie ‘Minority Report’ come to mind here.

So how do we teach children to release their creativity and imagination when media persuades us to substitute and accept its own relentless content for it?

Given that our economy forces so many of us to work one or two jobs resulting in mental/physical exhaustion by day’s end, it’s understandably easy to depend on electronic babysitters. But to keep young minds and bodies healthy, we need more than that. We must increase our efforts to be present for them even in small doses; by telling them our stories, reading books, encouraging their questions, and providing thoughtful answers. Not by stashing them in front of the TV or play station or throwing myriad plastic toys at them, but letting them explore the world around them (safely, of course).

OK, this stuff probably sounds obvious to anyone who has read the requisite childcare manuals and maybe followed their pediatricians’ advice (which seems to change every ten years or so), but it is not meant to be patronizing. More to the point, I hope it will serve as a little reminder to consider that if the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show could be reduced to a handful of words, it might be these: Slow down, relax, think, love, wisdom and kindness. Despite the distractions of our society, these actions and values must be preserved if we are to develop our potential as human beings and as stewards of our planet.

Thanks for indulging my little rant. Now, I hope I can remember all of this next time babysitting becomes intense and all I want is an afternoon nap myself…

An Ephemeral Evolution

July 23, 2018

StillLifeWithComputer-1984.jpg

One afternoon late in 2015, as I was listening to a discussion of creativity by a group of experts in computer science and related fields on NPRs’ Science Friday program, the pencil and watercolor drawing shown above, Still Life With Computer, came to mind. Since I’d made the drawing back in 1984, I’d been periodically thinking about the current and future capabilities of artificial intelligence in the wake of organic human creativity, which they were examining in depth.

Just the tenor of all the tech-speak reminded me that creativity is much more than a theoretical, mathematical, virtual process. It is a construct of our physical senses, experiences, emotions, memories, decisions and choices. Working in synch, these elements spark one or more images in our minds that we can decide to manifest through a visual medium such as drawing and/or writing.

Metaphorically, the creative process is akin to threading our way through a mental labyrinth. There, we might ultimately find the object of our journey, even if we had no clear picture of it going in. It is not always evident whether that object will turn out to be a monster, a brilliant idea or whether we will be able to retrace our steps so as to consider the bigger picture of our efforts. Of course, we can accomplish this latter goal by choosing to retain our notes and/or sketches for use in future or to create an entirely new project. For these reasons, I’ve always believed that each of us has this creative potential, yet if and how we decide to express it is what makes each of us uniquely human.

Although this mode of thinking and its products have nourished and documented our cultural progress and history, it was only a matter of time until we had no choice but to acknowledge the perceptual changes that the growing presence and influence of virtual art-making are exercising on our society.

So I wondered: If we were to code a computer with artificial intelligence that allows it to interpret an image and/or text such as the Mona Lisa or a manuscript page of Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412-1416 and 1485-1489 CE), could it create an entirely new image or text based on the information we’ve provided? More importantly, could that image be taken for one that the original artist would make were he or she living today? Finally, would this technology be able to determine when its ‘mission’ is ‘complete’?

A few years ago, these ideas were in the realm of science fiction for me; they were intriguing but did not seem to be a real threat to the high value society accords to creators of original, manual artworks. Even when early virtual/mechanical developments showed promise, I still suspected that a computer’s artificial ability to create art intended to engender profound human emotion might only produce a visual experience as flat as the reproduction of a masterpiece in a book or magazine.

I actually thought that we would need years, even decades to clarify and quantify our own understanding of human objectivity, free will and the ‘soul’ for artificial intelligence to decode it. I also imagined this knowledge would have to manifest as a mechanical surrogate like the science-fictional positronic brain of Star Trek’s android character Mr. Data in order to accomplish this goal. 

DataTNG.jpg

Ah, is ignorance bliss, or what? But fantasies do have their limit.

Ever since AI computers have been shown to perform well in strategic tasks like human-computer chess matches (where a series of traditional outcomes (moves leading to checkmate) has been predetermined, their high-speed, analytical abilities and performance have been increasing exponentially. 

Indeed, progress in this area has taken on a life of its own with finance professionals tweaking its light-speed fortune-making possibilities, medical researchers implementing and anticipating more sophisticated disease treatments, our world’s dependence on it to support our service and power infrastructure and of course, science fiction writers and filmmakers envisioning societies informed by this work.

Simultaneously, as scholars and scientists are employing artificial intelligence to explain creative people and the act of creativity itself, they are racing to democratize creativity and its decision-making component by reducing this process to dizzyingly complex algorithms.

Yet, wonderful as these developments are, instinct tells me that a complete accounting for a creative person’s true talent is missing a few numbers. Artistic talent is an ephemeral fusion of observations, memory and manual skills that include decision-making based on what he or she has seen, heard and experienced. So in my opinion, the inherent subtleties in human creativity have not yet been fully re-imagined.

That said, from my personal experience with digitally enhancing my traditional art, the perceived line between traditional art and art produced by artificial intelligence is becoming frighteningly thin.

Not only can we now make art with virtual tools on a virtual substrate, AI computers partnered with 3D printing technology can also digitally scan an Old Master painting and extrapolate techniques in order to create and produce a new physical image from it, as explained by this article from the online magazine, Marketing In Asia.

In addition, I was recently amazed and bit uneasy at Pittsburgh’s Wood Street Gallerys exhibit in which the entire Hebrew Torah and The St. James Bible were created on paper by a robotic arm. Not being a biblical scholar, I couldn’t attest to its accuracy, but somehow, the whole idea left me cold as I imagined medieval monks in a scriptorium laboring for years to produce their calligraphic and pictorial masterpieces.

So, this essay is meant to ask a few questions whose answers may already be obvious to some of you:

1. If current profit motives and economic prerogatives prevail, could or will AI developments in the arts eventually render human creatives obsolete?

2. Can we ever faithfully capture and mechanize the true essence of the human spirit, the driving force that makes us the wonderfully functioning creatures, receptive and responsive to physical and intellectual experience that we’ve become through biological evolution and the continuum of history?

3. Will we gradually lose our ability to identify and respond to the nuances of original, manual art as we normalize art produced by virtual means?

4. What consequences of such normalization can we expect in terms of intellectual property protection? Fasken, an international law firm has offered its own questions and answers to this concern.

5. Finally, will this new ‘normal’ become the tool of our own cultural immortality or the weapon of its destruction?

What say you?