Why Do We Fall In Love With The Past?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 28, 2016

We explore the past through infinite paths. The past no longer exists, yet we recreate “what was” with artifacts that continue to exist in the now. We use our neurons as virtual reality machines to remember. Most of us have a rough map of our own life, and hazier maps of our own culture. Beyond those maps lie the unknown territory of the collective past, which we are all deeply rooted. We have all shook hands with someone who shook hands with a 19th century person, who had shaken hands with someone from the 18th century. I am old enough to have shaken hands with many people born in the 19th century. Every history book we read weaves thousands of threads that link us to a past.

Have you ever contemplated how we build the past in our minds? As individuals we use memories. We talk to other people and use their memories. Novels, movies, songs, television shows, paintings – are fundamental ways of recalling the past. Art is recorded memories. Think of cave paintings, probably among our oldest memories. Slowly, education and scholarship evolved to organize the details of the past. Whether you’re studying math or The New Testament, you’re recreating the past. The discipline of history isn’t that old in the big scheme of things. In recent times we have journalism and the internet to extend our sense of the past.

Whenever we play an old piece of music or see a work if art in a museum, it connects us to people, places and things who lived and died long ago. For example, I’m currently reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère (19281982, San Francisco, Berkeley, Point Reyes, Santa Ana) a biography of Philip K. Dick. Or I recently saw The Revenant (1823, Montana, South Dakota) about Hugh Glass. I could link to dozen more movies and books I’ve recently seen that connect me to the past. Just follow those few links to understand how we network with the past, and how far and quickly that web of memory will carry you away. Trying to grasp the fullness of past is like falling into a black hole.

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

Here’s a photo of my father’s father, his brothers and their parents (my great grand parents). I know next to nothing about these people, and can only remember a couple of anecdotes. What would it take to learn about them?

The answer comes in a book I just finished, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who took a couple years out of his life to learn about his ancestors on his father’s side. This wondrous book will delight lovers of history, art and culture. There’s enough material here for six fascinating historical movies, and seeds for many more. The challenge here is for me to describe it in a way that will make you want to read it. It’s not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone that loves the past.

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

When I was young, I’d often hear or read that America had no old culture, not like the Europeans. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what they meant. Except for a few mementos, like your granny’s quilt, or collecting antiques, we seldom dwell on our own heritage. We’re always thinking about the next new gadget to buy (as we throw away the old ones), or the next new show to binge-watch. Some Americans are into genealogy, but not that many. We generally embrace the pop culture of our teenage years, which we cherish our whole life, but few people branch from from there.

Edmund de Waal has written a book that succeeds in capturing a panoramic snapshot of his cultural heritage that spans three centuries. The Hare with the Amber Eyes starts off as a quiet unassuming memoir that slowly builds into an atomic explosion of multicultural history of art collecting. The story is anchored by a collection of 264 Japanese netsukes that came into his family in 19th century, and de Waal inherited in 21st. The book is set in Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and London.

I have read this book for three book clubs now. It’s a challenge to explain its appeal. If you love art history, especially French Impressionism, or how Japanese art came to 19th century Europe and 20th century America, this book will appeal to you. If you like to read about Jewish history, especially about Jews living in Odessa, Vienna and Paris in the 19th and 20th century before WWII, this book will grab your attention. If you are fascinated by the American occupation of Japan after the war, the book has insights for you too. If you’re fascinated by Nazi art theft like The Monuments Men (the book, not the movie) and The Woman in Gold (the movie), then this book has stories for you. If you’ve ever tried to write your own families history and wondered what kind of effort it takes, then this book is for you. If you love the PBS shows Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, then this book is for you.

Most of all, if you’ve ever seen old photographs of your great grandparents and your great great grandparents and wonder what their daily lives were like, this book is for you.

I would be hard press to make a list of all the subjects de Waal touches upon in his small book. The frame of his story is to take his 21st readers back to the 19th century Paris to explain how his family first acquired the netsuke. His story begins in France as Impressionism is coming into vogue, which is concurrent with Europeans becoming obsessed with Japanese culture and art. The story then travels to turn of the century Vienna, past WWI, through the years between the wars, WWII in Europe, to the Japanese occupation by Americans, and then into the home stretch of this century. Along the way, The Hare With Amber Eyes encounters many famous people and events in 20th century history. If de Waal played six-degrees of separation, he’s only a few degrees from some very historical folk. Yet, de Waal current life is very unassuming. He’s an artist, a maker of porcelain. When heading into the past, you never know what you’ll find. Besides, we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents. It gets pretty easy to make some marvelous connections.

My goal is to try and explain why I liked the particular details in The Hare With Amber Eyes, and that’s rather difficult. I’m not that into Japanese netsuke, although they are impressive little sculptures. There’s no reason for me to identify with de Waal’s genealogy, my family was nothing like his. What enchanted my reading is their love of art and culture. The book’s connections to 19th century Paris and early 20th century Vienna provides vivid details of what it’s like to be great patrons of art. The book gives me another side of the history of Impressionism – the buyers side. Charles Ephrussi, who originally bought the netsuke, was even painted into Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Charles is the guy in the top hat. What a way to be remembered!

But why should I care about Charles? Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes makes me wonder why I care about anyone in the past. But I do. We all do. Most of us are obsessed with the past. I keep looking at that painting above and wonder what it was like to have been at that party. In the book, the netsuke are touchstones to the past. De Waal owns them now, and the netsuke put him one degree from Charles and many of his relatives between the 1870s and now. They tie a family history together. De Waal focuses on three of his ancestors, and the cities that shaped their souls, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

I can’t think of anything I own that ties me to the past like that, other than photographs. I wonder how many hands have held that photograph of my great grand parents? My mother’s mother, Lou Dare Little, was born in 1881. She held my mother’s side of the family together for decades. She bore five daughters, which held the family together for several more decades. But now that only my Aunt Louise is still alive, the family seems to be coming undone. What de Waal shows with The Hare with Amber Eyes, is how history and art can sew a family back together. However, it took two years out of his regular life to accomplish that effort. My cousin Jane wrote a book many years ago that tied the descendants of Lou Dare Little together – at least for a while. How many of my cousins and their descendants will keep reading Jane’s book in the future? Will anyone from newer generations write another book? We don’t have anything like the netsuke to travel into the future, to get later generations to remember us. Or do we?

I’m not sure I’m accomplishing my goal here. All I can really say is read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and let it convey what I want to say. It is a cornucopia of memory triggers. But also, every time you turn on your TV, or go to a movie, think about what you’re seeing is saying about the past. Whenever you read a book, have a family reunion, or go to an antiques dealer, think about how the past won’t let us go, or we won’t let it go.


Are Young Women More Artistically Beautiful Than Other People?

If we were robots, with video camera eyes, everything in our visual field would be of equal value.  So, why do our brains light up when we see flowers, sunsets and young women?  Will we ever be able to program a robot to have a sense of beauty?

And if biology is the basis of beauty, why isn’t food and potential mates the only things we see as beautiful?  How did a sense of beauty evolve in our minds?  Does it serve a purpose?  Isn’t a sense of beauty one of our most motivating qualities?

I love looking at photographs.  I have a dual monitor setup and use John’s Background Switcher to display 8 photos on my desktops every 10 seconds, chosen from sites like 500px, Flickr and others.  This way I see scenes from all over the world, nature, animals, forests, oceans, lakes, mountains, stars,  buildings, bridges, and sometimes people.  What’s strange is for some sites, when they show people, 95% of the time it’s a young woman, probably age 18-25.  Now these are supposed to be art photos, not sex photos.  Why are young women more artistically appealing than other people?  Is there a reason other than sex?

Photographers do like taking pictures of other kinds of people, but even then the range is limited.  It’s cute kids, or very old people with tons of wrinkles.  (I assume wrinkles are very artistically inspiring, especially in black and white.)  But statistically, young women are the dominate subjects for photographs of humans.  Why do young women trigger the neurons that define beauty in our brains – more than any other object in reality?  I don’t know how woman and gay men rate the beauty of young women, but I often hear them talk about beautiful women, so it isn’t just us guys brainwashed into seeking sex objects.

It’s not news that young women appeal to photographers, but I’m wondering why.  Is it just sex, or are young women more aesthetically pleasing than other types of people, or even natural objects?  Can we ever see young women without our brain being distorted by sexual programming?  Aren’t flowers, sunsets, old cars, dogs and cats just as beautiful?  And if artistic photographs were mainly about sex, why aren’t women photographers uploading pictures of young men in equal numbers?  And what explains heterosexual women preferring to look at young women?  Why aren’t women’s magazines, and their ads, showing an equal distribution of women of all ages and sizes?

If you follow photography you eventually realize certain subjects are more popular than others.  Today’s amateur photographers are just amazing, equal to the best professionals just decades ago.  Just look at a site like 500px.com.

The annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue just came out, and it gets a lots of attention.  Why does it only show young women in swimsuits?  Why not older women, or men?  Sure sex sells, but why don’t we have a wider range of sexual stimulation.  It’s often said we are a youth oriented culture – is that because we define beauty by being young?  Is it possible to culturally reprogram ourselves so old men and women in skimpy bathing suits would be beautiful?

I think the photo above of Anna Bella is beautiful because of the woman, and because of the photographic composition, but could not a sixty-something woman have posed for the picture and the photo been just as beautiful if the picture had been composed for artistic reasons?  Or is lustrous hair and fair skill absolute aspects of beauty?

I think the picture of the pug dog below is beautiful.  I have no sexual attraction for dogs, and think pug dogs are ugly, but I think this photo is artistically beautiful.  However, most of the photos I think of as stunningly beautiful at 500px either have gorgeous nature scenes, or they are of young women.  However, if I put the picture of the woman above on the wall, my wife will think I’m a dirty old man, but think nothing if I put up a picture of a pug.

Even though I think pugs are butt-ugly, I think they are beautiful to look at.  What explains that?  Is cuteness an aspect of beauty?  It would explain all the pictures of puppies, kittens and kids.  How do we explain sunsets and flowers twisting our beauty sensors to 11?  How much do bright colors figure in our sense of beauty.  Think of fall trees.

Photography sites have billions of images of animals we find beautiful.  What makes them beautiful?  Not all animals are beautiful either.  Puppies are cute, but a mangy dirty puppy isn’t.   What makes one tiger stand out over another?  Why are flowers so beautiful, or rolling hills?  I’m sure there are thousands of books devoted to defining the philosophy of beauty, but shouldn’t it be obvious?  Can beauty be scientifically determined?  Or is it always something in the eye of the beholder?  How many things do we find beautiful?  Is it endless?

What moves us?  That tree on the bare hill has impact, especially against the spectacular sky.  What about the women below?  The picture is beautiful, but there’s something beautiful about the woman too, as if her rich life experience shines out.

Photograph Wharf Lady by James Nielsen on 500px

I’d like to know about the science of beauty.  If we ever built robots with artificial intelligence that were self-aware, and conscious beings like ourselves, will they have a sense of beauty?  And if they do, will what we think as beautiful overlap?  Has there been any studies trying to find out if animals have a sense of beauty?  Do dogs looking at people think some people are more beautiful than others?  Are their favorites young women?

And is beauty just visual?  Aren’t some smells wonderful, and others stinky?  Are some sounds lovely and others ugly?  Even textures and tastes have their aesthetics.

I keep an extra monitor going, not to have room for work windows, but to be constantly stimulated by beautiful scenes.  Every ten second I see four more images on my left that inspire me about this world and reality.  Lately, I’ve been most inspired by pug dogs.  I’m not a dog person, I’m a cat person.  But these weird little pugs have caught my attention.  By the way, I like the gray woman below not because she’s beautiful, but because her grayness contrasts beautiful with the dirt and rocks.  How can we possible explain why black and white is often more beautiful than color?  Whatever beauty is I haven’t a clue to explain it.

left screen1

JWH – 3/7/14

Visual Inspiration

Usually I am excited by words and concepts.  I am a lifelong bookworm, so I’m obsessed with black marks on white backgrounds.  Living in my head is my constant way of life, thinking wordy thoughts, even to the point of neglecting the colorful details of the external world around me.  But during the day I’m often startled by something visual that inspires me.  I love looking at the trees outside my window, which sets just above my computer monitor that I am typing at now.  I have two windows, the one looking into the internet and the other out onto the world.  The world is full of color, but because of my neglect of noticing it, I’m all the more moved by art.  And maybe, I prefer seeing reality though art rather than viewing reality directly. 

I love catching something visually fascinating as I drive to work each day – the structure of a church steeple, the outline of tree branches against the sky, the way shadows and glare affect my sight.  I wish I could turn what I see into art. I wish I was the kind of guy that hiked in nature and captured it artistically.  Because I spend so much time indoors, most of my visual stimulation comes from the computer screen or the television.

Every once in a while I see art that blows my mind, and generates a flood of thoughts.  The other day I found this computer animation that set my neurons on fire.

Be sure and play this in full screen mode at the highest resolution your computer can handle.  I’ve watched it many times now and it just gets better and better.  This visuals makes me think of mathematics and musical harmony.  This video is like seeing music.  This video is like seeing mathematics as if math wasn’t an abstraction of nature.  “Oscillate” was created by Daniel Sierra for his MFA Computer Art thesis, and you can see more about this work here.

What I find so inspiring about “Oscillate” is that it’s a visual abstraction that makes me see science.  All paintings, no matter how realistic, are an abstraction, in the same way that words and concepts are an abstraction about reality.  Art mimics the world.  “Oscillate” mimics abstract thoughts.  Daniel Sierra imagined seeing animated sine waves much like how classical Greeks imagined mathematics, but instead of putting his thoughts into words, he created a computer animation.

On one hand this video is like abstract art, it doesn’t look like the real world.  But I see it as a realistic painting of an actual abstraction in the real world.

JWH – 6/26/13

Turning Your Desktop Into a SF Cover Art Gallery

This is how my desktop of the moment looks (click on all images for 1920×1080 versions):


This is a painting by Richard M. Powers for a 1974 paperback book, The Mountains of the Sun by Christian Leourier from Berkley Medallion Books.  Powers’ art visually defined science fiction for many fans in the 1950s and 1960s because of his book covers for Ballantine Books.

Now I don’t know if this is legal by copyright standards, but I like to find images from science fiction book and magazine covers, and format them for my computer desktop background.  I’m going to provide some basic instructions on how to do this, but they’re specific for Windows 7.  Max OS X and Linux users can also have desktop backgrounds, but you’ll need to know your system to customize these instructions.

All computers, tablets and smartphones come with a method of changing the desktop background. Most devices have built-in programs for cycling these images. And you can install programs with various levels of sophistication that take folders of photos and cycle your desktop images and use the photos for a screensaver.

Finding the Photos

When I discover a book cover I like I go to Google and click Images and search on the book title.  Usually somebody has already scanned it for the web.  Google will show you an array of images.  Here’s what a Google Images search looks like for “Richard Powers Art.” 


Look for the highest resolution with the sharpest scan.  I right-click on potential images and select “Open link in a new window” and then click on “Full-Size Image.”   That gives me the image in a browser page by itself.  You want the largest possible version you can get, because unless the image is the same size as your desktop it will be blown up to fit your screen and small images can become very blurry.  When you find one you like, right click and select, “Save image as” and save it into a folder for collecting your desktop SF art.

[FYI, IE will shrink an image to fit within the browser window.  If it does, you’ll see a little magnifier with a + in it.  Click the image and you’ll see the full size version.  It will be bigger than the browser window sometimes.  Sometimes much bigger.  Right click and save that version to get the absolute best results.]

Repeat this procedure until you have a little collection of art.

Formatting for the Desktop

Most pictures you collect won’t have the same aspect ratio as your screen.  If you want to preserve the original image do nothing.  This is especially true if you are collecting book and magazine covers.  However, your screen will end up looking like this:


But sometimes it’s fun to crop part of the art to fit the screen to really show off the art.  Like this:


If you click on this image to look at the full size image you’ll see that my blow-up looks a bit fuzzy.  However, it’s within my acceptance range, but I’d prefer a sharper image.  If I see a better scan someday I’ll grab it.

[FYI, I was inspired to grab this cover by Joachim Boaz’s Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: Eye(s) in the Sky.]

Cropping for the exact desktop size is a bit tricky.  It helps to have Photoshop or some other program that let’s you crop by pixel height and width.  Luckily, there’s a free online Photoshop clone you can use at http://pixlr.com.  Go to that link and click on –> Open photo editor <-.   Then click on “Open image from computer.”  Browse to your art folder and select an image to edit.

Then click on the crop tool, under Constraint at the top, a small pull-down menu, select “Output size” and in the Width and Height text boxes put in the dimensions of your monitor.  Mine are 1920×1080.  Then click on the upper-left corner of the area you want to crop and drag down the mouse to the bottom right.  Let go.  You’ll see a frame outline that you can reposition.  Double click on the crop to finalize.  Anything you crop will be in the exact dimensions of your monitor.  Then in the Pixlr File menu, select Save and put the picture back on your computer.  I usually renamed crops so they have the dimensions as part of the name.   For example, eye-in-the-sky-1920×1080.png.


You can also use pixlr to punch up the color, brightness, contrast, and other image variables, and even fix bad spots.  

Basic Manual Setup

Now that you have some images ready, we can turn them into backgrounds.  If you aren’t running a background changer, meaning the image on your desktop never changes, we’ll install one of your new images manually.  Go to your SF Cover Art folder and find an image you want to use.  Right click on the image filename and select “Set as desktop background.”  Your image should now be the desktop background.  Minimize all windows and admire.  [There is a button at the far right of the Windows 7 Taskbar that will close all windows on the desktop so you can see your art unhindered. Clicking it again brings back your windows as they were.]

Automatic Desktop Changer

If you right click on your desktop background and select “Personalize” you’ll see something like this:


At the bottom is a link to “Desktop Background” – select it.  You’ll then see:


I normally use another program for switching backgrounds, but Windows 7, and most other OS systems, have a simple desktop changer built in.  You can select the built-in program for Windows 7 up at the top of this screen, it’s called “Windows Desktop Backgrounds.”  Then hit browse and find the folder with your art.  Set the “Picture Position” to Fill, and “Change picture every” to 30 seconds.  You can change this to a real time interval later, for now this will quickly show your images to you for testing.

For years I used a program called Webshots, and it’s wonderful, but it wants to show pictures in its file format.  You can add your pictures to its format, but that’s extra work.  Recently I’ve discovered John’s  Background Switcher.  Gizmo’s Freeware has a whole list of Wallpaper Changers.  I like John’s Background Switcher because it can handle many sources for pictures, including online galleries, and even images from my Webshots folder.

Other Galleries

I have other galleries other than SF Cover Art, like astronomy photos and copies of famous paintings.  If you search around for Desktop Art or Background Art, you’ll find a myriad of images to collect.  Here’s an astronomy desktop.


I’m also fascinated by historical photographs, like this street scene.


Having photos, or copies of artwork blown up and randomly shown is very stimulating.  Photos induce interesting contemplative states of mind for me.  I’m very inspired by visuals.  At my work office, visitors often sit across from me and stop talking because they get mesmerized by images on my computer screens.  I have a dual monitor setup at work.

I’ve always loved book, magazine and album cover art.  I’ve collected art books for decades.  I hated when LP covers shrank to the size of CD covers.  Paperbacks are naturally small to begin with.  So putting this kind of artwork on a 23” 1080p screen really showcases the art.  If you have a HTPC, you can also use the same techniques for putting art on your large high definition television screen.

My art books seldom get looked at, but stuff on my desktop gallery gets looked at every day.  It’s a visual reminder of how big the universe is when I’m sitting in front of a 23” monitor all day long.

One reason I switched from Webshots to John’s Background Switcher is that program makes it easy to add new photos to my desktop galleries.  Whenever I find something good on the net I just do a right click, save image as, and put it on of my desktop background folders.  I also have a folder in Dropbox so I can save images from any computer I use.

Back in the early 1970s my roommate Greg and I would use macro lenses and photograph covers of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Astounding & Analog, Galaxy & If, as well as book covers and show them at our SF Book Club meetings.  People loved seeing the SF/F art blown up big.  Putting covers on your desktop is much easier and you get to see them everyday.

JWH 5/26/12

How Will the Future See Us in the Art of Our Times?

When I go to a museum, like the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I look at their collection as a doorway into time.  I know when I look at a Titian or Rembrandt I’m not seeing an actual view of the past, but an artistic view.  Art works on many levels, but the level that is most important to me is what it communicates across centuries.

What I want to see when I look at a great work of art is communiqué from the past  .  When you look at this painting what does it say to you about 1659?  Scroll through Rembrandt’s paintings on Google Image Search, or his gallery at the Google Art Project, or read his entry at Wikipedia.  The more you study, the more you are pulled into the past.  If you become hooked you’ll even start reading history books.

[Click on photos for larger views.]


Rembrandt’s self portrait says so much.  He’s looking at us looking at him.  He knows we’ll see his world through his eyes, the ones that stare eternally from this painting.

Here is a photograph by Miru Kim.  In four hundred years what will people make of it and our times?  Will they think that was when humans discovered their cruelty to animals?  That early the 21st century was when we began to identify and empathize with our fellow creatures?


But what does this work by Mark Handforth say about our lives?


Now I’m not criticizing modern art.  Contemporary art is very successful, as Morley Safer reported on 60 Minutes recently, and written up as “Even n tough times, contemporary art sells.”  If the future will look into our souls from the art we leave behind, what will they see?

In our times art is about about how much it’s worth in dollars.  Art speculation is big business.  That’s a dimension of art that I’m not interested in, nor want to analyze.  I doubt “Vespa” will survive 400 years to be seen – pop sculptures look fragile to me.  I tend to think contemporary painting has been overshadowed by photography and film.  The future will know us through our documentaries.  But I think the Miru Kim photograph will communicate something to humans centuries from now if it survives.

Today I was reading in Anna Karenina, at the part where Anna and Vronsky are visiting the Russian artist, Mikhailov living in Italy.  They study his painting of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate.  Mikailov is trying to capture history, but tell the story from his unique time and place.  This scene allows Tolstoy to express his views on art, and he sends a literary message across time about the timeless of art.

Most of the art that Morley Safer showed us on 60 Minutes won’t last no matter how much people pay for it.  It either doesn’t send a message or sends the wrong message.  I’m not even saying it has to be a coherent message, it just needs to convey a piece of our collective soul in some way.  I think this one says a lot, but I can’t put it into words.


Then we have the problem of science fiction art.  It’s about the future, but is really about the present.  What do you make of this Richard Powers painting?  What does it say about the 1950s?


When I looked at the 60 Minutes piece I felt tremendously disappointed by most of the art is saw.  I worry that the future won’t look kindly on us because our art is so lacking in beauty and imagination, and it says so little about our times.  Like Mikhailov in Anna Karenina trying to paint something that’s been painted thousands of times before, the struggle to be unique is a dangerous quest.

Which takes me back to Rembrandt.  Why don’t artists paint more faces?  Why is the 20th and 21st century so faceless?


The art I like best features people.  Modern art seems to have moved away from people.  I guess painters think photographers have people covered, but I actually preferred painted people.  Here’s one of my favorites.


JWH – 4/12/12

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