“The straight and narrow path will allow us to put food on the table,” says Barry Boyce. “But to frolic and to detour is no offense. It is a requirement. Otherwise, what we see becomes a concrete workspace. We may be covered by workers’ compensation, but there will be no compensation for delight lost.”
When I titled this column Frolic & Detours a few years back, all I knew was that it was some kind of legal term. It seemed to imply a carefree straying from the straight and narrow. The fact that “frolic” was labeled as an offense intrigued me, but despite several medium-hearted efforts I never came across a definition.
Not so long ago, a cousin whom I was very close to as a child tracked me down and called me up. I hadn’t seen her in twenty-five years. We arranged to meet for dinner on I trip I made to Boston. The lengthy meal we had in the cozy, crushed velvet atmosphere of the Café St. Petersburg seemed filmic: My Dinner with Cousin.
Her life story unfolded as a case study in Frolic & Detours. She had become an avid BMW motorcycle rider, as well as a labor lawyer, and met her future husband in a chance encounter at a BMW dealership. Their first “date” was a ten-day bike tour, the logic being that if at any point it wasn’t working out, either party could simply take off on to the open road. That very freedom seemed to bind them, and a happy accident became a long-term thing.
As we parted in the street, vowing to meet more regularly than every quarter-century, I offered her a collection of some of these pieces. When she saw the title, she shrieked, “Frolic & Detours! That’s one of my favorites.” She meant the legal offense, not the essays. Frolic & Detours, she told me, is a condition that occurs in workers’ compensation law. If you are doing your duty on the job, delivering bread for the bakery, say, you will be covered by your employer’s workers’ compensation policy. If, however, you should stray from the beaten path, perhaps to stop for some carrot cake at your sister-in-law’s, you are guilty of Frolic & Detours, and the coverage is null and void. You are on your own.
Ah! Right on the money. It’s about what happens when you play hooky. The straight and narrow path has a fixed end point that tends to pre-define what you will see along the way. The muscles of the neck ossify as the head strains ever forward, and the cerebral cortex paints a picture that allows no truant thoughts or images. When the eyes-and the mind’s eye-stray into aimlessness, Frolic & Detours kicks in. You are on your own.
Today my lunchtime errands strayed into errancy as I passed my favorite used bookstore. I’d been crafting the essay for this page about the inconstancy of perceptual reality, about how fixed, objective reality breaks down so easily in the face of the mirages, optical illusions and parallax views of everyday experience. They teach you about such “distortions” in school-in Art, Physics and even in Drivers’ Ed.-while all the time steadfastly cleaving to the hardened view that there is a fixed reality: What You See is What You Get. We know, though, that our world should come with a disclaimer of the “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” variety. Perhaps something like “The objects, events, milieu, situations, etc. you are now experiencing are presented from one perspective. Another perspective will show you something completely different..”
I wandered into the shop and came upon a first edition (1944) of Gyorgy Kepes’ Language of Vision. The book bristles with the excitement of the new artistic sentiments brewing at the time. There are two forewords. In the first, the French art historian Sigfried Giedion boldly proclaims that “art means reality.” There is no objective reality waiting to be depicted by art. There is only artfulness, waiting to be expressed.
In the second foreword, S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist (and future senator from California), talks about how we have been taught to see in image-clichés, using these “little systems in our heads” to look upon “the dynamism of the events around us … and persuade ourselves that we find correspondences between the pictures in our heads and the world without.”
In the body of the book, Kepes, a young artist at the time, breaks down in page after page of illustration and pithy text the edifice of our visual fiction. He shows how the language of our visual perception is monumentally influenced by the perspectives from which we have been taught to view things: What You See is What You Have Been Taught to See. In reality, there is no static form. Likewise, a color is only a color in relation to the colors surrounding it. An image is an altogether temporary event, molded from the need to find balance and order.
What we consider to be a whole thing, Kepes points out, is merely created from the principle of nearness. We form wholes by perceiving elements that are near to each other as interconnected. We constantly play connect the dots, just as you are doing with the dots of ink and the letters on this page. Kepes illustrates the point that “spatial organization is the vital factor in an optical message” by showing that the same units with a slight alteration in their nearness to each other become gibberish, which we nevertheless attempt to make sense of: sp atialor gani zationist hevital fa ctorin an op ticalme ssage.”
Our tendency to connect in order to create coherence is also illustrated by the zoetrope (literally “life turning” in Greek). This nineteenth century toy-where objects on a spinning wheel in various states of change viewed through small slits appear as one object in movement-demonstrates the trick that animates all of cinema and shows how we agglomerate all the perceptions we take in. We live in a kind of movie that we put together all the time. Starting with the simple principle of nearness, we construct scenes, plots, narratives and a score that we believe to be solid and true. The faster our mind moves, the more the discrete elements become indistinct.
We end up with one monumental Gone With The Wind. We get carried away with connectedness to the point where chaos and disorder becoming threatening. Kepes writes that “light rays reaching the eye have no intrinsic order as such. They are only a haphazard, chaotic panorama of mobile, interdependent light-happenings. As soon as they reach the retina, the mind organizes and molds them into meaningful spatial units.”
Of course, we need the meaningfulness that the mind organizes in order to put one foot in front of the other. The straight and narrow path will allow us to put food on the table, but to frolic and to detour is no offense. It is a requirement. Otherwise, what we see becomes a concrete workspace. We may be covered by workers’ compensation, but there will be no compensation for delight lost.
I looked for Kepes’ book on Amazon.com, but all that came up was I See, a toddler’s book in the Baby Beginner Board Book series. They start us out on the straight and narrow at a very tender age.