Sometimes I pick up a book, only half intent to read it. I carry it with me. It is now a moving body, it seems, with a mind of its own, for I leave it in places and don’t know why. I lose sight of it, become half aware of it or forget about it completely. If it travels far enough, it ends up on the bedside table, and there I wait for an artful moment to open it.
Some authors I struggle to read, they’re so good. Pages and paragraphs are long meditations. Lately it’s Annie Dillard. We have this collection of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life in one book.A few days ago I was somewhere with it reading An American Life. I relished reading about Dillard’s mom, with her childlike joy for the sounds of certain words, like “portulaca,” “poinciana,” and “Terwilliger bunts one,” as well as her artistic (and I would add adult) sense of duty toward form. Today, I thank Dillard for my meditation. Here’s how The Writing Life begins:
“When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself in new property. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
Tomorrow or next year. Like you have been digging all that time. And nothing but more cave ahead. The idea works for drawing, too. Whatever makes that possible is very interesting. She is using one medium to talk about something even larger than writing, per se (or drawing). She’s located the foundation under art and life. This, to me, is an amazing accomplishment, worthy of mention. By virtue of this multivalence, or what theologian David Tracy would call an “excess of meaning,” she’s articulated that how art works is how life works.
Could we use video to promote slower thought patterns and mindfulness? Could we use the same medium that tends to slide between us and Nature to restore our craving for the natural world and immediate experience?
Does it seem a farce to personify the world around us? The non-person world is going on all the time, just doing its myriad things. We share the same time and space coordinates as these non-person entities around us. We even share significant amounts of DNA with many of the organisms surrounding us. And yet, our brains are so composed to understand and shed light upon the mysterious that even this is not enough. We familiarize ourselves (literally: make like family) the non-person objects around us through figures of speech like personification and metaphorical language.
We say that the plate is sitting there on the table, but it’s not. It’s not sitting because sitting is a person’s verb. Sitting implies legs and hips and the option to stand if it pleases. The plate is definitely not sitting there, resting in the sun let in by the window. And the window isn’t letting in anything. It’s not because it can’t stop the sun from coming in either. Like a computer program, the window has no unplanned functions and cannot improvise outside of its design.
Some linguists say that humans, on average, employ 6 metaphors per minute of speech or writing. This includes both creative metaphors as well as “frozen” metaphors which are built into our language. In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, outline a variety of examples of metaphors hiding within and actively influencing the ways in which we perceive reality. Imagine, for example, the different conceptions of love under each of the following metaphorical structures: Love is a journey. Love is patient. Love is chemical. Love is war.
Consider similarly: Time is money; He shot down my argument; My thoughts are all over the place; etc. After a few examples the layered nature of language becomes a bit clearer.
It’s hard to imagine a world without metaphorical language to help us understand what is going on around us. Writer Edith Cobb wrote quite extensively about the nature of human imagination as a building tool and orientation factor among children. In her book, Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, she describes it thus:
“Children strive to fill the gap between themselves and the objects of desire with imagined forms. This psychological distance between self and universe and between self and progenitors is the locus in which the ecology of imagination in childhood has its origin.” (p.56)
The “imagined forms” of personification and metaphorical thinking alter our finite comprehension of the world around us. If the trees can “clap” their “hands,” and we can clap our hands, here we have found a familiarity between an other and ourself. Here we have built a meaningful, imaginative bridge connecting and expanding our sense of self and filling in some of the holes in the map of our surroundings, making familiar the mysterious (and potentially threatening) unknown.
These other things around us, occupying this moment with us — how do we outright refuse the sense of their presence and participation in this space? There’s a constant story being told all around us, or perhaps a thousand narratives rubbing up against one another as within a great crowd, and each of us is the only witness in a unique theater.
Through metaphorical language and imagination, one reaches out into the abyss to find the object of desire (from Latin: “of the stars”). We return from our reaching to find something of that same dark matter inherent in our own souls, confirming or securing our kinship with the other. This relates and deepens the mystery, relieving one of the solitude, but not of the wonder. Similarly, the stillness of the plates and cups on the table somehow also speaks to that deceptively quiet abyss inside of all of us.
Video collage by Matt Wisiniewski
A breeze presents itself now and again outside, affecting everything from the cadence of the crickets to the trees and their thousand clapping hands. I live near the ocean and, as though in emulation, the wind often plays the trees like they were calm and distant, crashing waves. Over this, the breeze is luring in the salty air from the sea. Clapping and playing and luring, the non-person world requests an audience. And I being the only one in the theater, witness it.
The nature of the will is one of the major problematics of life.Philosophers and artists have long labored to clarify the position we are in concerning the will.How much power does one person have?How much responsibility does one have in achieving for oneself the good life, and how can this be extended to others?How exactly are we situated in this world?To better understand the nature of will, artists, philosophers, and children open themselves up to opposition by treating it with a sense of play.
The child at play gives form to conflict, practicing “out in the open” in order to internalize what has been noticed in the external world, to gain understanding of self and situation.The forces driving conflicts between people are usually invisible, ideological, and unconscious, but once they are driving behavior, the child becomes aware yet lacks understanding.To develop a working model, or what Edith Cobb called a “world image,” the behavior is reproduced in experimental play.
Philosophers routinely reflect and do their thinking by surveying both sides of a problem. Socrates is the archetype for this. In his dialogues we often find Socrates asking questions normally thought to have obvious answers, questions like, “Do I want what is good?” As part of a chain of questions that bring the other’s inconsistencies of thought into higher resolution, he is surprisingly effective. Socrates often leaves his company in a state of shock from having lived so long under the aegis of certain beliefs and values without examining them.
Similarly, artists often present situations without explicitly taking a side.In crafting a story, an author takes all the time that’s required for viewers to believe and situate themselves in the whole driving conflict.In order to do this, they must give equal weight to opposing sides.Good is labored equally to evil.This cannot be understated.Evil is not run away from.The author must take a detached stance to good as well as evil, and the long process of crafting such a story is a redemptive process for the author, for in that time love has been taken to evil.The work is finished; now the conflict is felt by the reader, in all its natural complexity.And this is what the work offers that life tends not to: honor to the paradoxical complexity of living.
The feeling of conflict is not going to be novel for anyone.Life is difficult, long, a labyrinth.No map could ever be created that would give absolute lasting order to the world, whereby we could determine what to do or where to go next.What is unique to the arts is that they offer safe passage through experience, and thus to transformation.In other words, the arts offer the best simulacrum of such a map.Life is always giving us experience; too often we fail to travel through it.Whether from anxiety or what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom,” fear or sheer confusion, we seem resistant to understanding or processing what happens to us.Such resistance promotes undesirable thought and behavior loops.If we would travel through experience, our transformation would be the effect.In order to do this, we must sometimes come down from the clouds of our own cleverness and righteousness and ground ourselves in earthly silliness.There are many compatible modes of being.There is no going out of character.To quote Walt Whitman,
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)