“It’s not a question of reality; it’s a question of our perceptions of these convergences we call ‘reality.’”
If you encountered the man who calls himself Buddha Jones on the street, you’d find little reason to acknowledge him. He’s one of those people who seem to blend in, nondescript in every way, almost generic in appearance.
He’s sitting on a bench in a park a few feet from Lake Michigan, gazing at seagulls. They hop in a sort of chaotic line dance. If they’re following a pattern, it’s indiscernible—at least to someone who doesn’t specialize in ornithology.
“They might be following a pattern,” Buddha says, “at least as far as they’re concerned. [Psychologist B.F.] Skinner found that pigeons will detect patterns even when none exist.” He hisses as he inhales smoke, then sighs as he pushes it out through his nose and mouth. “Those findings extend to people, by the way,” he says. “We’re pattern seekers, and we’ll sometimes find patterns that aren’t there.”
Buddha Jones is one of those people you might know for decades without pegging who he is, without pigeonholing him, without finding patterns, if you will, to enable you to discern cohesion in an otherwise aloof personality. His stories often contradict one another—his father died when he, Buddha, was in his thirties, for example, or he never knew his father; each story he tells, each facet of the life he chooses to share eventually emerges as either a creation or an exaggeration—or a combination of the two.
“People sometimes call writers professional liars,” he says. “That’s bullshit. Writers, and I’m talking about fiction writers here, make shit up, but there’s a difference between a lie and making something up.”
What’s the difference?
“Writing is algorithmic,” he says. “You follow a pattern, replace variables with values you’ve appointed. The point is to entertain or enlighten. Or trick.” He grins. “Or to shock or offend or whatever. To lie is to either avoid consequences, real world consequences, or to illegitimately obtain something, or someone, you want.”
But are the two behaviors mutually exclusive?
“Of course not,” he says. “But a writer sets out to tell a story, for whatever reason, or maybe to play with the notion of storytelling. Look, at the end of the day, a writer’s job is to emulate this hallucination we call ‘reality.’” He curls his fingers in air-quotes whenever he utters the word “reality,” something he never fails to do.
Why does he do that?
“I hate the word,” he says. “‘Reality.’ It misleads people.”
In what way?
“In my experience, people tend to assume ‘reality’ is this objective thing that exists independently of people, that we’re somehow passive participants in this thing we call ‘reality.’”
So then what is it?
“It’s a product of billions of neurons modeling an incomprehensible amount of information every second of every day. Each of us experience ‘reality’ differently because it’s ultimately a product of our brains.”
At this point I make a face without realizing I’d made it.
“You don’t believe me?” he says. “Drop some acid. Or drink some whiskey. These chemicals will literally alter how you experience ‘reality.’ If chemicals affecting your brain alter your experience of ‘reality,’ then isn’t it evidence that ‘reality’ itself is a product of experience?” After a long pause. “Which is itself a product of cognitive processes, of our brains?”
He had picked up a stick while we talked, and now he’s drawing the Mona Lisa in a patch of sand surrounded by grass. The picture would impress you: by utilizing nearby dirt, he shades the woman’s face, creating an almost three-dimensional picture, or a sepia etching.
On finishing the picture, which took only minutes, he tosses the stick aside and slides his boot—khaki work boots—over the picture, leaving tracers of a worn sole where a depiction of a woman’s face once lay.
He affects a limp as we approach a local coffeehouse. Tilting his head, he pulls his left hand to his chest and curls his wrist downward. He squints his left eye and pinches the left side of his lip. The transformation startles me: his physiognomy has shifted; his posture unrecognizable; he’s created a character, ad hoc, and now he fully inhabits this character. Even his eyes seem different somehow, as if someone else is in control—an affectation impossible to describe.
Four patrons inhabit the coffeehouse, a small building, formerly a house for employees of a long defunct railcar manufacturer. One woman, an older lady, maybe in her 50s, glances at him, then jerks her eyes in another direction. If anyone else notices him, they perform well: you can’t detect even a slight reaction.
The barista smiles and asks how she can serve him. He replies: large mocha, but in a garbled voice; only after repeating himself does she—or I, for that matter—understand what he just said. Or did he say anything at all? Was that imagined, the words ‘large mocha’?
A small woman, and young, the barista whips up his drink, mixes it, pops a lid on the cup and slides it across the counter. Buddha fumbles with his wallet, still in character, and, without moving his left arm, manages to open his wallet and extract a ten dollar bill.
“Why Buddha?” I say. “Are you a Buddhist?”
“No. God no. I just like the sound of it. Buddha Jones. It has a certain élan, doesn’t it?”
We’re sitting on a stoop outside a restaurant. Signs in the window, and in front of the building, inform us it’s under construction, and new management; but the place has been closed for months, and we locals no longer have faith that it will re-open.
Buddha’s holding a leather bound notebook, maybe slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes. Pen in hand, he’s writing. But what? He won’t tell me. I lean over, try to peek into the notebook, and he snaps it closed and slips it into his back pocket.
I’ve known him more or less all my life, known him as an artist, and as a writer, but I’ve never seen a story, a poem, a novel; I’ve never heard a word about his writings—what genre, style, and so on; and I’ve never heard him express an ambition to publish it.
But, to be fair, he and I don’t talk. At least, not until now. But then maybe “talk” isn’t the right word.
He’s well versed in philosophy and literature, and he’s a talented artist, but he doesn’t express pretense or ambition, at least as far as fame or fortune, or attention, is concerned. In a way, he seems to possess a desire to create without the ambition to offer his creations to the world. Or perhaps he lacks the drive, the motivation—or perhaps he’s only a facet of someone with ambition but without marketable talents.
“I used to paint,” he says. “First acrylic, then oil. But it felt flat to me. Dead on arrival. But I tried. I persisted. I was an idealist then, and I, uh, how do I put this without sounding like a pretentious douche? I guess I thought maybe I could, you know, change things, our culture maybe, through paintings. Through art. And so I toiled away. I wish I had kept track of every minute I’d dedicated to painting, just to see how much time I wasted.”
“If you were passionate while you were doing it, I wouldn’t say you wasted time.”
“Of course I did.”
I try to argue, but he disengages: “Have you seen that painting by Magritte? ‘The Treachery of Images’?”
The title rings a bell, but I feign ignorance. Why? I don’t know.
“It’s a painting of a pipe, the kind you use to smoke, and beneath it, Magritte wrote, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’—I’m sure I’m mangling the pronunciation—which, anyway, which translates to something like, ‘this is not a pipe.’ At first, I thought it was fucking idiotic. Some bullshit pretentious nonsense, maybe like the crap a Zen Buddhist spews, like, you know, like these nonsensical word games, empty phrases that don’t seem to make any sense. Whatsoever. Then I woke up, one day I woke up and thought about that painting. I was dreaming about it, maybe, although I don’t remember the dream, and it hit me: this is not a pipe. It’s fucking brilliant. It’s not a pipe. Literally. It’s pigments arrayed on a canvas in such a way as to create the illusion of a pipe; it’s a commentary, I think, on mimesis, a dismissal of it.”
For Buddha, Magritte’s painting represented more than a critique on a mode of art dating back to the Ancient Greeks, who thought art should represent an idealized version of “reality”—now he has me using quotation marks. Art, by the nature of the act, or the procedure, as Buddha puts it, shouldn’t represent “reality” because art can’t represent it; instead, art should subvert individual reality by altering “reality” for people on a personal level. One by one. Person by person.
“It’s a thankless, an anonymous form,” he says. “But I think it can be powerful. Or, to be honest, entertaining.”
To Buddha, life is a game, a virtual reality, of sorts. We are, each and every one of us, a sort of self-contained ‘Matrix,’ as he puts it. We don’t participate in “reality”; we model it; what we call “reality” is a model constructed, updated, and refreshed by a panoply of cognitive processes. Every second of every day, our brains, for lack of a better word, construct and refine these models. And since these models, at least to an extent, depend on external stimuli, then they can be corrupted. “You can alter a person’s model by presenting them with information they don’t know or realize is bullshit,” he says. “You can change their perceptions of ‘reality’ in that moment [emphasis mine] by proffering such bullshit.”
But what does he mean by “bullshit”? How does he define it?
Take the coffeehouse: as far as the barista knew, she was serving a man who, perhaps, had had a stroke. By pretending to behave in such a way, by refusing to break character or to wink at the audience, so to speak, Buddha had, “in that moment,” altered her perception of reality—and she would never know he’d tricked her.
“We all behave this way,” he says. “But most of us don’t realize it.”
Buddha grows indignant when I ask if he considers himself a prankster who plays tricks on people, or perhaps a performance artist, fucking with people for his amusement. At first, he refuses to acknowledge the question, speaking in clipped sentences, and in an erratic tone, childlike, about “Finnegans Wake,” the seminal James Joyce novel. His theory: the novel is a representation of the mind as the “machinery goes haywire at the point of death.” He seems to take the titular “Wake” literally.
From there, he discusses Surrealism, and his appreciation of the notion of eschewing aesthetic sensibilities. “The world is ugly,” he says, “and if art wants to comment on the world, if it wants to, I don’t know, somehow or in some sense represent it, then art should be ugly, too. Even writers, sentences, should be ugly. Paintings should be ugly. We should eliminate the notion of beauty, which will also eliminate the notion of ugliness, and appreciate each thing, each object, on its own merit.”
But what about pranking? Does it have aesthetic value? What about playing tricks on people? Certainly it’s part of his shtick. If he’s not a performance artist, then what is he? If he doesn’t paint anymore, if he doesn’t write for publication, if he doesn’t telegraph his creative endeavors, then how can he call himself an artist?
Granted, these are naïve questions, but sometimes naivety sheds light on aspects we often overlook. Buddha, however, doesn’t care. Lighting another cigarette, he shakes his head. “Art is an activity,” he says. “You’re only ever an artist in the moment you’re creating. After that, you’re nothing but a bullshitter.”
He has no internet presence. No email address, no Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr account, no LinkedIn profile, no smartphone, which means no text messaging. To him the internet is a simulated world too mundane, too easy to control and to manipulate. He prefers personal interactions—or confrontations. “In the flesh,” he says.
We’re still on the stoop outside the maybe-opening-possibly-closed restaurant. Buddha wets his fingers and extinguishes his cigarette by pinching its cherry. A couple passes us. Buddha coughs and holds out his hand. “Hey, man,” he says. “Can you spare maybe like a dollar or two?” The man shakes his head. His woman companion utters, “Sorry.”
Buddha stands and pulls a five dollar bill from his wallet and extends his arm, gesturing for the couple to take it. They wave and skip past us. “Take this,” he says, “if you’re both broke.”
A smile ignites his face when he spins toward me. He doesn’t have to explain it. In a matter of seconds, he perverted and warped their experiences of “reality”: at first glance, they encountered a homeless man—sadly, a persona non grata in American society—then they witnessed a transmogrification as he preyed on their expectations.
So why his aversion to the internet? Isn’t it a playground perfectly suited to the type of anonymity he’s described, a place where he can play with peoples’ perceptions without betraying his intentions?
“I’ve been on the internet,” he says, “you’ve got to bear that in mind. So this isn’t an alien concept to me. But the thing is … and so there seem, at least to me, from my point of view, three types of people online: those called trolls, who stir the shit for the sake of stirring it; the bullshitters, who inflate their egos; and the dupes, who seem to accept anything they encounter online. Granted, those are generalizations, and they certainly don’t apply to everyone, but you get the drift.”
Essentially, he attributes the idea of the internet to certain misgivings he explicates about the written word. It’s too easy to manipulate people; there’s no challenge and little payoff, at least for the manipulator. “Especially on websites not visually oriented, on sites where the written word dominate,” he says.
Words trick people; they instruct our cognitive processes on how to construct models developed by the writer. Anyone can pass off anything as “reality” online, or via the written word, if they portray themselves as serious writers, or journalists, or essayists, et cetera.
“For example,” he says. “Say you’re reading a sports story, about some game, a basketball game, say. And the writer uses language implying he or she attended the game. But since they don’t outright say they attended the game, only imply it, then you, whether you’re aware of it or not, fill in the gaps, make inferences, and so you assume they attended the game, which adds some sort of weird authority to the story. But then say the writer is a hack who plagiarized the story; say he, or she, pieced it together from several different writers, from several different websites. Then you’ve got bullshit with no purpose. Sure, it’s manipulation, but what’s the point?”
But what’s the point in the type of manipulation he performs?
“It’s art,” he says. “That’s the difference. My goal is to challenge someone’s perception of ‘reality’ in the moment they’re experiencing it, without the buffer of a computer screen. My goal is to make people perceive they’re experiencing one thing when they’re actually experiencing something altogether different. ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ It’s not about what’s real. It’s about how people perceive ‘reality,’ but in a visceral, in-the-flesh sense.”
It’s too easy to manipulate people with words—either on a page or on a screen. Furthermore, such manipulation doesn’t challenge a person’s experience of “reality.” At best, it makes them reconsider concepts, or alter their approach to viewing something; at worst, it reinforces views they might hold; it reinforces their worldview, as it were; in all cases, Buddha says, it involves conscious participation.
“You can’t unconsciously get on the internet, unconsciously read a story, unconsciously watch a video or look at a picture. At least not now. Maybe in the future. Who knows what technology they’ll develop next? But when I create my art, when I challenge peoples’ perceptions, I’m doing it without their consent; they don’t realize they’re participating in an altogether new art form. They don’t realize they’re subjects and active participants in a movement they’ll never know exists.”
Deception is itself an art form. It’s the hinge on which tricks performed by magicians, illusionists, and mentalists have turned for centuries. It’s how demagogues secure votes. It’s how writers trick readers into caring about people who don’t exist.
For example, Buddha and I are sitting on a stoop outside a restaurant. But we’re not sitting on that stoop, which is about two miles from where I’m currently sitting. But by writing in the present tense, I’m attempting to create the illusion that Buddha and I exist on that stoop in this moment.
But which moment?
The moment in which you’re reading this?
In this moment, I’m at my computer in my living room, typing as my cat, in heat, makes noises in the other room, singing a song to attract males. But for you, the reader, this moment is not “this” moment, at least as I perceive it. Your moment is my future; my moment, your past.
In this moment you’re staring at Latin symbols ordered in such a way as to instruct your brain to construct certain models, models for which I, the writer, have provided the blueprints.
How we “experience” “reality” is contingent on uncountable variables, many of which our cognitive processes filter out before the models are constructed. Before we “experience” “reality” in this moment.
If Magritte’s painting serves a purpose, it’s this: question everything; nothing is at it seems—cliché? Certainly. But sometimes clichés are valuable in that they express things so common we take them for granted, or overlook them altogether. As Chico Marx once quipped, “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
Several times, Buddha reiterated his intention on manipulating people “without the buffer of a computer screen,” and I snickered whenever he “said” it. In the world of words, a world I inhabit, I can only manipulate people with a screen acting as a buffer. I can only represent things people do or say as “things” “people” “do” or “say.”
You, the reader, are, right now, playing a game every literate person plays; you, the reader, are playing by rules we, as literate people, understand—if not explicitly, then intuitively.
As a reader, glossing over these words, right now, in this moment, you might take for granted everything you’ve just read, and everything you’re currently reading. You might assume I know Buddha Jones, you might assume I’ve spent time with him, you might assume he even exists, you might even assume that I, Daulton Dickey, exist—but I could be a woman writing under a masculine nom de plume.
Without bringing attention to these assumptions, I could leave you content in having read a story about an eccentric person who calls himself an artist. I could have left you without wondering if Buddha Jones is real or a figment of your imagination—one I’ve implanted in your head; one you helped create. Throughout this piece, I didn’t bother to describe Buddha, yet I’m willing to wager at least some of you made certain inferences which informed the model of him you’ve constructed.
Like a magician, an artist should not betray his or her secrets. An artist should employ deception, misdirection, sleight-of-hand—tweaked to his or her respective media—to force people to perceive things differently. If they perceive things differently, then they’ll experience things differently. At least in that moment. And, in that moment, the artist has literally altered a person’s “experience” of “reality.” But by that point, the activity has passed, as the artist is no longer an artist; instead, he’s a bullshitter.
Am I a man or a woman? Daulton Dickey or Linda van Huron? Is Buddha Jones a real person or a fictional device? While fun to consider, these questions don’t matter. What does matter, however, is this: how do we define “art” in a communication age, an age in which images and the simulacra dominate our culture?
We can paraphrase a thousand poets and authors, philosophers and artists, even scientists, but we’re out of time. Instead, we can sum up the answer to every question enumerated in the above paragraph with a familiar, yet simple, phrase: Ceci n’est pas une pipe.