Sunday, May 24, 2009

Convergences & Balances (and paying attention)

If you Pay Attention, things converge. A sequence of small things, little things noticed, like wildflowers in a ditch by the roadside, start to add up. The Universe is always trying to tell you something, if only you'd pay attention. To be clear, paying attention can go on no matter how you feel about it. Today my internal weather is rather stormy—feelings have been returning that I didn't have time to deal with, when my parents were dying, or later when we were dealing with the aftermath of their departures—and even though I might have a good, productive day, I still feel not-good inside. Emotions are like the weather, though: they come and go, in their own time, and it's not wise to force them, lest one be lightning-struck.

This morning, waking abruptly from disturbing dreams, I am led (by the synchronicity of receiving a comment on it) to re-read as essay about Walking In Beauty that I first wrote in 2004, before departing for the West, and being delivered into the partly-nomadic life I now lead. I don't feel I can take credit for what I wrote then, for it was more lucid and centered than I feel inside today. (Sometimes you don't know where these things come from; perhaps those hidden parts of ourselves that are much larger and wiser than the surface layers of our intellect and personality can ever comprehend.) In excerpt, what I wrote was:

The boundary zone between Law and Chaos is most beautifully and evocatively described by fractals. Fractals exhibit fractional dimension, self-similarity on many scales, and infinite complexity bounded within a finite space. Fractals are not necessarily themselves chaotic, but they do describe the boundary-edge between chaotic states and stable states. These areas of complexity describe how chaos and stability interfinger, send out little tendrils of exploration into each others' territories, and generally mix without truly mixing. This is an incredibly Taoist idea; the seeds of light are in the darkness, and the seeds of darkness are in the light. . . .

The fractal geometry of nature has one more huge lesson for us in the realm of seeking harmony; when we see how shapes and patterns of river estuaries and tree-branches and the branching pathways in the alveoli in the lungs are all the same basic patterns, and how they are all self-similar at differently-sized scales, we realize how interconnected everything is, and how it all relates together, and how essential it is for it all to be in harmony and balance in order to function. The Universe is revealed to us as a living, breathing organism, with the same patterns and shapes of forces operating on all different levels. The way clusters of galaxies thread themselves across the skies looks exactly like the patterns fallen maples leaves make under a tree in autumn. This is what it means to walk in beauty; to see harmony and connections in all things.

When the world falls out of balance, the job of the healer is to restore harmony. Walking in beauty, the way of harmony, the way of peace, means that sometimes the healer has to move one way or another off-center, to bring himself and the world back to balance and center; that's why we act crazy sometimes. That's why some of the most difficult clients in a healer's seem so unbalanced; they're the bellwethers for social and cultural unbalance, the shadows the city embodies because the culture wishes to repress them; they act out the culture's schizophrenic contradictions within their individual lives, and sometimes they can be cured not by being given a pill but by being listened to and understood, and brought back into harmony. You can't live in crazy times all the time, or you lose your center; eventually, you have to find some tranquil times to balance them. This, too, is healing.


The sentence that stops me, in re-reading this missal from years ago, is: When the world falls out of balance, the job of the healer is to restore harmony.

This speaks to the lack of peace in my heart this morning. (I write these observations in the Now, on a specific morning, knowing full well that other mornings will someday hark back to this one; so I write to my future self, a note to come back and re-read then.) It speaks to me of the agitated restless bitterness and resentment that were the products of that last dream before waking, which jolted me out of sleep so abruptly that I found myself on my feet next to my bed before I was even aware of coming awake. And finally, this message speaks to me, in my own voice, of what I must do. (The gods often use our own voices to speak to us, to give us these sorts of messages. Have you noticed?) I know what I need to do now. Truthfully, I already knew: this is just underlining. The point is, you have to pay attention, and listen to the advice that comes to you in your own voice. It's encouragement to act on what you already know you have to do. It's affirmation and validation, more than it is a directive.

Last night, I was re-reading a book I've read more than once, and given away more than one copy of to those who might benefit from it. I had just found another copy at a thrift store, and picked it up, in case I needed to give it away to someone, again. That book is Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

Again, if you're paying attention, you'll note that the messages you need to hear in a moment of crisis or need will all be there, if only you paid attention. Have you noticed? The Universe is always ready to help you out, in this way.

Art & Fear is one of those small, powerful books that belongs on every working artist's shelf. It's a guidebook not on how to make art—technical manuals are a dime a dozen, and few rarely stand out from the pack—but on how to deal with your life as an artist. You can expect a lot of difficulties. Art & Fear contains wisdom for every artist, writer, musician, dancer, or whatever, in that it addresses the creative process itself; which process, no matter how individually it manifests, contains universal patterns and threads. The book addresses uncertainty and doubt, our fears about ourselves and others, about finding one's work, and the issues of making a living in a world that so poorly supports artists.

What must I do to restore my inner balance, to find that beauty in the balance again? Bayles and Orland say this, which I re-read last night:

The world displays perfect neutrality on whether or not we achieve any outward manifestation of our inner desires. But not art. Art is exquisitely responsive. Nowhere is feedback so absolute as in the making of art. The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it—or withhold from it. In the outside world there may be no reaction to what we do; in our artwork there is nothing but reaction.

The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness. Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes. . . .

In the ideal—that is to say, real—artist, fears not only continue to exist, they exist side by side with the desires that complement them, perhaps drive them, certainly feed them. Naive passion, which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacles, becomes—with courage—informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.


There's a balance point to be found in accepting those obstacles without letting them determine your direction. It can come down to choice: you dance around those obstacles, by will and choice, or you can charge headlong into them, by stubborn will and choice. It's up to you. The balance is found in acknowledging the obstacles, and swerving if necessary to avoid them, but also refusing to get off the road entirely. Maybe the obstacles will slow you down, or maybe you'll find an alternate, potentially more direct route. But if you let them stop you: that too is a choice. Have you noticed?

The third moment of synchronicity this morning came when I was scanning my "work in progress" bookshelves, those nearest my writing desk and art table, where I stash the books I'm thinking about most at the moment, or most desire to peruse at any given time. And my roaming stopped on a book I picked up in another thrift store, a few months ago, quickly scanned at the time, then set aside for deeper reading later: Writing Towards Wisdom: The writer as shaman, by Robert Burdette Sweet.

Now, this morning, I pick up Writing Towards Wisdom and discover that it speaks to me directly. It's a surprising little book, one that perhaps speaks more directly to my experience of being creative than it does to yours: I will not claim universality for its teachings, and I cannot unequivocally recommend it to all readers: it's not for everyone. I suspect some artists and writers, locked into Expert Mind and unable to find their own Beginner's Mind anymore, would quickly dismiss this little book as a self-help new age book; conversely, some will dismiss it purely because it uses the word "wisdom" in its title, and is not another how-to manual, but appears to be about the writer's inner journey, using writing as a guide for personal integration and worldly understanding.

I relate to a book that can be so misunderstood; I appreciate the care that must be taken to get past one's initial prejudices. Some books trigger all sorts of prejudices, leaving few to actually read what the author wrote. I feel that way myself, when I read responses to much of my recent poetry and essays. (Are you insane going down that road alone? That isn't even Poetry!) I am cheered when I encounter another creative who "gets it" about some of the chief obstacles I habitually confront: being misunderstood; the search for quality of life as well as quality of art; an awareness of courageous, necessary futility. (Art & Fear gets at the latter, too.) Most days, these obstacles don't get to me; or I keep my responses private, feeling no need to advertise their presence. Today, worn down, searching for that balance of beauty, I'll be honest and specific in my responses to what I've been reading, just this once. So, honestly, I find Writing Towards Wisdom to be a balm, an absolute balm to my agitation and restlessness this morning; an absolute antidote to my doubts and fears; and, in the end, exactly what I needed to pick up and read this morning. (Have you noticed?)

Very early in his book, Robert Burdette Sweet sets out to define his terms, to give some context to his intentions with his book. He writes:

The artist is at once both shaman and scapegoat.

A shaman is a person who acts as an intermediary between what is unknown and what is known. For our purposes, think of the shaman as one who retrieves from the lower depths of the personality's iceberg a previously hidden shard and hauls it to the surface to be revealed.

Shamans are those who dare to confront the invisible and hidden world of their own psyches. By way of this inner adventure, they struggle towards and understanding and therefore an acceptance of the contradictory needs and fears that split all persons. . . . The real shaman—as opposed to the pretender—aids us in coping with what is. He or she is no escapist. Nor is the shaman primarily self-serving. . . . A writer, when functioning as a shaman, pursues both societal and personal fidelity. In our particular culture—whose avoidance of the mythic, the unconscious, the immaterial is well-established—art may remain the essential means of discovering and communicating what sagacity people are capable of bearing.


These are rich definitions. I found myself startled at the initial definition of an artist: both shaman and scapegoat. The startlement comes not from the recognition of truth—for this is true formulation—but from the baldness of such a statement of the truth. No frills here, folks.

The shaman confronts the invisible nature of ourselves: our mysteries, as well as the larger Mystery. The shaman is a spiritual and creative spelunker, going into the cold dark caves below the surface levels we know, to bring back reports of what can be found there.

The shaman aids us in coping with what is. he or she is no escapist. I think a lot of non-writers, non-creatives, non-artists, have no idea what art does for them. Not only is it the foundation of culture, and its primary means of transmission—even if we suppress the mythopoetic, in our very logical-positivist culture, art is still how we get the metaphors we use to communicate our values, and the stories we tell ourselves about the nature of reality. Have you noticed? The story of entropy is the modern myth, the modern Creation story, the narrative of time and creation and destruction that we tell ourselves now. Entropy has become the Adversary.

Furthermore, the creatives among us are those, like the mystics, who often describe to us things as they actually are, rather than what we would like them to be, or pretend that they are. Art is lies that tells the truth. Art is lies in the sense that it is artifice: structured fable, fantasy, fiction, invented, made-up, created out of nothing. Art tells the truth better than the news, as has often been said, because it tells the truth behind the news: the why and wherefore of events, the causes that rise up to the in actions. Art gives us the shapes of the archetypes that arise from our deepest selves, which, if we are not conscious of their presence, can possess rather than guide. Art makes the unconscious conscious, the invisible visible. It's not just pretty images, sentimental and superficial. Real art disturbs, and should disturb.

And thus the shaman/artist is also a disturber of the universe, a challenger of mindset and worldview, and a shaper of new worldviews. As Sweet continues:

As a messenger of necessary yet disturbing information, the shaman is often dismissed as an irritant or even scapegoated, that is to say, sacrificed or blamed for the mistakes and crimes of others. . . .

Scapegoats are so named for the tendency of the peoples of many past and present cultures to choose an animal (often a goat) or a person or a race upon which to symbolically transfer their anxieties and guilts. The serious writer is a kind of voluntary scapegoat since it is their habit to exhibit and structure uncompromised awareness, under the assumption that the world will be momentarily relieved of troubles by comprehending itself somewhat better. Since the community is not always—or even usually—grateful for having its iniquities revealed, the purveyor of this information is sometimes exiled, such as was Solzhenitsyn, but more typically ignored (Kafka, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Kate Chopin) while living. Though Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hemingway were popular exceptions, the pattern is for the writer of the "best seller" to be quickly forgotten. This is so because those who dance to the whims of the escapist are doomed to be culturally dispensable, while those who aid in facing the exigencies of existence become, and remain, the force that binds.


I recently had a discussion with a fellow musician about why I despise certain novels that people tell me I "should" like, such as Michael Cunningham's The Hours. After all, that book (and the very bad movie made from it) contains many meditations on existentialism, on being an artist, and on being an artist who's gay. But I despise the book for its interlinked messages, which merely reproduce and enhance certain very toxic stereotypes and myths about both artists and gay artists. Namely: artists must suffer; they are fated to be misunderstood, during their lifetimes, and therefore suffer; the most brilliant of them will commit suicide, because they can't cope with life, because they suffer; and so will the gay artists, although even more so, because they suffer more because they are hated purely for being who they are, much less for being artists. What utter bunk! This is the Starving Artist archetype overlaid in a most thoughtless way with the Self-Destructive or Suicidal Artist archetype, with a dash of cliché about gay artists' lives and needs thrown in, the worst of these clichés being that gar artists have a double burden and must therefore be doubly frakked-up. Beyond being just a bad message, a message that itself is a hateful cliché, The Hours was poorly written precisely because it was very predictable in terms of the psychologies of its characters, and therefore predictable in their actions, most of which are clichés of self-destruction. The novel contains a cast of stereotyped two-dimensional ciphers, not living human beings. The movie even more so.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road was even worse—not even to mention that the post-apocalyptic novel has been a sub-genre of science fiction for many years, beginning with H.G. Wells; and culminating, at one point, with Walter M. Miller's brilliant novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. So McCarthy's novel, praised for its originiality by those ignorant of the history of "genre" literature, is in fact both unoriginal and derivative. (Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker had a similar critical response from the non-genre-savvy several years; but it's a much better novel, much more original, much more thoughtful.) McCarthy's greater sin, however, is that he writes (in the words of Frank Wilson) a pornography of despair: what titillates the reader is how bad things are, and how much worse they can get. I was stunned when such a sadistic, derivative novel became so quickly revered. Obviously general ignorance of the parts of (non-SF) critics and readers had something to do with that.

Both of these terrible novels are escapist, not cathartic. Neither are shamanic. Even worse, Cunningham actively perpetuates the cultural scapegoating of the artist Sweet is describing by depicting his artist characters in ways that are superficially sympathetic but in fact are deeply critical and damning. They are not in end sympathetic characters, but rather the victims of horrific accidents that passersby rubberneck to see lying bleeding on the pavements. Cunningham does a lot of blaming-the-victim upon his characters, albeit disguised as biographical analysis.

Sweet points out, I think correctly, that (most) best-sellers are ephemeral. They just don't endure. Well, they're not really meant to, of course. There's nothing wrong with a "beach novel," which is meant to divert and entertain: but also to be replaced next year by a new novel. But there's nothing deep about such a novel, either, nor should it ever be confused with genuine art. Best-sellers have a very short shelf-life, and not much artistry to them. Why don't I read more spy thrillers? Because I find them predictable. Why do I read more science fiction? Because at its thoughtful best, it is capable of not only surprising me, but of evoking wonder, awe, and meaning.

But this is the fundamental difference between entertainment (escapism) and art (confrontation of what is).

Sweet continues, ever more pointedly:

The artist is, then, as the painter Cezanne said of himself, a "priest," a type of lightning rod for neuroses, one who gets burnt for revealing what he's absorbed. Shamans show us not what we believe or want to believe, but rather what we reluctantly in our heart of hearts suspect to be true, just as the voluntary scapegoat accepts the necessity of serving for the greater good.

Therefore, to be popular in conventional society, one avoids being either a shaman or a scapegoat. One avoids revealing what people don't want to know. A popular writer writes about the visible one-fourth of the iceberg.

In our present left-brained world, escape through genre fiction is a satisfying way to avoid the universal. . . . Predictable characters, predictable events rock the escapist reader back into the illusion of security he seeks.


And there you have it: the formula for commercial success as a best-selling writer: Don't disturb, just give the reader delicious shivers, pretend suspense, artificial thrills. Nothing actual, nothing that would genuinely shake them up, change their lives, make them come alive in their bodies in ways that would disrupt their busy daily schedules. Titillate, but don't deliver anything visceral. it's all pretend, and we can safely put it down and go with our lives unchanged.

There is something infantile about all this, isn't there? Have you noticed? I can accurately label this sort of writing pornography because it's virtual, not actual. Of course, sexual pornography in the USA is also notably infantile: the fetish for genital and breast size in porn stars is recognizably a baby's perspective on Mother.

Does any of this help me recover my balance in beauty? Not really. Yet it does help me understand where the balance gets tipped off its center.

For solace and support, I return now to Art & Fear, in which Bayles and Orland discuss the difference between acceptance and approval, ending that chapter with:

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts—namely, whether or not you're making progress in your work. They're in a good position to comment on how they're moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process. Audience comes later. The only pure communication is between you and your work.

Escapist writers of best-sellers court approval. Writers of ultra-literary, ultra-referential "Fine Art Literature" court disapproval from the general reader, and seek approval only among their peer groups. Both of these tactics are unbalanced. One seeks to entertain; the other to escape the bounds of writing itself, in terms of writing's connection to society and readers within society. Thus both are in the escapist. Neither are shamanic.

How then do I find healing? For me, the balance, walking in beauty, lies in forgetting everything else but what I am contemplating. Look at something long enough and you will discover it's really very beautiful. Even the ugliness of an urban wasteland can contain some element of beauty, if only of form and shadow. Never underestimate the beauty of what lies as yet unseen in the shadows.

When I make a photograph, I spend a long time looking at my subject first; really looking at it; seeing it. Only then am I free to make the image.

That kind of seeing, of contemplation, of connection, is what pulls me out of myself, out of my angst and restless bitterness, and into a place of calm centered dynamic stability that is walking-in-beauty. Forget everything, just grab the camera and go for a walk, or a drive, and look at the world. The Universe is always trying to tell us something. All we have to do is pay attention. Have you noticed yet?

I write this for myself, as a reminder of the balance, as a reminder on a bad day of the impermanence of all moods, as pure communication between myself and my desire to find a new balance. Audience comes later, if at all.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I can't possibly comment on all of this. But I have one or two thoughts. Apologies if I just all over the place.

I often find that if you…I'm going to say 'focus' rather than 'concentrate' – as a photographer you might appreciate that…if you focus on something then rather than everything converging you can extract a meaningful element from the fray. To cite an example, the movie The Hours. I've seen the film, I think I've read the book and I have the soundtrack plus a piano version of said soundtrack. Not being a gay writer I wasn't irked by the same things as you and I did quite enjoy the film in that it was pretty to look at but what I found was that, for me at least, the whole film felt like the video for the Philip Glass soundtrack. It leapt out at me. There were times I wondered if they had made a mistake in the sound department because the music seemed so loud. What I have to say is that I'd bought the soundtrack long before I saw the film and so it was already a part of me. I think it ranks amongst the very best of Glass' work.

Someone bought me The Road for Xmas. I'll probably still read it to see what all the fuss is about but at the moment I have a pile of review copies to work my way through in fact I've just been up all night writing an article about why I hate reviews.

I couldn't tell you the last bestseller I read. It'll probably be something ridiculous like Catcher in the Rye or something like that. There's a blog I subscribe to where they post the Top Ten and make nasty comments about it and there's never anything I'd touch with a bargepole.

We both know what I think about lies and art but I liked the comment 'Real art disturbs, and should disturb.' I don't read 'disturb' as upset though. I think about a fish splashing – as my own fish has literally just done as I write this – and I look up from where I'm focused just now to focus on something new. I think the best art does that. It causes us to look up from our day-to-day existences and notice something as if for the first time.

I'm not sure that the scapegoat analogy works for me. To my mind the scapegoat was the poor creature who had the sins of the people confessed over it and was sent away to die. The kind of literary authors are like the scapegoats that decided to come back and graze next to the camp where everyone could see them and be reminded. I like the lightning rod better because it's still attached to the building.

And lastly, I don't really know what my Universe is telling me other than I should become nocturnal. Or maybe that's just my body.

4:29 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Lots to think about in return. Thanks.

Just to respond to one or two points:

I'll check out the Glass soundtrack on your recommendation. I agree that some of his best music has been his film work, as well as some of his stage work. Powaaqatsi stands out in my mind as among his very best.

I'm fully aware that my opinion of The Hours is a minority opinion, even among my gay friends. Some of them understand my viewpoint but still liked the film. I don't expect anyone to agree with me about it, nor do I require them to.

I've noted however that my low opinion of The Road is shared by some lit crit reviewer types. As for the fawning reviews, I can tell that a number of those were written by people who'd never previously read any other post-apocalyptic novel, and so had no baseline for comparison. Highly-respected critic james Wood at least had read A Canticle for Liebowitz, although he missed that book's point widely.

Your analogy of a fish splashing that disturbs the surface of the pond is exactly right. I also think of Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson, two renowned physicists who have also used "disturb" in this sense, in their writings. Indeed, it's all about causing us to look up from our usual grind and notice something as if for the first time. That's hugely what it's about.

I'm good with "lightning rod" rather than "scapegoat." You're right in that writers often don't get driven out of the village—except that some DO get driven out mentally if not physically. Internal exile, alienation, call it what we will, it's pretty much the same thing. That outsider's viewpoint that many writers have, that allows them to see clearly, and speak truthfully.

I won't say anything about nocturnal emissions, lest I go blind, myself.

1:42 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

P.S. Let me thanks again for responding to this piece. It's a real mess, just as scattered as anything could be. Don't apologize for your comments being all over the place, because this piece certainly IS all over the place.

I appreciate it doubly because usually when I post this type of piece it never gets any comments whatsoever. Probably disturbs some peoples' universes, and they just move along quietly. I don't blame them for that. I'll continue to write whatever the hell comes forward, at any given time; even if it feels futilely shouting down a well at times.

1:45 AM  

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