Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Re-Enchantment of Art 4: Some Possible Directions

Sayings gathered at random, or in apparent sequence, that spark the mind and imagination, towards that place where image and word become one. You could alternate these thoughts with photographs, and perhaps I shall. You could interweave things in such a way that they would catch light, take fire, and awaken.

The true man sees what the eye sees, and does not add to it something that is not there. He bears what he must bear, and does not detect imaginary undertones or overtones. He understands things in their obvious interpretation and is not busy with hidden meanings and mysteries. His course is therefore a straight line. Yet he can change his direction whenever circumstances suggest it.
—Thomas Merton

The man of Zen sees what is there, not what he thinks is there. The man of Tao sees the currents under what is seen, sees what is true underneath the apparent surface of things, the illusion of Maya.

We know, don't we, everybody else's religion, mythology, and philosophy and metaphysics backwards and forwards, so what need would we have for one of our own if we had one, but we don't, do we?
—John Cage

Cage is correct when he points out that one very valid reason that people go looking elsewhere for spiritual or psychological fulfillment is because those things are lacking at home. We have lost our own myths. Our own major church institutions have ceased to serve their laeity and become rigid, authoritarian power-mongers. Some people do try to replace what has been lost with myths from other cultures. Some people, even some spiritual leaders, say you shouldn't do that. They say that you must learn your own root culture thoroughly, before you can understand any others.

I disagree. But then, I am a child of more than one culture, so I have found both rootlessness and home in more than one place. There was the culture I was born into, and the very different one that I grew up in, for those first formative years, those earliest childhood memories.

Tonight I am strongly homesick for India. I want to smell the spices in the markets, I want to hear the music, especially the singing voices. I am feeling homesick for a place I haven't been in a long time, but which has never really left my soul. I am an immigrant to my own birth culture, to which I feel far less connected to and rooted in tonight.

So even a spiritual leader telling me that I shouldn't feel homesick for India, when I live in the USA now, makes no sense to me. Do all the Indian immigrants here in the US, or in the UK, reject their homelands? Certainly not. Why should I?

What they don't understand is that you can be rooted in more than one place. There is nothing wrong in love. You can love more than one home, more than one family, more than one lover, more than one thing essential to your life. You don't have to choose between the spices of India and the love of a person here on Turtle Island. Although that second kind of love may not be for me; and in my homesickness there is also grief for what I will never have. Ganesha, Lord of Crossroads and Remover of Obstacles, bring me home tonight.

Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variations and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out—that is difficult; for few know where the depths are and can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.
—Theodore Roethke

Fear stops us, usually, from becoming those things we most love, most want to become. Some experiences are so powerful that there are no words. Words fail us. Sometimes the heart becomes so full, flowing over with deep bright emotion, that nothing can be said. At those moments there is only silent praise, blessing lit by a sacred light from within. There is an evening of moonlight in your hair, with a lover's cup filled with white wine, and nothing to say.

Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree is the life principle of a man, no snake the embodiment of wisdom, no mountain cave the home of a great demon. No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear.
—Carl Jung

There is a profound loss of the sacred in our contemporary culture. A loss of the very sense of the sacred. This is not news: many have commented on this, for some time now. I make no new insights here. But it bears repeating. Especially when I can sense a way through art, through poetry, that leads towards the revelation of what is both immanent and transcendent of this moment. Probably the reason I can't convey the reality of this, to anyone who refuses it, is because words fail precisely at the threshold of revelation. The door into starlight is made of ivory, carved with beautiful names in runes you can only read once you pass the threshold.

Cannot art be a force for re-enchantment, a way back to the garden, a door into some myth necessary as breathing? Cannot making, as poets and dances are makers, be what ties us to the land as well as the spirit?

As the carver holds the unworked ivory lightly in his hand, turning it this way and that, he whispers, "Who are you? Who hides there?" And then: "Ah, Seal!" He rarely sets out to carve, say, a seal, but picks up the ivory examines it to find its hidden form, and if that is not not immediately apparent, carves aimlessly until he sees it, humming or chanting as he works. Then he brings it out: seal, hidden, emerges. It was always there: he did not create it. He released it: he helped it to step forth.
—Edmund Carpenter

I feel this way about every piece of driftwood I pick up, turn over in my hands, and know that someday I will find something in it to carve. Every piece of wood drying on the workbench contains some form to be revealed. I just have to wait. The woods tells you what to make of it.

Surprisingly, and in contradiction to conventional literary wisdom about intention, so do words tell you what to make them into. Tonight a meditation, some other night, a poem. Conscious intention, the will to power, to have power over the tools, power over the direction the words go in—none of that comes into play, here, nor does it matter.

The poem was always there: I, this "I" that thinks so highly of its own will, did not create it. At most I released the poem from the word-horde, helped it to emerge. The music steps forth best when I hold its hand but don't tell it what to do.

In other words, while retaining our private experiences, we can attempt to incarnate myth, putting on its ill-fitting skin to perceive the relativity of our problems, their connection to the "roots," and the relativity of the "roots" in the light of today's experience.s.
—Jerzy Grotowski

I go to an isolated place, a crevasse or cave or mountaintop. I take a small stone rub it on top of a larger stone. I am rubbing the stone. After days of rubbing the stone in a sunwise direction, a spirit emerges. It comes out of the rock and faces the rising sun and asks what I want. I then die in the most horrible torments, body ripped to shreds, skeleton scattered across the landscape. But then I am gathered together again, later in the day, my body reassembled out of new bread, and I am whole again by dawn.
—anonymous shamanic narrative of initiation

Let there be fog      And let there be phantoms,
Weird marvels      to baffle your hunters.

—from Njal's Saga

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I remember something my father told me about Russia under the Communists that when they banned religion people were going out into the forests and bowing down again to the sun. He said this to try to impress upon me that Man has an intrinsic spiritual need that it was something stronger than any formal belief system that organised religion only gave it structure. I have no doubt that what he told me was true although I have no idea on what scale. I didn’t get it. I knew no one gay growing up so this is pure conjecture on my part but I felt like the first gay man must have felt surrounded by heterosexuals and being told that the urge to have sex with a woman was both natural and necessary. I don’t believe that I ever had a sense of spirituality, went into some kind of crisis and lost it along the way. Had I not been brought up in the Christian faith I can’t imagine me wandering around feeling that my life was incomplete. Being brought up with a set of beliefs has done that to me, made me feel as if I have somehow failed. I find Nature a thing of wonder and it doesn’t surprise me that primitive people imbued it with sentience and purpose. But although there is much in nature that’s still unknown it has lost its sense of, to use your word, the numinous. I’m with Jung there.

Lacking a religious (for want of a better word) spirituality I feed my secular spirit with art. It invigorates me, inspires me. No, that’s not correct. Art is inanimate; it is not capable of anything. I’m speaking in the broadest sense here. I extract what I need from in just the same way as I extract goodness from food and convert it to suit my physical needs. So I can’t attribute to it anything more than its existence. It contains only what its creator left there and cannot become more than that without my help. It cannot make me look at it or pick it up and read it. It can’t punish me for not appreciating it or even taking enough time with it.

To my mind there is no fundamental difference between a Rothko and the white cliffs of Dover. Yes, there was intent behind the Rothko – that’s because it’s artificial. Nature is natural art. If I never saw another painting I would be able to satisfy my need for artistic stimulation by simply looking out of the window. The photo on my desktop is of a girl standing in the snow. It really happened and if I’d been there I would have seen it and not needed the photo; my head is full of art like that.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Mairi said...

Followed you here from your very interesting comment on Jim's blog. I suspected I'd like what I found and was right. Your egoless poetry post is great. I've been experimenting a bit on my blog. For over a year I wrote nothing but pieces in the third person, someone else's visions and reader comments were friendly and supportive, but not really engaged. Lately I've posted three works with that magical "i" in them and they always get a stronger, more engaged response. Of course the "I" in the poem is no more or less my "I" than the "he" or "She" of the other poems is me/mine, and it could as easily be replaced with either as not. It's interesting, the hold of confesional poetry on the popular mind. I guess people really want the idea/illusion of personal contact. If you don't know John Hayes, at Robert frost's Banjo, you might stop by and check out his poetry. His new collection is called The Spring Ghazals and most, if not all of the poems are to be found on the blog, as are the poems from Days of Wine and Roses. He writes exactly what you're describing as cinematic verse, and often does a lovely job of it.
Your own work, at least what I've looked at so far, is beautifully evocative. I'll be looking for that antler.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I guess the basic thing here is that I do feel that art is animate, not inanimate. It's a process, it's alive, and it talks back if we let it. My experience of art is that it isn't just a dead object lying there waiting to be activated, it's very much alive. I once went to a retrospective show by the artist Paul Pletka, and I went with another artist friend, and both of us were not only getting visual sensations off the paintings, we were both getting SMELLS. It was that alive, that evocative. That's pretty animate. (And it wasn't just me, my friends got that too from those paintings.)

It's true that art is artifice, that it is made—not always with intention, I would dispute that, because sometimes the only intention is the improvisatory aspect of play. Art is artifice, and geology is not, geology is there. (Of course a person who believes in a Creator is going to say that geology was made, too, if only by the natural laws made by the Creator.) I do agree that I can have an aesthetic experience equally from a great work of art and a beautiful mountainscape. One reason I'm a photographer is that I constantly attempt to capture the natural world—as it were on the sixth day of creation—in images that reawaken the experience of being there. Photography too is an art, is artifice—but it's based on what's really there, what there is to be seen.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Mairi, and welcome aboard. Thanks for your comments.

I'll check out those links etc. that you recommend.

I do find it interesting how strongly people seem to want to equate the artist with the art. I run into that, too. It's easier to confuse the narrator of the poem with the author of the poem, especially when it's in the first person. Although I have written third-person poems that were records of things that happened to me. So there's the artifice, the structure of making that is the art itself.

12:30 AM  

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