“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, [which is] a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

– Albert Einstein (as ever, so wise)

BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week programme (a superb piece of radio – Andrew Marr at his brightest, with fascinating guests, always) included a conversation with James Hall, author of a new book on the left and right in art (The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art – OUP). You can listen to it here, and I thoroughly recommend it. I am sore-tempted to get the book, but let’s be green and thrifty and go to the library. The publisher’s blurb goes as follows, just so you know what’s so interesting…

Traditionally, in almost every culture and religion, the left side has been regarded as inferior – evil, weak, worldly, feminine – while the right is good, strong, spiritual and male. But starting in the Renaissance, this hierarchy was questioned and visualised as never before. The left side, in part because of the presence of the heart, became the side that represented authentic human feelings, especially love. By the late nineteenth century, with the rise of interest in the occult and in spiritualism, the left side had become associated with the taboo and with the unconscious.

I’m not always a philistine, but I must tell you that I’m not really too interested in the dryly historical side of all this; in how cultures have shifted their ‘view’ of left and right. But I am very interested in how people feel about, relate to, their own left and right sides. Why? For several reasons – bear with me:

• Spatial awareness; our sense of space (hmm; is that outside the usual five?); the feeling of contact without actual touch; the near-ownership of the space around our selves, which is (for me) linked tight to the sense of left/right sides.

• Children don’t intuitively know left from right – as an adult, I still don’t, and need to think about it. Why is that? And why is it that we can have very trenchant spatial (and left/right side) awareness yet need consciously to consider the official left or right?sear_goldensection-full

• With the ‘golden section’ or fung shui, in art, architecture and in the science of sound even (think stereo!), we sense things and they feel ‘just right’; a nudge here, a nudge there and utter peace (or turmoil) is achieved (within a framework which is necessarily bounded by the left and the right) – but why? Or how?!

• Could these (and no doubt many other phenomena) link back to our reptilian pasts? I go for the left/right brain stuff, sure, but I wonder whether there’s more instinctive, reptilian brain work going on here…. (not surprisingly, I feel fractals, but will try to delay their joining the game for as long as possible).

• Are we hunting for balance, symmetry? Is it about oppositional meaning, i.e., we see the picture because of the frame; perceive first what is not before we can see what is there?

OK, so them’s my reasons for being interested in all this. Hope I’ve raised some interesting questions for you, too. I’m going to see what we can find out on all of this, then posit a specious conclusion. Or I might instead raise some further, seemingly gnomic, questions, idly and wantonly shirking any pretence of responsibility to give you answers; after all, what are we here for? All together now: “the ride!” I might be back on this – but just not yet. All thoughts happily welcome – you know where the comment box is!

octoI’ll leave you with this little gem. Octopuses have more than 50 per cent of their nerves in their tentacles and partially “think with them” (if we “think with” our heads, I suppose…). They’re smart, have individual personalities and are quite sensitive to stress. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat any more at this rate. Anyway, research is due to be published very soon on whether they have a favourite tentacle – by giving them Rubiks Cubes to play with.

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