Wednesday, 15 August 2012

God is in the Details

Let me set the scene.

Years ago I went to see a ballet with my Mum and Dad, The Nutcracker I think it was. At one point, my Dad leant over and asked me why I thought it was that every dancer on stage had learnt to keep every single part of their body in exactly the same position, down to the curve of their fingers as they held them above their heads.

I think at the time, I assumed he thought it was all just a farce: that it was pointless to put that degree of perfection into a dance and was cracking a bad joke... but then that question stuck into my mind. It dug itself in and grew and it began to occur to me that he may have consciously been planting a philosophical seed in my head. My Dad is, after all, a physisist and a thinker.
Around the same time, I read a book called 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller' by a guy called Italo Calvino. Strange book, but good. For me there is one particularly memorable scene, where a character is attempting to look at his surroundings with such meticulous attention that he would see and appreciate the individual beauty of every single leaf as they fell en-mass from a tree.

Two weeks ago, a three-year confusion of a relationship drew abruptly to a close when the man in question chose to hide a new girlfriend from me, and then had her around to his flat when he had said he would be coming to mine, resulting in the inevitable akward moment when I arrived at his place to find out where he'd got to... (sounds like the perfect Adam Sandler comedy sketch doesn't it- not so much fun in real life though!)

Hours previously to this, I had stood in the chaos that was his living space. And when I say chaos, don't think I am exaggerating the scene. Well, I suppose there was a bit of clear floor space...

My eyes had quickly scanned over the piles of unwashed dishes, the mens clothing scattered over the training mats he had layed out as flooring, the old trainers, heavy-duty boots, smoking paraphernalia, graphic novels, empty bottles and food packaging... and the only thing that actually caught my attention was the one thing that didn't fit in. A tiny, pink pot of make-up. Later that day, after I found the two of them together, I wondered why I hadn't known as soon as I saw it.

Odd though, isn't it, how a little pink pot of make-up can answer a question about a group of ballet dancers. We notice the things that don't fit. No matter how small.

There will be some scientific reasoning for this somewhere. Probably to do with our ancestral relatives and the need to spot predators...But why reduce it to facts when it is such a beautiful philosophy to explore?

Let's go back to Italo Calvino. What a wonderful thing to be so in tune with the scene in front of your eyes that you can pick up on every moving detail and appreciate each one separately...

Is it though? A tiny yellow leaf is a beautiful thing. A single fluttering, falling leaf is a beautiful thing. Is it sad that when we look at a hundred leaves floating to the ground from an autumnal tree, we don't appreciate each leaf in turn? No, I don't think it is. We can look at our feet and choose one particularly beautiful leaf. We can pick it up and run our fingers over its surface and feel the veins and the knots and imperfections in its surface. We can look closely at the colour variations and the way the light shines through it and seems to make it glow...

And then we can look back at the scene and we can see the beauty of the golden snowfall of all the leaves falling separately but also as one. We can understand that each leaf is a unique object like the one in our hand, but we will never be able to concentrate on a hundred different moving things at once. Our brain takes in the overall scene and condenses all the details into one event. And that way we can understand it as a whole.

Similarly, each ballet dancer is a unique moving object and each one is beautiful in their own right. But the real magic lies in the synchronicity of many dancers moving as one. When they get every detail right, every single part of their body moving in time with every other dancer, the result is like a single living being.

Now, take the same scene: twenty ballet dancers on a stage, each one gracefully moving their arms in unison. Except this time one dancer is half a beat behind the rest, her hand reaching her shoulder while the rest have theirs over their heads. What you will see instead of a single moving unit, is the one person doing something different to the rest. And the likelyhood is you will feel uncomfortable about it because it doesn't fit, it doesn't work.

I'm not a ballet conniseur... I don't have the first clue about ballet, but from the few times I have watched it, I know this is how I see it. It's not just ballet either. The same theory works for many things in life:

- a flock of birds soaring as one. One bird breaks off and flies in a new direction but the others don't follow. A person watching the scene will see one large moving object, and one single bird. 

- a garden is full of bright orange flowers. Except for one lone purple flower. We will not look at each single orange flower. We will see an orange flower bed and a purple flower.

I could go on and on, but I expect you get the picture.

I think we all have an inbuilt system that reacts to details that don't fit with the bigger picture. We may feel uncomfortable about them, disgusted even. But we can also react with fascination, interest, and sometimes pride. Isn't this where 'individualism' comes from? We all know that in a group of people wearing suits, our attention will fall on the person in jeans and a t-shirt... or vica versa.

But why would we want to be the one thing that doesn't work in a beautiful system of small parts moving as one? I would imagine it is because we want to be the one thing that is seen. We want to be that one leaf that is picked up and treasured while the others fall to the ground and are forgotten, part of the moment but never appreciated individually.

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