Can Doña Quixote still cross the road? Only when Peter helps her plot an exit from the Escher stairs in her head
Featured image, adapted by Peter from two Escher artworks: 1), Relativity (1953), M. C. Escher’s classic lithograph that presents the visual imagery of a world where the laws of gravity have ceased to exist. 2), Hen with Egg, M.C. Escher (1917)
So far in 2024, Doña Quixote has lost two major material things: 1), her keyring with her whole set of apartment building keys, i.e., metal keys for inside, storage room-, mailbox-, apartment unit front door AND electronic fob for opening outer doors of the building. 2), her credit card. As an event that most of us experience once or a handful of times in a lifetime—losing a large chunk of everything one needs to establish your identity and function medically and financially in the world—a loss like this is bad enough on which to start a new year, but not necessarily a disaster: I don’t know anybody in person who has suffered permanent, i.e., lifelong societal or finanacial repercussions from such accidents, and neither have I. However, for someone like me with a history of such losses over the past decade—as well as in my earlier life when I could still deal with it myself—the start of this year did ring as some kind of an ending. Was it practical—never mind responsible and ethical—that someone with my record should still be going out in the world unaccompanied when it so frequently costs huge chunks of Peter’s time and energy, gifts that he already gives to me every day in abundance? And I haven’t even mentioned the emotional devastation such setbacks causes. How could I keep on taking and taking from the heart of the one you love most, albeit a heart as “wide as a watermelon”? From him, who never stops “giving me…the mystery of great cost…and my heart, takes it all in—all in comes the fury of love.”
As huge as a granary, Peter’s heart. A communal grain bin built by the Konkombwa people of Ghana (1972). It had a movable top, constructed separately and put in place after completion. The whole structure is as big as a good-sized hut. Filled, an 8′ diameter bin could hold up to 2 tons of wheat. The storage bin in the photo above seems bigger than that if you compare it to the hut behind it. In roughly the same millennium (700-600BCE) in which the bible book was written in which the God of Israel tells his people how to treat the stranger and the disadvantaged—”do not hold back offerings from your granaries and your vats” (Ex 22:29), Homer’s and Hesiod’s mythologies indicate that Greek culture, too, regarded firstfruits as touched with divine power—as long as it was shared, it would provide never-ending nourishment. Two-and-a-half millennia later (1970s), the architecture of Ghana’s West African savannah offered evidence that firstfruits were still imbued with sacred power: unlike the home-made mud huts of the village, both mosques and granaries were constructed by master builders from mud sources known for their superior combination of minerals. While the mud huts of a village were allowed to become heaps of clay when they started to decay, mosques and granaries were ritually maintained to outlast more than one generation. The extraordinary attention they were given stemmed from the crucial part each of the buildings played in the transmission of and religious and cultural norms.
The Elephant Celebes, 1921, by German/American/French painter, sculptor, printmaker, graphic artist, and poet Max Ernst. The artist was a primary pioneer of Dada and Surrealism. The painting was inspired by a granary—similar to the one shown above—that Ernst saw in an anthropological journal. He transformed the granary’s central elephant-like shape into a mechanical monster with bull horns, thereby recycling its link to real life together with its sacred properties into a sinister, industrial-looking device. Other elements in the composition, namely the decapitated female figure, the flying fish, the mechanical appearance of the (cactus-like?) plant to the right, all contribute to the dark dreamlike atmosphere and demonstrate the influence of Freud and free association on Ernst and the Surrealists. At bottom left the decapitated figure wears a surgical glove, a common symbol employed by the Surrealists. The flying fish also have a mechanical air about them and could be confused with airplanes, symbolizing the terror Ernst associated with his experience in the war and its profound effect on his works. Ernst’s twisting of a Konkombwa granary into an image of “undecipherable uncertainty” symbolizes my reason for not having wanted to adapt my Gucci bag into a key- and ID document keeper.
A 2024 loss I did not yet mention was that—when those who stayed up to watch the new year ball drop in Times Square were still sleeping off their hangovers—I again left my walking stick behind somewhere in our neighborhood. This time, after helping me backtrack and fortunately find the stick, Peter right away instituted an anti-loss plan: he fitted the cane with an electronic tracker which shows the stick’s location on a phone app. While I don’t like the aesthetics of having a Kennedy-dollar-size black disc halfway down the shaft of my bird-adorned white cane, I love knowing that my stick will be easier to find when (not if!) I lose it again. What I love even more is that my future inadvertent neglect will hopefully make a noticeably smaller notch in Peter’s energy. You’d think that with the application of AI—supposedly a boon for people with dementia—I could now become walking-stick-retrieval sufficient. However, Doña Quixote has no chance of putting the new technology to good use by herself, given that she had not been able to read maps for a long time, even before she stopped driving a dozen years ago… Sadly, Peter will still have to participating in the cane-finding by (at least) telling me the location where I had abandoned it.
Peter’s initiative with my stick spurred me to figure out and put in place my own new plan for keeping stuff from escaping my handbag. It was time to ditch my high-minded notion that preserving a beautiful object, my Gucci bag, was more important than conserving Peter’s equanimity and me-time as well as my own distress. But I still did not want to spoil the Gucci bag. I’d have to find someone else to love it and rather get a new bag. Aesthetics would not be my primary consideration—it would be all about functionality. I would have to find a suitable bag that I was nevertheless prepared to damage in which to secure my portables. If it turned out to be a fanny-pack with enough easily reachable pockets for my phone and documents well as a huge attached keyring, I would not mind looking like our building’s maintenance guy! Accordingly, I searched consignment sites and other websites for the right bag. If the Plato’s cave of the internet did not yield the perfect object, I would willingly accept the “good enough” shadow on the wall.
Note the correspondence between the triangles in the first image, M. C. Escher’s Relativity (1953), and in the second image (upside down), of a 4-meter high sculpture of the Penrose triangle built in a park in Switzerland by the Physics Department at Dortmund University, Germany. In 1954, English mathematician, mathematical physicist, philosopher of science, and would-be Nobel Laureate (2020) Roger Penrose happened upon an exhibition of Escher’s artwork that must have included Relativity. This inspired him to construct the “impossible figure” which is now called the Penrose Triangle/Tribar. Its appearance as a solid triangular object made from three straight sections is an illusion—it is rather a platonic object that cannot be made in three-dimensional space. All we get is the shadow on the wall: only when viewed from a particular angle does the sculpture appear to be a tribar. While the shape had earlier been discovered by a Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvärd, the importance of his find did not pass beyond his small circle. Penrose, however, together with his father Lionel, placed the shape into a mathematical/ philosophical/psychological context from where it entered the popular imagination. He described it as “impossibility in its purest form.” Penrose sent a copy of his article on the shape to Escher, who was strongly influenced by it. Escher’s well-known masterpiece Waterfall (1961) incorporates two Penrose tribars in its structure, thereby creating the illusion of water flowing upwards—impossible, since such an occurrence would be an example of a perpetual motion machine, a transgression of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
The “Impossible Triangle” in Perth, Australia, was created by artist Brian McKay in collaboration with architect Ahmad Abas. In the first image—like the tribar in the Switzerland park shown above—the triangle seems to be a solid figure. This is an optical illusion. Seen from the other side, second image, it is clear that in three dimensions the figure is not continuous.
Why did the chicken cross the road? Ralph Waldo Emerson: It didn’t cross the road; it transcended it.
Untitled, Doug Argue, 2004. In 1989, after the birth of his son, Argue’s work started being characterized by the use of parts to render the idea of a whole. He chose chickens as protagonists in a saga where conventionally neglected creatures were turned into subjugated minorities. Argue’s epic, Upton Sinclair-esque painting of a mass-producing chicken farm is an example of this period. The chickens roost in small cages on each side, with the perspective constructed so that the angles go toward a vanishing point in the far distance. According to Elizabeth Armstrong, who curated Argue’s first and some later exhibitions, “in more recent works the artist has explored repetition and wonder. The specificity of the repeating images in Argue’s work… acts as a kind of antidote to the looming future of artificial intelligence.”
Three weeks after I lost my credit card and keys, I have implemented my handbag reform plans—with a lot of help from Peter. While I was responsible for finding a new bag, one that was aesthetically pleasing but that I would nevertheless be willing to “sacrifice” if necessary, Peter would find the technical accoutrements for connecting my possessions to the bag. I checked out the regular mall stores and the few remaining Salt Lake City’s consignment stores with glee—Peter, as always, was willing my chauffeur. Nothing. Then I tried the online consignment stores where I had found beloved items before. I found a bag with the necessary number of pockets. It also had key-ring-like decorations on the outside that made me salivate. I had enough pocket money saved to buy it. A not initially so desirable feature was that it was rather gaudy—also somewhat fussy with many-colored fringes. The good thing was that it was hard to miss—maybe even I would notice it’s absence and remember to pick it up should I have put it down somewhere. I planned, however, never to put it down—it has a crossbody strap and the bag itself is thin enough that I should be able to keep it on under my coat or even while wearing my car seatbelt. Peter’s orders of hardware arrived, and we put it together.
First photo: on the outside of the bag, on the left I’m pointing to a retractable black key holder for my phone; on the right I am holding my yellow building entry fob. Second photo, my phone goes into the firs zippered pocket; I am holding my phone outside the bag, yet it is still attached to black retractable keyholder on the left of the image. At home, I can unclip the phone and take to where I want to use it. Third photo, my wallet goes into the second zippered pocket at the back of the bag; a brass chain bracelet (that I happened to have) connects the wallet to a large brass ring that holds one end of the crossbody strap. Fourth image, the outside flip-open pocket on the front of the bag holds Peter’s car’s keys and a few cash notes.
How can the chicken possibly not manage to cross the road? Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Let me count the ways…”
“L’egs-istential Quandary,” or the “Impossible Elephant,” by the psychologist Roger Shepard