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.
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” – Thomas Merton
A thousand times a year students ask me, “Is this good enough?” Their eyes gaze up at me from over a work of art that, yes probably, has hit all of the required standards, seeking some respite from the challenge set before them. Good enough? Compared to what? — I send the ball back into their court. In that moment, either they fold, laughing, and label it “good enough” for now, presumably to be improved upon someday, some other day; or a light flashes within them, a neurological bridge sparks, and they begin the journey of passing through the center of their own potential.
An essential idea that I live by and share with my students often is that a work of art must pass through a stage of imperfection, even awkwardness, on its way to something better. (Take, for example, this old caricature sketch of Carl Sagan by Zack.)
Born into a system of norms set strategically before us, it’s always surprising to be reminded that we are still ultimately at the helm of this process of what we accomplish and what we choose to bring into being.
We make sure our jobs are good enough to pay the bills, our health is good enough to get us through our days, our relationships are good enough that we can all get by without killing each other. But isn’t it true that often we don’t take the opportunities to make these things more meaningful, more able to feed our spirits and raise that bar that has been set for us? Have we any idea what’s possible?
The poetically irreverent American novelist, Tom Robbins, once wrote: “we waste time looking for the perfect lover instead of creating the perfect love.” This is a reminder that our relationships, our jobs, our daily interactions are creative acts. We must create the world we seek or else settle for a world designed by someone else for someone else’s vision of what is possible. Our north star then is to find what moves us to raise our bars and push passed the point of “good enough” towards our definition of sublime. The brave and brilliant American writer Annie Dillard put it this way:
“There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. It is all so self conscious, so apparently moral…But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”
At a certain point, we have to ask: Are we aiming to settle for what the world has asked us to achieve, or do we see the potential for something radically more meaningful? The first story has already been told. The second is the story that you may have been born to tell.
The challenge of refining a work of art — and that may be the art of painting or of teaching, of building relationships or being a better or more authentic communicator — is complex to say the least. Realist painter Jacob Collins said that this process “…is torture… There’s always some newly seen flaw. But the little glimpses of beauty between the anxiety make it worth it.” You can tell when your work is definitely not done, but by working on it, you also run the risk of overworking it. And in the back of your mind, you know there is the very real possibility that your work may fail or be noticed by none. On this Thomas Merton wrote:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
Annie Dillard and Thomas Merton are two twentieth century writers, working somewhere between spiritual pilgrims and fringe revolutionists, who spent their lives conjuring and stoking this devotional fire dedicated to telling a different story of being human in our modern world. They found quickly that to do this one must abandon the temporary comforts of seeking affirmation and instead follow with steadfastness the vision of human potential that haunts their hearts like a calling.
The act of pushing passed our inherited story of “good enough” is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the task of taking the antiquated, inherited definitions of “commitment” and “devotion” and “faith” and “beauty” and reclaiming them, covering them in graffiti, in your very blood, and letting them help you bring your vision of your great works passed product straight into the heart of the process. Annie Dillard put it this way:
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
“Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.”
“Undoubtedly the first man was an artist,” begins a remarkable little speculative essay written in 1947 by Barnett Newman. It proposes that the aesthetic act of wonder precedes the social and utilitarian acts of animal survival. The aesthetic experience requires a mind capable of connecting disparate dots, that can render the non-local local, the concealed revealed, that can ask whether “to be or not to be.” Although historically Newman is remembered as a modernist painter who challenged, and continues to challenge, with his large, minimalist color field paintings, I will always, probably, think of him as the one who wrote “The First Man Was an Artist.”
The essay was published in a periodical called Tiger’s Eye at that time when the home of modern art was shifting from Paris to America. Its power reminds me of that poetic power typical of essays of the past, from writers like Emerson, Stevenson, Montaigne, and Chesterton, which subtly illuminates the limits of analysis. Chopping things up into little bits may lead one to understand a system and to a kind of wonder, but the analytical process of sizing something up, of measurement by separating something into its constituent elements, cannot grasp meaning. “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” as the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka wrote. Other is the operative word, commonly misquoted as “greater.” The whole (whether we’re talking about life or an artwork) has a reality of its own; no cataloguing of parts can ever indicate that reality, and that reality is what I mean by “meaning.” Nevertheless, it is possible to court this connectivity, to glimpse the whole within one of its parts. William Irwin Thompson writes that this glimpse is precisely what the sacred is. In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, Thompson writes:
To begin to understand what is going on in the…art of the Upper Paleolithic, we have to escape not only the ethnocentricity of academic male subcultures, but also the limited epistemology of social science. We have to use the “Imagination” to recover a sense of the sacred. The sacred is the emotional force which connects the part to the whole; the profane or the secular is that which has been broken off from, or has fallen off, its emotional bond to the universe.” (102).
We could replace Thompson’s “Imagination” with “aesthetic sense.” The aesthetic is a connected, sacred, imaginal, intuitive, emotional force. The modern scientific-material mindset has not done well to encourage the fostering of creative self-reliance and the health of whole systems, tending more toward bottom-linism and banal profit motives. While it should be no surprise when intuitions are written off as airy ethereal “fluff,” it should be a deep concern that we are in the middle of an aesthetic crisis.
Even with an experience of the sacred, the question is likely to remain for one who thinks in material terms and seeks material proof: what sustains the underlying Celtic knotwork of things on Earth? It is as unknown today as it has ever been, despite our becoming conscious of ecology and despite our looking to nature for models of how to live, build, and organize, as in the field of biomimetics. We know it isn’t a substance, but the hard sciences only can deal with experimentally viable phenomena. This rules out the possibility of science reasoning out the connection between human dreams and termite mounds. Still, for our own lives, we don’t need to look far into the analogous ways of the wild to be thrown into reverie: why is it you never see a line of ants on a log in gridlock for an accident ahead? Can the Department of Transportation take its next cue from the ants? Questions like this are fantastic, practical endeavors for scientific research, and they may be the best hope for restoring a healthy balance between our species and the rest of the world. This is the gift rationality offers us. But notice that the connectivity is understood by category (how is human infrastructure connected to insect infrastructure)? How is a part related to another part? Not, How is a part related to the whole of Nature? The latter is the question we are all forced to ask today. Rationality reaches its limit. To get at this question, other means are necessary. Perhaps we are in the present ecological crisis because we have ceased to make decisions for aesthetic reasons, insisting always on the utilitarian angle. We must learn to employ that ancient inherited aspect of us which is creative, for the aesthetic act is a byproduct of an intuition of wholes and the urgent desire to express them.
In its earliest flowering, according to Newman, “speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.” It is human to feel deeply, not just to communicate, and the need to express what is uniquely human in us is deep-seated. It is even more human to become aware that however loudly one may cry out, the source of that expression and the purpose of that expression are one and the same.
“It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need. In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before any desire to discover the unknown.”
How in control can a creature be? We are in control in much the same way as a man who builds a bridge as he walks out in space across it. He floats in the air and is free to hammer in the next board. He extends the bridge, and he may choose to begin curving its path, but he is confined to build forward, standing on a small walkway. Therefore, he is far from complete control. His destiny is determined by the section of the bridge he has just created.