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I am a retired writer, although a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

In the six years since I left The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., I have written 532 blog posts and another 35 monthly essays for the Spirit of the Senses salon group there (link here). That works out to just under two blog entries per week since I stopped getting paid. That is not many fewer than my weekly average while working. 

I have also taken and published countless photographs, usually in series, mostly in my blog. (One advantage of writing for the Web instead of for print, is that I can run as many images as I need. At the paper, I was frequently frustrated by the lack of space for photos along with my writing. Unlike most reporters, I usually took my own photographs.)

In 25 years in Phoenix, I wrote more than two-and-a-half million words and had four exhibitions of my photographs (catalog of the most recent: Link here) and produced 14 self-published books of my photographs (link here).  

I just can’t seem to stop working. Huff, puff. 

Yet, I have always had one nagging fear: that I am lazy. That I am just not doing enough. I have proof that I have been productive, but underneath, it always feels as if I’m slacking. I blame the PWE — the Protestant Work Ethic. It is something I don’t believe in, but it is so deeply buried in there, that it simply doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not. 

It is a disease, like an STD or PTSD; the dreaded PWE. It makes it a moral failing if I don’t match my self-imposed quota of productivity. Even a vacation is just another opportunity to create new stuff.

I am reminded of William Blake’s mythical deity, Los. Blake’s poetic universe is filled with mythic beings, each a projection of some psychological state. Los is a blacksmith (among other things — Blake is hardly consistent) and he is pictured as eternally forging a chain, one link after another. It is not clear there is any reason for the chain, but that doesn’t stop Los. It is his metaphorical job to produce. It is creativity unlinked to any other purpose. Make, make, make. 

So it is, during a time of Hurricane Florence, I was visiting my brother- and sister-in-law in Reidsville, in central North Carolina, and made yet another series of photographs. These.

I usually work in series. I cannot count the number of them I have made; I often think of them as “books,” that is, a group of photographs that work together as a single statement. I have photographed dozens of gardens, public and private, that way, with anywhere from a dozen to 40 images intended to be seen together. 

These are not meant to be seen as records of places I have been, but for their own esthetic pleasure. I have done clouds above Phoenix (link here), the interior of a house in Maine (link here), and the view from an airplane window seat (link here). On an earlier visit to Reidsville, I found a trove of abstract patterns in little things (link here). 

This time, I looked at the ceiling, and then, the floor. Humble subjects, without much intrinsic interest, but with shapes, shadows and subtle colors in which I found a visual tickle. 

Make no mistake, I do not present these with any pretense that they are important, or even that they might count as art. They are more like simple exercises in seeing. I believe they are of sufficient interest to award a quick gaze. 

But I didn’t make them because I wanted to add to my “ouevre” — my “corpus” — but because if I am sitting around not doing anything, I feel I am being insufficiently productive. That damned PWE infection that I can’t seem to shake. 

That is also why I keep making these blogs. Please accept my apologies. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Many years ago, I attended a photo staff meeting at my newspaper and the photo editor was complaining about a picture that a very talented staffer had made. For him, it was too arty.

“This is a newspaper,” he said. “Our photographs must be clear. We cannot have any ambiguity in them. If it is a picture of a house, I want it in the center of the frame, and I want the whole house. Like a real estate photo. We are not making images for a gallery; we are showing readers what the story is about.”

I remember cringing, but I said nothing. I was not on the staff, but just a travel writer who made my own photographs for my stories. I was in the meeting by default. 

The idea that a photograph was merely an illustration to back up words bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Instead of a supplement, I thought of them as amplification. 

Some things can be said better visually than verbally. The photo might very well be able to stand on its own. 

But, in a culture of verbal people — as a newspaper tends to be — a picture is a stand-in for words. You should be able to point to something in the photograph and name it: “House.” The name then, takes over, and any visual information is immediately rendered moot. Very like when you head to a rest room at a McDonald’s and the pictures on the doors tells which one to open. The image becomes a pictogram. 

This is the way many people regard photographs. They look and they name. “Aunt Julia.” “The house I used to live in.” “Niagara Falls.” Then they turn the page in the album. “Here is me at my prom.” 

Much of the visual information in the picture is passed over, not registering. Was that a blue tux at the prom? Did those horn-rim glasses make you look dorky? Were the shoes cropped out of the picture? Can you remember, then, what shoes you wore? 

Details matter. When you name the image rather than see it, you miss the majority of what is pictured; you miss all the pleasures you could enjoy — the colors, shapes, textures — and all the information that is there to mine. I am reminded of those impatient people I have seen in art museums running from painting to painting and reading the tags next to them. “This is a Renoir. Oh, this one is a Picasso.” 

Naming things often gets in the way of seeing them. Naming is a very low form of intellectual activity, but one it is too easy to become proud of. It does not actually indicate your intelligence if you can name ever painting in the gallery, or the make and model of every car you spot on the highway. It just means you can memorize. 

When, before I was a writer, I was a teacher, I would sometimes draw two shapes on the blackboard and ask, “Which of these shapes can you draw more accurately?” Most students would pick the square. It had a name and they could see the square, translate what they saw to a word, and then retranslate that word onto the paper with their pen. In the process, details of the original are obliterated.

Notice that the square here is not a perfect square. It has some sketchy lines and it is not completely closed up, and, in fact, it isn’t even a square, but a low-aspect-ratio rectangle. All of that visual information is expunged when you replace it with the name, “square.” The amorphous shape, on the other hand, would require you to look at it and attempt to follow its contours with your pen, forcing you to pay attention visually. 


Your blob would be drawn more accurately than your square. 

In his groundbreaking book, Principles of Art History (1915), Heinrich Wölfflin described the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art with a series of oppositions. Among these is the contrast between art which emphasizes the unity of the whole, which may suppress detail to the benefit of the overall design; and art which revels in a multiplicity of detail, even if it confuses the overall design. 

It isn’t that the classic art doesn’t pay attention to detail. In fact, it often takes pains to make everything equally easy to recognize, well lit, well placed in the frame. But the whole is more important than the parts. 

Balancing that is art that may even obscure some detail to make others more prominent. 

This dichotomy occurs repeatedly in art history — from Classic Greek art to Hellenistic Art, from Renaissance to Baroque, from Neoclassic to Romantic, from Modernism to Postmodernism. In Nietzschean terms, classic and romantic, Apollonian and Dionysian. 

The 20th Century, which we are most recently heir to, unity was valued as supreme. Artists, writer and poets who filled their work with profusion of detail were denigrated. The most concise poets were held superior. Painters who reduced their subject to basic forms were extolled. Musicians who subdued florid detail in order to render the overall form of the music more clear were applauded. They had a “grasp of the structure.” 

The complaint lodged against pianist Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, was that he never fully expressed the form of longer pieces of music, such as sonatas, getting lost in multifarious musical volutes and whorls. Of course, when you listen to the ancient recordings of the great pianists of the early 20th century — an era of romantic piano playing — all of the pianists focused on details. It is where the fun was to be found, the flavor of the ingredients rather than the melange of the whole.  

Romanticism in general relishes the detail, and can often get lost in it. That’s what makes it Romanticism. (Well, one of the things). Detail is where we find the pith, the essential oils, the meat. 

Classic painter Joshua Reynolds taut the “grand style,” and recommended choosing the general over the particular: a stylized tree over the quirky oak in the back yard. Romantic artist William Blake read Reynold’s book and wrote in the margin: “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit.” You can also imagine him chasing kids off his lawn. 

But his point is that the world is made up of details, and meaning is found in them. The collection of details fills out the impression we get from the quick overview. It is the detail that we know the whole. 

Through this essay, I have sprinkled photographs of the details of a house in Maine. It is one I know and love very well. 

If you look closely at them and absorb all the tasty detail, you can have a much fuller understanding, not only of the house, but of the style of Down East Maine, its economy, its culture, the nature that grows green in profusion everywhere. 

Crumbs to make a cake. 

weeds lede photoI love gardens. My three most recent gallery shows have been of photographs taken in gardens. I photograph the gardens of most of my friends to make “books,” or series of images. Flowers are about growth, change, diversity, fecundity — and beauty. choke cherry 2

Yet, there is something in what I love about growing plants that is found in even more condensed form in the rankness of weeds. Gardens are wonderful, but weeds satisfy something philosophical deep in my soul. My own gardens have always been unkempt, and I tend not to weed out those plants that others fear will suffocate their more prized plantings. Weeds have a strength, if not a refinement, that I find almost heartbreaking. Right now, beside the roses and gladiolas that my wife planted, there is a great purple stalk of pokeweed, its berries still green against the fuschia of its stems. I prize it above the more formal and familiar plantings. weeds 09

Nothing lifts my heart up more than a clump of goldenrod beside the road, a spray of chickory, the tall swaying stalks of Joe Pye weed. It doesn’t even take the flowers: Even before they bloom, I like the sprawling weediness of their greens. chickory

And now is weed season. Yes, they grow year round, but the end of summer and the incipient autumn are when the weeds glory. Driving down the country roads of the Blue Ridge, you pass oceans of them, all colors and sizes, all rank and fertile.

I’m calling them weeds because their other name — wildflowers — makes them sound too pretty, and makes them sound like something you look up in a Peterson guide. Not all of the weeds I respond to even have the color dots you would call flowers. Sometimes their flowers are tiny and unnoticed; sometimes they stink instead of filling the nostrils with perfumes. grass in driveway

It isn’t just their appearance that moves me, although I revel in their varied shapes and forms, their repetitions of leaflets and their snaky tendrils; it is the very idea of weeds — the sense that life will force its way into the least cracks of concrete, will fill any emptiness and break through any barrier. I love to see some abandoned factory with vines covering its brick facade, and through its windows you may see ailanthus cracking up the interior floors. Others may rue the kudzu spreading over the trees, but I love the new forms we have, almost as if the trees were pulling sheets over their heads to play ghost. weeds 08

My love came early: When I was a boy, there was an empty farm field next to our house in northern New Jersey. In a few years, plant succession had covered it with stickers and grasses, later, saplings, and even before I moved away to college, there was such a dense thicket of young trees, it looked like a magnified view of the hairs on the back of a dog; you could hardly walk through the density. I have gone back to see the forest that it became; it has since been cleared and now someone is building tract housing there. Sometime in the future, it will be taken back by the vegetative maw that eventually devours everything. weeds 07

Some of my favorite places in a city are those that are forgotten, mostly, places that simply don’t have a use, being either too small, or not geometric enough to easily create deeds of title — spaces between properties left ambiguous of ownership, or little triangles next to on-ramps or beside old railroad sidings.composite Here the intention of humankind plays no part and weeds are left to themselves. There you find the yarrow and the cow itch, the Duchesnia indica and the knotweed. There what you find, and which I find so precious, is profusion. When humans become involved, you too often find monoculture, organization, rows and aisles, sameness, monotony and worse — usefulness.

The problem with usefulness is that it causes us to value something for how it might benefit us, turning it into a single descriptor, a one-dimensional entity, rather than a rich, multiple, various thing. An it rather than a thou. It ceases to be a part of the physical world and becomes instead a word — a concept instead of a living thing. Fie!weeds 04

There are things that are pretty — and some weeds count, too — but what I find beautiful, a concept so much larger than prettiness, as the universe is larger than the solar system, is profusion, fertility, irrepressibility — life.

Variety is not so much the spice of life, as life itself. Nature tries everything. It has no plan, motive or goal; it simply keeps putting stuff out there, like Blake’s mythical creative deity, Los.

“Exuberance is beauty.”weeds 10

This carries over into other areas of life. I enjoy all art, but I love the confusions of the Baroque, the exudations of the Romantic 19th century. If you compare Racine or Dryden with Shakespeare, you see the difference. Those 18th century unities are boring, while the uncontrolled profusion of metaphors in the Bard, and his shaggy plots and contradictory personae are the very stuff of life. The one rich and luscious, the other dry and didactic.

Victorian literature shares that didacticism, but even among the tidy moral lessons of Whittier and Longfellow, you have the weedy, rank profusion of language and thought and feeling that is Walt Whitman. How those of propriety hated the Good Gray Poet. Certainly, lots of Whitman is awful, repetitive and oracular, but then there is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Emily Dickinson wrote some of the worst gobbledy-gook every published, but among her profusion of cryptic word-knots,  fruited with a million hyphens or dashes — certainly one of my favorite punctuations — there are such perfections that you are grateful for the weeds that give us such bounty. weeds 03

Simplicity is the enemy of life. When I hear a politician propound a dogmatic solution to an intractable problem, I sigh. When anyone has a simple answer, applied liberally (or conservatively), I know he is either a charlatan or a dunce. Probably both.

Such politics posits a final stasis, when all problems are solved by the simple prescription of an unchanging mantra: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, shrink government and Eden will be rebuilt. The political left is just as guilty, although we hear about it rather less. Communism equally anticipated an “end of history.” Problem solved.

Both sides fail to recognize that politics is ever shifting and cannot be otherwise. Interests contend, compromises are reached, grow out of date and so new compromises are found, no more permanent than the last. It is all weeds. We should value those weeds.

pit and pendulum poster
INTRODUCTION

Art keeps changing. What is popular in one century is laughed at in the next. Victorians hated the undisciplined libidos of the Romantics; the 20th Century has found the Victorians cloying, sentimental and insincere.

But what causes these changes in taste? It is too often believed that styles change merely out of boredom, as if we got tired of one look and were attracted to the glittering novelty of the next.

And while there is certainly something to the idea of the bright, shiny and new, there is also something deeper and more meaningful.

For art history is not just a history of shifting styles, but of changing sensibilities. The transformation of one age into the next — of the Renaissance into the Baroque, of Neo-Classicism into Romanticism, of Modernism into Postmodernism — is a transformation of ideas.

cones and bullets

Making a point (or two)


I say it isn’t merely fashion, but fashion isn’t either. Perhaps you get some idea of what I mean if we look at the Maidenform bra, for instance.
dreamed i was wanted

Here it is, as hard as cardboard and pointy as a dart. It molded the female form to a rigid contour. I remember when it used to be called the “nose cone” look.

But if you consider the time that gave  birth to the nose cone, you recognize it was the Eisenhower ’50s. It wasn’t merely the bra that was rigid. Men wore starched shirts then, too. Suits and ties were required attire at the office.

Wives wore highly structured dresses, with darts and sizing, and a mask-like make up, with red lipstick and black mascara. Their hair was held stiff, too.

And what was the political climate? It was also stiff. People were expected to conform. Those who didn’t were suspect. Investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. There was a conventional idea of what the ideal was. You can see it in the TV shows of the time.

Leave It to Beaver? The Donna Reed Show? Dragnet.soft and natural

Interestingly, the ’50 lasted through the ’60s. But at the end of that decade, something happened. The rigid bra went out. So did the structured clothes. So did the stiff ideas.

These things are all connected.

The ’60s, by the way, lasted into the middle of the ’70s, when the ’80s began. Our idea of decades in this century is a little cockeyed. Still, we call the ’60s the ’60s and everyone knows what we mean, even though what we mean is the years between 1968 and 1974. That was the ’60s. All over in a flash. I remember — the flashing, that is.

It was a retreat from what seemed like inauthentic artifice into what seemed at the time to be authentic naturalness. “Natural” became the adjective of the decade. I remember one shampoo that advertised “100 percent all natural natural ingredients,” which, of course, promised only that whatever natural ingredients made it into the bottle, were actually natural.nipple bra

Black America began wearing a hairstyle they called the “Natural.”

And we had the “braless” look. Even bras offered the braless look.

If the ’60s seemed like a reaction to the stuffy ’50s, it was. But it was a wide shift in sensibility. The art changed; the music changed; the politics changed; the philosophy changed.

Artifice vs. artlessness

Before there was stiff underwear, in the 1920s, when things were looser mentally, emotionally and morally, underwear was looser, too.1920s lingerie 2

And we can see the reassertion of the artificial, parodied by Madonna in the 80s.

Like the change that occurred at the time of the Reformation, more emphasis was placed on individual freedom of thought and less on the authority of power. Martin Luther wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible, and not have the book only interpreted by a priestly class. Abbie Hoffman (admittedly a lesser intellect, although I don’t think that insults Hoffman) wanted to make up his own mind about the Vietnam War instead of taking Lyndon Johnson’s interpretation of it.Abbie Hoffman 1

I can recall hearing over and over from our elders at the time that “Johnson has facts we don’t know; we have to trust him.” Well, it turned out he was as clueless as anyone. We of my generation thought we’d never make that mistake again.

Over the centuries, each definable age is a reaction to the one that went before. The Renaissance reacted to the Middle Ages. The Romantic Age to the Neo Classical age before it. Victorianism to the Romanticism and Modernism in the 20th Century to the Victorianism which it hated.

But what underlies these changes is a curious series of pendulums.

“Meta-pendulums”

yinyang colorYou know how you keep hearing that the pendulum only swings so far before reversing direction — so that the Sexual Revolution is replaced by the New Chastity — or so we’re told. The swing to the political left is slowed and eventually we swing back to the right. Hello Mitch McConnell.

These swings are, in fact, the very stuff of cultural change and we can see them through the art that embodies them.flaxman 1

When we see the change from Winckelmann’s exulted Classicism to Delacroix’s exotic Moorish women, we are seeing a change in ideas.Women of Algiers

What is curious is that these same pendulum swings keep recurring.

There are a bunch of them, and their “swing cycle” is irregular, so that the same ideas don’t occur at the same time: Some ideas have a longer cycle, some a quick turnaround. They never all line up quite the same way twice, which is why the various “romantic” periods in art — the Gothic, the Baroque, the Romantic — are not at all identical.

What I want to do is to take a look at a few of these swinging pendulums to get a feel for the changes they bring. And perhaps narrow them down to a few “metapendulums.” Those larger ideas that hold the smaller ones like melon balls in a hollowed out melon half.

An endless list

I made a list of some of these oppositions. My notebook went on for three pages. I stopped at 63 pairs of recurring ideas when I realized I could really go on for days adding to the list.

Here’s one example: How the middle of the 19th Century in France valued the historical (and religious and mythological) painting, like this David version of the death of Socrates. It was noble, formal, elevating. It taught the moral lessons that thoughtful people believed should be taught.death of socrates

But there was a reaction to it. That reaction gave us Impressionism, which gave up the past for the everyday present, like this barmaid in Manet’s painting.manet

I said these shifts recur. In the 1950s, for instance, the serious minded Abstract Expressionists, like Mark Rothko, expected their paintings to be morally and spiritually elevating.

What followed? The everyday present, like Warhol’s soup cans.rothko-warhol pair

The whole history of art keeps running back and forth through these issues, over and over, but never quite the same way — because other pendulums are also swinging back and forth at the same time, and their combined periods never quite in synch, so that the change from David to Manet is also a shift from a hard-edged style to a soft, fuzzy edged style, and between Rothko and Warhol comes the swing from abstract to realistic.

Among those 63 pairs of ideas — oppositions you might call them — are familiar ones. Here are a few of them:

Interest in the universal — Interest in the particular

Intellect primary — Emotion primary

Clarity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Religious — Secular

Edification — Entertainment

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Style — Content

Artificial — Natural

Social — Cosmic

Codification — Exploration

Stasis — Energy

Embrace past — Ignore Past

Internationalism — Nationalism

Emblematic (allegorical) — Mythic (symbolic)

Incarnation — Transcendence

Scientific realism — Emotional realism (“Truthiness”)

Nature as a desert — Nature as a cathedral

Vocation — Inspiration

Single creator — Atelier

Talent — Genius

Epic — Miniature

Dramatic — Lyric

Old form — New form

Irony — Sincerity

Discrete disciplines — Mix and match art forms

Depiction of emotion — Expression of emotion

There are many more. I’m sure you can come up with a bunch. But I don’t want to merely make a list.Dionysos pediment Parthenon

The general and the particular

 Because, as I was listing, I noticed that these ideas began to fall into larger patterns. They tend to group together, though some of the items in my list overlap, one category turning up as an item in another category.

But I want to look at the larger movements.sc000358.jpg

The first category is the rivalry between the universal and the particular. In some ages, we have wanted our art idealized. If we are going to paint a madonna, she should look like a woman, or better yet like all women, that is like Woman with a capital W. Especially if we harbor religious feelings about it, we don’t want our Madonna to look like Eleanor Roosevelt.

The 18th Century was one that believed in the importance of universalizing their art.

Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750 that “Poetry cannot dwell upon the minuter distinctions, by which one species differs from another, without departing from that simplicity of grandeur which fills the imagination.”

Or, in another place, “All the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind by the mention of particulars is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense, more upon that which the illustration is drawn than that to which it is applied.”

Nothing in real life is perfect, wrote painter Joshua Reynolds in his famous Discourses. The artist must never attempt to imitate real life too closely, he says, but rather, “he learns to design naturally by drawing his figures unlike to any one object. This idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artist calls the ideal beauty, is the great leading principle by which works of genius are conducted.”caravaggio madonna

Only 30 years later, English artist and poet William Blake wrote in the margins of his copy of Reynold’s Discourses

“To generalize is to be an idiot.”

He goes on to say: “To particularize is the alone distinction of merit. General knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess.

“What is general nature? Is there such a thing? What is general knowledge? Is there such a thing? Strictly speaking, all knowledge is particular.

“Distinct general form cannot exist. Distinctness is particular, not general.”

Reynolds, if he painted a Madonna, would make sure she didn’t look like any live human being, but like the idea we have of the perfect form.

Blake, painting a Madonna, would certainly have made her look, if not like Eleanor Roosevelt, at least like some living, breathing woman he could see with his actual eyes.

And this is despite the fact that Reynolds is mainly a portraitist, making pictures of individuals — which he idealized in his paintings. And despite the fact that Blake makes mythological pictures of gods and spirits — which he meant to look like distinct personalities.

This issue between general and specific, universal and particular, recurs like all these ideas.laocoon

Hellenic and Hellenistic

It is the first major shift in Western art one sees, not counting the prehistoric art (which also follow most of these patterns). But beginning with the art of ancient Greece, we can see it reaching its height in the 4th Century, with such sculptures as the Elgin marbles and the frieze carvings of various temples.Belvedere Apollo

The Classical Greeks believed in idealized beauty, in the general and universal, as you can see in these lithe, stripped down figures.

But after the Macedonian invasion, under the reign of Alexander the Great, in the period we call Hellenistic, the main shift is in the naturalness of the art. The statues take on a movement and individuality unheard of in earlier Athens.

You can see the distinct face of the wrestler with his broken nose or the boy pulling a thorn from his foot. (You can also see the shift, mentioned above, from the morally elevating tone of the Classical period, to the everyday activities depicted in the Hellenistic).laocoon head

But just look at the faces, the Classical impassiveness and idealization,

and the Hellenistic warts and all portrait.

You can see the pendulum go back and forth, with early Roman art tending to imitate the Classic Greek, and Imperial Roman art again embracing the particular. Once you have seen a Roman portrait bust, there is not doubt you could pick its model out of a police lineup of a crowd at a bus station. They are so distinct.Roman portraits

In the Middle ages, first in the declining Roman period and the Romanesque, individuality is downplayed and figures, especially in the growing Christian church, tend to be generalized. But in the great Gothic period that flowered in the 11th and 12th centuries, the figures again become individualized. So much so, that the hundreds of figures carved into the side of, say, Chartres Cathedral, are as distinctive as movie stars’ faces.

During the Renaissance, figures are once more idealized. In the Baroque, they are individualized. In the Rococco, generalized, in the Romantic era, individualized. In the Academic painting that followed, they were again generalized. Impressionism put back their individual character. Modern art simplified the figures and generalized them — all of Modigliani’s figures seem interchangeable, for instance, or Brancusi’s idealized women. But particularity and distinct figures reappear with Pop and the following Postmodernism.

Back and forth the pendulum goes.

I have dwelt on this one pair of opposites rather a long time, just to get the feel of what I mean.

But, I also want to point out the subset of ideas that follow the fight between the universal and particular.

NEXT: Part 2 — More pendulums

 

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

guilford 2

College is where the majority of attendees do the most reading of their lives. Indeed, surveys consistently record that at least a third of college grads never read another book after graduation. One must assume that these are the people who become politicians.

For the rest of us, college is where we encounter the first books that we recognize as opening the doors of our minds and either forming the adults we become, or providing reinforcing arguments for the personalities we have already developed: Really, both.

Coursework reading is where we first discover that other people have had the same thoughts we have had, and what is more, have been entirely more articulate about those thoughts. And those writers have considered issues that had never, as yet, occurred to us.

It is a four-year span in which we are, for the second time in our lives, slapped awake.

As for me, I couldn’t wait. College was an escape from the oppressive banality of suburbia. I was told by my parents that upon entering second grade I asked if that meant I could “go to college next year.”

I really wanted to get away and enter what I imagined to be the real “adult” world of intellectual pursuit.

However, when I got there, I proceeded to waste most of my time and my parents’ money. I was a terrible student. Oh, I worked hard and made excellent grades in those courses that interested me, but in courses that didn’t interest me, or in which I felt contempt for the professor (being the know-it-all that we all are as adolescents), I hardly attended class and instead slept late, drank beer, or spent time in the company of the serial list of women who let me into the mysteries for which I was such an eager sleuth.

There were, nevertheless, a few things from early-morning classrooms that have stuck with me. I want to mention four of them.shelley

The first, and probably most indelible, is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.

There are many for whom art, whether poetry or TV sitcom is essentially a branch of entertainment. These people includes highbrows as well as low. But there are some — and I am unfortunately one — who see a more serious purpose for art. It is probably just a genetic relic of the Norwegian Lutheranism I was born into, but boy, did I ever suffer from it.

This is a position that it is difficult to maintain in part because of the solemn piety of its adherents: easy to make fun of. And the grand claims made by Victorian do-gooders and Modernist manifestos are often preposterous, even laughable, and further undermine any effort to find a moral purpose to scribbling on paper, whether with pen or brush.

Too often, moral purpose in the arts has led to boring, didactic works, espousing this partisan view or that, whether Christian or Marxist — or in the case of that great fashioner of doorstops, Ayn Rand, unreadable tracts.

But Shelley makes clear in his argument that it is not the modeling of behavior that makes art moral, but the very act of imagination: The ability to conceive of thoughts, emotions, pains and motives not our own. Imagination fuels empathy.

“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.”

At the heart of great art is compassion. Not as a subject matter — that is left to the preacher’s sermons — but through opening each of us up to the multifariousness of experience and the variety of responses to experience. A great work of art must make us understand even that which we abhor. Humbert Humbert, for instance.

As Yeats wrote, “From our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; poetry from our arguments with ourselves.”

The class where I read the Defence was one in English Romantic Poetry, and it left me with a trove of things I return to over and over, from Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode (which I re-read at least once a month), to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to the psychedelic fourth act of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which is my substitute for bong and hash: “With a mighty whirl the multitudinous orb/ Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist /Of elemental subtlety, like light.” Flashing, man.greek myths 2

The second lingering from class is Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. I took several courses in classical literature, including a blunted attempt to learn the language of the ancient Greeks. En arche hen ho logos. I foundered on the aorist voice, among other things, including my growing dislike of the word-games and fascistic tendencies of Plato, whose Euthyphro I was tasked to translate.

But, I came to love the classics. They have enriched my life from then to now (more about them in a later blog entry). But Graves gave me a deeper and richer appreciation of mythology, and upset any naive notion I had that it was all a coherent, organized system of gods and goddesses (as it was made to appear in Edith Hamilton or Hawthorne’s Wonder Book), but rather a welter of conflicting local stories, changing over time and mixed into a stew that no one ever held onto in a single grip. Again: multifarious and complex. robt graves

One of the underlying messages of any important reading: Everything you know is wrong. Or at least, no single idea or ideology can adequately describe the world. It is always more complex than that, and we should beware of anyone who tells us they have the answer.

It is true that Graves had his hobby horse and you can’t take everything he avers as solid truth. But the underlying mash of malt and hops captures the brew pretty well.

Third, there was E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, which I read for a Shakespeare course. Tillyard covers several aspects of that world view, but most essentially, the idea of hierarchy, the sense that God created a world in which everything exists on a rung of a ladder of which there is always something above and something below. Thus, lions are the “king of beasts,” the way gold is the most noble of metals and the oak is the top tree. Further, that trees as a whole top minerals, and animals top trees, and man is atop all this, yet under angels, which in turn, are under God, who is the end of the line, very like Canarsie. descent of man

It can get quite silly and convoluted: arguing whether a siamang or white-handed gibbon is higher on the chain, or whether a peach is more noble than an apricot, since clearly, one must rank higher. Medieval literature is chock full of such debates: Who ranks higher, king or pope? But we still have these arguments, all over the place.

Becoming aware of this persistent trope in our culture turned the lights on: We are still suffering from this idea, and it is all around us, unexamined. Tillyard made me see and examine it: Every time someone talks about something being “higher on the evolutionary ladder,” one must counter that such an idea is a misunderstanding of Darwin. But that misunderstanding drives so much policy and inflames so much political rhetoric.

Tillyard made me re-examine many of the axioms and assumptions of our culture in a way more direct and concrete — and easier to understand — than all the horse-hair stuffing of the French Post-structuralist philosophers and deconstructionists. prolog canterbury tales

Finally, from class, and by no means least, I came to love Geoffrey Chaucer. I have become a fair reciter of Middle English, with a credible accent. And I found that reading Chaucer out loud enhances his comprehensibility. It become very like getting used to a thick Scottish burr or the sing-song of English spoken in the Indian subcontinent. When you get used to it, it disappears. Outside of some arcane vocabulary, Chaucer’s language isn’t all that difficult.

What is more, the poetry itself is overwhelming, whether it is the Wife of Bath’s prologue or the short poem, Trouthe, the language is as delicious as can be found in our mother tongue.

“The wrastling for the world axeth a fall.”

“Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse.”

“Much wele stant in littel businesse.”

My wife periodically asks me to recite the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I have fairly well committed to memory, and I can’t think of a greater or more pleasurable chunk of poetry in the English language.

NEXT: The years in the wilderness

blake dante

I love language; I hate language. It is how I made my living, but it always feels like cheating. It feels heartfelt, but dishonest. Odi et amo.

Do you remember the first time you were in love, or thought you were, as a teenager? The longing, the rapture. There is an almost universal response that “Love” is not an adequate word to describe the emotion. You feel as if your love is special, better, more aware, alert and awake than everybody else’s, especially  your parents’. And you say, “I wish there were another word to describe how I feel.”

That is the first awareness most of us have of the difference between authentic and inauthentic existence. It is the first, and most universal — at least in our culture — awareness that our lives are divided into separate portions, one of them alive and burning and dangerous, and the other ordinary, safe and comforting.

Heidegger

Heidegger

German philosopher and godawful writer Martin Heidegger gave us the verbal formulation for this distinction when he named the “authentic” and “inauthentic” existence.

Authentic existence: An individual’s conscious response to his existence; i.e., his “being-in-the-world,” which inescapably associates life with death. Authentic existence is thus opposed to everyday (inauthentic) existence.

Heidegger is nearly impossible to read, in part because he invents words to express his ideas rather than relying on the old, well-understood words. He has more than 200 words alone created with the suffix that means “being.”

But it couldn’t have been any other way. Heidegger felt toward the ordinary vocabulary just as the teenager does toward the word “love,” that it is worn out and sounds trite and phony on the tongue that doesn’t truly understand, or rather live through, the experience — and specifically MY experience.

That is because language is by its essence inauthentic.

Language always takes us a step away from our “being-in-the-world.” It is a way of softening the experience, a way of taming it.

In this sense, I take as a central dichotomy the opposition of language and love.

An awareness of death, says Heidegger, is what wakes us up to the here-and-now, keeps us focused on the experience of being alive. And a desire to transcend death is the ultimate goal of both language and love.

The analogy of love and language is nothing new.

When Shakespeare wrote his sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” he ends it with the telling couplet, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’’

In that, he is mixing the two: the words are immortal, and therefore, so is his love.

But the actual love is an experience and at its fullest transcends words more certainly than it transcends death. We love, have children and HOPE that the love will live past death. But there is no question that the experience of love can never be adequately expressed in words: They are too small, too conventional, too ordinary.

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

The sliver of experience in the condition of love IS the authenticity. It is the experience of life. The words are only ABOUT the experience of life. After all, would you rather make love or read Krafft-Ebing?

Now, certainly Heidegger wasn’t the first to recognize the distinction. He is merely the philosopher who fixes the meaning of the distinction like an entomologist pinning a butterfly. Heidegger gives us the vocabulary — now necessarily inauthentic — to describe the reality. We use his words, and as a consequence, fall (another of his words) into inauthencity.

The writer Henry Miller expresses it another way in his book Black Spring:

“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.”

Henry Thoreau’s whole book, Walden, is essentially about living an authentic life.

“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” he writes in another place.

Yeats called inauthentic living “automatonism.”

For William Blake, what made Christ different from the rest of us was his ability to live authentically at every moment.

“Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: Did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God? Murder those who were murder’d because of him? Turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? Steal the labor of others to support him? Bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? Covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

And in another place: “Know that after Christ’s death, he became Jehovah.” Know that for Blake, Jehovah wasn’t a good thing. Jehovah is all rules: “One God, One Law, One King.”

Or perhaps we could go all the way back to Lao-Tse, who wrote the Tao-Te-Ching and said, “The way that can be named is not the constant way, the name that can be given is not the constant name.”

The best popular discussion of authenticity comes in Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has absolutely nothing to do with zen, even in its pop forms, and only a little to do with motorcycle maintenance.

The book is an investigation of what Pirsig calls “quality,” which, it turns out, is much the same as Heidegger calls “authenticity.”

Pirsig writes:

“You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after  you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness, there must be a time lag.”

Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore, unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what [I] felt [I] had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.”

And authenticity, rather than being a result, is likewise a source. Authenticity is a relation you have with being alive that allows you to see, feel, and experience without the intervention of word or symbol.

All art, or all worthwhile art, exists to reawaken in us this often closed-off authenticity.

Art cannot itself embody authenticity: It is, after all, words or symbols — even music is an analog of the experience.

But the best art gives us an experience in itself and demonstrates, or forces us to become aware, of how to experience the rest of our lives — that portion we live with our mates, children, parents, that portion that is our careers, that portion that gives rise to spiritual awareness.

Of course, all art is, in this sense, inauthentic.

But just as a metaphor is never the thing, but points the way to the thing, so art points the way to the authentic.

goldin 4 black eye

Even when they stand before us stark naked, the only part of their anatomy that matters is their eyes, which hold us paralyzed in their gaze. They are mirrors of infinite sadness.

One of the perennial sellers among photographic books is Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a woeful tale of the underbelly of the art world told in a series of primitive color photographs full of battered women, tattoos, transvestites, pimps, drugs and hangers on.

Ballad of Sexual Dependency

Ballad of Sexual Dependency

They look out at us, bruised and lost.

Over a period of 40 years, but primarily in the 1980s, Goldin has photographed the beaten underside of la vie de Boheme — the art world and the pretenders to the art world, the gay world, the broken and wounded, the young who have found what they are looking for in being lost.

And it is an impressive accomplishment. Some 700 photographs, each an intense shot of emotional cocaine, are accompanied by music, ranging from blues to heavy metal to opera.

Goldin has photographed this subculture from the inside. She bears no objectivity: These are her friends and lovers.

“I don’t choose people in order to photograph them,” she has said. “I take photos straight from my life. These photos come from relationships, not from observation.”goldin 1

The pictures are raw, like snapshots, and the life is even more raw: They love, shoot drugs, party, cry on each others’ shoulders, smoke Marlboros, dress up in costumes and search for — and intermittently find — meaning. More often, they find pain and suffering. And in the age of AIDS, they also find death.

These are people on the edge, their nerves raw from abrasion. For them, “unprotected sex” is spiritual as well as physical: Their souls are wide open and vulnerable.

The photographs at first appear nothing more than snapshots, but the cumulative effect of 700 of them proves that Goldin is instead a rare technician, able to create the effect of spontaneity and carelessness at will. The figures’ motion shows as blur in the pictures, usually lit with the garish glare of the flashbulb. The colors of the pictures are the brightest Kodachrome blues, greens, violets and golds. Goldin has created a style perfectly suited to the subject matter.goldin 6

The faces are both pathetic and heroic. The young bohemians, living in squalor, clearly see themselves heroically, participating in grand love affairs, where violence can easily be confused with passion and romantic dreams can comfortably ignore their rat-infested surroundings. It is cold water flats with concrete floors, soiled sheets and nose rings.

Which gives them a certain nobility: They know they are alive.

Most people have seen the photographs published in book form, but Goldin didn’t intend the series as a book. It was first a slide show that she dragged around the New York art world in the 1980s, showing in night clubs as well as galleries. It is meant to be accompanied by music, which is missing in the book. The music is as important as a score to a film. goldin 11

The show, which takes 45 minutes to sit through, is not endured by many museum goers when it has been shown at major museums, most of its watchers come and go after seeing a minute or so of the presentation.

And its intensity does make it hard to sit through.

But Goldin manages to keep it all coherent, scripting the show in smaller bursts of slides grouped thematically, or as an episode in a single love affair.

Because she makes you see the flow from one slide to the next, it never becomes the interminable horror of a neighbor’s travel pictures. Unless your neighbor is Dante.

Yet, it isn’t quite hell, either. It is relentlessly romantic. Goldin is never the outsider, seeing the pain and filth and commenting on it. She is instead an avid participant, able to play-pretend with all her other subjects that she is in the middle of some grand opera of love and passion. goldin 16

And while at some level she must recognize the ugliness, she is no moralist, presenting shocking scenes in hope we will pass laws or enforce a social code. Lewis Hine she is not.

No, she gives us a layered, complex vision of her world that alternately repels and attracts. She makes us want to give in to the romantic illusions, but the bruises on her face brutally contradict them.

Indeed, Goldin is a major participant in the story she tells. She appears in a large number of the photographs, including the climax series, wherein she sustains the abuse of a boyfriend and wears the black eye he gives her.

But this is never a tract about domestic abuse: Goldin clearly takes responsibility for her own actions. She is willing to trade being terrorized for the drug rush of romantic obsession.goldin 12

This is la vie boheme in the age of AIDS and crack cocaine, and Goldin is its Puccini.

And that is the key to the success of these photographs as art. We do not need to live in rat-infested cold-water flats like Goldin’s subjects, but we do need to know we are alive.

It is the primary duty of art to reacquaint us with the fact.

Daily living takes the edge off life for all of us. Habit and conformity dull our senses. We may feel more mature and less reckless than Goldin’s druggies and transvestites, but if we are honest, we also must admit that what we call maturity is too often composed of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion.

Goldin’s people risk everything, even death, for the rush of feeling alive. goldin 13

In that, they are like the Medieval stories of Tristram and Iseult or Launcelot and Guinevere. Our notion of romantic love had its beginning in these stories of adultery. For the sake of their passion, the lovers accepted not only death, but the eternal damnation they believed would follow. The assumption of such stories was that transcendent experience could not be found in the routine, in the sanction of society; it must be found outside the rules. A life lived only by rules is a mechanical life; authenticity is found only by acting from the purest impulse.

It is a grand and romantic notion.

But we were not asked then to become adulterers and we are not asked now by Goldin’s work to go out and score a bag of heroin. Art must be understood metaphorically, not literally. The message we learn from both the Medieval and postmodern is that life requires risk, that any risk less than all doesn’t count.goldin 7

So Suzanne, Cookie, Siobhan, Claude and all the rest of the recurring denizens of this demimonde, including Nan herself, who is a principal in her own opera, throw themselves into relationships — into experience — with a foolhardy disregard for their own self-preservation.

When I call this impulse “romantic,” what I mean is that it attempts to connect with those things larger and more eternal than a smooth running society. It tests the limits rather than acceding to them.

They are a La Boheme for the current age. The violence is always mistaken for passion; the sex is always mistaken for love.

When you see something like Goldin’s pictures, you begin to understand some of the attraction of the life with its unmade beds, dirty drinking glasses and cigarettes extinguished on the rug. Perhaps you or I would not like to live that way, but there is an underlying romanticism to it: They are not living the quiet, safe world of their parents. It is a life taking chances, living on the edge, a desperate chance for transcendence.

So, the women risk beatings by their boyfriends and the men risk thrashing by their drug dealers, all in the name of feeling overpowering emotions and not giving in to what they see as the gradual death of conventional living. goldin 15

For the secret romanticism, whether it is Nan Goldin or Percy Shelley, is its aspiration to transcend life’s limits. Nothing should be forbidden and the only thing worth doing is what is impossible.

There is a wonderful scene in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. An angel brings the poet to a precipice and from their height, they look down on “the infinite abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black, but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swim, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption.”

On being told of this vile place, the poet innocently suggests, “if you please, we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether providence is here also.”

Much of what passes for art in any age merely keeps us lulled: Pretty pictures or numbing farces. People call for beauty, but what they really ask is for an anodyne: a buffer between themselves and the difficulties of being alive.goldin 8

But if we risk feeling alive, we must remember that to be alive is to suffer. Americans sometimes like to forget this fact; we live comfortable lives, insulated from the hard certainties. We kill to eat, although we never think of the slaughterhouse when we buy our burger; we grow old and die, although we spend billions on cosmetics and plastic surgery to deny the inevitable. Our love cannot protect our children and our best intentions cannot prevent us from hurting others.

But as Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, one must recognize the universal tragedy and still act.

And, like Nan Goldin’s art, manage in the face of suffering and death to say “yes.”