LIBERTY and NATURE Embracing for Life

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SOME THOUGHTS ON EMBRACING FOR LIFE

by Paul M. Lewis

Emma Lazarus wrote, as seen on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless and tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This is—or was—the sacred promise of America, and if that doesn’t sound like today’s refugees and immigrants, the poor and dispossessed of the earth, it’s hard to imagine what else it could describe. What does the notion of liberty actually mean, other than freedom of choice, the ability to do as one wishes, unfettered by physical or social constraint, so long as others are not harmed and, in doing so, one does not unduly trample on the rights of others?

But why, in the picture, do we see Lady Liberty embracing Mother Nature? The two come together because none of us, neither human beings nor any of the other creatures of the earth, can live our normal lives beyond the boundaries of the physical world, or beyond an emotional and social context. What this suggests is that our vaunted freedom to choose is best used in opting for the right and the good, not only for ourselves, but for the life of the planet as a whole. It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize the natural world in all of its diversity. As Yeats put it a century ago: “…the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees, the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh, or fowl…whatever is begotten, born, or dies.” This is the world of nature, seen, experienced, and lived in by all of us.

The two figures are depicted as holding each other and kissing. Just as with human lovers, each needs and chooses the other in an ultimate exercise of freedom. But that choice can only be made in the absence of coercion and of political or social authoritarianism. If Lady Liberty and Mother Nature hold each other today, it is the duty of each of us to do all we can to ensure that continued ability to embrace and kiss. In so doing, Liberty and Nature engender love and creativity, as well as a hope for a better future for us and for the planet. If the politics of the day work against this, only our will and our eternal vigilance can counteract it.

 

SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

from the artist – Kevin L. Miller

Lady Liberty is one of the primary symbols for the United States of America. Mother Nature, of course, represents all of Nature and the Earth itself. When a friend and former colleague suggested that I might consider drawing Lady Liberty and Mother Nature as friends, I thought “What a good idea!” But when I began to develop a composition on the screen of my mind their “friendship” became much more – a deeply committed intimate relationship of love and mutual support. And this seems entirely appropriate, since the U.S. and the Earth need each other in order to survive. America cannot thrive if the Earth becomes unable to sustain life. And the Earth will cease to be able to do so, if the U.S. and all of humanity does not quickly learn how to nurture, honor, and respect our planet. Lady Liberty and Mother Nature are embracing for life. Their intimate embrace is a fundamental necessity, whether we and the world’s nations and leaders acknowledge it or not. If we want to avoid the looming Sixth Mass Extinction and leave a planet where our children and grandchildren can thrive, then we will support and celebrate Lady Liberty and Mother Nature embracing for life.

 

SUMMER AND ALL

By Paul M. Lewis

Summer is both a time of year and a state of mind. I suppose the same could be said about every season, but somehow summer seems to loom larger, brighter, more luminous. It surprised me when I first heard that Midsummer was—and still is—celebrated on June 24th . In traditionally Christian countries, this is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, sometimes called St. John’s Day. I was surprised because on or about June 21st is, scientifically speaking, the day of the Summer Solstice, its official beginning. I suppose the explanation is that, in most countries of the northern hemisphere, heading toward the end of the month of June feels like we’ve been at it for a while, as if we’ve more or less reached the middle.

When I was a boy, living in the all-Catholic-all-the-time enclave of an old industrial town of upstate New York, June was a glorious month. The first leafing out of the trees and the spring flowers were long gone. That was the job mostly of late April and early May, the Month of Mary, when we crowned the statue of the Blessed Mother with lilacs and lilies of the valley. By June, everything that grew and blossomed was at its height, and yet the leaves were still new and clean, of an ebullient verdure that made you think the world could not be a better place to live in. At last, school was finally out, and even the nuns appeared to be in a happier mood. They waved us good-bye at the classroom door, and we ran out into the wild world, free at last to explore what and when and wherever our hearts led us. It never occurred to us then that they too may have been hugely relieved to be rid of us, although from my seventy-one year old perspective today I am sure that was true. What nuns did in the summertime I never found out, but perhaps just being away from screaming children was vacation enough.

Even my parents were in a better mood. Summer was a time when we were free of the terrible burden that came with heating the house during the freezing months of winter, bills we could never somehow afford. In summer, money seemed a little less tight. And although my mother still worked—always a great sorrow to me, because I wanted her at home with us—she seemed to walk with a lighter step. As much as she could not buy the lovely clothes she probably wanted, nonetheless she always had an excellent sense of style. She liked looking good, and I always thought her especially beautiful in the flowery, light-colored dresses of summer. On the other hand, my father never dressed in anything but the same work pants and white tee shirts, sitting at home of an evening at the kitchen table after work, drinking glass after glass of Ballantine Ale. Even on his annual, single week of vacation, this is what he did, as going away on a vacation was never even dreamed of in my house. Such a thing was reserved for the houses of the rich, or so we believed. My older brother would play baseball with his buddies, while my younger sister drew hopscotch designs on the sidewalks, skipping and singing rhymes, and I and my friends would ride our bikes to the nether reaches of the city, where we were forbidden to go. Or we would build forts in a local vacant lot, filled with sumac and other trees that needed no tending to and that thrived in poor soil, but which represented jungles and forests, exotic realms of the imagination existing far, far away from where we lived our everyday lives.

Midsummer, in this sense, was a hopeful time of new beginnings. The world had miraculously come round fresh once again after the long gray winter, filled with freezing nights and snowy days, or the half-forgotten ice that turned into the dirty slush of late March and early April. We rejoiced in the heady scent of the roses, carnations and the bachelor buttons that filled people’s gardens. At night, the family would sit on the back porch, listening to the silence (no one watched television in the summer in those years, or no one we knew; that was a diversion saved only for the cold months); and we children seemed entertained enough by chasing after fireflies and enclosing them in glass jars (cruelly so, as I now think). Later, we would lie in bed, sweating in the humid air, hoping for a breeze to come through the window, or for the blessings of thunder and lightning and a great downpour of rain to cool things off. Yet, in spite of the heat and discomfort, we rejoiced in remembering the next morning was not a school day; nor did we have to face the dreaded, unmerciful Sisters of Mercy.

But by the middle of August, something had begun to change. Although we could never pinpoint exactly when that happened, suddenly we realized that the leaves were starting to look dusty, a little bedraggled, as if they had given their best and were beginning to feel the effort. The warm nights had begun to cloy and take their toll, and secretly we longed for the cooler temperatures of the coming autumn. The 15th of August was for us, in those years, that day of days, when we knew the idle moments of summer were coming to an end. Midsummer was long gone, that beginning of endless excess, at least if the very definition of excess could be doing nothing at all. The Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary had arrived, seemingly as a warning. And as if to underline and reinforce the warning, this was a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. That meant it was a day when we were required to attend mass, on pain of mortal sin. Of course, the nuns, too, were there (where had they gone all summer?), and once again we glimpsed, for the first time since the beginning of our halcyon days of freedom, those harsh representatives of discipline, control, authority, strictness, and the punishing regimen of school, class schedules and homework. In other words, what we saw before us was, in essence, the loss of freedom, descending into what Walt Whitman called “the life that exhibits itself,”—against which he railed in Leaves of Grass.

Why does all this come back to me, now that I am gray of hair and long retired from a life of work? I no longer need to care about the assignments Sister Clotilda gave us that I feared I did not know how to complete. Sister Jacinta no longer towers over me, ruler in hand, nor does Sister Barbara quote her favorite phrase to me: “the empty barrel makes the most noise.” My parents, too, are long gone, coming up on fifty years for my father, and forty-five for my mother. My brother, too, is dead, and my sister has her own physical problems. It has been decades, lifetimes it seems, since I felt I obliged to attend mass.

But summer itself still marches on, unconcerned. Here in Southern California, mid-August feels like the real Midsummer. It’s ninety degrees outside, and even September—or on into October—looms large and heat filled. And yet, I remember those far off days of childhood as if they were last week, when we ran and played and biked and explored a world of endless surprises and magical mystery.

Nowadays, I roam elsewhere, traveling the world, as I have done in the past and hope to continue doing. Yet, there is also another kind of travel that I have learned, an interior kind, one that roams the great universe. To quote Whitman again, from the “Calamus” section of his great poem:

 

“In paths untrodden,

In the growth by margins of pond waters…

Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,

Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,

No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can

respond as I would not dare elsewhere,

Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself,

yet contains all the rest.”

“Yet contains all the rest.” This is the secret of the Leaves of Grass, after all, that the leaves are, themselves, all there is. Another way to say it is the whole universe is contained in every atom, in every subatomic particle. As it is in every summer, and each autumn and winter, every radiant, verdant spring. In the eternity of the moment, it is always Midsummer, or any other time of our choosing. One moment expands to fill all time, and every day is a Holy Day—though one, thankfully, with no obligation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BENEFITS OF MEMORIZATION: OR HOW BEST TO GET A POEM

By Paul M. Lewis

I know of no better way of understanding a poem—I mean, of really getting it—than to memorize it. Yes, of course, just reading a piece of poetry is always good; and in rereading it several time one can certainly begin to comprehend at a deeper level what a particular piece, especially a complex and complicated one, is all about. But if you want to make a poem completely yours, learn it by heart.

This was something I first discovered while memorizing some of the sonnets of William Shakespeare. It all started more or less on a lark. I was spending a lot of time on various workout machines at the gym, treadmills mostly, and it soon enough became clear to me that this did not provide much mental stimulation. So, rather than stare at the inanity of the TV screen in front of me (thankfully, the sound is always turned off), and more or less by way of self-defense, I took to memorizing a few of my favorite poems. It was mostly a way of keeping my mind active and interested, present, you might say. I began with a few by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and eventually I moved on to Shakespeare.

The first time I read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, I admit I had to wonder a little what exactly it was about. I’m not a Shakespearian scholar, only an interested amateur, one who likes to go to his plays and listen to the sonorousness of that glorious language. That said, it’s not just sound that’s important; after all, the language also does mean something. Take his sonnet number five, as an example. In it, we read, “Were not summer’s distillation left/A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” Now, what in the world does that mean? As I practiced and learned the poem by heart, it became clearer that Shakespeare was talking about perfume made from flowers and stored in a glass vial. Then, going on to the last two lines of the same sonnet, the traditional rhyming couplet, he writes: “For flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,/Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.” Again, words not necessarily immediately understandable to our modern ear. But with some practice, it soon enough became clear that Shakespeare was talking about the stored up scent of flowers (i.e. perfume), and though the flowers may lose their outward beauty, the preserved scent still gives great pleasure any time of the year, even in winter.

Of course, if you’re not particularly drawn to poetry in the first place, to the unique and exquisite way it can condense and refine language, creating its own phantasmagoric world, then I suppose a legitimate enough question is, why bother at all? Why put the effort and the mental energy into memorizing something that may not appeal? I get that, and have no argument against it. But still, if you consider for a moment just how magnificent the language itself can be, how the compactness of its meaning is so striking, so astounding, how the rhythm, the sheer vibratory energy of the poem can be so surprising, so breathtaking, so extraordinary, then you may come to a deeper and greater appreciation of what it is.

I have always felt that language is a powerful tool; that its sound, its throbbing vibrato, the pulsation of it, has the ability to make changes in the world. I’m not necessarily talking about changes “out there,” making things appear or disappear, for example (although, who knows, maybe someone with a profound enough ability to concentrate can make things happen that ordinary mortals cannot?). But at very least, what I am talking about is the ability it has to make changes in our own consciousness, that is, to lift one’s thoughts from the mundane and the everyday to the greater heights of the ethereal and the otherworldly. Shakespeare himself seems to suggest this in another sonnet, the famous number 29. Here, he begins with a long list of things that have put him (the speaker) into “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” In that list, we come across such items as wishing that he were “…like to one more rich in hope,/Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,/Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,/With what I most enjoy contented least.”

Now, it can be said, as lovely as the language is here, it is nonetheless about a kind of depressed state of being; and therefore it might be thought of as not particularly uplifting. However, as so often happens in the structure of these lovely sonnets, beginning with the ninth line, things take a turn: “Yet, in these thoughts, myself almost despising,/Haply I think on thee,” and then his state does change. But who is this “thee” that Shakespeare is speaking of, by the way? Many scholars believe it references the beloved youth, the young man to whom the first 126 sonnets are addressed. No one knows who this was, or even if it was an actual young man whom Shakespeare loved, or a compilation of people, or even a symbol of something else. And because this part of it is less than certain, it clears the way for each of us to insert our own “thee” into that space. Whether that turns out to be a person, an ideal, a hope for the future, a wish for greater things to come, or even—if you prefer—some spiritual being, who may help us be better than we think we’re capable of, all that can be left to us.

The important point is that, with mere words—albeit powerful ones—there actually is a way of uplifting one’s own consciousness. Indeed, there may be no better way of demonstrating this than by quoting verbatim here the rest of this lovely poem and letting it speak its overwhelming beauty directly:

 

“…then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

         For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

         That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

There are other poems, too, that uplift and that change how we think, how we see the world. William Butler Yates does it all the time. In his “Lake Isle of Innisfree” we read, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” What can Innisfree refer to except that inner space wherein we feel ourselves to be liberated (“in-is-free”)? Or Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in his “Pied Beauty” speaks, although perhaps less directly and more figuratively, of all things spotted and mixed: “Glory be to God for dappled things,/For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;/For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.” He ends with this laudatory attribution: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:/Praise him.”

Coming back full circle to where I began, as lovely as it is simply to read any of this, the memorization of it somehow serves to incorporate the language into our psychic DNA. It takes the immense beauty of the words, and of how the words work for and with one another, and the meaning, and all that is beyond mere meaning, and instills and integrates it into the very elemental fabric of our being. In this way, we too arise and go to Innisfree, to this place far beyond the intellectual, beyond the ken of everyday understanding, and we assimilate it into the fiber of who we are. As Yates says in the same poem, speaking of such a spot:

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

Who would not want to live in such a place? And is it really possible to do so? To be sure, the world out there has its grandeur and allure, though who does not also see its terrible ugliness, as well? But the deep world of poetry, learned by heart, made one’s own and fully taken into one’s own private inner sanctum, such that one is not merely saying the words but living them, experiencing them in the fullness of their totality, transforms us in a way that art, at its highest and very best, as well as beauty, and truth, and love, and even spirituality, has always been meant to do.

SOLITUDE AND COMMUNITY: CAN WE HONOR BOTH?

By Paul M. Lewis

Nicholas Dames’ article entitled “The New Fiction” in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic magazine explores the modern novel by contrasting it with an older version of fiction, one exemplified first by Cervantes in Don Quixote. That earlier view, amplified all the more by the great nineteenth and twentieth century masters, saw fiction as essentially a way of identifying with the other. Its goal was to provide a space whereby we could step into the lives of someone so different, so removed that the reader would otherwise never have encountered such a person in life. Who could imagine, for example, that they could have come to know anyone as strange as Quasimodo, or even Jean Valjean (to conflate two of Victor Hugo’s most famous works), or Don Quixote, to bring us back once again to Cervantes? Or how could most of us have traveled with the deviant Humbert Humbert other than in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Yet meet them we do, and in so doing, we come to understand at some deeper level what it is like to be them.

In the postmodern novel, however, this empathic “expansion of the moral imagination,” as Dames puts it, is not the goal. Instead, contemporary novelists, who eschew older forms of writing, concentrate not so much on our ability to pass outside the boundaries of our own skin, as on the need to understand and anchor the concept of the self. In a world where we are incessantly interconnected electronically, they seem to be asking, how are we to know who we really are? There isn’t so much a need to understand and feel with another, as there is to delve into and inhabit our own ego identity, which we are in danger of losing, or have already lost. A term that has come into use for this type of writing is “autofiction.” Dames defines it as “denoting a genre that refuses to distinguish between fiction and truth, imagination and reality, by merging the forms of autobiography and the novel.” The goal—if that is not too atavistic a term to use in this context—seems to be to reveal, even to revel in, one’s isolation, one’s aloneness, in our inability to know, or be known by, another. Each of us exists in our own solitude, and that solitary state is essentially unbridgeable, except—and here is the irony—by the very revelation of the singularity of our individuality. Otherwise, if that were not possible, then why write at all? The writer’s separateness can, in some way, teach the rest of us how “to soothe our isolation,” though we incongruously still need the hermitic distinctiveness of our solitary selves in order to understand, and even to appreciate, the individuality of our own humanity.

All this may come across as overly highbrow, as some sort of precious or recherché affectation, almost a kind of faux exploration of life in the twenty-first century. For the most part, those of us who still read at all tend to do so for the traditional reason, that is, in the hope of getting to know the other. Even Pres. Obama noted this, as was reported in the same Atlantic magazine article. Harkening back to that older view of the meaning of fiction, he said that what he had learned from novels was “the notion that it’s possible to connect with some [one] else even though they’re very different from you.” He went on to say he lamented the demise of fiction reading in our culture and said he believed that this pointed to a concomitant loss of empathy in the country and the world.

Still, can it be said unequivocally that all this business about the meaning of literature might just be highfaluting claptrap, a thing dreamed up by critics so as to show off a fancy vocabulary or, more nefariously, by publishers in order to sell books? I think not. The basic notions of identity, of isolation, and of empathy really are important to each of us, whether we think about them in conscious ways, or not. Of course, no one necessarily has to read a novel, of whatever genre or era, in order to feel for another, or to realize their own essential aloneness. These existential states of being come of their own accord in the process of living, in the misery of a bereft childhood, or the toxic stew of an inherited chemical imbalance; or they invite themselves into our psyches by the blunt-force trauma that everyday life can sometimes bring with it. In other words, living can be its own kind of suffering. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great nineteenth century poet, put it, “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.”

A question that each of us ultimately faces in life, whether it be head-on or more obliquely, is how do we overcome what is our essential aloneness? How do we reach out beyond our “bone house,” to quote Hopkins again, that is, beyond the awful—and awe-filled—barrier that is the end of our own skin, and in some way connect with another? Love, of course, is the simple answer. But how successful are any of us at that? How many times do we stumble, fall and go crashing to the ground in our hasty, or confining, or clinging attempts to reach out lovingly? And if love demands a certain kind of selflessness, an overcoming of the all too self-centered ego, how often are we able to achieve that?

Literature, in all of its varieties, can teach us something about these fundamental questions and help the reader, or the watcher/listener if we are talking about drama, attempt the frightening leap across that impassible barrier, out into the abyss, in the hope of grabbing hold of some other frightened leaper. In this sense, the conflict between traditional and post-modern writing may only be an apparent one. In the case of the former, the traditional role of literature, the identity of the leaper is assumed (that is, it’s ourselves), and the reader then can empathize with the character “out there.” In terms of the latter, the post-modern vision, the assumption that we don’t know who we are may simply be the next logical step in the evolution of that outreach. Literary self-exposure is another way of looking into the mirror and saying to ourselves: yes, that’s me and not another; this is my hyper-personal expression of the utter uniqueness that is my individuality. It’s what makes each of us human, or at least what contributes to our understanding, our belief, that we are all different in ways that cannot ever fully be explained or communicated. If love is to be the answer as to how to span the unbridgeable gap, it must assume two (at least two) individuals; otherwise, there is no abyss to be bridged at all. Both love and literature demand separateness. Postmodern writing merely emphasizes the “I,” while traditional literature highlights the “he, she, or they” in the equation.

The answer to the question of whether or not we can honor both solitude and community is that one needs the other. The relentless modern attempt to reach out electronically, to text and to tweet, or to have FaceTime, may be emblematic of overwrought and overworked lives. Even so, it is after all a kind of reaching out. It’s true that we don’t have to read postmodern novels to understand we are alone; nor do we have to plow through Cervantes, or Hugo, or Tolstoy, or Faulkner to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. But it can’t hurt. That’s another way of saying that literature benefits us, that it reflects and explains the parts of ourselves that all too often escape us, as we go about the quotidian business of living. It reveals a deeper level of our being that slips and slides among the shadows and hides from the harsh, revelatory light of day. It grabs at the core of who we are, even when we don’t know—at least consciously—who that is, and flings the pieces of that identity, fragmentary as they may be, across the unbreachable chasm that stands between us.

We may be utterly alone in that no one will ever be fully capable of plumbing the profundity of our inner most being. Maybe we can’t do that even for ourselves. But we live with the hope, even the promise, of connecting with another and, in the end, that may be enough. This is what excellent writing can do, and why storytelling, in whatever form, which is what fiction is about after all, will always be with us.

“RED,” A PLAY ABOUT MARK ROTHKO BY JOHN LOGAN

By Paul M. Lewis

When the curtain goes up on John Logan’s play “Red,” we see Abstract Expressionist artist, Mark Rothko, sitting in a chair in his studio, smoking a cigarette. He is facing the audience, staring at something in front of him. We come to realize soon enough that this is one of his paintings (another is actually visible to the audience directly behind him). For anyone not familiar with Rothko’s later paintings—and the play mainly deals with these works of the 1950’s—they are iconically large canvasses consisting of juxtaposed floating colored rectangles on a darker background. Those referenced in this play are exclusively red and black.

Rothko’s newly hired young assistant, Ken, enters and stands behind him, ignored by the painter. After a few moments, we realize that Rothko does know Ken is there. Without even a glance in his direction, the painter asks him: “What do you see?” Ken, who is clearly in awe of the great man, much his senior both in years and in experience, replies innocently enough: “Red.” And the play is off and running.

The production my partner and I went to see recently took place at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, although we had already seen another version at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles a few years ago. Both productions were very well done, with the actors in each playing off their individual strengths and idiosyncrasies—greater forcefulness or anger in one portrayal of Rothko, more subtlety and intellectuality in another; youthful energy and verve in the part of Ken in one iteration, while more of an emphasis on innocence, morphing into maturation, in the other.

There is much discussion of the concept of red in this drama. Logan portrays Rothko as challenging his new helper to understand more deeply what is meant by the color, both in terms of its physical manifestations, as well as its psychological implications. Is there even any such a thing as red—simple red? Or is it, as Rothko points out, better thought of as: “plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral?” I suppose he could have added crimson, lobster, ruby, cherry, vermilion, cardinal, cuprite, and so on, as well. The point being that, to an artist, the über-category of red is of little use as an honest, visual description of the almost endless possibilities of physical reality.

Rothko and Ken then go back and forth in naming other categories of red that relate more directly to the feelings and emotions that the color can represent: passion, wine, lipstick, apples, rust on the bike on the lawn, an albino’s eyes, atomic flash, the Russian flag, the Chinese flag, the Nazi flag, red light district, red tape, rouge, viscera, flame, Santa Claus, blood, slash your wrists, and on and on. Slowly, Ken—to an extent our stand-in as audience members—begins to get the feeling of what Rothko means when he paints with “red.”

But there is also black. Big blocks of color that are again not merely of one hue, but are composed of browns and umbers, endless underpinnings of multifarious earth tones. We see coal and we see night; we see darkness and the symbolism of race, prejudice, bigotry and bias; the absence of light, the Stygian world, mourning, and of course death itself. But we also see the Cosmos, filled with light and only seemingly black because it reflects off of nothing, or nothing that registers with us at least.

And what happens when red and black are juxtaposed? There is an immediate play of one off the other, such that our eyes see what both is and what is not there. Logan has Rothko expound on the concept: “Look at the tension between the blocks of color: the dark and the light, the red and the black and the brown. They exist in a state of flux—of movement. They abut each other on the actual canvas, so too do they abut each other in your eye. They ebb and flow and shift, gently pulsating. The more you look at them the more they move…They float in space, they breathe..Movement, communication, gesture, flux, interaction; let them work…They’re not dead because they’re not static. They move through space if you let them, this movement takes time, so they’re temporal. They require time.”

Of course time is needed. Because we are talking about physical manifestation, about the world as it appears to us, as we live in it in our bodies, and this cannot be experienced except temporally. It’s there for now, but gone in another moment. We are here for a second, and then disappear again into the endlessness of Cosmic energy, only to come together once more in some other form. Matter cannot be created; neither can it be destroyed. It simply is, and can be perceived only by those whose very form has been cobbled together by its own seemingly random interaction. The subject matter of the play has to do with the nature of art. But if art is both a reflection and an enhancement of nature, a highly idiosyncratic while at the same time universalized vision thereof, then it is in that sense also a play more generally about the full panoply of the human experience.

Rothko, the man, was not without his flaws. He was arrogant, bombastic, argumentative, contentious, prideful, jealous, domineering, and conceited. He was so full of himself and lived so hermetically, so much in his own head, that he eschewed nature as being too messy. But he was also highly sensitive, energetic, insightful, intellectual, emotional, fearful, depressed, and of course ultra-talented. Given all this, the play may not be for everyone. If you don’t like long discourses on art, or contentious dialogue between master and apprentice, or Abstract Expressionism for that matter, this may not be what you might choose to spend your hard earned money on.

But if you are interested in exploring what art is, that elusive, fragile, delicate, phantasmagorical mix of the real world—whether it be paint, or canvas, or light, or clay, or physical movement, or words, or sound, or whatever the medium—and something else, some ultimately indefinable ethos of the human spirit, something pointing beyond humanity to another level altogether even more subtle, exquisite, elegant, refined, eternal, spiritual, if you will, then “Red” was written for you.

Also thrown front and center into the mix are questions of Rothko’s politics. We are reminded in the play of his social-revolutionary youth. His anti-establishment leanings did not sit well with gallery owners, museum curators, or even some of the rich who ultimately bought his paintings. One of the major turning points in the play, in fact, has to do with his struggle over the commission he received to paint murals for the famous—and famously rich and exclusive—Four Seasons Restaurant located in the new Seagram Building in New York City, for which he was paid handsomely (more, we are told, than any other commission in the history of modern art). In that sense, we are back once again with the conflict between light and dark, between artistic integrity and commercialism, idealism and money; we might even say, between red and black.

The family of Marcus Yokovlevitch Rothkowitz (his original name) moved to Portland, Oregon in 1913, when Rothko was only 10 years old, having fled the Cossacks and the pogroms of the old Russian Empire. Logan has him describe the neighborhood as a ghetto, filled with “thinky, talky Jews.” He was, of course, also himself in life both “thinky” and “talky.” He understood what it was to be the outsider, and he knew fear, tension, and the everlasting interplay of the opposites. Logan portrays how Rothko saw that movement was essential to growth, that the son succeeds the father, the apprentice takes over from the master, and that one art movement must kill off its predecessor (as much as he hated it, and railed against it, when Pop Art came to displace Abstract Expressionism).

Rothko will be remembered as a master of this tension, of strain and stress and the push-and-pull that so utterly enthralled and mystified him. I will not reveal how the play ends, except to say that it does so with an answer to a question. Although my own preference might have been to allow that question to hang in the air, unanswered, for us all to contemplate.

Rothko is famous for having said: “If you are moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” Who can fully plumb such questions? Can art, or even a great artist like Mark Rothko, ever reveal to us what is, in the end, indefinable, unfathomable, and ultimately unanswerable?

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY BLOOMSDAY–JUNE 16

By Paul M. Lewis

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit!”

These are the famous opening lines of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the great seminal works of the literature of the 20th century. Begun in 1918 and completed in 1920, it was first published by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1922. All of the events of the seven hundred plus pages of the novel take place on a single day—June 16, 1904. This day is, therefore, the day that lovers of literature have long celebrated the great work, starting in Dublin in 1954 with the 50th anniversary of the events taking place in the novel. It’s reported that this small, initial celebration, wherein several individuals played a few of the main characters of the book (Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, Simon Dedalus—Stephen’s father—and Martin Cunningham), ended early in a drunken brawl in a pub. Subsequent celebrations of Bloomsday in many cities of the world have been longer, and have had happier, if not necessarily less drunken, endings.

The book was not officially printed in the United States until more than ten years after its initial publication in Paris, due to an obscenity trial during which the presiding judge famously referred to it as “the work of a disordered mind.” If that were so, then the world ought to have rejoiced at such astoundingly original, fecund and inventive disorder, and do all in its power to eschew and lament the tedious boredom and dreary ennui of the more orderly mind.

Let us lift a glass (alcoholic or not, as you choose) to James Joyce and to the astounding breakthrough in both form and subject matter that Ulysses represents. Long may this great novel be read, and long may it continue to wildly instill its elemental creative disorder in our otherwise overly ordered, humdrum and sometimes all-too-prosaic days!

ICON AND MASK: WHEN IS AN OBJECT SACRED AND WHEN IS IT ART?

By Paul M. Lewis

Forty or more years ago, I purchased a late 17th century Russian icon of the type commonly referred to as the Mother of God of Kazan (Kazanskaya Bogomater). It depicts the Virgin Mother, holding her infant son, Jesus, who is facing directly outward, with His right hand lifted in a gesture of blessing. I have no idea as to the provenance (i.e. the exact origin and history) of this particular piece, how it left Russia (in the hastily thrown-together luggage of a wealthy aristocrat fleeing the Bolsheviks?), or how it eventually wound up in Chicago, where I bought it. But it’s not a stretch to think that it may have originally resided in a church somewhere in central Russia. Whatever its exact origins, it was undoubtedly an object of worship. People would typically come before such an icon, stand there in silent prayer, imploring the Mother of God for help or favors, or thanking her for gifts already bestowed. Nor would it have been uncommon for devout parishioners to bow low before the icon, reverently crossing themselves in the Russian manner. People did so especially before beginning a journey, sometimes a perilous undertaking in the late sixteen hundreds in Russia, asking for protection along the way.

Today, hung on a wall in our home here in Long Beach, California, it is no longer an object of worship. At least, I do not bow low before the Virgin, nor do I ask her for protection before leaving the house to go on a trip. And no one lights candles in front of it. Instead, anyone who visits us and sees the painting surely assumes that it is displayed as a piece of art. As such, it does have its own great beauty. The expression on the face of the Holy Mother is one of sublime quietude, exuding a kind of peace that comes only from the inner certainty of knowing who one is and of being unfailingly comfortable with that knowledge. The Child Jesus, on the other hand, looks more like a miniature adult than a young boy. Was this because the icon painter was depicting Him as born mature and fully developed, mentally, emotionally and of course spiritually, or was it a simple issue of artists of his day not knowing how to portray children, as children? Icons, at any rate, are always painted in a highly stylized manner; that is their nature, their greatest beauty and, to some, their greatest drawback. People sometimes complain that they do not look realistic—of course not, they were never intended to! Icon painters meant to portray the figures they painted as beings who reside on a far higher and more elevated plane of consciousness, well above the tediousness and pettiness of the quotidian.

But the principal question that concerns me here is not icons per se. Rather, it is this: When is something a sacred object, and when is it merely (unless that word is thought to be offensive in this context) a piece of art? Just last week, an auction took place in Paris in which a number of sacred masks of the Hopi Nation were on offer. The sale took place in spite of pleas by tribal elders, as well as on the part of US embassy officials, not to allow it to happen. Traditional Hopis consider such masks not mere representations of spiritual beings, but as the actual embodiment of them. Even taking photos of them is considered highly questionable. When under tribal control, they are never displayed casually, only ceremonially, at a time when these sacred beings are experienced as actually visiting the people and offering assistance. No self-respecting Hopi would ever dream of hanging such a mask on the wall, as a piece of art. Yet, there is little doubt that most buyers intend to do just that. Nor is this the first time such an auction has taken place in Paris.

So, are these masks, which undoubtedly possess a profundity and an utterly mysterious beauty all their own, to be considered as art (merely), or as sacred objects that should be returned to the tribe, where they are part of millennia-old cultural and religious traditions? The government of France ruled that they could be sold as art, to the great disappointment of the Hopi. Again, the question remains, when is an object sacred and when is it a piece of art? And, if I’m being frank about it, I suppose another similar question might also be asked: How do the Hopi masks differ in any substantive way from the icon of the Holy Mother of God, displayed on the dining room wall of our house? Are my partner and I guilty, too, of religious and cultural insensitivity?

In a very interesting article in the June 25, 2015 edition of the New York Review of Books, Julian Bell discusses a recent work depicting a long conversation about the nature of art between Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. De Montebello was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for thirty-one years, and Gayford is a well-known British art critic. In the book, entitled Rendez-vous with Art, the director of the Met makes this provocative statement: “I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.”

What can be made of such a statement, and what connection, if any, does it have to the question of distinguishing between the sacred and the artistic? The concept of redemption certainly sounds religious. It would seem to imply the need for, or the act of, being saved from something. Sin and evil are the usual suspects. Or did de Montebello mean to make reference more to ignorance than to sin? But if art saves nothing and no one, sacred objects, on the other hand, are purported to have redemptive power, at least for those who believe in their transcendental efficacy. I remember once reading that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, said he had been asked if a picture of a particular Indian saint would be a protection for an individual who held it. His reply was: “If you believe it is a protection, it is a protection. If not, it’s only a simple photo.” Should this suggest to us that the sacredness of an object is not inherent within the object itself, but rather within the consciousness of the person coming into contact with it? Perhaps so. Or is it too much to think that art in and of itself, at its best, really ought to be considered sacred? In fact, can an object ever be both sacred and artistic, or must we think of them as one or the other?

We are conditioned, most of us anyway (ISIS fighters not withstanding), to have at very least a special kind of reverence for art. This is so whether we think of it literally as sacred or not. The Giotto altarpiece on the wall of a museum in Florence, the seated statue of the Lord Buddha taken from Angkor Wat by French explorers, and the Maya bas-relief of Quetzalcoatl ripped from the wall of a temple in the Yucatán all were once considered to be sacred objects. Displayed in museums today, or in the homes of wealthy art collectors, they appear to have lost that connection to the sacred. Or have they, and does it matter how the viewer perceives the objects, how she or he thinks of and interacts with them?

To most modern people, the answer may be as simple as knowing that once an object is in a museum, it is—more or less by definition—considered to be art, and therefore, not sacred, at least not in the normal meaning of that term. Although that still may depend on one’s religious beliefs. Devout Christians might consider the Giotto altarpiece sacred no matter where it is displayed, though probably not the Buddha, and certainly not Quetzalcoatl. Even so, if we think back to the original etymology of the term “sacred,” it refers to a thing that possesses power, and this power could be considered either as holy or as accursed. In this sense, who is to say that art, as we think of it today, doesn’t have its own kind of secular sacredness?

I know that I still think of the icon of the Holy Mother of God of Kazan as having its own brand of power. I don’t necessarily think of it as a depiction of the Virgin Mary of Christian lore. But I do think of it as a kind of illustration of the feminine aspect of the Divine Spirit. And if even that is too much, why not as a representation of universal motherhood, or the enormous mystery and power of creation itself?

Sacred or not, if art is to be felt at all, it surely has to have power, that is, a numinous kind of mystery about it that cannot ever be fully explained by the things of the intellect. Otherwise, what potency, and what effect, does it have? This is not in any way meant to argue against the Hopi, who I believe have every right to sue the French government for infringement of their rights. But it does speak to the question of whether or not there is a clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the artistic. Depending on your point of view, in the end, that may truly be a thing that resides in the mind of the beholder.