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“What have you seen that was the most beautiful,” she asked. A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the last of three parts.

At the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, there is a free-standing room, a box, with two doors: an entrance and an exit. When you go through, you find yourself in a sealed black room filled with tiny LED lights suspended on wires from the ceiling, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them. All the walls, the floor and ceiling are mirrors, and so the universe of lights is visually infinite. It is completely disorienting. You are meant to walk through and go out the exit, but the first time I went, I walked in a straight line from the entrance and came out — the entrance. You can not avoid getting lost. 

It is an art installation by Yayoi Kusama called You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies and is one of the most popular pieces in the museum. Kusama is a 91-year-old Japanese-born artist who has lived for the past 40 years by choice in a Tokyo mental institution. By one survey, from 2005, she was the most popular artist in the world. Her work is easy to enjoy. Perhaps too easy. 

It is always some manifestation of her obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it is also fun. In an otherwise dismissive review in The Guardian from 2018, Jonathan Jones complains of another one of Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored  Rooms,” that it is on “about the same artistic level as a lava lamp – or an infinite number of lava lamps,” but nevertheless, says, “I was as blissed out as the next idiot.”

Where is the rule that says art, to be good, must be difficult to understand? Besides, it is more important to have an experience than to be told what something means. Kusama’s installation is an unforgettable experience. It is also a reminder of experience: the daily encounter with the infinite we live through but don’t see. Once in a while, we may look up at the night sky and admire its vastness, but most of the time, we just shut the door and turn on the TV. 

Giving in to the infinite — or the emotional experience of it — is the source of the third level of the beautiful. It can hit you whenever you are open to it. Not necessarily seeking it, but nevertheless open to it. Most often, we spend our lives closed, trying to make sense of the everyday things that take up most of our time. But there are moments when it all breaks in. These moments tend to stick in our psyches, to be brought back in memory to refresh our lives. 

In May of 1972, my second unofficial wife and I (seven years of living together must qualify as something), hiked up Rock Castle Creek near Woolwine, Va., to an abandoned farm, known as the Austin Place. 

It took about 40 minutes to climb the trail to the farm. The noise of the creek stayed with us as we went past fields of Virginia creeper and forests of fallen chestnut. We crossed the creek three times on hewn logs.

There is a rise at the end of the trail, and a field gone to seed. At the other end, at one corner of the field is a collapsing gray weathered barn with many chinks, fallen doors and cracked windows to let the sun ricochet in abstractions inside. Past the barn is the house, two stories and old, chipped and dirty paint, balusters that are no two quite the same — having been twisted or replaced or fallen — A second floor porch with crusty hammock hooks, a green tin roof and cherry trees garnishing the facade. We climbed the old concrete steps to the porch and sat our burdens down.

As we looked out over the front lawn, it was weeds, then the rapid stream with a bridge that looked like a fallen ladder over it, more weeds beyond that, then a sharp rise and embankment with an apple orchard above it, all going feral. A bit further than that, the trees started climbing nearly straight up. The mountain took off like a precipice and climbed 1,000 to 1,500 feet.

I found an unlocked window leading to the pantry and got myself into the farmhouse and opened the front door. The day was idled along contentedly. We wasted all of it with the productive waste of happiness. 

We brought out a hammock and lay in that for a while. We cooked a stew for dinner. Near the end of the day, we lay together in the hammock on the second floor porch, looking out at the beauty, listening to the stream and smelling green leaves and budding flowers, feeling the warmth of the sun. We dozed, then held each other some more. We watched the brilliant crowns of the trees as the sun narrowed to a shaft behind the ridge and illuminated only their tops. The incandescent crowns grew smaller and more precipitous on the head of the trees.

Against the dark of the trees and hillside a billion flickers burned thick as stars as lightning bugs made Fourth of July for us. I have never seen so many at once. And the moment stood still and I felt the old Faust plea: “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”

Kusama’s installation brought back that day, the points of light in the dark, and the feeling of infinite awe. 

There is something about a crowd of points in an undifferentiated field that speaks of eternity: It is the stars in the black of midnight. The motion of the tall grass in the prairie curling in the wind, animated, as the Lakota say, by Taku Skanskan — the life-giving force of nature. The swaying tips of trees against the sky on a breezy day. The self is forgotten and I become a universal witness to a universal transcendence. 

The Little Bighorn National Battlefield in Montana is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.

Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of distant lightning.

I had the experience thrust on me in the late 1960s at Gaddys Pond, near Charlotte, N.C., which was then a privately owned lake that was a stopping place for Canada geese on their migrations. The geese, the brants, the crows that hung around, all made an amazing din of squawks. You could barely make out any individual sound, because the buzzing was everywhere. It is one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. There must have been a million birds on that pond. Points on a ground. 

Sometimes, I will take out my old Peterson cassettes of bird calls just to play the part of the geese — the million-geese squall of honks. It satisfies as much as a Bach fugue. 

In eastern North Carolina one winter many years ago, millions of blackbirds descended on Scotland Neck. The bare trees were leafed out with them and periodically they would rise up the the tens of thousands and swirl in a great murmuration — a twisting cloud of tiny dots against the iron-gray winter sky. You had to involuntarily suck in a great breath of frozen air for the sheer admiration and beauty of it. 

In the late 1970s, when I lived in Seattle, I spent many unemployed days at the aquarium. Watching fish in the window of the great tank was relaxing, but something more akin to the murmurations of birds was the salmon run. You could stand underneath it and look up through its glass bottom and watch the hundreds of fry twist in circles above you, and like the birds, seem to move as a single entity instead of a million commas or apostrophes darting through the fluid. 

There is something about these swarms, whether fireflies or salmon, that seems both utterly random, yet, carefully organized. Very like the night sky, governed by some relatively simple physics, but so immense as to be indistinguishable from the infinite. 

This sense has, in the English-speaking world, been labeled “the sublime.” It is not simply the beautiful, but the beautiful that is overwhelming. “It takes your breath away,” is too easily said, but seldom actually encountered. But when it does, you enter a different reality. Time stops, eternity begins. 

It was an anonymous author known as Longinus (we don’t actually know who he was, other than his name) who wrote the treatise, “Peri Hypsos,” or “On the Sublime.” 

“Nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all, the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Aetna, from whose raging depths are hurled up stones and whole masses of rock, and torrents sometimes come pouring from earth’s center of pure and living fire. … “

“When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of a human’s existence. … Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but the mind often overleaps the very bounds of space.”

That may sound a bit hyperventilated, but if you have once experienced it and left your corporeal existence behind to join with the cosmos for that brief second and know that eternity is not simply a very long time, but something without time at all, then you will have experienced beauty in a new way that has nothing to do with something merely being pleasing. Yes, it is only a psychological experience — I’m not making any great anagogic argument here — but it is a glory. 

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Before the pot boils, it simmers. Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. The cusp of something about to be born. A rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. It is the ambiguous time between the discrete textbook ages of history that we name that is most interesting.

We generally name Romanticism in art as something that thrived in the first half of the 19th century. If it has a birth date, it is usually given as 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that seemed to be a clean break with the past.

Certainly there are other dates we could choose. In music, we often give 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In politics, it might be 1789 and the fall of the Bastille in Paris. Or Goya’s Caprichos, published in 1799. Picking a single date is absurd, because Romanticism wasn’t born like Athena, burst instantly from the head of Zeus. It wasn’t born at all; rather, it accumulated. 

And in the 50 or so years before we gave the movement a name, it kept popping its head up above the surface in odd moments, letting us know it was coming. 

Before Beethoven, there were the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Joseph Haydn, beginning with his Symphony No. 39 in G-minor of 1765. There was Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, that set all of Europe to sympathetic weeping and toward a penchant for suicide. In English, there was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, from 1764 that began a craze for Gothic novels, with their attendant gloom, rattling chains and ghosts in dungeons. There were the faux Celtic sagas that James McPherson published in 1765 as The Works of Ossian. All these, and many more came as a sort of antidote to the rationality of the Enlightenment. 

And, there are the prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These 16 etchings are sui generis in Piranesi’s vast output, and a fierce eruption rising to the surface of the simmering pot. 

Piranesi (1729-1778) was an architect, archeologist and printmaker who was fascinated by the ruins of Ancient Rome. While his architectural work consisted of a single building, and his archeology was more of a sideline, it is as an etcher and engraver that he became famous. One of the best printmakers of his time, his intricate detail and exacting craftsmanship were exceptional. 

Half his work functioned as a record of archeological evidence, cataloguing ancient architectural detail; the other half was as a profitable creator of souvenirs for European aristocracy, mainly British, who were taking the “Grand Tour” of Europe to flesh out their educations. 

These prints, known as Vedute, or “Views,” were in the Picturesque tradition — ruins covered in vines and under the arches of which lived peasants. It was a rich tradition in the second half of the 18th Century, and a bankable genre for artists wishing to make a good living. 

During this time, the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum prompted an interest in the past, including Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Gothic.  Johann Joachim Winckelmann was writing ecstatically about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Piranesi rode this rising tide and published hundreds of vedute engravings. 

Many of these transcended the reality of the ruins left in Rome and the Campagna and were pure fantasies of what might have been. The more extravagant the fantasy, the better. 

In the midst of these popular prints, in the late 1740s, Piranesi began making a series of fantasy prints of imaginary prisons, or carceri, built of immense dank spaces and torture devices. Each of the original 14 prints was roughly the size of a 16-by-20 photograph, large by most etching standards. But they were an anomaly, and didn’t sell well. Surely, they came a decade too early.

For, in 1761, Piranesi reworked the original plates, adding two new ones, and republished them as Carceri d’invenzione, or “imaginary prisons.” According to Belgian writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, they represent “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended.” And can best be understood as externalizations of internal mental and emotional states. Nightmares, even.

 

Plate I Title; Plate II Man on the rack

Plate III The round tower; Plate IV The piazza

Plate V The lion bas-reliefs; Plate VI The smoking fire

Plate VII The drawbridge; Plate VIII The staircase with trophies

 

Plate IX The giant wheel

 

Plate X Prisoners on the projecting platform

 

Plate XI Arch with a shell ornament

 

Plate XII The sawhorse

 

Plate XIII The well

 

Plate XIV The Gothic arch

Plate XV Pier with a lamp

 

Plate XVI Pier with chains

 

Comparing the first and second states of the series, one sees them change from rather sketchy drawings to richly inked, dark and menacing spaces, with architecture and geometry that are often physically impossible — almost Escher like. 

The 1761 version of the plates were enormously popular and were reprinted many times. They leave behind the comfort and orderliness of the 18th Century and look ahead to the Byronic, irrational and psychologically disturbing Zeitgeist of the early 19th Century. They are a harbinger, a precursor, a herald. 

They are a manifestation of the sublime — a concept fresh in the culture, with a translation, in French, by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux of the Perihypsos (“On the Sublime”) of the Roman author Longinus, and a book-length essay on the subject by English writer and politician Edmund Burke. 

The sublime is the profound psychological awareness of the immensity of the cosmos and vastness of nature compared with the puny insignificance of humans, but seen not simply as depressing or frightening, but as unbearably beautiful. Joseph Addison called it “an agreeable kind of horror.” It is awe, in the sense the word had before it became cant among American teenagers for whom a peanut-butter sandwich might casually be called “awesome.” 

In Longinus, we read: “We are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, of the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. A little fire which we have lit may keep pits flame pure and constant, but it does not awe us more than the fires of heaven, through these may often be obscured; nor do we consider our little fire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and mighty boulders or at times pour fourth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth. We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

And so, the Carceri cannot be made coherent and understandable. The prisons expand outward into unseen spaces that open again into other unseen spaces. There are stairs to nowhere, torture devices in the shadows, catwalks over bottomless pits, stones overgrown with moss — and many tiny, nearly unseeable figures, caught in this Kafka-esque labyrinth. 

—You can find a wonderful animated tour through Piranesi’s prison on YouTube (link here). 

And you can get some of the effect in reality in the actual Medieval prison, the Conciergerie, in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held before her beheading.

Mt. St. Michel

Or the rambling stairs and arches of Mont St. Michel at the border of Normandy and Brittany.

 

The Carceri are not anomalous for their subject alone: Unlike Piranesi’s usual draftsmanlike exactitude in his drawings, the prisons are nearly scribbled onto the etching plate. They imply a kind of fury in their creation, as if Piranesi were trying to get his vision down into line before they evaporated from his boiling imagination. Shelley once described the moment of creation as an ember rapidly cooling that needs be indited before the glow darkens. You can see Piranesi frantic not to lose the hallucination. 

The change from Classicism to Romanticism — like the change from the Renaissance to the Baroque — is not simply one of rationalism curdled to emotionalism, but of clarity as a virtue lost into a fog of ambiguity and incoherence. It is Racine metamorphosed to Rousseau. 

Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

The subject matter had enormous influence as the 19th Century was born. It is the Venetian prison and escape described by Giocomo Casanova in his 1787 Story of My Flight and later in his memoirs. Prisons and dungeons are everywhere to be found in literature, art and music. It is the prison where Florestan is rescued by Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. It is the dungeon where François Bonivard meditated in Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon. It is the prison that Alexandre Dumas, père, put The Man in the Iron Mask. It is the torture site of the Inquisition in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Not the least, it is, historically, the Bastille in Paris and its siege and fall that set off the French Revolution. 

“Dracula”

It is a trope that continues into the 20th and 21st centuries. It is Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. 

The very gantry ways and bridges make their way into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 

Now, that same spacious gothic sublime turns up in fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings, on TV in Game of Thrones and in nerd games, like Dungeons and Dragons. 

You can find its inception in 1761 with Piranesi. 

Awesome. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite NP Calif

Scarcely 100 miles separate the lowest and highest points in the 48 states.

There is no more striking contrast in America than to drive from Death Valley to Yosemite Valley. In July, it may be 120 in one place and snowing in the other, only a hundred or so miles to the west.

The range of the Sierra Nevada blocks the way west for hundreds of miles; if anything can be called the bony spine of California, the mountains can. They continually surprise with color, size and expanse. John Muir called it the “Range of Light,” and he didn’t have to be a poet to think that up.

There are only a few places where pavement jumps the hump.

One of those is the Tioga Road over Tioga Pass. It climbs and twists to the 9,945-foot summit and the first time I drove it, it closed over with gray sky and fog. The fog turned to ice and, just as we passed the entrance gate to the national park, it turned to great gobs of wet snow. The road winds around the mountains and though there are sharp twists and drops of thousands of feet, there were few guard rails.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But I hardly knew the danger, because there was no declivity to be seen, not much of anything but wet, icy pavement and the occasional car going in the opposite direction.

I drove slowly and with tight fists on the steering wheel. As we descended from the pass, the snow changed slowly back to sleet and then rain. The glorious views promised by the road markers were curtained by the mist. All but the road and a few trees alongside it were white with fog.

We reached the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center in a heavy drizzle and went in to find a warm and dry wood fire in their Buck stove. Outside, it was in the low 40s; inside was a toasty 70 degrees. The building was an old one of log and hand-hewn boards.

I had always wondered how to pronounce “Tuolumne” but I had never guessed “twa-lum-nee,” which is what the ranger said.tuolumne meadows

The meadows, the biggest in Yosemite, stretched for a mile or so, rolling softly in short grasses and erratic boulders. It was bissected by the Tuolumne River, a shallow brook meandering among the oozy weeds. The fog was lifting and we could see the bases of the mountains that ringed the meadow, but their peaks were still obliterated.

Tioga Road continued all the way through the park, past Lake Tenaya and Porcupine Flat. The lower mountains, beginning to show themselves, were shear domes of exfoliating granite with twisted junipers growing from solid stone in their higher elevations. All the naked stone and rushing water filled every expectation I ever had about the high Sierra.???????????????????????????????

We had not planned on stopping at the valley. I half wanted to go and see the glories pictured in the Ansel Adams photographs, but I also knew that Yosemite Valley is one of the most crowded places in all the national parks, and I hate crowds.

And I knew that many of the Adams pictures had been snapped in the ’30s and ’40s, when there were fewer tourists and fewer buildings:  Judging from our map, there appeared to be no fewer than 200 buildings on the valley floor.

But we went, anyway, and it turned out wonderfully. There are giant hotels and vast campgrounds in the valley, but a short jaunt around a bend in the road and they disappear.

The gray rock walls of the valley were showing to a height of 800 feet and were obscured higher than that with the low-hanging scud that scooted by in the breeze, changing the face of the valley from moment to moment. Yosemite Valley, Yosemite NP Calif

Through the center of that stony valley cascades the Merced River. In the spring, it floods and in the late summer, it can dry up. We were halfway between the extremes and it burbled satisfyingly between lines of rustling willows.

With the dark trees in the foreground and the cloudy ceiling over the vertical rock walls behind, it would have been hard to come up with a more sublime scene. No Bierstadt can compare, no Moran, no Cropsey. They seem literary; the scene before us was breathing the now.

”The American West was not only a land of new beginnings, it was also one of bad endings.”

— Albert Castel, historian

"Badlands"

“Badlands”

People talk about the ”Myth of the West,” yet there are really two myths.

The old Western myth was that of the cowboys and Indians. It was the myth of Manifest Destiny, of expansion, growth and nation building.

The old myth was optimistic. It gave us wide-open spaces in which anything was possible and in which a civilization could be created. It was a myth in which a single determined man could make a difference.

It is the myth represented in Randolph Scott Westerns, Frederic Remington paintings — and all its sad modern-day imitators — and even the common rhetoric of patriotic politicians.

Frederic Remington, "Dash for the Timbers"

Frederic Remington, “Dash for the Timbers”

But there has grown a second myth, a yin to the former yang: the modern myth of the Great Plains as an existential hell where the flatness of the wide-open spaces closes in on you, offering no options. It is dry, dusty, vacant and soulless. In it, no one has a future and there is no escape.

Neither of these myths is necessarily true, but each has developed an aesthetic tradition around it. The new myth became dominant after the Second World War: In mass culture it gave us spaghetti Westerns, TV’s adult Westerns and Sam Peckinpah.

On a higher aesthetic plane it is the raw emptiness of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is the theme of the Bruce Springsteen album, Nebraska, and the place where Larry Clark took the photos in his legendary book Tulsa, with its drug addicts and domestic violence.

springsteen nebraska

In this pessimistic West, we want redemption, and there is none to be had.

”Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” Springsteen sings.

It is a landscape populated by incipient Charles Starkweathers and Richard Hickockses, people who work in dead-end mill jobs and meet each night after work in filthy dives for beer and fistfights.

They are a generation with no purpose in life, no reason for living past the next cigarette and Budweiser, drunk from a quart bottle with the screw-top thrown on the floor.

It is a world of incredible sensory deprivation. The houses they occupy — for they cannot be said to be living in them — have no pictures on the walls. The furniture is from Goodwill and the blank eye of the television is the center of the room.

Their eyes are as dead as ball bearings.

They have no inner lives, and the only way they can express themselves is with a knife or a penis.

Larry Clark, "Tulsa"

Larry Clark, “Tulsa”

The Old West was a landscape in which all things were possible; the new, affectless West is where all things are permitted.

You can see the new mythology building in the Eisenhower years. All the optimism of the new suburbs was subverted in the photographs of Robert Frank, whose book The Americans was published in 1958.

In that book, a disturbing underside of American chamber-of-commerce idealism was pictured. Frank’s photographs are populated with poverty, desperation, brutishness and lonesome highways leading nowhere.

In the book, the only divinity is the glare from the jukebox.

frank jukebox with baby

Frank’s off-the-cuff style was a revelation in the stylized, artificial ’50s of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Avedon himself later used this second Western myth in his powerful book The American West. It was roundly criticized when it came out for its alleged ”West bashing,” but the photographs were as honest and direct as they could be. You can see any of the people in them walking the streets of Phoenix or Albuquerque on any given day.

avedon

The old myth shines from the images of Ansel Adams; the new, bleaker myth informs the photos of Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Lewis Baltz and Richard Misrach.

Robert Adams, "Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968"

Robert Adams, “Colorado Springs, Colo. 1968”

Those who have a romantic notion of America’s Beat generation have not really paid attention to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for it is a book about this second Western myth. Instead of a panegyric to youth and poetry, it is really an elegy to spiritual emptiness and hunger.

The book is the prose equivalent of Frank’s pictures. Indeed, Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans when it was published.

Clark’s Tulsa fills out the image with dirty heroin needles and pregnant girlfriends with black eyes.

Malick made the landscape beautiful in his film Badlands, but he filled the film with senseless, ugly violence.

It is a Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and short.

It’s there in director Kimberly Peirce’s desolate film, Boys Don’t Cry.

"Boys Don't Cry"

“Boys Don’t Cry”

Yet, the film does imply an answer. And it is found in the landscape itself.

Peirce periodically interrupts the action with stop-motion footage of the Nebraska sky both day and night. In the day, the clouds speed across the face of the blankness; at night, the cars speeding down the highways make smears of light along the bottom of the picture while the stars spiral across the blue-blackness.

The lives portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry are squalid at best, but your heart breaks to see such smallness lived out in a landscape so sublimely vast.

So many scenes in the film are shot at night, where the tiny area of land illuminated by a car’s headlights is a metaphor for the limited vision of the landscape’s inhabitants.

Ultimately, the new Western myth is one of disappointment, that, as the gnostic gospel of Thomas says: ”The kingdom of God is spread out before us, and yet men do not see it.”