Monday, June 25, 2007

Simplicity



As I sit in my library, surrounded on almost three walls by books on shelves—the almost third wall being the corner where the freestanding fireplace is, and the fourth being the wall with my recording studio gear under the windows overlooking the backyard—I think about reducing things down to their simplest aspects. We live in a world that's almost too overwhelming, too overstimulating. I say "almost" because much of the time we cope with it, or think we do. But simplicity is a thing we yearn for so much, so often, as antidote to the rush of daily commitments that we think we need to have, or must have, that we forget to just stop. Just. Stop. And that's the simplest thing of all. It's not complicated, it's not even hard—unless you have developed so much momentum around the "should"s and "have to!"s of life that you've forgotten how inessential most of them are.

I will gradually, over the course of the next few months, keep whittling away at this library, and paring it down to essentials. I'll sell off some of the books I don't think I'll ever read again, or can replace if I ever need to. Some books never go away, after all. What I'll keep will bne the irreplaceable and the beautiful and unusual. I'll be doing the same to the whole house. This is my parents' house that I'm living in for now, and that I will be living in for several more months, as we gradually clear it out and get it ready for eventual sale. And then I'll find someplace else to live, as lightly as possible, and travel, and move on.

French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry defined perfection as that which is achieved "not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away." These words eloquently embody the call to simplicity in photography and art—and in life and faith, as well.

Photography, unlike most other arts, involves at its essence the stripping away of the superfluous. While the painter begins with a blank canvas, to which paint is added, the photographer starts with everything—an infinitely crowded canvas, as it were—and progressively removes various elements. To the photographer, every great scene to be photographed already exists somewhere in the world; the challenge lies in deciding where to point the camera and then eliminating from the field of view everything that does not contribute to the desired result.
—Micah Marty, Photographer's Introduction to When True SImplicity Is Gained: Finding spiritual clarity in a complex world, by Martin Marty and Micah Marty

Saint-Exupéry's idea of perfection is elegant and simple, and resonates with me as a poet and artist. Marty's description of the nature of photography also resonates well with me. In both photography and poetry, I feel called to simplicity. As a poet I most drawn to small elegant forms such as haiku, which are both simple and, on a deeper layer, resonant and complex.



Perfection is stripping away, not adding to. Not reductionism, which is reducing things to nothing by way of analysis, but to that point where "nothing more can be taken away." The master sculptor, when asked how he can create such beauty from a block of marble, said, I just take away everything that's not the statue. He sees the finished piece inside the block, and removes the rest. The photographer crops and frames the image so that nothing that's not the photo is inside the frame. It's a focusing-inward, a cleansing.

In life and art, then, taking away the inessential is the road to simplicity, and perfection.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

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