music: “a void” by Joni Void.
More calligraphy doodling (the doodling only really happened because I smudged the ink mid-way through).
The last line from a poem by W.H. Auden called ‘Bucolic II. Woods.’
“The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about that country’s soul.
A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.”
Auden had a wonderful voice. I first heard it from one of The Books’ songs called “Be Good To Them Always.” Their music, and in particular their sound collage technique, changed the way I thought about and made music. Their influence is clear in this old track from high school.
A friend and I used to go “hunting” for sounds with an old Sony tape recorder. Those are fond memories. We would drive around with the Sony seeking out anything that might produce a novel sound. It changed the way we looked at things.
One sample comes from finding an empty Skoal can littered under a pavilion; you can hear it rolling across cement. Not surprisingly, playgrounds seemed to have the most interesting instruments. A swing set sampled. The hollow metal tubing banged on sometimes produced different pitches–sometimes even tuned! Whoever produced the equipment most likely had no idea. It was our discovery! At one point in this track you’ll hear a clip culled from those manic contraptions called spring riders: the horse, fish, or car attached to a massive spring in the ground.
The song is called “Funny Nostalgia.”
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.)
“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.”