The kaleidoscope is a bicentenary invention due to the Scottish optics researcher David Brewster, who in 1816 wrote the first kaleidoscopic treatise, nearly two hundred pages dedicated to the polarisation of light and the ideal number of coloured glass fragments necessary for the best variety of structures: twenty-four! It wasn’t until a few decades later that the scientific object became a children’s toy, and an adult metaphor. A kaleidoscopic reality, according to the Greek root which speaks of beauty and forms, is a harmony composed of disparate elements, a succession of unified varieties that can take on several aspects depending on the angle of the experience and the moment of the observation.
Artists also have been fascinated by kaleidoscopes, those googles of the imagination, including Picasso and his Cubist friends, who wanted to unveil the essence of the geometric fragmentation of the world and our ordering gaze. The poet Aragon, in Le Paysan de Paris, wrote with the haughtiness of the dreamer: “When I think of what you are thinking, all of you […], the sky as a crown, my upside down kaleidoscope, shipwrecks in your pocket, a little meadow between your teeth, the whole universe, the vast universe… ” The poet’s kaleidoscopic vision designates an opening to the richness of reality and of its possibilities. It is a metonymy for the creative profusion of the cosmos, of which poetry is a pure (too pure?) echo. In a fiercely analytical and gray world, we clench our teeth with an aftertaste of bitter meadow in our mouths.
In Creative Evolution, the philosopher Bergson relates the kaleidoscope to our consciousness of the world. For Bergson, we do not see the world as it is, because the invisible is too rich and metamorphic: we perceive a reduced and biased composition, an image that we mistake for reality. Walter Benjamin spoke of our social reality as a montage of images, like in a movie, and this also reveals the, if not arbitrary, at least contingent or singular character of any montage, as in cinema direction. An artist lives in a regenerative and regular shaking of the kaleidoscope, in the in-between of assemblages, a current of lava that can intensify or burn the lives of those who approach it.
The playful nature of the kaleidoscope is a clue: chance is a component of the creative experience that weaves our existences, our pockets full of joy or our fatal shipwrecks. In our approach to reality, we tend to accept perceptual reshuffles imprinted by others, for example the media, and all structures that reproduce on a large scale the norms that govern us. We adapt by forgetting to shake the real to reorder the colours and shapes. We get attached to our habits and sometimes prefer to suffer in a familiar environment rather than to venture out into new horizons. Few of us have fun giving a kaleidoscopic, hazardous and risky shake up to our world, to generate new ideas, new points of view, new perceptions, new territories. A dangerous and vital game. A game that is nothing without thought and action, because the colored constellations are not values or ideas, they only suggest them intuitively to our interpretation. The labour of giving meaning to diversity takes longer than a new arrangement of optical forms. We cannot live of metaphors alone.
The creative shaking of the kaleidoscope is not a roll of the dice, it is a persevering openness to the flow of possibility that runs between two realistic illusions. Charles Fourier is perhaps the French thinker who came closest to a kaleidoscopic political proposition: according to him there are more than eight hundred different types of human beings, or characters, contrary to what the monotonous psychologist propaganda tells us, one that would like to see us cry and laugh at the same things, all united in a soporific emotional consensus driven by Hollywood screenwriters. For Fourier, the philosopher-poet, there are butterfly passions (desire for renewal), composite passions (desire for unification), and cabalistic passions (desire for competition), among others.
The world would undoubtedly be richer if we combined our intellectual and emotional differences in an attempt to compose society as a living kaleidoscope rather than as a panoptic prison where everyone watches the same reflections. Contemporary loneliness comes from the fact that we are educated in the possibility of being all different and then re-educated in the need to be all alike.