Songs, Eros, Demons, Angels
I haven't been conventionally happy on this trip across the Southwest and West. I have had moments of joy, and moments of real connection, real work. There have been some ecstasies. But overall my mood has been neutral to dark. Some of this is because of the reawakening in me—experienced again as insomnia gets me out of bed to write, as I spend a cold night in Jackson, WY—of emotions of violation, fear, agony, and despair: all remnants of the illness and surgery and recovery narrative of the past year. I lay awake in my bed tonight unable to stop thinking that my narrative of surgery is only half over: I am nowhere near done with this story, I am instead in the limbo between major surgeries, each them life-risking, dangerous, and powerful invasions of my corpus. My physical self finds it impossible to be cheerful just now. The rational mind, which of course, despite its delusions of grandeur, is the least aspect of the self involved in this process, finds a lot to be positive about. Indeed, many friends have been remarking how positive and life-affirming I seem to be, lately, when I talk about how I have more physical strength than I've had in literally decades. But to me that all seems like a lie: more accurately, a mask, a partial truth, a performance of partial completion. People want me to be positive, they want me to be well, and they want to avoid contamination by the angel of death still hovering over me, hovering closer than it's ever been. People want me to be cheerful, and happy, and feel good about life. The truth is: I don't. I feel neutral a lot of the time: not dark, not bad, but not jumping up and down with giddy happiness, either.
The truth is, I feel like I'm presenting a false face, like I'm lying. I'm not upset about this feeling, and I'm not feeling like there's anything wrong with talking to friends mostly about what's going well, rather than about my lingering fears and doubts. But there is a cognitive dissonance between the mask and what I feel inside, a strong disconnect between what I feel and what others want me to be feeling.
I'm still feeling distant and disconnected about art, about life. I still have no idea if anything I'm doing is any good. That doesn't mean I don't like what I'm doing: one or two photos I've made on this roadtrip will stand, I think, among my best work ever. One or two moments of inspiration, when I felt fully present, fully alive, while making art, writing, making photos: these stand out as ecstatic moments, the perfect moments that I seek out, as an artist, a musician, a writer. They stand out in high relief, more than ever, in contrast to the daily grind of mundane survival and ongoing medical narratives. (This is one thing I can't seem to get any of my medical team to understand. But then, perhaps it's so far outside their gamut that I'm speaking Martian to them. Certainly I feel like a stranger in a strange land.) So I can't really tell if anything I'm making now is any good. I just keep on doing it. That has to be enough. I can figure it out later. (The rational mind likes to think it leads, but truly it follows.)
The rational self really doesn't understand what this is about. Am I numb? Am I in some kind of ongoing PTSD-type emotional shock? Is it exhaustion? Perhaps. Certainly the blows have kept coming and coming without cease for months beyond counting. Am I just worn out by the real drama of life? I don't really know. I feel detached and disconnected even from caring too much about knowing the why of it all. I'm a little thoughtful about it, but by definition I'm not having any extreme drama about it. (At least not this week. There have been a couple of real meltdowns on this roadtrip, earlier, when basic self finally rose up and said What the frak has happened to me?!)
So I plan to just keep going. I have no answers. Other artists will let me know what they think of the art I'm producing. (Or not. Sometimes I feel a genuine vacuum of attention, and want more than I get. Then I remind myself to detach from that wanting.) Meanwhile, I just keep going. Tomorrow I will take the cameras and notebooks out into the wilds, and drive to the end of the road, and spend the day out there.
Part of me wonders if this detachment isn't part of my spiritual program, my existential post-surgery healing and life-story reassessment. I am, after all, suspended in the limbo between two major surgeries. (Again, those basic-self emotions have been coming up a few times along the road, now that I have leisure to face them: violation, shock, horror, mortality.) I wonder idly if this detachment I feel is not numbness but genuine detachment, an arrival at a Zen state, an actual detached state. It's true I have become very impatient with things that don't matter, the little unnecessary and pointless dramas of life—spiritual impatience, if you will. I get only hints of response to this question. I'm feeling unambitious about it—a lack of spiritual ambition—but rather humble.
As I've written before, the events of the past year and more have me seeing everything in my life from a new perspective. Everything has changed, and all the old maps are gone, while the new maps contain many obscure regions, many mysteries. That's probably the way it's supposed to be: Mystery and humility lie at the core of this distance I feel from life and art: this unknowing. In some ways my "I" has been taken away—that personality-ego upon which the rational mind is built—or greatly diminished. Certainly I know my own limits, my own mortality, as never before. Which is neither complaint nor praise, merely observation.
So the Universe provides me with reflections on life and art, and adds resonance to my unknowing in encounters with three books on creativity that resonate deeply with my process at the moment. I feel deep responses in myself to each of these three books, different as they are in subject, constant as they are in wonder. Each of these are books I want to engage with more thoroughly, individually; I group them here because of the synchronicity of their arrival in my life at this time (a crisis time in my creative life? or a post-crisis time?), and here I can give at most a taste of why they each are worth responding to individually.
Daniel J. Levitin: The World In Six Songs: How the musical brain created human nature. (Dutton, 2008)
I am increasingly skeptical of claims made by neuroscientists about anything, as there has been a growing tendency in neuroscience and brain studies to want to explain every aspect of human life through the lens of biochemistry. (While simultaneously explaining away the mysteries that remain.) The resurgence of militant "new atheism" has gone hand in hand with this. The problem is, neuroscience typically assumes a biological explanation for every facet of human experience, of human existence, and is unable to comprehend the synergy of body-mind: in other words, that the brain doesn't determine what we experience, it reflects and records it. It's not an operating system on a hard drive, it's a holographic storage device. In other words, in the language of Tron, we are users, not programs.
So I approached The World In Six Songs with this skeptical attitude in mind. I have to say, I was entirely won over by Levitin's approach, which is not to explain away life, but to embrace it. This is an artist's book as much as a scientist's. Levitin is himself a jazz musician, and brings that viewpoint to his brain studies. He extensively discusses creativity with many musicians from many walks of life: songwriters, composers, singers, jazz players, dancers, and more. The six "songs" the book is divided into are huge themes: friendship; joy; comfort; knowledge; religion; love. This is overall a very positive and life-affirming (and arts-affirming) book, not at all reductionistic, and not at all afraid to admit that there are mysteries we don't comprehend. Music (as I am quick to agree) has a power for us quite beyond the conceptual: music and dance are intimately linked, and go back to the origins of civilization, the founding of our species as self-aware. Religion grows out of our desire to make sense of the world: the dance and music we use as part of our religious practices are ways of organizing, of shaping our understanding: religious ritual is nothing if not performance of foundational myth, nothing if not reenactment of core faith. (Contemporary organized religion is often hollow precisely because it has become detached from the body, from the experience of contemporary life, and the enactment of myth rather than its mere recitation.) One other aspect of this book that deserves mention is its appealing use of pop songwriting lyrics to make its points about our biology; this is not only quirky fun, but quite convincing. And there are extensive interviews with great contemporary songwriters, including some profoundly relevant quotes from Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, and Sting, among others. I find myself agreeing with Levitin's responses to pop music a lot; for example, he shares my respect for Bob Dylan as a songwriter while also sharing my distrust of the slavish devotion of many fans.
William Everson (edited by Albert Gelpi): Dark God of Eros: A William Everson Reader. (Santa Clara University Press, 2003)
Everson was one of the great California Coastal poets, and writers about poetry. He was the self-proclaimed "lone acolyte" of Robinson Jeffers for many years, championing Jeffers even when his popularity was at low ebb. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the Robinson Jeffers Association, and have been deeply affected by Jeffers' writings myself. So I bristle slightly at the "lone disciple" attitude, even when it was merited.) Everson lived a dramatic, charged life, went through the equivalent of three religious conversions, and wrote darkly-muscled, often violent poetry that is nonetheless powerful, beautiful, and resonant.
This volume is an excellent, thorough introduction to Everson's work and life. In addition to a generous selection of his poetry, it also contains long prose sections of Everson's writings about poetry, about Jeffers, about hand-press printing—he was a master printer of fine editions of poetry, and founded several small presses during his lifetime—and about his personal cosmology regarding erotic mysticism: the truth that mysticism is rooted in the body more than in the mind. There is also a generous sampling of other poets writing about Everson, a posthumous selections of responses and appreciations. (Robert Hass gives one of the most revealing here.) I've been exploring Everson's writings about Jeffers for a little while, as part of my expanding research into Jeffers—my responses to the poet are mostly artistic, not scholarly in an academic sense, nonetheless I appreciate reading literary criticism about his work—and this is not my first delving into Everson's own work, although this is a deeper delving than prior visits.
Everson was a strong personality. As strong as his poetic master's, in many ways. As independent and uncaring about critical reception. Everson alienated a lot of poets and readers, though, with his often violent rhetoric, his dramatic changes of direction—all of them, in the end, religious responses to erotic embodiment as a spiritual path; which is one reason I find him so intriguing, as the mystical/erotic path is one I feel myself following as well. Everson remains in some ways as controversial as Jeffers. (These endless comparisons are brought in part through his own fault of identifying himself as Jeffers's disciple.) I find myself responding to his prose writings about mysticism and poetry, and their connection, as I do to the poems themselves. I have two or three other books just of his poems; I find this sampler gives me a way into the other books of poems which had sometimes been daunting.
Basically, what Everson left us with is a life-long passionate encounter with poetry, which engages you even where you disagree with him in some details. (As a gay man who has long felt sex and spirit to be one, I celebrate Everson's erotic mysticism and explicit depiction of sex in his poetry, even where I find his worship of the archetype of Woman, his imago dei, sometimes a bit difficult to appreciate.) In all phases of his life and work, Everson was fierce, passionate, and questing. I feel very much the same: I feel as Everson did that one thing contemporary poetry is severely lacking is enthusiasm, passion, and commitment. A lot of "cool" and cerebral poetry, a lot of ironic mannerism, still dominates the scene. Everson's writings are a tonic, a reminder that a genuine, sincere, non-ironic, unsentimental, and fiercely engaged poetry is not only possible, but necessary.
Edward Hirsch: The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the source of artistic inspiration. (Harcourt, 2002)
Unlike most art critics, poet/critic Hirsch does not begin and end with the artistic product, he is interested in how the artist creates, in what the sources of artistic inspiration are. He does not question whether inspiration exists—which is a somewhat unpopular critical stance in these Mannerist days of replication, sampling, and ironic distance from inspiration. I have every reason to recommend this book, as it goes a long way towards synthesizing everything I have ever talked about in terms of my own sources of creativity.
Hirsch begins with Federico Garcia Lorca's engagement with the duende, the "dark self" that Lorca saw as the source of artistic power and inspiration. (A translation of one of Lorca's seminal writings on the duende can be read here.) The duende is the demon, or more properly daimon, the ancient Greek term, of the book's title. Then angel is RIlke's terrifying angel of The Duino Elegies. Many artists and writers from ancient days through to Modernism have talked about feeling "taken over" by inspiration, almost having their work dictated to them—an experience I have had myself numerous times. I've written before how sometimes my most surprising, best, and most challenging work is written at white heat. There's a feeling of inevitability to what emerges, as though some greater part of the self was in charge, completely bypassing the everyday consciousness we normally work from.
The Demon and the Angel is a book of critical synthesis, a book of many short chapters in which different aspects of the duende and the daimon and the angel are considered in detail. In addition to a thoughtful, thorough response to Lorca, Hirsch discusses how the duende appears in all the arts. He discusses Yeats' daimon; Martha Graham's expressive solo choreographies; Rilke's angels; the American angels of Walt Whitman William Carlos Williams; Robert Bly's engagement with the duende in his essay Leaping Poetry; and much more. What I find exciting about this book is to read many of the same sources being discussed that have opened up the same questions in my own thinking, over the years. I almost feel as though Hirsch and I have been on parallel tracks. (Being a known poet and critic, he gets to publish his thoughts in book form; I on other hand just get to ramble on about them here.)
For me, one of the most telling of chapters here is where Hirsch discusses the late, black paintings of Mark Rothko. I've had numerous arguments with poets and artists about Rothko, about how to approach his work, and how not to dismiss it out of hand, as it so often is. This chapter on Rothko is ammunition in my future arsenal for conveying Rothko's essentially spiritual goals as reflected in his paintings. Hirsch discusses several of the other Abstract Expressionists, as well, as they are prime Modernist examples of artists who sought both abstraction and emotional content in their work. One of Robert Motherwell's famous "Black and White" paintings graces the book's cover.
On the main points about the duende that recurs again and again in Hirsch's book is how a sense of elation, of heightened liveliness, of ecstatic leaping, occurs in art whenever death enters into the room. I relate to this from my own sense of mortality and urgency to get more done, following recent brushes with death, surgery, etc. Perhaps the duende does come down to the truth of eros and thanatos, love and death, in the end. Lorca believed strongly that the duende was present when poetry or song fiercely chose to face and defy Death. In my own case, a literal encounter with dying and being reborn has led to many changes in the way I do my art, and the ways I perceive it. I was always attuned to the duende, though; it's just become more foregrounded now.
Hirsch points out that Lorca correctly identified the danger to art from the overly-rational intellect—the reason so much cerebral poetry is in fashion nowadays—but Hirsch also points out how evoking unreason risks evoking the deep strain of anti-intellectualism present especially in American culture. What I find contradictory about much American poetry nowadays is how it flirts with unreason, but uses rational control of its tools to strictly control it at the same time, often ending up with a dry, intellectually-rooted poetry that claims to be populist and anti-intellectual. Perhaps one reason that non-poet audiences feel unable to engage with poetry nowadays is that on some level they sense they're being lied to, that a game is being played at their expense.
The Demon and the Angel is a very rich book. I feel I could on about it at length. (Which I will do at another time.) It speaks to me on a very deep level, partly because Hirsch has gone exploring for the sources of creativity in many of the same place that I have myself. Perhaps this book will resonate more with artists and poets than it will with the general reader, nonetheless I would recommend it to anyone. It touches on so many necessary bits of knowledge about the creative process that I wouldn't hesitate to loan it to a non-artist friend who wanted to know more how what they discover in my own art got there.
I have said more than once that there are mysteries in the artistic product: things in there that I didn't know where there, that some audience member discovered and told me about—which is something I like. I like the fact that some smarter part of me put that in there, that my rational mind didn't know about. This book is a big help to all involved, towards a deeper understanding of how that actually works, how it happens. I will need to spend some serious time with this book, myself, as it has already clarified my own thinking.