Sunday, March 11, 2012


spiral galaxy M74


“You should have gone into physics –
there’s so much poetry in physics,”
were my father’s last
words to me – a last shining of the light
for a moment, the last time
he recognized me in the nursing home.

My father did not believe in God.
He believed in physics,
the greatest poem of our time –
But I wasn’t a poet enough
to ride on the lip of infinity,
the event horizon before the birth of stars.

Leaning forward with slight menace,
my father would remind me,
“An electron is not a thing.
It can be described only in mathematics.”
“It’s not about numbers,” he insisted.
“Mathematics is about beauty.”

Everything’s mainly nothing,
a black hole of whirling metaphors.
One time, an impatient schoolgirl,
I asked, “How do you know
how to solve this equation?
He replied: “Intuition.”

One night I will go leaping
from moon to moon to star
to test the curvilinear
poetics of space-time.
Somewhere along a nebula,
in fluent mathematics,

I’ll wave to my father who told me
not to worry about the universe –
the red shift of receding galaxies,
silent music where nothing is lost.

~ Oriana © 2012


Intuition. We know that writers are guided by it, that all artists do. But mathematicians? I instantly knew that my father told me the truth. How did I know? Intuition.

Cormac McCarthy, a novelist known chiefly for “No Country for Old Men” (ironically, he first penned it as a film script, which got rejected) and one of the chief figures at the interdisciplinary Santa Fe Institute, has noted a deep similarity between writing and science: “Major insights in science come from the subconscious, from staring at your shoes.”

My father, a physics and mathematics professor at the University of Lodz, didn’t stare at his shoes. But he did at lot of staring – mostly at a page with an equation on it. Now and then, that page would be presented to him by me as a high school student who had only so much patience (about five minutes) with any math problem that resisted a quick solution.

After duly noting my mental laziness, my father would take a look at the equation, pick up his pen and scribble the solution. Now and then, however, an equation would prove resistant. That’s when the staring happened, of varied duration. In the end, there was the familiar reach for the pen and quick scribbling. No cold sweat of laboriously trying this or that. He “saw” the solution. Intuition.

Of course, mathematical intuition takes years of study and practice to develop. The same goes for a mechanic’s knowing in a flash what’s wrong with the engine, a pilot’s “intuitively” knowing how to react to an emergency, and so on. The list goes on. My ability to understand poems seemingly without effort came only after reading thousands of poems – slowly and with effort at first (I found the language contorted, but that’s precisely what intrigued me; the difficulty drove me on). There is no need to belabor the point: like talent, arriving at effortless intuition takes time and effort. And even after you sense that you are there, if you continue engaging with the work you love doing, intuition continues to grow (“you arrive in magic, flying”)

Below: my father at fourteen. He studied mathematics textbooks for classes ahead of him and tutored mathematics at all levels to help support his mother and five sisters.


In his article “Freud’s Cognitive Revolution,” David Livingstone Smith ( states that Freud “cut the Gordian knot by discarding the entire Cartesian package, beginning with body-mind dualism. Freud became what is nowadays called a physicalist -- that is, he came to assert (many decades before this was intellectually fashionable) that mental states are brain states.

He also jettisoned the view that all mental phenomena are conscious. In fact, Freud argued that all cognitive processes are unconscious, and that the outputs of some of these processes are secondarily displayed in consciousness. So-called conscious thoughts are merely representations of unconscious thoughts.

Freud's philosophically momentous change of mind anticipated much of what occurred during the cognitive revolution of the late 20th century.”

All cognitive processing is unconscious? Or just unconscious at first, but then partly conscious? Have patience – we’ll consider a more complex picture when we get to the “two systems” posited by Daniel Kahneman.

But first, let me repeat what I’ve said in response to Rae Armantrout’s clever lines: 

There are two kinds of choices: 
unconscious and desperate

~ As Freud first posited already in 1895, all cognitive processing, including choices, is unconscious. Some “answers” are then transmitted to consciousness (of course we have no choice other than to believe in free will). This is not a cause for despair. The process is affected by endless variables, more than we can consciously know (or would want to; part of the wisdom of aging is that we don't crave to know everything there is to be known; you come to understand that knowing can be a greater burden than it’s worth carrying). Our brain tries to make it easy for us. Having too much information and too many choices is stressful. Simplify, simplify! Reach for a book by your favorite author, and dive deep.


Nietzsche called a human being a dark and veiled thing; and whereas the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven times seventy skins and still not be able to say: This is really you, this is no longer outer shell. But current thinking is that it’s not some hidden sexual secrets that make us so ignorant: it’s rather that we are “dual-process thinkers.” 

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, and unexpectedly also a author of psychology books, described the fast system as intuitive, associative, metaphoric, impressionistic, and automatic. It can’t be switched off.
It’s like the parallel processing in computers. The slow system is deliberate and effortful. It’s analogous to serial processing. An example would be doing some calculations by hand, or trying to find the documentation you need for the IRS. (Jung was groping toward that dual system when he spoke of Eros and Logos, Eros being metaphoric, the language of dreams and human relationships. Kahneman’s two systems are more encompassing, and have neuroscience behind them – and besides, to me they feel intuitively correct.)

I remember taking a class in cognitive psychology, and the professor asking, “Which American city is also the name of a large hoofed mammal?” I answered instantly: Buffalo. “Did you make a list of all the names of American cities, and another list of large mammals, and compare to see which word was the same on both?” Of course not. That would have been the slow, serial processing. The brain prefers parallel processing, or something like it – the brain isn’t conscious of how it’s accomplishing its miracles. Personally, I love it – what writer doesn’t love mysteries and paradoxes? What scientist?

Niagara Falls; the cruise ship might be Miss Buffalo. I can’t forgive myself for not having taken that little cruise on Miss Buffalo. It’s what we haven’t done that we tend to regret most.


It’s obvious which cognitive system is the brain’s preferred one – just as it’s immediately obvious which kind of writing is “inspired,” and which is the dull, belabored product of the slow system. Generally, the less you push and strive at the conscious level, the more you “stay out of your way,” the better the results.

Once, talking with a mathematics professor, I remarked that novelists say that they work out a deliberate detailed outline, but at some point the characters “start acting on their own,” saying and doing things the author didn’t plan. The mathematics professor smiled. “That’s because writing comes from the unconscious,” he said. Not something I expected a mathematician to say, but should have, given my father’s reply about intuition. Mathematicians understand about intuition, also called parallel processing or “fast thinking.”

The irony is that we tend to give slow thinking the credit for making most of our choices and generally for “being who we are.” But writers know that they don’t choose what they write about. And mathematicians and physicists? One thing I’ve noticed, and this is also true of many scientists, is that they are constantly cracking jokes. And getting them in an instant. All those puns and metaphors, all that parallel processing . . .   


The brain evolved to give us quick, effortless answers. “The quick and the dead” comes to mind as an easy rationale for this evolution. So, should we just forget about slow thinking? Alas, that would be the kind of mistake that our intuition is prone to making. Yes, there is a dark side to intuition. The price of speed is jumping to conclusions, falling for all kinds of myths and illusions, and often being biased – with an absolute sense of certainty that we KNOW. 
System I, the fast (parallel) unconscious cognitive processing, has sent an email to our consciousness, a message of bone-shaking clarity. We stand by our deepest knowing even though we can’t provide an iota of evidence, or else our evidence is dubious at best. Never mind: we simply, suddenly KNOW.

Still, every writer (and mathematician, and scientist) knows how wonderful it feels, that high of a 
Eureka! when intuition relays the high-voltage answer. But mathematicians and scientists have to verify their intuition, to prove its validity. Lawyers have to win their case. Writers, preachers, politicians – they can cling to intuitive certainty, and it can be harmful.

Poets’ intuition generally does no harm, but it can be blind the person as to why certain lines should be left out of the poem. I remember a workshop where most participants strongly urged a certain woman – a radical feminist, certainly non-religious – to drop two lines that were interesting in their of-the-blue strangeness, but didn’t fit with the rest of the poem. The poet tossed her waist-long hair and reduced us to silence by declaring: “I can’t drop these lines because they were given to me by God.”

Yes, that’s how absolutely correct, how “sacred” inspiration can feel, even if it’s . . . ahem . . . wrong. 

In case you think that this example is invalid because poets are lunatics anyway, let’s turn to science. During my years as a journalist, I attended a gerontology conference and was privileged to hear Dr. Denham Harman describe his experience of hitting on the free-radical theory of aging. He used to work for Shell Oil before switching to biochemistry research at the 
University of California at Berkeley. He was particularly interested in the cause or causes of aging. One night, he told us, he started thinking about it so intensely that he couldn’t fall asleep. The few existing theories were full of holes, and he rejected them one by one. After some fitful sleep, he woke up and KNEW: it was the same as the “aging” of rubber that he studied at Shell Oil. Free radicals.

He became so excited that he got up early and rushed to the campus. He accosted every scientist he ran into, saying “I know why we age. It’s the same as with rubber: free radicals.” And, wild-eyed, he’d proceed with a short lecture. His startled colleagues would then mutter something like, “Are you sure there is enough evidence?” Harman could only shrug. He already KNEW.

We loved the story. Some time later, however, a big problem came to light, thanks to that inconvenient question that science must ask: “What’s the evidence?” The evidence turned out to be inconsistent, and the administration of anti-oxidants did not slow aging. Harman tried more potent anti-oxidants, and modified his theory, but it wasn’t enough. Other processes, such as a genetically determined biological clock (clearly seen when it comes to puberty and menopause), were at work. Free-radical damage could account for some of what we see in aging, but ultimately it wasn’t the answer.

Science is self-correcting. The role of intuition is enormous, and there are more wonderful stories than Harman’s – stories with a “happy ending,” since dull, laborious experiments proved the intuition to be right. And mathematicians? They may see the answer in an instant (or after prolonged staring, and then in an instant), but they still have to work on that equation step by step.


And . . . artists? Here I am reminded of something I witnessed at the Blue Mountain Art Colony, back when I was still able to go for long walks. At the start of my walk, I passed by an artist’s studio. I peeked in through the large window. She was sitting across from a freshly painted canvas, staring at it. On the way back, an hour later, I peeked in again. There she was, frozen in the same posture, staring at her painting. Later she explained, “I spend a lot of the time just staring until I know what in the painting doesn’t work and what to do about it.”  

Why go into all this “staring” and “knowing” in a post that’s supposed to be, in some way, about poetry and writing? Because pondering both the wonders and perils of intuition – the jumping to a conclusion, to a premature closure – made me remember the wisdom of Keats about “negative capability” – the patience we need when facing the “Penetralium of mystery” (Keats’s phrase). The human brain may be the most magnificent thing in the universe, but it is lazy. It loves a quick answer. Many times it’s right on the first try: “First thought, best thought.” But not always. 

Kafka had a sign over his desk: WARTEN 
– wait. In my experience, you have to do some ground work first to get the process started. But don’t push too hard. Lie down and stare at the ceiling a little – or a lot. Take a shower. Take a walk. Sleep on it. Sleep on it for a week, months, years. Typically when you least expect it, a deeper answer will come. Suddenly.


John Guzlowski:

From the film A Beautiful Mind, a piece of dialogue.

--"Did you ever just know something?"


Wonderful, thank you. A Beautiful Mind was one of the most inspiring movies I ever saw. It hit home. If schizophrenia could be kept under control by the “sane” part of consciousness, how much easier in the case of mere depression . . . I was just beginning to recognize the false, delusional nature of depressive thinking. However, at the time I saw the movie, I still didn’t have the motivation to stop going into depression. But I saw that an exceptional person could control a much worse dysfunction.

Back to intuition – or, since that word is contaminated with what Freud would call the “black mud of occultism,” to the fast, parallel-processing System I that gives us the quick answers tinged with a strong sense of certainty. We “just know.” That system of cognitive processing has both advantages and the perils (especially if brain function goes wrong, as in schizophrenia; the so-called “psychotic insight” is the sudden unshakable knowledge of the sort: “only I can save the world”).

A quick synopsis: John Nash, future winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his win-win game theory, develops paranoid schizophrenia. Treatment works poorly. But John has a breakthrough when experiences an insight: one of the people in his hallucinations, a young girl, the niece of his supposed roommate, never grows older, “so she can’t be real.” He discovers who else can’t be a real person. The moment he labels his hallucinations as just that, hallucinations, he chooses the reality-based side of his double consciousness.

Some film critics pointed out that perhaps the best thing the movie portrayed was the Cold War as a collective paranoid delusion. Alas, all I can say is that this “makes intuitive sense to me.”


Here is a quote from Jung you may find interesting:

Analysis of artists consistently shows not only the strength of the creative impulse arising from the unconscious, but also its capricious and willful character. The biographies of great artists make abundantly clear that the creative urge is often so imperious that it battens on their humanity and yokes everything to the service of the work, even at the cost of health and ordinary human happiness.

The unborn work in the psyche of the artist is a force of nature that achieves its end either with tyrannical might or with the subtle cunning of nature herself, quite regardless of the personal fate of the man who is its vehicle.....the creative urge lives and grows in him like a tree in the earth from which it draws its nourishment.  ~ Carl Jung

I think Jung is guilty of reifying the creative impulse when he calls it “capricious and willful.” It may seem that way to those who are not familiar with how the brain works, and how the automatic background processor provides answers to the consciousness when the answers are ready. Not that Jung, writing long before neuroscience at least partly described cognitive processes, should be blamed for speaking of the “creative impulse” as an entity with its own capricious “will” – we don’t blame Darwin for not knowing genetics, and thus not being able to give a more complete account of the mechanisms of evolution.

What we still do not fully appreciate is the extent to which artists, like other achievers, tend to be workaholics. Here is Nietzsche on the complexity of the creative process:

Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering. ~ Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human


That's a wonderful poem and full of history and meaning for me. My father was a professor of chemical engineering who later was one of the pioneers of computing. He said mathematics was the only perfect language and, of course, told and sought endless jokes and was particularly fond of puns.

I never thought of his work as being intuitive, but it must have been. He always had his yellow legal pad and no #2 pencils. Total silence came out of his home office. Whatever he was doing brought scientists from Moscow to Michigan in the 1950's.


Thank you, Ursula. Interesting about your father! Sense of humor has a high correlation with IQ.

I always carry a notebook and pen and keep paper and pencil by my bedside – intuition-insight-inspiration (it’s difficult to separate these concepts) can strike any time. They are not under voluntary control (Kahneman observes that System I is on automatic and can’t be switched off) – which is both wonderful and frustrating.


I have always thought I didn't have intuition, confusing it with instinct?? The only time I let my "intuition" mean anything is when I meet someone and have bad feelings for no reason. When I don't go with these instincts I am usually sorry.  My intuition about people is usually right.


I realize that I never defined intuition, and the term has some fuzzy connotations, including “mystical knowledge.” I mean the fast “system I” as described by Kahneman.

Though you are aware only of your social intuition, in fact, like all of us, you operate chiefly at the “fast” level. We don’t know why we think what we think, why we write about what we write about. We make up reasons to uphold the image of ourselves as making rational choices, but in fact we have little clue about the “real” reasons. System I has its reasons of which System II knows nothing – this is a steal not only from Pascal, but also from someone else who was commenting on the two systems.


A very intriguing post, it hits very close to home. As you are very much aware Moby Dick is my obsession, at least literary. (By the way, Cormac McCarthy's on record for stating his favorite book guessed it...Moby Dick.) And Nietzche's quote brought to mind a favorite Melville quote of mine:

'Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have more to do, we have done nothing.'

And when I came across Carl Dennis's poem 'Not the Idle' with his line on Moby Dick I knew, by intuition, I had 'solved' Moby Dick. Now I could focus on it's further treasures but the source itself had been least for me. Intuition is, and has been, a 'firm foundation' for me for some time. Its very nature of not being able to nail it, like the coin to the Pequod's mast, as a firm fact further attests to its truth! Paradox I know, you are so on the mark; what writer or person who loves to dive deep does not love a paradox?

The Quaker whalers are that paradox to me; the most pacifist sect of Christianity engaged in a holy war against the largest animal on earth and employing some of the roughest set of rouges to man their ships that ever sailed the seas. Lowell's 'The Quaker Graveyard on Nantucket' again attests to this paradox and he does it in verse! (I must one day visit Nantucket and see that magical isle for myself). 

Who can truly explain what they know and what they believe, the paradox of paradoxes.  To me, poetry explains it all and it took nearly 50 years to realize it. I would not have been ready for verse at 20 and your blog would have been an enigma. Not that I have you pinned down or  pigeonholed, you are too deep for that – as the Quakers called those of deep thought and true heart you are a 'Weighty Friend.'


I love being a “weighty friend” – strictly in the intellectual sense; I hope that I’m not intellectually overweight. Your reassurances have been helpful. My blog is a kind of Moby Dick, I feel, with tone and texture as important as the intellectual “plot” – the unending thread of the argument. My blog as a whole is like a huge 19th century novel. Everything connects with everything; digressions open up infinities. Adam Zagajewski called these infinite connections the “jungleness” of a piece. He saw me as a kindred writer, trying to balance a narrower focus with the tendency to write about everything at once. And that everything is in flux, a Heraclitean river always near flood level. 

A favorite college instructor once said that I can’t be pigeon-holed, and that’s why most people are not comfortable with me – they can’t put me into a familiar slot. “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Intuition thrives on that; it plays like a dolphin in the waves of several disciplines: psychology, philosophy, comparative religion, science, literature, history, and more. 

As a writer, I find that there are gradations in intuition. What gets instantly transmitted to consciousness may turn out to be too glib. I click “delete” on that “first thought” and wait for the next (and presumably more-searching) wave of unconscious processing to signal its findings. It can take a few minutes, but it can also take decades – I’ve waited 25 years or more for some of my answers, especially endings to certain poems. 


Yes, YES, THAT'S IT! Your blog IS like Moby Dick in its digressions 
and wide reaching topics, I can't believe I have not seen that before. 
Just came across a great article on the Irish poet Paidrac Colum and his appraisal of Moby Dick not as a novel but as an epic poem; I think he's right on the mark.


Yes, my blog is in some ways like Moby Dick. Furthermore, I am Ishmael. Think of my journey to America, and my continuing journey through America, so to speak. The commentators have become my shipmates. But there is no Ahab, unless to some extent I am Ahab – in moments of resentment, perhaps. Is either the Catholic Church, the religious right, or the Hebraic god my White Whale? On the whole, by now I’m too mellow for any revenge plot. Even my hostility toward organized religion isn’t so intense that I don’t at the same time think, “Whatever works. Some people need that.”

To the objection that humanity will never grow up unless there is a concerted effort to expose religion as fairy tales, and I’m not doing enough toward that, I say that I am still too much a poet, interested in creating beauty more than in carrying on an argument. I refuse to narrow myself. Others are better at marching with banners.

One of my conscious goals is to show atheism as a life-affirming philosophy. Just how well I fulfill that goal is another story. The writing takes me all over the map. I do it intuitively and don’t try to force a preconceived agenda.

But that’s my quick intuition speaking. Who knows, my deeper intuition may find something else. 


As usual, I LOVE your blog--and the poem about your father is exquisite. Also as usual, your thinking and discernment amaze me. What wonderful insights on the nature of intuitive versus linear thinking. ("Versus" is not really the right word, as your blog demonstrates so well. The "partnership" of the two might express the relationship you delineate so clearly. Maybe even the "dance" of the two.)


Thank you for pointing out that indeed what we have here is a dance of the two cognitive systems. And the credit goes to Daniel Kahneman for going through neuroscience studies and distilling the description of each system. I dressed Kahneman’s theory in poetry and images. By the way, someone just expressed surprise at how quickly I can revise a poem. It’s the same phenomenon as my father’s ability to look at an equation and see the solution. He just knew. I just know. After many years of practice, of course; nor am I done learning. 


  1. v much liked the poem about ur dad

  2. Welcome back, Danusha. You are the second person to like that poem. Thank you. I think I'll include it in my upcoming chapbook submission (yes, trying again)

    1. Good luck with the chap book submission! Rooting for you.

  3. Oriana, thanks for the post and the idea that your blog is a kind of Moby Dick. It's an idea that frees me--to see my work as some enormous, ever expanding, undefinable what-ever-it-is!

  4. It's that of course--and not that also.

  5. John, maybe the work of any writer is a kind of Moby Dick -- there is a sprawl, and yet the same central themes keep returning. We are both infinite and oh so predictable: here I am, a happy atheist at last, but people keep calling me a spiritual poet (also an erotic poet -- "everything you write is erotic").

  6. Thank you, dear Anonymous. If the blog helps anyone write a term paper, I'm all the more happy.