354. On Contemplating Bathroom Floors

November 10, 2014

I have lived in my current apartment for fifteen years, so have a lot of experience looking down at the linoleum floor in the bathroom, laid down to look like ceramic tiles featuring swirling, abstract patterns in three shades of brown. Over the years, I have acquired a repertory of figures I recognize in those tiles, mostly faces, bodies, and animals. My favorite looks like a clown wearing a three-cornered hat, reminding me of one of the Three Musketeers, who looks up at me while I am sitting on the toilet. I never see it as twice the same, but it is always based on the same pattern of swirls in light, medium, and dark brown linoleum within one particular four-inch square. The pattern is there on the floor to see, but the familiar figure I make of it is mine alone. I see it not as a mere pattern but as a living clown. Clearly my own creation, a figment within the portion of my neural network activated when a signal spurred by that particular pattern is routed through my visual cortex. I see the clown as emerging from the floor while it is actually a projection of a pattern confined to my brain. As angels, butterflies, and bare breasts emerge from inkblots, and profiles of the Virgin Mary emerge from stained stucco, and grotesque faces presented themselves to Leonardo da Vinci’s sharp eye from stained walls he scrutinized during the Renaissance.

If we claim such figures to be there in the patterns before us, we are profoundly mistaken. The figures are what we make of them in our minds, what we take them to be, what we project upon them in seeing them as something they obviously are not. I have written about seeing my friend Fred walking ahead of me up Fifth Avenue in New York, of pursuing him at a rapid pace, sure from the gait, raglan overcoat, heavy cordovan shoes, woven scarf, that it was my friend from high school days—to discover when I came abreast of him and was about to clap him on the back that I had been chasing an impostor, a man whose face looked nothing like the Fred I knew at all. Stunned, I stood on the busy sidewalk amid the passing horde, lost in a reverie about how sad I was to have made such a mistake.

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