Monday, January 5, 2015

the cartography of thought

THERE’S A CARTOON floating around out there — a despondent Snow White, half-collapsed on the cottage floor, presses a wine bottle to her lips, two tears on her left cheek, three empty bottles beside her, her yellow petticoat forlornly rumpled.
     A bluebird perched on her fingers tries to cheer her, but his chirping is in vain. Snow White is the picture of sorrow. She’s drowning in it. And why is she so sad? The cartoon tells us. Five small turquoise bubbles sprout from the top of her head, leading toward a bigger bubble. Inside this bigger bubble we see the source of Snow White’s grief . . . her handsome Prince Charming . . . in a romantic embrace with . . . an even handsomer Prince Charming.      
     A thought bubble is a story-telling device. A cartoonist uses it to open up a window into the mind of a character. “If you could slip inside the skin of the character I’m sprouting from,” the thought bubble says, “this is the cloudy vision you would see.” It’s no accident that they resemble soap bubbles or have fluffy perimeters like clouds do. Thoughts feel cloudy when you think them. The thought of a lemon is cloudier than the sight of an actual lemon. The thought of a dinosaur is cloudier than the sight of an actual dinosaur. So when a cartoonist draws the thought of a dinosaur or a lemon (or whatever) he draws a cloudy bubble around it. He clouds it. Thoughts feel cloudy when you think them.
     But a thought bubble is merely a story-telling device. It doesn’t correspond to anything in nature. Thoughts aren’t actually fluffy. They don’t actually hover in bubbles. If you’re standing on Waikiki Beach — in real life, not a cartoon — and you’re looking at a Hawaiian thinking of Antarctica, you don’t see any snow or ice anywhere, do you? Photograph her all you want, your camera will never register any snow or ice either, no matter how fancy it is. The Hawaiian’s seeing icebergs, cloudy somewhere, but that terrain remains invisible to you. Image her from head to toe, inside and out, put a swimming cap studded with electrodes on her head and analyze the frequencies she emits, you still won’t see Antarctica. Thought bubbles exist only on paper. They’re cartoons. Thoughts don’t actually sprout up from a person in the form of a cloud, do they?

THOUGHTS DON’T LOOK like anything — they’re invisible — so the challenge facing a cartoonist is how to depict this invisible experience using a visual vocabulary. The thought bubble is an effective strategy. We all understand what this simple image is trying to convey. If I showed you a drawing of a woman with a cloudy bubble over her head, and if there were lemons inside that bubble, I know you would know what that means. “Hey,” you would say, “that woman’s thinking of lemons.” The cartoonist has accomplished what he set out to do. He portrayed an invisible thought visually. He drew a bubble above Snow White’s head and showed us what Snow White was thinking.
    I suppose a cartoonist could portray the cloudy vision Snow White sees in her head otherwise, by painting two big white circles on a sheet of black paper, for example, one beside the other, slightly connected at their middles, with a cartoon cottage interior — as seen from the perspective of someone sitting on its floor — filling the inside of the smashed-together circles, like you were looking out through Snow White’s parted-open eyelids, or through a pair of binoculars she’s looking out through. The cartoonist would draw inside this oval whatever else Snow White sees in her field of vision looking out into the dwarves’ cottage.
     Imagine you’re Snow White right now. You’re half-collapsed on the floor of a tiny cottage drowning in sorrow. What do you see? You see a pickaxe on the table, and six more hanging on the cottage wall. So in the oval on the page the cartoonist draws the table and the tiny mining tools hanging on on a cottage wall. You see chipmunks and other forest creatures peeking out from teacups on the table. So the cartoonist adds chipmunks and teacups to the table in the oval. Across the bottom of your field of vision you see a rumpled yellow petticoat, your rumpled yellow petticoat. So the cartoonist draws a swash of yellow fabric across the bottom of the oval. You see Snow Whites four right fingers, half an armslength from your eyeballs, wrapped around an empty wine bottle. So on the right-hand side of the oval the cartoonist draws four large fingers in close-up. You see a bluebird on her fingers looking back at you, chirping to cheer you up. So the cartoonist draws the face of a bluebird, like you’re looking into its open beak through a window of tears. And over this oval, finally, the cartoonist paints a hazy watercolor image of two Prince Charmings kissing, locked in an embrace. Such a cartoon would more accurately depict the cloudy vision Snow White sees in her head, I suppose.
     But the cartoon would be difficult to interpret, and even if a reader could discern what the character was thinking he still wouldn’t know who was having that thought, not unless he realized who the yellow petticoat across the bottom of his field of vision belonged to or recognized the tiny mining tools. Because when you’re looking out through Snow White’s eyes you can’t see the whites of Snow White’s eyes. You cant see her face either. You can only see the parts of Snow White Snow White herself can see. So the cartoonist adds the words SNOW WHITE to this already-busy cartoon. As a story-telling device such a cartoon is entirely ineffectual. A reader can’t easily discern the content of the thought, superimposed as it is over a competing image, nor can the reader tell, unless its labeled, which character was doing the thinking. Worst cartoon ever. So the cartoonist just draws a Prince Charming-filled bubble sprouting from Snow Whites head instead. It’s a lie, of course. That’s not how thoughts appear. But everyone understands the story he’s trying to tell.