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⌆ Musing with Yiming: 003 — The Bower of Bliss
Art, Nature, and many realities
A few years ago, I went to a lecture on Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queene. The teacher focused on a small section of the long poem, called the Bower of Bliss. The story illustrates the Knight of Temperance, Guyon’s quest in the Bower of Bliss - an exquisite, luxuriant garden crafted by an enchantress, Acrasia. Spencer indulges readers with exotic images and dazzling temptations. When the Knight finally wrathfully destructed the garden, readers are left to wonder about the psychological wrestling behind this abrupt action.
The most fascinating theme in the analysis of this poem is the discussion around “nature” vs. “art.” The Bower is supposed to imitate the paradise, Garden of Eden, which is created by God, just like the great Nature itself. Meanwhile, unlike paradise, the Bower is an earthly artifact, made by an artful witch to lure ignorant humans so they would be doomed to stay in an illusion forever. It seems that Spencer praises the virtue of the Knight of Temperance. However, in the poem, he left some commentary that makes the reader ponder his real opinion of art:
One would haue thought, (so cunningly, the rude,
And scorned parts were mingled with the fine,)
That nature had for wantonesse ensude
Art, and that Art at nature did repine;
So striuing each th'other to vndermine,
Each did the others worke more beautifie;
So diff'ring both in willes, agreed in fine:
So all agreed through sweete diuersitie,
This Gardin to adorne with all varietie.
This piece of teaching stuck with me ever since. I’ve shared the story with many friends. Sometimes, I used the story to warn the danger of our digital reality, where there are extreme sensory stimulations and excessive consumption, and how it might trap us in this artificial beauty forever, losing the hope for returning to the great nature. However, I’ve also used the story to praise human inventions: if not the great arts and technology, would we learn to appreciate the diverse nature of reality?
Recently I listened to a podcast between Kara Swisher and Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality (who worked on VR goggles and gloves in the 80s). For a long-time technologist, Jaron Lanier’s view on reality is not as what an average person would expect :
“…I find it astonishing because when you try to understand reality as it is and you start to appreciate just how subtle it is, or if you just — I don’t know, just playing a real bamboo flute compared to any digital instrument ever. Or just a real person, just being with a real person, looking at their face, touching them, I think there’s an infinity, an open horizon for all time of just appreciating the physical world more. Whereas the digital world can also grow and become more and more creative. I’ve noticed lately that anything you can use to write text with that’s digital is starting to try to predict ahead. So we’re letting the past of language control the future of language in a way that it didn’t before. But at the same time, ultimately, the digital world is us stewing in our own juices. That the algorithms are based on taking the past and limiting the future to the past……
…… But the thing is, if you want to try to draw an airtight sense of the world where there’s no mystery and everything makes perfect sense, you’ll find that you can’t. There’s always some seam. There’s some seam, like some observer problem or some, why are we here and not there? What is it that positions us here? And you always end up back with a mystical sense of experience. You can’t really get rid of something about the experience itself that’s a little metaphysical. And so the thing is that any digital world, no matter how elaborate, no matter how beautiful, is going to be most valuable as a form of contrast to notice that mystery.”
Yes, Jaron, thank you for your words. Any digital world, like any “Art” (human creation), is meant to provide a portal and an opportunity to observe the physical reality (nature) itself in an unfamiliar way. It is a fractal of the real reality (consciousness), which, is infinite yet bound by our past conditioning.
I marvel at how experimental we’ve become with making virtual realities. The digital world is the Bower of Bliss of our age. I remember when I was a lonely teenager, how the internet made me feel: just like an exotic garden - I wanted to click on everything and inhale every bit. Now as someone who draws pixels of this garden for the past ten years, I smell people’s eagerness to get out. No matter how beautiful we illustrate this world, it is ultimately a snapshot.
Sometimes I wonder where we’ll go with this experiment as we feel so lost in our fabricated realities. I hope we reach a realm where we approach temperance with understanding and acceptance, unlike the Knight’s destructive action. The desire to birth something beautiful is never wrong to claim. Exfoliation, when the surface of beauty starts to dry out, is also necessary. However, maybe in the future, we can maintain a garden, not for earthly tetherings, but for heavenly offerings.
Till next time,