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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Oz Fritz and RAW on the art of paying attention

A few weeks ago, I was on a tour bus in LA, looking at star homes, Hollywood film haunts and other attractions. It should have been more fun, but I was still getting over the flu. I spent a lot of time looking for bathrooms every time the bus stopped.

Still, the day its moments.

One that stands out for me is when we went to Venice Beach. The bus driver, who pointed out the house where Johnny Rotten lives, advised us to eat from the food stands to save time. I ate a deep fried fish taco that was pretty good, but I was still hungry. I finally decided a hot dog would be about right, so I stopped at another stand. The woman who was supposed to be at the counter had gone to the bathroom, and as the minutes ticked away and I worried about missing my bus, I considered my options. I noticed an Indian food stand and ordered a samosa instead.

A samosa is a kind of dumpling with potatoes inside. Not very exciting in my experience, but the woman who served it ladled a sauce on it that tasted like it had vinegar and other flavors. The sauce made the samosa one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth. I wish I could get some more.

There are times when I feel tired or down when I've discovered I can give myself a positive energy boost by listening to the right kind of music. Lately, I've found that a dose of Shostakovich or Prokofiev or Beethoven can be helpful. The first time I listened to Shostakovich's third string quartet, listening through earbuds as I lay in the dark, I was riveted. Each note seemed to connect to my nervous system. Of course, it is my nervous system, and yours will be stimulated by someone else's music.

I tell these stories about being in a moment of awareness, knowing that Oz Fritz could have told them much better. Here is Oz, on the esthetic appreciation he felt while watching ... car exhaust.

"All at once I saw the connectedness and the intrinsic aesthetic nature of everything, what Thelemites call the Vision of Beatitude. This vision, though not constant, has never left. For instance, not long after, I stood waiting at a bus stop in 20 degree below zero weather in Calgary blissfully looking down the road at a car and the beautiful pattern its exhaust smoke made in the clear crisp air against a background of freshly fallen snow. It looked like a painting. No, I wasn't smoking or taking anything to engender this cognition."

Oz makes a habit of noticing things. Did you see his comment a couple of weeks ago in the opening Illuminatus! discussion? "Stayed at the Marina hotel and watched the wind blow strong waves along the Mediterranean shore this afternoon. As I write this a multi-spout, multi-color fountain sequences through a choreographed water dance in this high aesthetic food court lounge at the airport."

The car exhaust quote  is from a blog post called "The Art of Listening," and it describes a discovery that Oz made at age 16, probably well before he had heard of Brian Eno (slightly edited):

I moved into my first apartment on my own about three months after turning 16. Apart from some clothes and a few books, my only possessions were a stereo and record collection. I worked at a nearby fast food joint afternoons and evenings after school, getting back home around midnight. Naturally, for a music-loving kid that age, firing up the stereo and blasting rock albums at full volume late into the night was the first order of business after work. Not surprisingly, the neighbors complained, and after a mere three days I was given the ultimatum to either turn down the music or face eviction. The next night, jonesing for a music fix and not wishing to get kicked out, I put on Jimi Hendrix at a very low level, laid down between the speakers and listened as hard as I could. To my astonishment, I became just as immersed in the music as I did when it was turned up loud. That's when I discovered the role attention plays in the listening process, though at the time I had no idea what it was.  I only knew  that music could give an equally powerful experience at a low decibel level if a special effort at listening was made. 

(This is from Oz's excellent blog, The Oz Mix.)

Although Oz mentions Brian Eno in the post, he doesn't mention how Eno made essentially the same discovery.

Here is how composer William Duckworth tells the story in his interesting book, Virtual Music: How the Web Got Wired for Sound. 

Duckworth explains that Eno was convalescent, on painkillers, recovering after being hit by a taxi.

While he was convalescing, his friend Judy Nylon came to visit one day and brought him a recording of eighteenth-century virtuoso harp music. As she was leaving, he asked her to put it on the record player in his room. But after she had left, and to his chagrin, it was raining and the volume was so low that the combination of the two meant he could barely hear the music, catching only the loudest of isolated notes or the smallest flurries of sound. So there he was, unable to hear it properly, but also unable to adjust the volume or turn it off because he was confined to his bed. As this forced listening continued, however, he said he "started to think that it sounded all right" and to wonder "why no music like this existed." He went on the say that the experience gave him "the sense of hearing the tip of something and the knowledge that there was more beneath it." And as he continued to listen, he said he came to the conclusion that "I wanted my music to do this." It was because of this experience that he resolved to make a commitment to experimental music and to take it more seriously.

All of this relates, in my mind at least, to Robert Anton Wilson's essay, "How to Read/How to Think," reprinted in Coincidance: A Head Test.  It's also available in this issue, Number 8, of Robert Shea's anarchist fanzine, "No Governor."

"How to Read/How to Think," a not very long article written largely in the form of a series of questions, would have to included in any list I compiled of favorite short pieces by RAW. I sometimes  think I should make a point of reading it once a week.

The main topic is a defense of very careful reading and of difficult books (the article includes great insights into James Joyce's Ulysses, which I just finished re-reading.)  But beyond that, RAW stresses the importance of paying attention,  whether one is reading a book, looking at a painting, listening to music (in Coincidance, the essay is preceded by three insightful jazz haiku) or simply going about one's day.

Here are a couple of short bits from "How to Read/How to Think" in RAW's best aphoristic style, on the importance of paying attention:

Do we "see" more in life when we are intensely alert? Do we see more in books and art when we are intensely alert? Is normal mechanical reading a species of what mystics call dreaming or sleep-walking?

One Zen master, when asked what Zen "is," always replied with the single word, "Attention." What the hell did he mean?


Oz Fritz said...

Great Hollywood story! Thanks for mentioning my blog.

michael said...

This seems to me like Tom at his best. Terrific post, and it made me think about my own rhetoric about paying attention, and that it might not be a bad idea to just not talk about the elephant in the room.