Sunday, November 23, 2008

Vibrations of the Invisible

It may seem strange, but I just have this strong conviction that children might be able to see certain things in the presence of certain things. Things that adults are no longer aware of. Children have a way of listening to "muses," they're aware of them, because they haven't been educated out of it. They haven't closed their minds to that possibility. And I feel that if the photographer is very sensitive, he can do this too. He can hear the vibrations of the invisible.
—Arthur Tress, in The Dream Collector

I am going through back pages of my travel journal, and finding passages like this in my own handwriting. I agree with Tress, that if the photographer is very sensitive, he or she can see more than what's there to the eye. I once concluded a poem, titled last words, with the lines:

like a path among trees
your turning affected you more
than any god or planet,
as though you breathed
only the air you could see
with flesh eyes.

There are lots of things we life we can't see, which we take on faith until we take them for granted. When was the last time you thought about what you were breathing? (Assuming you're not subject to an illness such asthma which keeps you aware of your breathing at all times.) I get accused of being good at pointing out the obvious at times; but it seems to me that most people ignore the obvious, and the occasional reminder is no bad thing.

The Illuminated Man, by Duane Michals

This photo is one of the first I'd encountered by Duane Michals, back when I first saw it, many years ago, and it remains one of my favorites from his body of work. I have carried it around as a postcard, tacked on a bookshelf or bulletin board or refrigerator, where I could see it, ever since. Actually, I've worn out a couple of copies of the postcard, and had to replace them. I can explain this photo technically, now that I'm a photographer, but what remains powerful about the image is that the man seems to be turning into light. Light is exploding out of him from within. He is catching on pure white fire. He catches light, and becomes light.

This is the sort of thing Tress means, and which both Tress and Michals have recorded in their photos, about how someone who remains sensitive to their surroundings can see things others do not. John Minahan wrote, in 1972, in his Introduction to The Dream Collector:

A number of critics have suggested that the obvious success of Tress' dream photographs must be due in large measure to an extraordinary rapport with children, and this is quite true. Watching him work, you're aware of an elusive "chemistry" going on, extremely difficult to define. Of course, part of it is due to his casual appearance and mannerisms, but this is merely a surface psychology that photographers have used for many years. It goes much deeper than that. I think the key to Tress' unusual harmony with children is that he is "childlike" himself, in the true sense of the word. That is, his imagination is still essentially unsophisticated—and therefore genuinely creative. Like children, he hasn't yet lost the capacity to wonder, to see the invisible, to dream in the daytime. He hasn't yet drawn an indelible line between illusion and reality. I believe children intuitively sense this about him.

Child-like rather than childish. That seems important to understand. It's not an infantile and needy response to life, but a playful one, that leaves open the doors to possibility.

There is an openness to spiritual masters that is similarly child-like, in its spontaneity and sensitivity. I think of the story of an important official who sought out a famous Zen monk in Medieval Japan, and was stunned to discover that, rather than sitting meditating in his hermitage, the monk was playing hide-and-seek with the village children. Similarly, Tress' method was to record the children telling him their dreams into a tape recorder, then play them back to the kids to hear, after which they reenacted the dream together for the camera.

This openness to wonder, to the invisible, is something artists and spiritual masters and children all have in common. It might be wise for those among us who have become so hardcore adult that we can no longer play, to regain some of this, this creative play. I know far too many writers and artists who have become paralyzed because they no longer allow themselves to take risks, in order to avoid making presumed mistakes. They have become perhaps too sophisticated. (One sees this attitude a lot more in Big City writers than anywhere else.) They get very stuck, and their faces literally age from all the worry lines, because they don't let themselves risk failure, an d they're afraid of appearing foolish.

But here's another lesson from children: if you fail, you do it again till you get it right. That's how toddlers learn to walk: by falling down a lot. That's also how older kids learn other new skills: by practice, and by play. I often think that the real problem with a lot of contemporary poetry is that it's become too hardcore adult, takes itself way too seriously, and has a lot of its sense of play. Play is also exploration, pathfinding and waymaking new trails into the invisible lands, invisible not because they don't exist but because they haven't been seen before.

Children let their failures go. They don't cling to them, unless and until some adult beats a sense of personal failure into them. Children recover quickly from mistakes: it's all learning. It's adults who beat themselves up forever for a mistake they made a subjective eternity ago. It's adults who can't let go.

Adults are driven by the invisible, the intangible, even those who claim to be total pragmatists and materialists. Because, you see, pragmatism is an idea, a concept. The illuminated man burns away all ideologies by converting them to light. Materialism, too, is a concept, an ideology: no more substantial than the invisible air you're breathing right now. Less, actually. Air is more essential than ideology. Ask anyone who's suffocating if they give a damn, in that moment, about anything but their next breath: if they had breath to answer, they would no doubt say, No.

Minahan's comment that Tress' imagination is still essentially unsophisticated—and therefore genuinely creative is striking. He adds: Like children, he hasn't yet lost the capacity to wonder, to see the invisible, to dream in the daytime. The word unsophisticated here strikes me as the opposite of pejorative, which is the way unsophisticated is mostly used in contemporary criticism: as a dismissal rather than a charm. (Again, one finds this more often perhaps among Big City writer/critics.) The Shakers and Amish and Mennonites use the word plain, as in plain appearance, as a word of approval. There remain lessons to be learned from voluntary plainness, from chosen poverty of means that reveals richness of spirit. Children, as Tress reveals, and as children all know, don't need a lot of materials at hand to enhance their play: A cardboard box becomes a castle; an apple tree becomes a rocket ship to the stars; a sidewalk becomes a runway for airplanes to take off and land on. Children often dream of flying, Tress reports, and often they dream of flying away from home or school, into the wide blue unknown.

One can hear the hardcore adults all complaining at this point: But that's not real, there's nothing there—it's illusion, it's make-believe. Well, yes, it is. That's precisely the point. Creativity depends upon imagination, upon play, upon seeing the invisible, upon being unsophisticated, upon being open to wonder, upon wondering itself, upon What if? games, upon dreaming in the daytime.

It's often been said that writing is a solitary practice. But writers need playgroups, too; and they need to learn to play well with others, to share their toys (rather than form critical cliques, one suggests), and to remain open to seeing the invisible.

it is the invisible, after all, that motivates us far more than does anything visible.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is brilliant. I couldn't agree more. I have been fascinated by this word 'play' for some time now. Play as a musician or a child. The only way to learn and the best poetry always has a joy in the language I think even on the darkest themes.

2:48 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the thoughts.

Play matters a great deal, One of the best books on it, and the importance of improvisatory play in life, music, and the arts, is Stephen Nachmanovtich's book "Free Play." I recommend it highly.

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

its an awsome photo im doing an artist study on some of duane michaels work and it is all really good.

9:24 AM  

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