A game of Tag. `It' is blindfolded. Players are encouraged to come as close as possible to `it' without getting caught. In the Middle Ages, this game was known as "Hoodsman's Blind" because the usual blindfold was simply a liripipe hat or a hood put on backwards with the face opening to the back of the head.

Max Beckmann’s Blind Man’s Bluff, for me, has been a serious challenge of comprehension. My inexperience with decoding expressionist art-combined with the scales of confusion, color, and clutter found in this piece-made my time spent with the tryptch frustrating to say the least. Knowledge of Beckmann’s intended meanings with Bluff would not have, in my mind, assisted me in formulating my own theories about the piece, or released the tensions presented by it. I do not know what emotions or stories or descriptive adjectives Beckmann intended to inspire with this trio, but I do know what these ideas are that I have taken from the painting myself.

The most concrete ideas come first for me, so initially I’d like to present my observation notes:

  • The man is experiencing sensations other than sight-but the tryptch is purely visual.
  • We’re experiencing what The Blind Man can’t, and he is doing the reverse.
  • On the left panel The Woman seems caught in prayer-or psychic connection to the Blind Man-commanding/reading his senses? Sharing/receiving secrets about his experiences.
  • Stained glass background apparent.
  • I’m not seeing the central panel as an actual happening-instead is the imagined environment of The Blind Man’s senses. A fantasy of rambunctious gods and monsters.
  • Well dressed people on the side panels/a party?/pagans in center. The mystical sights/sounds of the world come from the pagans.

As I see it, Blind Man’s Bluff presents to us two worlds, the physical world of a party involving a blindfolded man, and the world imagined by The Blind Man as he is confronted with various sensual stimuli. The party universe is shared by the wing panels of the work, where The Blind Man and Praying Woman can be found amid talkative party goers. The imaginary world of the Blind Man’s senses occupies the central panel, and the confusion of the piece as a whole can be pinpointed to this panel’s dominance over the others and its inherent dream or fantasy-like imagery.

In the sense-fantasy world of the central panel, The Blind Man’s imagination runs wild. The music that he hears, the sensations of the fur he rubs, the heat and busy of the party environment are all here translated by The Blind Man’s imagination as the play of lazy gods. Fitting to this hallucination is the dream-like quality of the bold colors and contorted composition of the figures. The heightened nature of physical sensations when not accompanied by visual stimuli dictate these vivid and chaotic color schemes, filling in visual information where only other sense-forms are present. The ambient chatter of The Blind Man’s physical environment could also be seen in the conversant and crowded arrangement of the Gods Figures, where no single god or idea takes center stage. The central panel shows us the secret fantasies of thought-perhaps unconsious-as The Blind Man enjoys his presented stimulator(and anticipates the next).

The stimulators are presented to The Blind Man by figures in the party environment in a very game-like setting. The Praying Woman kneeling quietly in the left panel seems the least involved in the excitement of "The Game", and her lack of participation is shown in her avoidance of the two male figures crowding about her as if seeking secrets. This arrangement of figures, The Praying Woman and the two Secret-Searching Men, is the most mysterious part of the piece. Can The Woman divine insights into The Blind Man’s mind? Do the two Secret-Seekers pursue this information? Does this interplay hold any significance to The Game? We can only imagine.

Beckmann’s uses of color and cluttered, distorted images confront the viewer with a challenging visual puzzle. The primary reactions of confusion and unease are presented initially by the juxtapositions of these factors(also the tripartite nature of the tryptch format), and are mirrored by the complexity of the story constructions of the viewer. The dreamy air of colorful, vibrant forms set off by bold black lines around pseudo-geometric shapes certainly dictates a specific kind of interpretation on the part of the observer, while one simple fact remains: The Blind man hears, feels, smells and tastes where the observer only can see. Our interpretations are fundamentally different than his, and our understanding of this piece will always be incomplete.


(Blind Man's Bluff is a painting by Max Beckmann to be found at the Minneapolis Institute of the arts...)

Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew

It says here it was a "New York Times Bestseller". It's a book largely about US Naval intelligence operations during the Cold War. It's also about a few other things, since most knowledgeable parties aren't willing to say too much on the record about the subject. The authors fill in with more or less related anecdotes that turned up while they were researching the book. We'll get back to that later, but it's worth mentioning at the outset that this book is more of a series of entertaining anecdotes than a real history. By necessity, it's heavily weighted towards the experiences of those veterans who were willing to talk to the authors. I doubt very much that the authors have the full picture.

Broadly speaking, the United States and the Soviet Union spent the years from 1945 through 1991 like two clinically paranoid and heavily armed teenagers in the back of a car on prom night, desperate to explore each other's recesses yet at the same time consumed by rage and loathing. We all know about spy satellites and spies, but submarines were also among the numerous delicate fingertips with which the United States groped for the Soviets' magical secret places.

The most obvious trick was to sneak up very close to some interesting portion of the Soviet coastline and take pictures through the periscope. It seems naïve, but worthwhile information was gathered that way. Submarines are a good way to keep an eye on somebody's navy. Bear in mind that this is done within the three mile territorial limit generally accepted by international law, and well within the twelve miles that the Soviets claimed. Theoretically, those submarines were doing a very bad thing.

The other major arena for submarine intelligence-gathering was keeping an eye on the Soviet navy at sea, which largely meant tailing their submarines. You can get a rough notion of where that often led in the informative Submarine Collisions node, which contains information gleaned from this very book.

In the early days of old diesel electric submarines, this was all scary stuff indeed: Those submarines were loud, and they couldn't stay underwater for very long. While submerged, they crept slowly along on secondary electric motors. Soon enough, the batteries ran out. This is all very grim stuff when you've got a flock of fast, freely-breathing destroyers giggling over your head and dropping explosives on you. If you haven't read Run Silent, Run Deep (or another grim one about the other side in that war, Iron Coffins, allegedly true, by Herbert A. Werner), do so. There were, as they say, men in those days. Usually there weren't quite so many at the end of the day as in the morning, though. Here, we get an account of the experience of the USS Gudgeon2, pursued by Commies in the Pacific. It was just a cold war, though, so they used little tiny non-lethal depth charges and broke off the engagement when Gudgeon surfaced after a day and a half of torment. It is claimed that before steaming off, they signaled thanks to Gudgeon for the ASW practice. You can imagine the hilarity, I'm sure.

There were cases where the batteries in those old submaries just up and exploded, too. Those aboard USS Cochino did so in the Barents Sea in 1949, causing the loss of the submarine. Another sub, USS Tusk, was with Cochino at the time, and only seven men were lost.

In the 1960s, nuclear submarines came into vogue. They could move much more rapidly underwater, and they could stay there until they ran out of food1. Other technology improved along with naval architecture; in the 1970s, the United States tapped a Soviet telephone cable in the Sea of Okhotsk, thereby intercepting sensitive communications between the mainland and the Soviet naval base at Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka (that's in the North Pacific). A few years later, we tapped a similar cable in the Barents Sea. Both of those operations are covered in great detail.

Another brief for our brave submerged cold warriors was locating Soviet military hardware from the ocean floor. Normal modern military submarines can only go down to 2,000 feet or less below the surface before they implode, and divers who can get out and pick things up are even more limited. Therefore, submarines would usually just locate things, and more exotic technology would be used to retrieve whatever could be retrieved. There was a wonderful episode in the late 1960s where an nearly obsolete Soviet Golf-class missile submarine was lost in the Pacific, and the US Navy was able to locate and photograph the wreckage. In 1973, when everything aboard the Golf had finally become thoroughly obsolete and uninteresting, the CIA spend $350,000,000 trying to retrieve the submarine itself. They got a small part of it, but that part didn't contain the obsolete encryption materials and obsolete missiles that they were really after.

And so on. It's a good read. There's only a smattering of meaningless babble about how much such-and-such captain liking blueberry muffins, this one had pizza parties for the crew, etc. More meaningful babble includes the following claims: Submariners often have propellers tattooed on their buttocks. When drunk, they often perform the "Dance of the Flaming Assholes", which involves both (a-hem) visible propellers, and flaming toilet paper anchored just where you might think. I can't vouch for any of this, thank God.

Some of the best parts are irrelevant stuff that doesn't really belong there, except that the authors have a journalist's eye for a good story: Many, many pages, for example, are spent on the tragic case of the USS Scorpion, lost mysteriously somewhere near the Azores in the mid-1960s. A massive search was mounted, and the wreckage was found. There were commissions and reports, some of which disagreed with each other and much of which remained classified for many years after the incident. Nobody's really sure what happened to Scorpion, but some retired Naval officials have a guess: Various bits of evidence which never got put together at the time suggest that some gruesomely boneheaded engineering decisions may have led to a torpedo battery running amok and "cooking off" the torpedo's warhead right there in the torpedo room. The whole story is fascinating one, even though it's really got nothing to do with intelligence. There's another good story about looking for a misplaced hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain. That one doesn't involve submarines at all, but one of the authors' sources knew about it and again, it's great fun to read about.



1 Anybody with a layman's knowledge of submarines can't help but notice that the old diesel subs had a bow shaped like that of a ship, designed for travelling on the surface of the ocean. They were relatively ship-like in cross-section as well. They even had decks (and deck guns, since they often attacked shipping from the surface). Modern submarines are radially symmetrical and have rounded (or I should probably say ovoid) noses like torpedoes always did: Diesel submarines submerged only when there was a pressing need. They weren't really full-time, 24/7 submarines. Nuclear submarines are, and the design reflects that. Functioning well on the surface is not a priority when so little time is spent there.

2 Traditionally, US Naval submarines have been named after fish. By the 1980s, they were running out of fish with cool names, so some new submarines of the Los Angeles class were named after bail bondsmen, bartenders, and other pillars of the Naval way of life.

Blind Man's Bluff is the name of a game that I have played since I was a child, which has no relation to the game described above.

This game is played in a car, with (at least) two people: the driver, who can see (thankfully) and the passenger, who is blinded. The driver drives the car around an city or town, and the passenger tries to guess where they are.

This is not really a specifically goal oriented game, with no clear win\loss conditions. If the passenger seems to know where they are, no matter where the driver goes, maybe they have won. And if the passenger is so totally confused that they have no idea where they are, then perhaps the driver can be considered to have won.

To keep this game moderatly fair and fun, the driver shouldn't try to hard to comfuse their passenger. If the passenger is totally clueless to where they are, then they are beyond being able to guess. When they still have some general idea where they are, it is more fun for them to guess.

If the driver wishes to confuse a passenger, they can always try some tricks: going through parking lots or around in circles, to throw their passengers sense of direction.

This is a great game to play, and hones the ninja senses of the passenger. Of course, a further variation is when the driver themselves becomes totally lost.

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