five hundred years of madness

There was a series of experiments on humans conducted in the twenties that would have warmed Dostoevsky’s heart. Warmed? Well, perhaps the temperature of that word is incorrect. Put it like this: these results would have cheered up the Underground Man.

The problem was a military one. How does a company of soldiers orient itself in the fog? The problem extended to orientation itself. My current fascination with McManus’ book on handedness turned me on to the experiments of one Asa A. Schaeffer of the University of Kansas. Schaeffer took advantage of Kansas’ outstanding trait – flatness, no trees. He put people in the driving seat in cars, blindfolded them, and had them drive straight. He blindfolded other subjects and had them swim, or walk. The results were reported “in a paper entitled Spiral Movement in Man,(Journal of Morphology and Physiology, Vol. 45,No I, March, 1928). He finds that whether walking, swimming, rowing a boat, or driving an automobile, the tendency of a blindfolded person is always to follow a spiral path.” Nature does not abhor a vacuum more than man abhors a straight path.

In a sense, this is the full horror of modernity – the massive imposition of straight paths on spiral seeking creatures. Skyscrapers, the prohibition of LSD, deadlines, formatting – it is all the subtlest of tortures that makes our lives intolerable. Man makes jam -- traffic jam -- out of the straight lines that the masters lay down for him. We long for the spiral. Dostoevsky knew this long ago, and so did Kafka.

According to McManus’ site:

“In the studies (Schaeffer, 1928; see Ludwig (1932 pp.327-330.), 57% of people turned to the right and 43% to the left, the size of the circles being surprisingly small, a diameter of about 18 metres when walking or swimming, and about 50 metres when driving. Ludwig speculates that one side is somewhat stronger than the other, and that the difference is accentuated as the person becomes tired, when walking or swimming (but not driving), accounting for the ever tightening spiral. Schaeffer (1931) also carried out studies of protozoa and found that in the majority of cases they spiralled to the right. Bracha et al., 1987. Slight turning tendencies can also be recognised in subjects wearing a backpack attached to a set of detectors, and suggest that slight noises to one side, or carrying a heavy object on one side can cause veering (Millar, 1999). A similar tendency of right handers to turn to the right can be seen in the stepping test used by Previc and Saucedo (Previc & Saucedo, 1992).”

So – take In the Penal Colony. Query: when the sentence is inscribed on the chest of the prisoner, is the handwriting to the left or the right? Perhaps the intolerable compromise of printing, with no handedness to the words at all, destroyed the whole mechanism of a rack in which, in his last throes, the human being tosses bodily to the right. The same disconnect between print and the spiral tending human probably makes this epoch of printed matter -- a short period, actually, starting in the 15th century -- ephemeral. The assault on the unconscious of us spiral tending writers and readers lo these many centuries is being repaired by the blessed illiteracy of eight hours of tv per day. I don't know if that is enough.


nightspore said…
Or there's the spiraling in Beckett's Unnameable, where Mahood (is it) spirals outwards for years, and theb tightens inwards for years. I read somewhere recently, though, that animals forage in the mathematically most efficient manner, and I wonder whether a blindfold tendency to spiral (in humans) doesn't indicate such a tendency. Handedness would make you spiral in the direction of maximal readiness to respond. Do the blind spiral?
roger said…
Suggestive remarks. Beckett got from Joyce the cyclical view of history and narrative, and certainly Leopold Bloom is a great spiraler and forager. And then there are Molloy's sucking stones:

"I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of
sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on
this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them
equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn
about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following
way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these
being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my
greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and
putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my
greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I
replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had
finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my
four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to
suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my
greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time.
And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I
have just described. And so on."