Forgetting to Forget

February 6, 2019

Claude Monet once said

When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape.

and again even more concisely:

To see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.

Holy smokes! To see, we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at!

The idea that painting requires forgetting - as opposed to concentration and effort - seems counterintuitive. But really, looking at a thing and registering it as a “chair” or a “tree” is a forgetful process itself, in the way that all abstractions involve the forgetting of most details in favor of a few. And since names are just handles attached to abstractions, forgetting a thing’s name is really more like forgetting to forget it!

This isn’t about something cheap like “lateral thinking exercises” that play language games; this is about meditating all the language away to get more directly at reality.

My favorite chapter in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is also about something like this, under the framing of “stuckness”. If you’re stuck with a stripped screw in a side cover assembly, you have no choice but to begin peeling away at the layers of abstraction in between you and the motorcycle. The screw stops being a “screw” or even a “stripped screw”, it becomes this particular piece of metal right here and the tools at your disposal become these specific objects. Solutions appear as combinations of things around you that often rely on idiosyncratic characteristics that lie outside their traditional abstractions, and finding those solutions often requires a paradoxical relaxation of focus, just like painting.

Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now, as your Quality awareness becomes stronger, you realize that this one, individual, particular screw is neither cheap nor small nor unimportant. Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the whole motorcycle, because the motorcycle is actually valueless until you get the screw out. With this reevaluation of the screw comes a willingness to expand your knowledge of it.

This solution-combination-finding process is a delicate business! It doesn’t happen as mechanical application of facts to rules (you’d hardly call that being stuck), it happens as a basically inexplicable subconscious idea-generating magic.

What you’re up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought. You need some ideas, some hypotheses. Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to say exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses… As PoincarĂ© pointed out, there must be a subliminal choice of what facts we observe. The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care!

PoincarĂ© has a lot more to say about this (the whole chapter Mathematical Creation is worth reading). He describes mathematical thinking as the subconscious rearrangement of tons of “combinations” of ideas that get filtered through a “sieve” of… beauty.

A first hypothesis now presents itself: the subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since it succeeds where that has failed. In a word, is not the subliminal self superior to the conscious self?

… and he talks a lot about the “aesthetic sense” to math:

It may be surprising to see emotional sensibility invoked Ă  propos of mathematical demonstrations which, it would seem, can interest only the intellect. This would be to forget the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. This is a true esthetic feeling that all real mathematicians know, and surely it belongs to emotional sensibility… The useful combinations are precisely the most beautiful.

And of course all of this is reminiscent of that psychedelic sensation of seeing something in a new light, as if for the first time.