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In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from May 31, 2020, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

The only thing physical we carry with us since since birth is our bodies. And while they stay with us through the decades, they change radically — and the older we get, the more radical. 

I finished college 50 years ago, and I’ve changed a great deal in that half-century, and I don’t just mean the issue of losing hair on the top of my head and gaining it in my ears.

We accumulate much over the years. Some of it we lose over time, divorces, moves, and job changes. Much we divest ourselves whenever we feel on the verge of being overcome by our possessions. And some few objects stay with us, year after year, either because they are meaningful, or, sometimes, through mere habit. 

My sense of myself is most directly the continuity of my memory. But memory is sometimes faulty. And we make up stories about ourselves — usually they flatter us, although sometimes they convict. But our physical possessions tell a harder-edge story. 

Surely the self is more than our own cogito ergo sum, recalled in memory. It is embodied in what we keep around us: more pointedly, we are what we can’t get rid of. Sure, it is also our behavior, the sense we make of the world and how it is constructed and how it functions. But much of that we learn through what we have owned. It is not simply our past, but our expectations of a future. And there should be some outward manifestation of our selfness, not solely the interior rattling around of snippets of memory, strung together like a necklace of remembered events.

I began to think of such things when I woke one morning and sat on the side of the bed, facing the bookshelf on the wall in front of me. I happened to spot the slim volume of The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard, an ancient paperback that I had in college. It is a book I’ve owned for more than 50 years. It is where I first encountered the idea of the “Great Chain of Being.”

Then, I gazed over the shelves to discover if there were other books I’d owned that long, and saw Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I attempted to cook from during my first marriage, when I was still in college. Are those two books as much a part of my selfness as the memories of the old school or the failed marriage?

As I wandered through the house later that day, I pored over the many bookshelves to seek the books I’ve owned the longest, through divorces and break-ups, through four transcontinental relocations, through at least a dozen homes I have rented in five different cities. Nine cities, if you count homes from before college, which I didn’t rent, but lived with parents.

The oldest book I still have is my great-grandmother’s Bible, which was given to me when I was four years old. I also have my grandmother’s Bible, in Norwegian, and the Bible my parents gave to me when I was a boy, with my name embossed on the cover in gold. I am not a religious man and don’t believe any of the content scribed therein, I also have to recognize that the culture that nurtured me is one founded on the stories and strictures bound in that book, and more particularly, in the King James version, which I grew up on and which has shaped the tone of the English language for 400 years.

Surely, completely divorced from doctrine, the KJV is a deeply embedded part of who I am.

The second oldest book is one my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, a giant-format Life magazine book called The World We Live In. It was a counterbalance to the Holy Writ, in that it was a natural history of the world and gave me science. At that age, I was nuts about dinosaurs (many young boys are in the Third Grade), and The World We Live In had lots of pictures of my Jurassic and Cretaceous favorites. It also explored the depths of the oceans, the mechanisms of the weather, the animals of the forest, the planets of the solar system, and a countering version of the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and bombarding meteorites. I loved that book. I still love it. It is on the shelf as a holy-of-holies (and yes, I get the irony).

Both the Bible and The World We Live In are solid, tangible bits of my selfness that I can touch and recognize myself in, as much as I recognize myself in the mirror.

I pulled down Tillyard from the shelf, and gathered up the several Bibles and began piling by my desk, and went through the bookshelves finding the many books that have defined me and that I kept through all the disruption that life throws at us, with the growing realization that these books are me. They are internalized and now their physical existence is an extension of my selfness into the world.

The pile beside my desk slowly turned into a wall, one stack next to another, building up a brick-foundation of me-ness. They were cells of my psyche very like the cells of my body, making up a whole. And they began to show a pattern that I had not previously noticed. The books I’ve held on to for at least 50 years sketched a me that I knew in my bone.

I’ve kept books from 40 years ago, from 30, from 20. I’ve got books that define me as I am at 73 years old that I have bought in the past month. But the continuity of them is a metaphor for the continuity of my self.

When I was just out of college, a neighbor of my parents died and left my a pile of old books, printed in the 18th and early 19th century. There are three volumes of the poetry of William Cowper, a History of Redemption by Jonathan Edwards, a fat volume with tiny print collecting the Addison and Steele Spectators, and a single volume of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature. I have Volume IV of five volumes, which contains descriptions and illustrations of birds, fishes and “Frogs, Lizards, and Serpents.”

And while my great-grandmother’s Bible gives me a sense of roots running four generations deep, these older books take those roots deeper into the culture that made me. I see myself not as a single mind born in 1948, but as part of a longer-running continuity back in time. A reminder that any single generation is simply a moment in a process: seed, sprout, plant, flower, fruit, seed. Over and over. My self grew from my mother’s womb and she from her mother’s. And my psyche grew from all the books I’ve read, and all the books that have shaped the culture that produced those books. It is a nurturance that disappears in the far distant past, like railroad tracks narrowing to a point on the horizon.

I am not here making an argument for nurture vs. nature. I am not simply the sum of the books I’ve read. Rather, the books I’ve read that have remained with me — and there are many times more that haven’t stuck with the same tenacity — have not only nurtured me, but are the mirror of who I was born, my inner psyche, who I AM. They are the outward manifestation of the inward being.

I have books left over from college, such as my Chaucer and my Shelley, my Coleridge and my Blake.

I have the poetry I was drawn to when first discovering its linguistic and cultural power, such as all the Pound I gobbled up.

There are the two volumes of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, edited by Artur Schnabel. I could never be without them. I read scores for pleasure just as I read words. 

I still have piles of Kalmus and Eulenburg miniature scores that I have used over the years to study music more minutely than ears alone can permit.

Books that have turned the twig to incline the tree stay with me, such as Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, or the Daybooks of photographer Edward Weston, or The Graphic Art of the 18th Century, by Jean Adhémar.

I still have the Robert Graves two-volume Greek Myths that I had when taking a Classics course my freshman year, and the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Milton that I took with my in my backpack when I tried to hike all of the Appalachian Trail (“tried” is the operative word), and the photographic paperback version of the Sierra Club book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.

My many Peterson Guides and wildflower books have only multiplied, but the basics have been with me for at least five decades.

The Thurber Carnival I still have was actually my mother’s book that I took from home when I went off to school. The catalog from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is now browned out and tattered and the Hokusai manga is another holy of holies.

All these have stuck to me like glue all through a life’s vicissitudes, many with ragged and torn covers, as I have myself in a body worn and torn by creeping age.

I could name many more, but you get the idea. And it is undoubtedly the same for all of us. For you, it many not be books; it might be a shirt or blouse you have kept, or maybe a blanket that comforted you when you were an infant, or your first car. These are the outward signs of an inner truth. The you who is not separate from the world, but embedded in it, connected to it, born from it and in some way, its singular manifestation.

NB: The books illustrated are all some of them I’ve lugged with me for at least 50 years; anyone who knows me would recognize me in them. 

Click on any image to enlarge.

gauguin

Are the arts important?

It is the question at the bottom of the debate over public funding, and a lot of hooey has been written on the subject, from both sides of the issue.

Yet, the question remains. Is art important, or is it merely one of the frills of life? Is it more than the amusement of the rich people who can afford to buy it or attend its performances? Does it serve some essential function in our lives?

The answers usually provided are too often soft and squishy, with a lot of feel-good oohing-and-aahing alternating with benign platitudes.

All of which miss the point.

There are three major things that art provides that we can ill afford to do without. They have nothing to do with ”identity,” ”self-expression” or ”healing,” or any of the pop-oriented, new age or parochial apologies being given in the discussion.

No, what art does is as fundamental as language. Far from being an ornament, it is the foundation of culture.

Put another way, civilization doesn’t make art, art makes civilization.

How does it do this?

First, art asks, ”What is real?” It is the first line of investigation into what is true. Art is the acid test we give our assumptions about reality to find if they are gold or lead.

If science is the test we give to hard fact, art is the test we give to everything else.

Second, it gives us a way out of the isolation of our egos. The greatest art forces us to sympathize and empathize with others and enlarge ourselves and our moral compass in the process.

And third — and least familiar and most difficult to understand — it asks, ”What is the meaning and purpose of structure?” This last has unforseen ramifications.

They may be summed up in Paul Gauguin’s famous painting from Tahiti: Where Did We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Those three questions give us a clue about why art is important, why it isn’t merely window dressing.

When we ask, ”Where did we come from?” we are asking what is the ground of reality.

When we ask, ”What are we?” we are asking about those things that make us most human.

And when we ask ”Where are we going?” we are asking how art might show us the possibilities for making a life.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

ART AND REALITY

When art addresses reality, it does so on several levels.

On the simplest, it attempts to find out what the world looks like. That may seem unnecessary at first, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

We must learn to see, not only as individuals, but as a culture. And art is our most important teacher.

We could be taught to see other than as we do.

It is through art as a mediator and not through direct perception that you come to recognize the world. This is a fact we are almost always blind to. We see it no more than we see the retina on which the image is formed. durer

It was a heroic thing for those Renaissance artists who worked out the mathematics of perspective. They were grappling with reality; they were wrestling with an angel.

In some sense, every artist does that when he sets up a bowl of fruit and begins drawing, trying to stare that stubborn reality into submission.

But reality isn’t only about what we see. It is the question of what we feel and believe as a people. So theater and novels investigate the nature of justice or love or violence. In each case, the artist or playwright is creating a model of the world — a virtual reality — that we must come to accept or reject.

It is also important to recognize that every one of these artistic answers is provisional, and each is modified or rejected by succeeding generations. All reality is a working hypothesis.

To those who see art only as surface, the history of art is a history of changing styles. To those who look beneath the surface, style is irrelevant, nothing but distraction. The changes are not mere fashion but result from the constant testing of art against reality and back.

ART AND EGO

The second issue of art is just as important. Too many of us live our lives in the prison of our own egos.

We know what we have experienced but not what others have experienced. We trust our reality but no one else’s.

Art gives us a way out of this prison, by presenting us with other worlds, other realities, deeper emotions and more profound thoughts.

It is the reach of imagination that allows us to grow beyond ourselves and feel those emotions.

Art forces open those prison doors and sends us out into the light of day, where we must learn and feel what it is like to be Madame Bovary, Henry V or Shakuntala.

Art gives us a way of escaping the happenstance of history and birth for a chance at a more comprehensive, more universal understanding. We grow in worth as human beings.

For the great moral lessons, one turns to Aeschylus’ Persians, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Dostoevsky’s Aloysha or James Baldwin’s Beale Street.

It is doubtful whether, without the powerful emotions of pity and love, we would ever be able to create a civilization worth living in.

ART AND STRUCTURE

The third issue is more subtle and difficult.

We understand the things of this world not merely as an accumulation of unrelated facts, but as system. We see not leaves and sticks, but trees.

What we understand in that instance is structure — the ”big picture.” It is the glue that holds together our perception.

That structure doesn’t appear out of nowhere; it has its roots deep in the human psychology. It is the archetype of Jung, the mothers of Goethe, the poetic imagination of Blake. It is the central core of comprehensibility. We measure all things against it, whether we recognize it or not.

A good story isn’t just a collection of episodes, but episodes with a certain shape to them: a beginning, middle and end.

The structure of a story is every bit as important as its content.

Imagine two newspaper stories about the same train wreck. One is a cluttered assemblage of facts, in no particular order; the other is a well-told story with direction and emphasis. Each contains the identical facts, but the second can be read and remembered. The first is fact confetti. We cannot even read it; it makes no sense.

The only difference between them is the structure.

MYTHOLOGY OF CULTURE 

We can take the same structure and apply it so some other news event. The facts may change, but the import of the story remains the same. We see it over and over in newspapers: the child in peril, the senseless killing, the arbitrary natural disaster. Each is a structure of story that we fill in with the facts of the case. Each 40-car pileup is identical, except to those involved.

Each of these stories is a small myth in the larger mythology of our culture.

We think of myth as being a story that isn’t true, but the truth or falsity of a myth is irrelevant. All that matters is its persuasiveness.

The artist recognizes this fact and uses it in his art, working the changes on the myths and archetypes.

What makes this important is that we all use these myths — recognized or not — to give meaning to our lives. We live out our roles as father, mother, hero, victim, lover, loyal friend, all following the internalized archetype we have either learned or been born with.

Art, literature, theater, dance, music, provide models for us, so we may know how to make a life.

Like ritual, they show us the steps to the dance, and the steps are structure.

EMPATHETIC COMMUNICATION 

Take Michelangelo’s Pieta.

It is on one level an attempt to make a statue as lifelike as possible, with poses and emotions as true to their condition as possible. On that level, Michelangelo is exploring the reality of surfaces.

But we don’t look at the grieving Virgin and the dead Jesus as a test of what reality looks like or of what we would do in the same situation. pieta

We feel the emotions of the Virgin almost telepathically. It becomes possible to know what it is like to lose a child, lose a part of your own flesh. Even if we have lived the most sheltered and protected life, we cannot avoid coming to know at least a little about the experience of tragedy, and we are made bigger by it.

It is a work of profound human emotion, and you needn’t be a Christian to feel it.

But Mary is also the archetype of the mother, and Jesus is the archetype of all of us who know we will eventually die. We are given a role in the cosmic drama and the means of playing it with dignity.

The very greatest art, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the Mahabharata does this for us.

A DIGRESSION

Stories have a narrative content, but they have a structure, too, or they would fall apart.

Is it possible to write a story with the structure alone, with no facts to plug in?

That is in essence the direction of what we call Modern Art.

In the Renaissance, a painting was metaphorically a window through which we looked at the virtual reality presented. The paint resting on the canvas was intended to be rendered invisible, like glass.

But in Modern Art, we are meant to look not through the window, but at it. The paint, the brushes’ marks, the canvas, the colors up against each other: They are the very point of the art.

At its most heroic, Modern Art attempts to put us in contact directly with reality and with our emotions, unrelated to mere narrative event. That is the effect of Kandinsky or Pollock or Rothko.

But we have spent nearly a century investigating that level of reality and it has gotten a little moldy with use.

It is now the job of Postmodernism to write with its finger in that now-dusty window, ”Wash Me.” triptych

Yet, that layer of structure, unrelated to fact, remains in art, as it always has. Sometimes art uses it to give meaning to our lives without our knowing it, sometimes art points its arrow at the structure and says, notice it and enjoy it.

Without structure, there is no meaning, and art gives meaning to life.