Archive for October 2016
By general agreement, this has been a difficult year. In the United States, the public mood is stoked to the point of conflagration by the ceaseless cacophony of toxic and increasingly unbearable public discourse surrounding our presidential election. Conflict in the Middle East spirals out of control, driving millions of refugees into an unprepared Europe, with the shock withdrawal of the UK from the EU as one result, and a series of grisly terrorist attacks another.
In these bitter times, it’s perhaps all the more striking that three of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century have offered uncanny and profound meditations on mortality in the most personal terms: Leonard Cohen with You Want it Darker, David Bowie with Black Star, and Nick Cave with the gut-wrenching Skeleton Tree.
It is the latter album that concerns me in this post, and particularly the opening song “Jesus Alone,” which I find to be one of the most beautiful songs that artist has created, despite its deep wellspring of darkness. This song in particular represents the working-through of the terrible loss of Cave’s son Arthur, who died last year in a tragic accident at the age of fifteen.
The opening words cloak the events in a cloud of images, evoking Arthur’s fall from a seaside cliff in Ovingdean Gap:
You fell from the sky
Crash landed in a field
Near the river Adur
Flowers spring from the ground
Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers
In a hole beneath the bridge
She convalesce, she fashioned masks of clay and twigs
You cried beneath the dripping trees
Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid
With my voice
I am calling you
I’ve rarely heard Jesus evoked with such power as the bestower of mercy upon lost and grieving hearts.
John Yeats, painter, and father of the great Irish poet William Butler, once said that a work of art is the public act of a solitary man. In Skeleton Tree, Cave has gone into the most solitary darkness of his grief and wrestled out of it an experience that explodes with light and feeling. He has pushed his entire creative idiom into new reaches with a deeply affecting new use of music, which unobtrusively conveys the emotional landscape in which his thoughts and prayers have been articulated. I don’t know if any musician since Wagner has expressed the agony of Schopenhauer’s blind, tormented will with such immediacy.
That Nick Cave is an artist of the deepest religious sensitivity has been evident for many years – no one, for example, who heard “Patripassian,” his collaboration with Current 93, could doubt it.
Skeleton Tree is one of the great works of elegy of modern times. It puts me in mind of another masterpiece of the genre, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy. I leave you with a few stanzas from “Gone”, from that splendid volume:
And now in spite of sorrow unending, the sky is more
Beautiful than it’s ever been.
Blue and night-blue above a string of pale April yellow
Which stands in for incandescent clarity,
Which is heard as if only.
And then not like a dropped curtain
But evening dark and darker
Until a hand is no longer a hand
And yellow goes green-yellow, then narrows to nothing.
And pace is everything. The slow effacement
Of the window through which she looks
And the mirror as far as away
Now as a star and we are
Both gone. Both from each other
And from the myth we were.
This wonderful wine bowl from the mid-sixth-century BCE shows Dionysus as the Lord of Life, the originary matrix from which life springs. He is nestled in the heart of the Tree of Life, or flanked by a symmetrical pair of trees or vines, which are ornamented by a grasshopper, birds, and a serpent (visible as a meandering line under the crown of the left trunk).
Dionysus, or Bacchus, is a complex divinity associated with transgression and the mediation of opposites, as well as ecstasy, frenzy, and epiphany. The legendary rites associated with his worship deal in surrender to enthusiasm and the unconscious.
An Orphic hymn to Dionysus, beautifully translated by Athanassakis and Wolkow in their The Orphic Hymns, reads as follows:
I call upon loud-roaring,
primeval, two-natured lord,
savage, ineffable, secretive,
two-horned and two-shaped,
warlike, howling, pure.
You take raw flesh in triennial feasts,
wrapped in foliage, decked with grape clusters,
immortal god sired by Zeus
when he mated with Persephone
in unspeakable union.
Hearken to my voice, O blessed one,
you and your fair-girdled nurses,
breathe on me in a spirit of perfect kindness.
Dionysus was worshiped by mystery cults in which worshipers identified his divine nature with themselves. Dionysus, alone of the Greek gods, took possession of revelers during their rites – this practice bequeathed us the English word enthusiasm, derived from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning “possessed by a god.”
Images of Dionysus made popular adornments for the interior of wine bowls such as this. The image would have become visible as wine was drained throughout the course of a symposium. It’s truly an ingenious use of imagery – as intoxication dawned, it was amplified into its cosmic sense by the gradual epiphany of the deity.
In its depths, this epiphany is of a type with the core mythological image of deity as the ultimate ground of life and consciousness, antecedent to the pairs of opposites by which phenomenal reality is always structured by conceptual awareness. So we have the deity residing within the heart of life itself, a Tree of Life branching forth into duality.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche interpreted the character of Dionysian consciousness as the creative impulse which transcends the principium individuationis, the individuating principle that divides and orders experience into a sensible collection of distinct impressions and ideas. Prior that cognitive act of differentiation and ordering lies a buzzing, blooming confusion that is ineffable, but closer to the heart of life. The creative overflow of the Dionysian frenzy and rupture violates boundaries, and exposes an underlying unity between consciousness and nature.
No doubt Dylan Thomas had something like this in mind when wrote:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
In her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, which remains one of the most thought-provoking and insightful essays on ancient Greek religious culture, Jane Ellen Harrison noted the lack of religious feeling and awe that attended the Olympian Gods in the post-Homeric world of classical Athenian Greece, in the time of Pericles and the great tragedians.
As man grew more civilized, his image, mirrored in the gods, grew more beautiful and pari passu the worship he offered to these gods advanced from ‘aversion’ to ‘tendance’. But all along we have been conscious that something was lacking, that even these exquisite presentations of the Nymphs and the Graces, the Mother and the Daughter, are really rather human than divine, and their ritual, whether of ignorant and cruel ‘aversion’ or of the genial ‘tendance,’ was scarcely in our sense religious. These perfect Olympians and even those gracious Earth-goddesses are not really Lords over man’s life who made them, they are not even ghosts to beckon and threaten, they are lovely dreams, they are the playthings of his happy childhood, and when full-grown he comes to face realities, from kindly sentiment he lets them lie unburied in the lumber-rooms of this life.
Just when Apollo, Artemis, Athene, nay even Zeus himself, were losing touch with life and reality, fading and dying of their own luminous perfection, there came into Greece a new religious impulse, an impulse really religious, the mysticism that is embodied for us in the two names of Dionysus and Orpheus. (363-4).
There are two observations here, one historical and one psychological. The historical claim, which goes back to Herodotus, is that Dionysus was a late arrival who entered the Greek cultural landscape from outside, perhaps from Egypt, where his worship resembles the cult of Osiris (Histories, 2.81), or Thrace (Histories, 5.7). We must reject this hypothesis, for we now know that Dionysus was attested in Bronze Age Linear B tablets from Pylos. His cult worship may have been practiced in Greece and Minoan Crete as early as 1500 BCE (see, for example, Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion, 161 ff.).
The psychological observation remains persuasive. The classical Greek mind may have venerated the Homeric deities, but it regarded the mystery cults of Dionysus with the proper sense of awe – the mysterium tremendum of Rudolf Otto – that characterizes a genuine and deeply-felt religious experience.
The symbolism in this painted vase is of great interest to the comparativist. Writing of the cosmic tree in his classic study of Shamanism, Mircea Eliade observes the wide distribution of the Tree of Life motif, and especially of the importance of the cosmological tree associated with the eagle and the snake, which is found throughout central and northern Asia, and may ultimately derive from the Orient (Shamanism; Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, pp. 272-3).
Dionysus is strongly associated with the bull – see, for example, the Orphic Hymn quoted above. The worship of mystery gods associated with epiphany, as well as with the serpent and the tree, is widely known throughout Asia, the Near East, and the Mediterranean of the Bronze and Iron Age.
For example, Dionysus has frequently been compared to the Hindu god Shiva, the great yogi deity frequently paired with Nandi the bull, his yana or mount. Shiva is likewise associated with the bull, the moon, the serpent, and the recognition of one’s own consciousness as the non-dual ground of life.
In a previous post we looked at an interesting depiction of Shiva as a uniting sign who mediated pairs of opposites, and who was figured as the base of the cosmic tree – in that case, the bodhi tree, the tree of illumination under which the Buddha sat when he awoke to his own cosmic Buddha consciousness.
These related sets of symbols begin to form clusters of associations that we can recognize. We see a set of deities linked to the bull, the cosmic tree, and the non-dual ground from which life and death emerge.
That these images were formulated in a common geographical zone of trade, conquest, and cultural exchange cannot be overlooked. These two panels show below, for example, are drawn from a superb painted terracotta from Bactria in the third century CE, now at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. We see Zeus on the left, and Shiva on the right.
In looking at the Lord of Life associated with epiphany and the cosmic tree, we would of course be remiss in neglecting the obvious influence of all this on Christianity. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, written in the first century CE, Jesus clearly occupies the comparable role of an initiatory figure who directs his disciples to recognize their own divinity. Take, for example:
Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will proceed you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.
“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (Gospel of Thomas 3-4, from The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, Meyer et al., 2007).
The teachings of Jesus as presented by Thomas, so Indian in religious character, probably deserve their own post at some point. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, we are in fact told that Thomas traveled to India and taught there. Not only that, but when Portuguese missionaries traveled to India in the 16th century, they discovered to their amazement a native Christian tradition there, and its representatives claimed it was established by Thomas. The San Thome Basilica was built over the traditional tomb of Thomas in Chennai, and may be visited to this day.
Elaine Pagels makes a fascinating argument that the Gospel of John was largely a polemic against the Gospel of Thomas, and was highly successful in excluding it from the canon. John, after all, is the only gospel to include the story of “doubting Thomas,” which appears to be a caricature of the Thomistic doctrine that individuals can have direct experience of divinity, unmediated by Christ. Hence Doubting Thomas had to see Christ’s wounds for himself, in order to believe.
Within the canonical gospels, it is almost too obvious to point out that the Cross is the Tree of Life from which springs forth the wine of eternal life. In John 15 we have “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
I was recently reading Pascal Bonafoux’s excellent biographical sketch of Van Gogh when I came across this arresting line, drawn from one of the artist’s letters: “Painting harnesses infinity.”
The line stuck with me as I worked my way through Taschen’s two-volume Van Gogh and reviewed most of his surviving work. These three words seemed to epitomize his entire passion and endeavor as an artist – to render a vision of infinity in the everyday by the careful, controlled amplification of sensual experience.
Whether painting a chair, a pair of shoes, or a sunflower, he could see and show us what it is that is alive in that sunflower, shoe, or chair, and in ourselves.
William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I’m the kind of person who is incapable of reading any fewer than four books at any one time. It’s a habit I picked up in college, and I’ve never lost it – the rewards are too great. I’ve learned to expect unforeseen synergies and reflections that echo across time and space, unifying disparate domains of inquiry into a single insight. It’s what comes of comparative study.
So I wasn’t surprised when I moved from Van Gogh to Eternity’s Sunrise, Leo Damrosch’s outstanding new biographical study of William Blake, to find precisely those resonances. I could imagine no keener or more precise gloss on the function of Van Gogh’s art than Blake’s poetry.
Take these lines from his early work There is No Natural Religion:
Man’s Perceptions are not bounded by Organs of Perception; he perceives more than Sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
Reason, or the Ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
The Bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round, even of a Universe, would soon become a Mill with complicated wheels.
If the Many become the same as the Few, when possess’d, ‘More! More!’ is the cry of a mistaken soul: less than All cannot satisfy Man.
If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, Despair must be his Eternal lot.
The Desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite, and himself Infinite.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.
God becomes as we are, that we may be as He is.
Van Gogh helps us to see the infinite in all things.
This morning I was out in Redwood Shores in California and saw this landscape – the kind of view I normally wouldn’t think twice about.
I couldn’t help but see the cypress trees and fields of Van Gogh’s Arles.
“I do my best,” he wrote to his brother Theo. “I draw, not to annoy people, but to amuse them, or to make them see things that are worth observing and that not everybody knows.”
I destroy the drawers of the brain, and those of social organization: to sow demoralisation everywhere, and throw heaven’s hand into hell, hell’s eyes into heaven, to reinstate the fertile wheel of a universal circus in the Powers of reality, and the fantasy of every individual. – Dada Manifesto, Tristan Tzara
Sometimes you get lucky, walking into a museum. It’s one of the best reasons for museum-going – the opportunity to chance upon something marvelous and unexpected, like the time I happened upon a huge retrospective of Bill Viola’s artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago. I stopped in between trains on a cross-country journey, and my life was unexpectedly changed.
I had a similar experience, stumbling into a gallery of photomontage works by the Dadaist political artist John Heartfield at the Tate Modern in London in 2011.
Imagine having the courage to create a piece like this in 1935, while hiding for your life from the Gestapo:
“Also a Propaganda Minister” proclaims this leering montage of Hitler imploring a coquettish Goebbels, looking like two figures at a high school dance. The caption below reads “Hitler: ‘Goebbels, Goebbels, give me my millions back!”
There is so much scorn in this work, one can easily see why Heartfield was number five on the Gestapo’s most wanted list in Czechoslovakia.
To me this work is like the sol niger of the medieval alchemist – the black sun epitomizing the Great Work, embodying the transmutation of base matter into spirit. The brilliance of its humor is directly proportional to the ponderous darkness of its subject, and its defiance sounds a clarion call to retain one’s own character, and one’s own sense of life, even in the face of crushing forces of silence. It’s a heroic gesture.
The son of a socialist father and activist mother, Helmut Herzfeld was born in Schmargendorf, near Berlin. In a characteristic display of international solidarity and contempt for prevailing political sentiments, he changed his name to John Heartfield at the height of World War I in 1916. The following year he joined the Berlin Dada club, and for the next 15 years he worked as an artist, collaborating with luminaries such as Bertolt Brecht.
After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the Nazis came to his apartment to arrest him on Good Friday. He escaped by leaping from his balcony and hiding in a trash bin. He fled to Czechoslovakia, then to London, returning to East Germany in 1950 and remaining there until his death in 1968.
This 1934 piece reads “As in the Middle Ages … so in the Third Reich!”
This week I want to take a quick look at a beautiful mask from the remarkable collection of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver. If you ever find yourself in the area, it is well worth making the trip – their collection of art of the Pacific Northwest will leave you gaping in wonder and disbelief.
The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people native to southwest Alaska, and their wonderful tradition of wooden mask-making has been attested by anthropologists for more than a century.
What we have here is a human face with a toothy mouth turned down in a frown. Two concentric loops project forward and enclose the face, and the whole is set squarely in the center of the body of a deer. Decorative elements radiate out from the center, including feathers, several carved fish, a wooden hand, and a lower leg with foot. Several of the feathers are capped with wooden pegs.
Yup’ik masks have been used in a variety of secular and religious contexts, including preparation for hunt, and shamanic dances held during the long, dark winter months. For more on masked shamanic dances in the Pacific Northwest, see Dancing at Time Zero.
According to the sources I have reviewed, many elements of this mask are common, such as the toothy down-turned mouth, the radial bands, and the very restrained use of colored paint. But the individual meaning of these elements varies substantially depending on the use to which the mask was put by its creator. They sometimes express elements of a myth that were recounted, or they may have a ceremonial meaning tied to a petitionary end, such as the desire for a good hunt.
Since we have no context or provenance for this piece, we can only speculate about its meaning. What do you see in this piece? It might be fun to formulate your own ideas before I share some of my thoughts.
My own provisional interpretation finds great significance in the placement of the face, the center of awareness and the personal consciousness, in the middle of the concentric bands, from which various signs of life project.
The circle, evocative of the endless path of the stars and the heavens, is associated with the cosmic cycle in many cultures – take, for example, the ouroboros symbol we looked at in our last piece on Gravity’s Rainbow. The circle conveys the recurring temporal round of the seasons, evocative of the horizon that rings around us, open to the sky.
So reading from the center outwards, we have the individual ego at the heart of the cycle, and set in the heart of a food animal (deer), projecting symbols of human activity (feet, hands), then more food animals (fish). In this I see the individual in the round of life and death found in the mythology of many hunting cultures, uniting the dual culture of life-giving and life-taking in the uniting sign of a single circle.
It reminds me in fact of a classic Tibetan motif in their religious painted scrolls or thangkas, called the bhavacakra, or wheel of existence:
In this motif we have the endless cycle of death and rebirth symbolized in a series of concentric zones subdivided into bands by similar radiating lines. At the center of the cycle is the driving force of the endless cycle of reincarnation as understood by Buddhism, represented pictorially by the snake, the pig, and cock, which represent the three root afflictions of anger, ignorance, and attachment, respectively.
We also see transmigrating souls moving up and down in the wheel, the six realms of existence, and the twelve links of dependent arising, and the whole is encircled by Yama, the Lord of Death, who encompasses the transience of all that exists within his realm.
Both the mask and the thangka depict the projection of the cosmos out from the center of the ego in a round of birth and death, with the individual firmly embedded within it.
But if a symbolic resonance may be detected, the specifics of the mask remain nonetheless obscure. It would be plausible to interpret it as a mask related to a ceremony for the hunt, or a mask expressive of a human transformation into a meat animal, possibly as part of an etiological myth explaining why humans have the right to hunt their pray. Both would be consistent with Yup’ik traditions.
- Agayuliyararput: Our Way of Making Prayer
- Anaywalt PR. Shamanic Regalia in the Far North. Thames and Hudson. 2014.