Mesocosm

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Wanderlust and the German Romantic

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I recently caught the Wanderlust exhibit at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which showcases German painting celebrating solitary wandering in nature. These motifs found common expression in the paintings of the Romantics, who used images of solitary figures exploring the natural world to depict the relationship between the individual and the Absolute that I looked at in my last post.

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Landschaft mit Flusstal, Richard Wilson, ca. 1755

The exhibition begins with this work by Richard Wilson, a pre-Romantic pioneer of British landscape painting. One can already intuit in Landscape with River Valley how nature is perceived as the primary field of life and awareness in a way that anticipates Romantic philosophy.

This painting’s focus on nature entails a corresponding reduction in the human figures in the foreground, who perhaps suggest the individual level of conscious awareness with which we typically identify. Notice how all sense of life and movement in this work are given by the contours of the land, water, and sky. The small, rigidly posed people in the foreground appear more like minor features of the landscape than the principle point of identification with the scene. This reduction is reinforced by the ruins on the left, which suggest the primacy of nature over artificial forms. When left to natural processes, the landscape actively reclaims and swallows up the artifacts of human civilization.

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Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, Caspar David Friedrich, 1817

These themes move explicitly to the fore in the work of the Romantics, as you can see in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog. Unfortunately my picture here has some artifacts from the reflective glass on the frame, but you can still get a sense of it.

Here we see the epitome of the Romantic conception of the knowing subject: an individual who has fought and won their way to the solitary mountaintop, driven by an inner compulsion to experience – to know and to feel. This crowning moment of vision simultaneously renders the apotheosis of the individual personality, whose hard work has led them alone to the apex of experience, and the corresponding submersion of the individual in the Absolute, suggested by the anonymizing pose of this figure. The ego leads to the Absolute, and then falls away.

I think of these lines from Wordsworth’s The Prelude (ca. 1800):

Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth–and with what motion moved the clouds!

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society.

Seen from the back, we’re invited to identify with the anonymous subject, suggesting the aesthetic experience of art offers a window into the infinite that parallels the experience of this lofty view. These ideas will be familiar to anyone who has explored Kant’s analysis of the sublime.

Der Mönch am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich, 1808

This relationship between art and ideas is made clear by Friedrich himself in his writings. In a discussion of his painting Monk by the Sea, Friedrich wrote:

On the beach, walking deep in thought, is a man in a black robe. Gulls circle him anxiously, as if to warn him not to venture out on the rough sea. And if you pondered from morning to evening, from evening to the sinking dead of night, you would still not comprehend, not fathom the inscrutable Beyond.

One is reminded of Novalis and his dark night of the Absolute.

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Alexander von Humboldt und der Botaniker Aimé Bonpland im Urwald Südamerikas, Ferdinand Keller, 1875

Nineteenth century German art is often absorbed in the possibilities of human greatness of distinct but related types: the greatness of the creative individual, of discovery, of achievement, and of the development of one’s own unique perspective.

One interesting stock figure of the scholar-hero who exemplifies all of these forms is the natural scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose vivid writing chronicling his discovery and research inspired generations of artists and thinkers. In this Ferdinand Keller painting, we see Humboldt as a kind of Romantic hero.

Humboldt’s project of discovery and study has something of a Romantic quality about it, as we can see in this excerpt from his 1847 book Kosmos:

The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My intercourse with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that, without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion.

Here are a few standouts from the exhibition that explore the wanderer and Romanticism in striking ways:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the themes of the wanderer and the landscape began to be developed with a different inflection. In his 1882 poem “Prince Vogelfrei,” for example, Friedrich Nietzsche depicted the wanderer with many of the familiar ingredients, but with a far more confident and autonomous sense of self – one that is perhaps augmented instead of diminished or negated by their achievement. There is little sense here of the individual dissolving into the Absolute. I took a pass at translating it as follows:

Prince Vogelfrei

So I hang from crooked branches
High above sea and hill;
A bird invited me to visit –
I flew and followed, raced and raced
And pounded with little wings.

The wide sea has gone to sleep
And rests my every hurt and sigh
I have forgotten goal and harbor,
Fear and praise and punishment –
Now I fly after every bird.

Step by step – that’s no life!
One foot before the other is weary toil.
I let the wind carry me
I love to float with wings
behind every bird.

Reason? – a wicked business:
Many stumble over reason and tongue!
Flight gives me new powers
And teaches me a lovelier occupation,
Song and joke and songplay.

To think alone – that is wise.
To sing alone – that is stupid!
Listen then to my wisdom,
Sit around me in a circle,
Come, you beautiful birds!

By the early twentieth century, the primary field of philosophical and aesthetic concern had moved on. This painting of the wanderer by Ernst Kirchner shows no trace of the post-Kantian meditation on subjectivity.

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Sertigtal, Ernst Kirchner, 1926

Written by Mesocosm

May 29, 2018 at 1:23 am

Posted in Art, Reviews

Thoughts on the Romantics part 1: transcendental idealism, Buddhism, and Novalis

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Schloß am Strom, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Over the last few months I’ve been making a study of the early German Romantics, and I’ve been impressed by the continued relevance of their arguments on aesthetics, their analysis of the relationship of the individual to the absolute, and their critique of the totalizing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Some of the key figures I’ve focused on include the art critic Friedrich Schlegel, the poets Novalis and Hölderlin, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

As the scholar Manfred Frank has exhaustively chronicled, the early Romantics were extremely self-conscious of their status as the first creative generation to succeed the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Kant’s Critiques, and their subsequent elaboration by Fichte. The metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic concerns of the Romantics were largely shaped by the problematic of transcendental idealism, especially the relationship of the knowing subject to the unknowable ultimate ground of experience.

As a Buddhist, it has been enormously useful for me to explore a development of transcendental idealism conducted by artists and intellectuals firmly ensconced within the European tradition of psychological maturation and individuation, which differs in key respects from traditional patterns in India, Tibet, China, and Japan, where the individual ego is generally not valued in itself. The European tradition represented by the Romantics places high value on the individual development of a unique and independent perspective as integral to the process of becoming a mature adult. They likewise place a deep value on creative art which my Tibetan teachers would not have understood. I was once told by a Geshe from Drepung Loseling that the only art that has value is iconic contemplative art – all other forms of art are merely ornamental, essentially toys for children.

I know that that is false, of course – great aesthetic experiences can provide insight and illumination of a high order. Some of the most profound experiences of my life have involved great works of art – I think of my first experience seeing Wagner’s Ring cycle, or seeing the Sistine Chapel, or reading Dante’s Commedia, or Finnegans Wake, or Hamlet. Aesthetic experiences can be a vehicle for the veridical intuition of deep truths about life and the nature of consciousness. 

It is illuminating to explore the work of thinkers who are deeply concerned with the transformative and enlightening qualities of great art, while sharing a philosophical perspective that in core respects closely resembles the Buddhist philosophy with which I otherwise feel so at home. I have argued before that there are pervasive and important similarities between Buddhism and Kantian transcendental idealism, and if anything this sense has only been increasingly borne out by my deeper study of Kant in the last several years. I would emphatically recommend reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to any serious student of Buddhism.

The early Romantics also sensed a deep kinship between their philosophical enterprise and some of the traditions of India. For example, in his “Speech on Mythology” in 1802, Schlegel wrote (my translation):

If only the treasures of the Orient were as accessible to us as those of the ancient [Greeks and Romans]! What new sources of poetry could flow to us from India if some German artists had the opportunity, with their universal scope and depth of sense, and with the genius of translation they possess. [Our] nation, which is becoming ever more dumb and brutal, scarcely comprehends the need. We must search in the Orient for the ultimate Romantic, and if we can draw from the source, perhaps the appearance of the southern glow, which so charms us in Spanish poetry, will again appear, only sparsely and in Western guise.

In this perspective, Schlegel followed Goethe, who praised the great Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa in 1792, and who would emulate the Sufi poet Hafiz in his West-East Divan in 1819. It is my belief that the “Prelude in the Theater” in Faust was modeled after the introduction of Kalidasa’s magnificent play Recognition of Shakuntala, which includes a similar introduction of the work that will follow to the audience by the director.

Transcendental idealism is ultimately focused on the limits of reason and experience, and accounting for how consciousness is made coherent by regularities which structure any possible experience, such as space, time, and causality. These are seen as necessary features of consciousness, but their ultimate relationship to reality itself, independent of how we experience it, is unknowable.

This problematic was exhaustively analyzed philosophically by Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and also inspired a creative response from poets like Novalis and Hölderlin, who developed it from a very different center of gravity in the human psyche. Having assimilated the implications of transcendental idealism through exhaustive study (see Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annährung), the early Romantic poets worked through the relationship of individuals to the absolute – of the knowing subject to the ineffable transcendent ground of experience – with the metaphorical tools of poetry and myth.

For example, in his celebrated “Hymns to the Night” (here in German, here’s a dated English translation), Novalis employs this problematic as a framework for rendering his deeply personal experience of mourning the death of his young betrothed. He joins the image of the lonely consciousness in the inchoate night of the Absolute with the memory of keeping vigil at the lonely grave of his beloved all night. In both cases, subjective experience is like an isolated lighthouse in an infinite, dark, and silent sea (see the Caspar David Friedrich painting below). 

This poetic work harnesses the structure of transcendental idealism as a framework for giving modern expression to the age-old motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which has been a major feature of German literary culture at least since the time of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan in the early thirteenth century. The image of the falling night encompasses sleep, death, the unconscious, the undifferentiated sphere of the absolute, and transcendent union with the Beloved.

Here is my rendering of Novalis’ second Hymn:

Must morning always come again?
Will earth’s dominion never end?
Profane commerce consumes
The heavenly advent of night.
Will love’s secret sacrifice never
Burn eternal?
Light and waking’s time
was measured,
But night’s dominion is timeless,
The span of sleep eternal.
Holy sleep!
Do not too seldom bless
those in Earth’s acre
who consecrate the night.
Only fools mistake you,
Knowing no sleep
But the shadow
You compassionately cast upon us
In that dawn
Of true night.
They do not feel you
In the golden flood of grapes,
In the almond tree’s
Miraculous oil
And the poppy’s brown juice.
They do not know
It’s you
Who float about the maiden’s
Tender breast,
Making heaven of her bosom;
Do not sense
That out of old stories
You open heaven coming forth to meet us
And carry the key
To the chambers of the blessed,
Silent messenger of
Infinite secrets.

In my next post on this subject I’ll look more specifically at the aesthetic theory underlying the work of the Romantics, especially as it was expressed in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Speech on Mythology.” I’ll also have a look at how this theory has been interpreted by the modern theorist Karl Heinz Bohrer.

CDF

Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich

Written by Mesocosm

May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

A brief response to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

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I have a confession to make – I have never until quite recently read Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It’s an embarrassing admission for me – akin to a film buff admitting that they’ve never seen The Godfather, or worse. If you haven’t read it yourself and would like to, you can find it here in English and here in German.

Now that I’ve read it and spent some time analyzing it I can understand why it attracts so much discussion. It seems to me that much of the productive appeal of The Work of Art lies largely in its beguiling invitation to the reader to try to understand and resolve the hermeneutic fissures that cleave it. In my reading, Benjamin was averse to comprehensive systematization, and preferred to apply and juxtapose new analytical frameworks on problems of perennial interest, and in this work we encounter fault lines where he has applied dissimilar systems to his persisting interest in a certain kind of experience – to wit, a disclosure of what he characterized in his early writings on Romantic aesthetics as the immanent absolute. One of the primary tensions that drives The Work of Art is the contradiction between this mystical-existential modality and his burgeoning interest in Marxist ideology criticism.

In my reading, this work has two primary interpretive challenges. The first is understanding what he means by this statement in the introduction:

[T]heses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.

On the surface, Benjamin appears to associate the concepts of genius and creativity with fascism and warns against their “uncontrolled application,” suggesting that a social criticism of aesthetics prevents his analysis from being misappropriated by fascists. The meaning of this statement, to which he returns to in the epilog, remains largely unexplained, and is to me somewhat inexplicable.

The second interpretive dilemma pertains to what exactly he means by “aura,” which the work of art has hitherto possessed, but which now “decays” in the age of mechanical reproduction. For reasons of his own, he refrains from analyzing or explaining this core concept, and much ink has been spilled in trying to elucidate its meaning.

So what does he tell us about it, exactly? I read in secondary literature that Benjamin’s earliest extant discussion of the concept of aura is preserved in a notebook describing the influence of hashish. This makes a certain amount of sense.

In an earlier work on photography, he defines the aura as “A strange weave of space and time; the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” In The Work of Art he distinguishes between the natural aura, repeating this definition, and the artificial aura, which primarily refers to the “uniqueness” of the work of art – the fact of its having only one historical actuality. In this sense, the loss of “aura” means nothing more than the fact that our traditional aesthetic categories, which have depended on the uniqueness of works of art, have been displaced by new considerations, and will have to be reevaluated.

I have argued at ponderous length with other readers of this text on this point, but it’s clear to me from how he uses the term “aura” that he means much more by it than historical singularity, and conceives the loss of aura as a phenomenon tied to a decline of certain kinds of existential experiences of profound value that he is deeply concerned with. The narrative he describes of the various ways that works of art have claimed autonomy and authority for themselves is one of movement from the cultic ritual value of art to the veneration of “art pour l’art” aesthetics to the logic of mass manipulation that he sees exemplified by film, which “shocks” and motivates the masses, and replaces the act of art criticism which he has elsewhere described as a kind of mystical or sacred office of truth-disclosure into a kind of mass-market “anyone with a blog can say anything these days” situation.

It’s my view that it is precisely by refraining from critically analyzing the aura, he posits it as an irreducible category of direct experience and a locus of value, thus insisting upon its givenness and non-rational character.

In another writing, Benjamin claims that regarding the loss of aura as “merely a symptom of decay” would be “fatuous,” which would seem to suggest he doesn’t see it as a kind of nostalgia for a more innocent time. But he left me with little doubt in his application of the term in this essay that this is how he uses it, whether or not it’s what it necessarily means.

I found his discussion of reproduction a little thin – for example, in his analysis of the cult he neglected what I would consider an important precursor to mechanical reproduction, and in so doing, misread the character of cult art substantially. Specifically, I would argue that the production of iconic art is a form of reproduction.

In this sense, iconic art refers to works of art that are valued not in terms of their unique content, but insofar as they duplicate established types. Anyone who has walked through a gallery of Italian Renaissance art and seen canvas after canvas depicting with formulaic fidelity the Annunciation or the Virgin Enthroned with Child will recognize that was is principally salient about many of these paintings is their expression of a sacred formula. This is a characteristic of most cult art, from the thangkas of Tibet, with their rigorously-determined proportions and attributes, to the cases of Cycladic Bronze Age goddess sculptures you can view in the Louvre, displaying dozens of nearly-identical design created over the span of centuries. I think it opens up the concept of reproduction to recognize that it occurs on many different planes.

 

May 2018 note: I substantially re-wrote this post after additional close readings of the essay and several useful discussions about it with a study group. 

Written by Mesocosm

April 14, 2018 at 3:32 am

Posted in Art, Philosophy, Reviews

Berlin Dada Man-Machine

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I’ve been reading Matthew Biro’s outstanding book The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, which focuses on German Dadaist representations of human-machine hybrids (Amazon link here).

I remember seeing a Dadaism exhibit at the De Young museum in San Francisco many years ago, and being struck by how fresh and relevant the movement still seemed. If anything that only becomes more and more true. It is an art movement largely preoccupied with the shock to the human psyche caused by the fact of mechanical reproduction.

In Biro’s account, for the Dadaist, the human-machine hybrid was a manifold symbol which represented the degree to which the bourgeois citizenry had been mentally colonized by ideology; the degree to which the self is a post-human and transpersonal hybrid of organism, context, information and machine; and a recognition that the mechanics of the self are to some degree cybernetic in Norbert Wiener’s sense – that is, subject to characterization in terms of control system dynamics that can equally be applied to information systems, circuits, and complex machinery.

Obviously we are still within the horizon that the Dadaists identified and began to work through with their art – these ideas are more relevant than ever.

As it so happens, I learned recently that I moved to Berlin almost one hundred years to the day after the founding of German Dadaism with the delivery of Huelsenbeck’s Dada-Speech on January 22, 1918. I thought I’d commemorate the centennial and honor the Berlin Dada by translating his speech.

Dada-Speech, by Richard Huelsenbeck

Ladies and gentlemen!

This evening is intended to provoke interest in Dadaism, a new, international “culture direction” founded two years ago in Zürich. The instigators of this beautiful cause include Hugo Ball, Emmi Hennings, the painter Slodki, the Rumanians Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara – and I myself, last but not least, have the present honor to propagandize at this time for my old comrades and our old-new view.

Hugo Ball, a great artist and greater man, an entirely unsnobbish and unliterary man, founded the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 in Zürich, from which Dadaism developed with our help.

Dadaism was unavoidably an international product. Something common must be found between the Russian, Rumanian, Swiss, and German. There was a witch’s sabbath the likes of which you cannot imagine, a hullabaloo from morning till evening, a frenzy of timpani and negro drums, an ecstacy with steps and Cubist dances. The Rumanians came from France, loved Apollinaire, Max Jacob, knew much of Bazun, poetry and drama and the Cubists. Marinetti, Palazeschi, Savignio wrote from Italy. We Germans stood there quite harmlessly.

Ball was in fact the only one who absorbed and processed the problems of the Futurist and Cubist directions. Perhaps some may be found among you who have heard of the Expressionist Evening talk that I organized with him. That was in fact the expressionistic poem, such as Germany had never heard. Ball brought his “Barking Dog” to Switzerland, a phantasm of a strength that little people like Korrodie and Rubiner still suffer under.

The Cabaret Voltaire was our experimental stage, where we probed to try to understand our commonalities. Together we made an extraordinarily beautiful negro song with rattles, wood klappers, and many primitive instruments. I served as the precentor, an almost mythical figure. Trabaja, Trabaja la mojere – with lots of lard.

All the artisans of Zürich began a united campaign against us. That was the most beautiful thing – now we knew who we were dealing with. We were against the pacifists, because the war had given us the opportunity to exist in our full glory. And back then the pacifists were even more decent than they are today, now that every stupid youth with his books wants to exploit the economic boom against the times. We were for the war, and Dadaism is still for the war today. Things must collide – for too long they have not been horrible enough.

In the Cabaret Voltaire we first tried our Cubist dances with Janco’s masks, self-made costumes from colorful cardboard and baubles. Tristan Tzara, who publishes the Dadaistic journals in Zürich today, invented the schema of the poème simultan for the stage – a poem that is recited by several people in different languages, rhythms, and tones at the same time. I invented the concert des voyelles and the poème bruitiste, a mixture of poetry and brutalist music, as made famous by the Futurists with the rèveil de la capitale. The inventions reigned, Tzara invented the poème statique, a kind of optical poem which you see like a forest, I myself initiated the poème mouvementiste, lecture with primitive movements, which has not yet been done in this way.

My lords, so stands Dadaism, a focus of international energies. We had had our fill of Cubism, which began to bore us with its single-minded abstraction. You arrive at the actual by yourself, once you move and are a living person. Futurism as it existed was a strictly Italian affair – a fight against the fearsome antiquity with its slick business acumen that beats every talent into the ground there. Futurism, which here in Germany, where we have the honor of being last in all things, has until recently been despised as hocus pocus by the crassly ignorant and empty-headed, because its verses were bad or incomprehensible. This Futurism, my lords, was a fight against the statue of Apollo, against the Cantilène and the bel canto – but what does it have to do with us Dadaists?

Neither with Futurism nor with Cubism. We were something new, we were the Dadas, Ball Dadas, Huelsenbeck Dada, Tzara Daha. Dada is a word that exists in all languages – it expresses nothing more than the internationality of the movement. It has nothing to do with the childish stammer with which people sought to track it.

What then is the Dadaism that I wish to espouse here tonight? It is to be the faction of great international artistic movements. It is the transition to the new joy in real things. There are guys who have been assailed by life, there are types, men with destinies and the capacity to experience. Men with sharpened intellect, who understand that they are at a turning point in time. It is only one step to politics. Tomorrow, minister or martyr in Schlüsselburg.

Dadaism is something that has in itself overcome the elements of Futurism or Cubist theorems. It must be something new, for it stands at the point of evolution, and time changes with men who have the capacity to be changed. “The Fantastic Prayers,” from which I will recite a selection, have appeared under the Dada publishing imprint and, I hope, carry the color of this movement.

Written by Mesocosm

February 20, 2018 at 8:06 am

Posted in Art, Reviews

52:13 The Raven and the First Man

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This week I’m going to look at a masterpiece of contemporary Haida art, the yellow cedar monumental sculpture The Raven and the First Man, created by Bill Reid and housed at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver.

reid1

This is one of the most beautiful works of art that I’ve ever seen, a mythological image of stunning complexity and richness rendered with breathtaking technical perfection. It depicts the Haida myth of the Trickster figure Raven bringing forth the first Haida people out of a giant clam and into the world.

I have written several times before of the wonderful mythology and art of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including pieces on totem poles, raven and bear shamanism, and Kawikiutl secret dance societies. One could spend many lifetimes wandering wide-eyed through the living dream evoked by these splendid systems of imagery and the imagination, and it is daunting to approach a piece of this richness and complexity. But I will try to share some thoughts.

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The Raven plays a seminal role in the Pacific Northwest as one of the key crests used in the social economy of numerous groups in the region. He is also a key figure in the local mythology, where he is a classic example of the Trickster, a charming figure who stumbles by appetite and accident into pivotal moments of evolution, driving forth the play of the cosmos by his wit and energy.

What an endlessly rich, endlessly complex archetype we have in the Trickster. This beloved folklore motif is found the world over, from Bugs Bunny to the Norse God Loki, from Inari’s foxes in Japan to Agu Tompa and Drukpa Kuley in Tibet.

Master of inversions and sudden escapes; uniting opposites and serving as an endless wellspring of creation; agent of fragmentation, intensification and release; constant companion, foil, and inspiration to humanity. Holy fool, coyote, raven, alchemical Mercury; master of the medieval carnival, wolf of the Lupercalia, Tantric master, creator, destroyer; the Trickster encompasses all.

Carl Jung notes in “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure” that he “is a forerunner of the saviour, and like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness.”

The Trickster lives and acts outside the conventional ordered realm of society and the cosmos, which is a field of incredible fertility. He functions as a midwife who brings the energies of the unconscious into the field of awareness. In the symbolic language of myth, he is frequently a cosmological creator or a culture hero who gifts humanity with the arts of civilization, such as agriculture and writing.

Insofar as he disrupts the established order, he can be perceived as a threat. Jung’s essay, for example, chronicles a long list of known instances in which the medieval church in Europe tried unsuccessfully to suppress the many extremely popular carnivals and liturgical parodies that echoed the operation of the Trickster, and which were the occasion of a temporary suspension or inversion of the ordinary social hierarchy, allowing the forbidden and repressed energies of belief out into the light of day for a prescribed period of time. These events function as a kind of psychic safety valve that allows the social order to function without exploding from the tensions of its own manifest contradictions.

Jung writes:

If we consider, for example, the daemonic features exhibited by Yahweh in the Old Testament, we shall find in them not a few reminders of the unpredictable behaviour of the trickster, of his senseless orgies of destruction and his self-imposed sufferings, together with the same gradual development into a saviour and his simultaneous humanization. It is just this transformation of the meaningless into the meaningful that reveals the trickster’s compensatory relation to the ‘saint.’ In the early Middle Ages, this led to some strange ecclesiastical customs based on memories of the ancient saturnalia. Mostly they were celebrated on the days immediately following the birth of Christ – that is, in the New Year – with singing and dancing. The dances were originally harmless tripudia of the priests, lower clergy, children, and subdeacons and took place in the church. An episcopus puerorum (children’s bishop) was elected on Innocents’ Day and dressed in pontifical robes. Amid uproarious rejoicings he paid an official visit to the palace of the archbishop and bestowed the episcopal blessings from one of the windows. The same thing happened at the tripudium hypodiaconorum, and at the dances for the other priestly grades. By the end of the twelfth century, the subdeacons’ dance had degenerated into a real festum stultorum (fool’s feast). A report from the year 1198 says that at the Feast of the Circumcision in Notre Dame, Paris, ‘so many abominations and shameful deeds’ were committed that the holy place was desecrated ‘not only by smutty jokes, but even by the shedding of blood.’ In vain did Pope Innocent III inveigh against the ‘jests and madness that make the clergy a mockery,’ and the ‘shameless frenzy of their play-acting.’….

These ruptures, along with many other lesser-known customs and episodes, wholly contradict the stereotype of religiosity of the European medieval period as a staid, solemn, fearful affair of mere dogmatism and witch-burning. Particularly during the High Middle Ages, the religious imagination reached a pinnacle of license and creative power in Europe, until the full weight of the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France largely put an end to to the whole show.

Take the Goliard Poets: these clerics savagely lampooned the solemnity of the church at every turn in performance events reminiscent of Dadaist happenings. At St. Remy, for example, the Goliards went to the mass in procession, each trailing a herring on a string. From “The Confessions of Golias,” translated by George Whicher:

Let the wise man place his seat
On the rock firm founded.
Hither, thither I must beat
By my follies hounded.
With the flowing stream I fleet,
So my doom is sounded;
‘Neath the arch of heaven my feet
Nowhere yet have grounded.

Like a hapless ship I fare
Left without a sailor,
Like a bird on ways of air,
Some poor lost cloud-scaler;
Not a jot for chains I care,
Nor for key nor jailer.
Sinful flesh is frail, I swear.
Mine’s the same – but frailer!

The Trickster, then, is driven by the energies and appetites of the body, unchained from the ordinary perspective. It is worth considering in this light that nearly every one of Shakespeare’s comedies involves characters going outside of the walls of the city and creating an alternative society with its own rules. There seems to be something deep in the human social constitution that finds such endeavors profoundly restorative.

That Raven also functions outside the ordinary bounds of society is made perfectly clear by the myths of his birth, which show us that he is a shamanic figure – for more details, see my post The Raven, The Bear, and Shamanism in the Pacific Northwest. The shaman is a powerful, magical, and ambivalent figure. The shaman in Tlingit society, like the characters of Shakespeare’s comedies, lived outside of the village. His was also the only profession that could be directly paid for their services. Every other type of labor was compensated within the general circulation of goods within the symbolically-organized potlatch economy.

You can appreciate, now, the danger of undertaking to write about the Trickster- in order to take compass of his range and richness, you must wander far afield. But let me circle back now to our marvelous sculpture and its mythological context. I’m drawing from several sources in this discussion, but I’ll highlight The Raven and the Light by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst, which goes briefly through an entire Haida myth cycle involving Raven.

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Raven’s story begins with a key myth that is quite popular in the region called the Theft of the Light. The world exists in a state of universal, undifferentiated darkness, and Raven liberates the light from its imprisonment in a magic box and scatters it to the heavens in a Promethean theft. In the accompanying image, you can see Raven with the moon in his beak wearing the sun around his neck, sitting atop the magic box in which the light was hoarded by a powerful old man.

The regular Mesocosm reader may recognize a few motifs that we’ve seen several times before, such as the cosmological theme of bringing light to a primordial darkness, a dual symbol that evokes both the creation of the world and the dawning of awareness. Cosmological myths often recapitulate the ordering function of consciousness, which gives structure and coherence to the blooming, buzzing confusion. As I previously wrote:

Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.

We can recognize the primeval darkness as the same which preceded the “Let there be light,” of Genesis, a common symbol of the unconscious. Another common symbol of the unconscious the world over is the sea or the flood, which is a parallel image of an undifferentiated medium. So it does not surprise us to find that the story of the Raven on which Reid’s sculpture is based begins by setting the stage in this way:

The Great Flood which had covered the earth for so long had at last receded, and even the thin strip of sand now called Rose Spit, stretching north from Naikun village, lay dry.

Our story begins at the meeting point of the conscious and the unconscious mind, where Raven feels quite at home, being a bridger of the two worlds. Note that like many Trickster animals, the raven is a scavenger and a carrion eater, and thereby analogously bridges the realms of life and death.

Bored Raven hopped along the beach looking for something to do when he heard the squeak of unfamiliar animals:

At first he saw nothing, but as he scanned the beach again, a white flash caught his eye, and when he landed he found at his feet, half-buried in the sand, a gigantic clamshell. When he looked more closely still, he saw that the shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror of his enormous shadow.

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Well, here was something to break the monotony of his day. But nothing was going to happen as long as the tiny things stayed in the shell, and they certainly weren’t coming out in their present terrified state. So the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell, and with the smooth trickster’s tongue that got him into and out of so many misadventures during his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world.

In the infancy of the world, Raven served as a midwife to help the first Haida come forth out of the dark watery womb and into the light of consciousness that he himself scattered about the skies. It is important to note the significance of Raven’s speech in bringing the Haida forth into consciousness – as we noted above, speech is often a direct symbol of cosmological ordering, and is associated with acts of creation in many cosmogonies.

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The contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most mythologically vital forms of expression I’ve found in the world today. Bill Reid is a master, and I’ve also been quite impressed by the work of Robert Davidson, whose art can be seen in the wonderful book The Abstract Edge.

If you’re interested in Haida mythology, in addition to The Raven and the Light, the book A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst is also a powerful and striking study and set of translations.

If you’re interested in the Trickster figure, the Jung essay I have quoted is collected in the volume The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The interested reader will also find an engrossing survey of the motif in Lewis Hyde’s delightful Trickster Makes This World.

Written by Mesocosm

November 26, 2016 at 8:43 am

52:11 Monster Slayer: Cellini’s Perseus

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This week I’d like to look at Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus, a magnificent bronze statue in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. It depicts the classical Greek hero holding the severed head of the slain Gorgon Medusa.

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In interpreting its mythological significance, I rely heavily on Erich Neumann’s History of the Origins of Consciousness, one of the key texts on the psychological interpretation of myth from the twentieth century.

Neumann distinguishes between heroes of the introverted and extroverted type, where the former transform consciousness through an inward journey, like the Buddha, and the latter are heroic with respect to action and the performance of deeds, such as the slaying of monsters.

The extroverted hero is typical in European culture, and here we have an image of the extroverted hero par excellence, rendered by one of the great Italian artists of the High Renaissance. To invoke only a little hyperbole, this is one of the most “western” things I’ve ever seen. It sounds all the notes of the western register, from the glorious to the problematic – the beauty and vitality of the physical form and the wonder of the achievement echo along with the unmistakable savagery of the act, and the disturbing image of the male hero standing over the decapitated body of a female monster.

In psychological terms, the masculine here represents the rational, individual ego, while the feminine represents the collective unconscious, undifferentiated and animated by powerful energies. The hero-quest in Neumann’s terms is primarily to do with the ego differentiating itself from the unconscious in a process called individuation, and the sign of this on the mythological plane is the male hero slaying the ravenous mother, and thereby emerging from the all-encompassing sphere of dark, unconscious life, often exemplified by the symbol of the ouroboros or serpent.

The original Greek myth of Perseus is well known to us from sources such as the Library of Greek Mythology of Apollodorus. The infant Perseus and his mother Danae were set adrift on the stormy seas, and found refuge in the land of King Dictys. When Perseus grew to manhood, Polydectes, brother of the king, secretly wished to marry Danae, and, anticipating resistance from her imposing son, conspired to obtain Perseus’ pledge to recover the head of Medusa, certain that the errand would be fatal.

Now, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters, deadly creatures with hands of brass and wreathed with serpents, whose gaze would turn any living being to stone. Of the three sisters, Medusa alone was mortal, and could be slain.

Perseus set off on his adventure and with the guidance and aid of Hermes and Athene he obtained the magical implements necessary for his mission: a pair of winged sandals, a helmet of invisibility, and a magical satchel that could hold her head. He journeyed to the home of the three sisters and came upon them sleeping. Using the reflection in his bronze shield to find his target, thus protecting his gaze from the Gorgons’ terrible magic, he beheaded Medusa, seized the head, and fled, with the two immortal sisters in hot pursuit.

It is interesting to note that in early Greek depictions of the myth, Perseus was not presented in Cellini’s heroic aspect of victory, but was always shown in terrified flight through the air from Medusa’s sisters.

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This is a very rich set of images, which we could approach in a variety of ways. Jane Ellen Harrison tells us in her Prolegomena, for example, that the salient fact about the three Gorgon sisters is Medusa, and the salient thing about Medusa is the head, locus of mystical power and focal point of the myths that deal with her. She therefore speculates that the Medusa myths were explanatory of a ritual mask cult, and they served to elaborate the mask into a creature, the creature into a set of creatures, and the set of creatures into a story. And indeed many Gorgon masks remain to us from ancient times.

Neumann’s gloss focuses on the psychological and spiritual aspects of the story, noting that the magical implements and weapons that Perseus employs to slay Medusa, as well as the motif of indirection of sight, are all symbols of spiritualization or sublimation. The hero is transposed to the invisible realm of the air, the domain of the mind or spirit, and can only approach the Gorgons in that element. Cellini’s statue may preserve vestiges of this note in his hero’s closed eyes and rather inward tilt of the head.

Reading the slaying of Medusa in psychological terms, Neumann sees it as an expression of the far-flung Bronze Age myth of the masculine hero slaying the devouring mother. The Greek psyche was closely attuned to that aspect of the story, which is why they focused on the immediate upsurge of antagonistic compensatory energy from the unconscious, symbolized as the wrathful eruption of the immortal energies tied to Medusa. In the Greek motif of Perseus’ flight, the danger and difficulty of carving out a conscious zone of rational psychic life from the all-encompassing powers of the unconscious thus becomes the focus.

Clearly in Cellini’s Renaissance-era appropriation of the myth, this valence is completely gone, and what we have in its place is the confident expression of the superiority of the masculinized individual ego, depicted as a figure who confronts and defeats antagonistic forces. The all-encompassing energies of the unconscious are externalized and reduced to a mere monster, little more than a dangerous animal, and the scene is mostly stripped of its mythological register.

The development of this image over time gives us an excellent illustration of Neumann’s general thesis that the evolution of mythological forms corresponds to the gradual development of the conscious mind in relation to the unconscious.

If you’re interested in learning more about the circumstances of the statue’s creation, Cellini’s autobiography is a key text for our understanding of the Italian Renaissance.

Addendum: While scanning over this post after publishing it, I realized how forcefully it impressed me today as an image of the rational intellect slaying the powers of the earth, and thought it was worth articulating that as an additional dimension of my full response. Medusa is indeed thought to have begun her career as an earth-goddess.

In browsing Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment this morning, my eyes fell upon this apposite passage:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.

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Written by Mesocosm

November 12, 2016 at 7:18 am

Posted in Art

52:08 Dionysus, Lord of Life

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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).

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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,
reveling Dionysus,
primeval, two-natured lord,
savage, ineffable, secretive,
two-horned and two-shaped,
ivy-covered, bull-faced,
warlike, howling, pure.
You take raw flesh in triennial feasts,
wrapped in foliage, decked with grape clusters,
resourceful Eubouleus,
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.

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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.”

Written by Mesocosm

October 23, 2016 at 4:20 pm

52:07 Van Gogh’s Infinity

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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.

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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.

APPLICATION
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.

THEREFORE
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.

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I couldn’t help but see the cypress trees and fields of Van Gogh’s Arles.

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“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.”

Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Posted in Art

52:06 – John Heartfield: Politics as Art

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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:

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“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!”

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October 8, 2016 at 7:12 am

Posted in Art, Politics

Yup’ik Animal Mask 52:05

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yupik-mask

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.

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Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2016 at 7:50 am