Simultaneous Thought in Visual Communication

Enraged Buddhism

Simultaneous Thought
in Visual Communication

The kind of verbal thinking that leads to expository writing teaches us to focus on logic, analysis, categories, and sequential thought.

But one of the things I love about visual communication is the way it can embody several thoughts simultaneously and combine them in a supra-logical manner. Take this cartoon of mine, “Enraged Buddhism.”

Enraged Buddhism drawing

The basic joke is based on:

  • Buddhists are peace-loving and Buddhist practices work against the cultivation of anger
  • Engaged Buddhism is a movement for peaceful social change
  • It is comical to reverse this situation and imagine a Buddhist who has given up peaceful, engaged Buddhism and given in to dwelling on rage and resentment.

The drawing contains these simultaneous visual ideas:

  • The basic visual joke compares the man’s head to a volcano: you can see it rising up his shoulders and exploding as his hair. He is visually erupting.
  • A second joke puns on a comparison between the painfully intense tension between his eyes and the “third eye” often celebrated by accomplished meditators.
  • A nice touch is how, while the man pulls his face together with ferocious control, the face begins to blow apart and lose its symmetry. Look at how the nostril on the right has soared into a snear .(This kind of thing happens creatively on its own, during the drawing. After making a drawing, I often marvel over it, as if someone else had drawn it.)
  • A third visual pun makes his head in the form of a pineapple.

How does the pineapple tie in? By the far-fetched but quite real connection that Buddhism is practiced in many tropical (pineapple) countries, some of which have volcanoes, and it is in such settings that much Engaged Buddhism is practiced.

Did I plan these things? –No. They were products of visual thinking that unfolded in the act of drawing. All I had to start with was the tail of the idea. The drawing, with its enfolded ideas, is what happened when I pulled on that tail.

The Deep Reversal in Humor

Much humor, including this cartoon, contains a reversal, perhaps multiple reversals, that critique a surface fallibility in people but affirm a deep idealism. Beneath much of the apparent sarcasm, you often find a surprising tenderness.

Part of what makes this drawing work is an underlying appreciation of people who try to make peace with their own anger and find a way to take constructive actions in the world whle knowing themselves to be imperfect. It celebrates those who strive to overcome anger by making a joke of the anger that so easily erupts in the rest of us, and it celebrates us as imperfect beings who dwell with both tendencies: toward destructive anger and toward compassionate action.

In the peculiar reverse-logic of humor, this cartoon affirms Engaged Buddhism and other fallible human efforts to deal with human imperfection.

It is common for people not to recognize humor’s reverse-logic and to take offense at the surface level of a cartoon. Many political cartoons that attack injustices and abuses draw the criticism of people who mistakenly read those cartoons as attacking the symbols that the cartoonist uses to convey the critique–and the accompanying affirmation of higher ideals of human behavior.

Provenance: This little essay has not been published elsewhere.

The cartoon, by the way, was first published in the fine Buddhist journal with the odd name of Tricycle–a punning reference to a child’s trike and also to the three pillars of Buddhism, and a way of reminding us that we are all beginners.

–Gerald Grow

Follow-up: Conflicting Gestalts

We have all seen the classic Gestalt pictures that contain two possible readings — the old-young woman, the up-down staircase, the drawings of Escher. This phenomenon is known as the Gestalt shift. Here is a Gestalt diagram that can be read as either a staircase seen from above, or a staircase seen from below: 

Reading it as above or below requires shifting between two competing interpretations of the same kind. You can’t see the diagram both ways at the same time.

Here is a drawing I created that contains two competing Gestalts, but which works in a different way:

Instead of two “cognitive” Gestalts, this drawing at once appeals to the viewer to close the triangles, and at the same time to complete a face.

It seems to me that these two Gestalts come from different parts of the mind, which allows them to compete with one another, and to alternate, much more closely than the staircase diagram. Interpreting a set of cues as a human face is an activity that may be much more primitive and deeply embedded than the cognitive construction of abstract figures like triangles (or staircases). The mind’s attempt to complete the two competing Gestalts gives the drawing an unexpected livelness.

The result, I think, is funny — humorous, delightful — in the kind of humor described by Arthur Koestler that is based on setting the expectation of one context, then shifting to another.

Besides, don’t you just feel like that drawing some days — not exactly a whole person, but inexplicably still yourself?

–Gerald Grow
Oct. 9, 2004

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