The Sublime?

Back in the day when I was young and foolish, in high school studying poetry, I learned of something called “The Sublime.” It was an idea, an aesthetic, so abstract and yet so beautiful that I wanted it, I believed in it. The Sublime was perfect, breath-taking (literally), beyond (almost) human effort, inspiring, an object of wonder — and fear.

The Sublime is an ideal. A person might think of Plato but that would be missing the point. Plato’s ideal did not have the power of inspiring anything awe. It was an unreachable archetype that we just gesture toward as inferior human beings in our inferior copies of what we can imagine but cannot recreate. There is no emotional content (frustration, maybe?) in Plato’s ideal, but The Sublime?

It was a human idea — floating around for a while in the mid 18th century and infecting the Romantic poets and propounded by the philosophers Edmund Burke and Emanuel Kant. I have dim, dim memories of encountering this in an intro to philosophy class in college. My teacher was a classicist, so she kind of ran over The Sublime with the truck of  Platonism, but The Sublime lingered, somehow inextricably tangled up with nature.

When the idea was new, mountains — especially abysses, crevasses, precipices, high snowy peaks and plunging, surging waterfalls — all became conduits through which people could experience The Sublime. People started climbing mountains in order to terrify themselves into a kind of “horrible joy” through which they could fully perceive The Sublime. What were they really climbing? Was it the mountain under their feet or something else? Fear is prescriptive, and it is thrilling (if we don’t die) which is why we like carnival rides.

A very interesting book that looks at this is Mountains of the Mind by Robert McFarlane.

The Sublime was the property of well-educated and well-to-do Europeans. No self-respecting farmer or ploughman or sailor was going to have any part in the reduction of nature into an idea.

I think The Sublime was a force in separating humans from nature (in their minds, only, there’s no real separation possible). That in my life time there has been a movement to “get back to nature” is kind of sickening and self-indulgent. Nature has ALL the power over us. We are it. It is us. It’s not Sublime; it’s the ultimate reality. Drink water or die pretty much says all we need to know about where the power lies.

Featured image: An Avalanche in the Alps Philip James de Loutherbourg. It’s pretty accurate, for all its drama. But…

avalanche-in-french-alps-kills-renowned-doctor-1522675280-4267

A non-sublime account of an avalanche at Chamonix

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/10/29/rdp-monday-sublime/

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival

Quiet Night Thoughts
Li Bai

Before my bed, the moon is shining bright,
I think that it is frost on the ground.
I raise my head and look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home.

My first Chinese holiday was this. I didn’t understand it at all. We all (students, teachers, everyone) sat at long tables outside on the “playground” which was really a big track encircling a soccer field. Kids carried round red lanterns. We ate moon cakes and pomelos, neither of which I had eaten before. My students asked me, “Teacher, are you missing home?” I had been in Guangzhou for two weeks. I was missing the mountains of Colorado, but nothing else (as of then).

It is a poem to homesickness and longing. Li Bai had been sent to the frontier, far away from friends and his family. As he looked at the moon, he knew his friends and family back home were looking at it, too, so they were not so far apart after all.

This is the most famous poem in Chinese, written by China’s most loved poet. Li Bai lived 1300 years ago. I have a little statue of him sitting on a shelf. He watches me write, and he has watched me for more than 30 years.

Blog Redux

Yesterday in the chaos of discovering that by shutting down the Daily Prompt, WordPress was making it harder for me to pay them for my websites, I thought of blowing the whole thing up. But, at this point in my life, I’m a reasonable person. I did some research only to learn that most of the free or low-cost webhosting sites send you to — yeah — WordPress.

It’s an empire.

I thought, “Do I want to deal with this?” If I am allotted only 3 score and 10 I have only four left. Clearly a hissy fit over WordPress and starting over from scratch with websites for my books is a poor use of a rapidly depleting resource.

In the process I looked at my blogs on Blogger, thinking, perhaps, of reviving one. I found a poem. I wondered who wrote it, and then I remembered I had written it. Wow. My poor brain… Well, a lot has happened since 2013 — five years and my whole entire life has changed. The poem is on my painting blog, A Lifetime Apprenticeship. 

There was This Day,
There was This Shadow,
There was This Woman,
There was This Blue.
There was No Fame.
There was No Reason.
There was No Winner.
There was No Immortality.

Only

This Shaft of Light
This Sharp Blast,
This Foundering Ship
This Lost Child,
This Man Walking,
This Stream Flowing,
This Arc of Passion,

And

These Hands
These Eyes
This Ochre Clay
This Gold Foil
This Deadly Yellow, but USE IT ANYWAY
This MAGIC Poison White
This Blue from Gold-Flecked Stone
This Green from a Copper Pot
This Short Life
This Single Vision.

I wrote the poem as an ode to the ordinary painter throughout time. The one whose name we don’t know who might have influenced the famous one. The one who painted as a way to feed his family. The one who loved the colors, the process, the images, the beauty. The one who might have discovered a new color or properties of the magical ground on which he painted.

I love pigment. In writing Martin of Gfenn I had to learn how colors were made in medieval times. It was absolutely fascinating. Ultramarine blue — for example — was originally made of ground up lapis lazuli. Its light-reflecting properties in a fresco are amazing. A couple of months ago, as I moved closer to my surgery date, I found some online and bought it. I also bought a real wooden panel and old fashioned gesso (gesso means gypsym) to size the panel and make it ready to absorb oil paint. It should be wonderful.

I’m living in a place where art is big. There’s not a lot else here other than potatoes, barley, hops, horses, cattle. Taos and Santa Fe are well known art centers in this country, but it’s one kind of art, mainly Southwest Art. I want another thing completely when I paint. I don’t know exactly what I’m painting FOR other than myself. I’ve sold more paintings than I have sold words, but the other artists around me don’t think my work is all that good. That’s fine. I would never paint what they paint, either, though I have the good grace not to think their work is bad. It’s just not mine. Rivalry between artists is nasty but real.

In my case, I don’t want to paint the same thing or the same way twice. I view painting as a journey of discovery. I’m never going to be a master. With each painting I’ve learned something new about painting, about paint, about myself, about the world I’m looking at. The painting above is a narrow trail up a California mountainlet in a wet spring. Dusty and I had a wonderful time that day and I took photos. I like painting from photos and I really like the way paintings come out when I paint from the image on my iPad with the light coming up through it rather than shining on it. It’s different. Like this one. This is Descanso Falls in December. Some of this painting works well for me, some of it doesn’t, but it took months to complete and someone was happy to give me $300 so I didn’t have to store it some place. 🙂

 

Descanso Falls, unframed FASO size

Descanso Falls

 

For my blogging cat friends, Tabby, Parker and Lucy… This is Catmandu. Please note her crossed eyes. Once in a while, they caused her to walk into a wall, after which she’d look around to see if anyone had noticed. ❤

mandu

 

https://wordpress.com/tag/ragtag-daily-prompt

Walt Whitman’s Birthday

Among the books that are most rewarding to buy in a used book store is Leaves of Grass. I’ve owned three and what makes them so wonderful (besides Whitman’s poetry) are the relics often hidden inside. No one buys that book without loving it. Inside all the old copies I’ve owned have been newspaper clippings, notes, favorite lines written in margins, dedications usually signed with “love.”

Today is Walt Whitman’s birthday.

I remember the day Reagan was inaugurated. I had a party in my apartment in Denver. I was a year or two out of graduate school. I had worked on John Anderson’s campaign. The party was some of my real-life personal friends and a bunch of people from the Anderson campaign. Someone had to bring a TV because I didn’t have one. The plan was to watch Bedtime for Bonzo in which our new President was the adopted father of a chimpanzee. I didn’t have a lot of furniture and my floor was solid oak. There was no where comfortable and I wasn’t really interested in the movie. My friends and I stayed in the kitchen, got plowed and that led, naturally, to my reading Walt Whitman (whether anyone liked it or not).

Back then I had the belief that poetry was more important than politics and writing was the single most important thing for me to do, beyond earning a living or love or anything else.

Whitman had influenced some of that.

There are many amazing poems in Leaves of Grass. Some I’ve taught, particularly “There was a Child Went Forth” which I had my students act out as a way to prove that poetry is not inaccessible. Another that often made it up on my chalkboard was “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” —

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

This one I drew.

But that night of Reagan’s inauguration I wasn’t reading these poems. I don’t think I’d even met them, yet. I was reading from the book within the book, Calamus. My favorite at the time was “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” It spoke to me so clearly of artistic integrity, sexuality and death. He is speaking to the leaves of grass (and other plants) that come out of his heart and will someday rise from the ground above his body.

Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter
how long,
That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very
long,
But you will last very long.

At this point in the story — so many years later — I remember that young woman who got so drunk on wine and poetry that she banged her head on the ledge below her kitchen sink when she sat down. I remember her ecstatic lecture to the small group (four? five?) of friends who were also not interested in the antics of Ronald Reagan and a monkey. I doubt they were all that interested in Whitman, either, but the young woman all on her own was a pretty good show.

Far more often than I think of that evening, I think of this poem. I think of what it means to “dissipate the entire show of appearance” and how much that matters.

As for the “scented herbage of my breast” — that young woman had no idea what it would be, what that would mean. She wrote anyway, but had no real story except a sad but lovely romance that could never work.

So she wrote it, as practice, you know, for the real stories that came later.

 

image_549503883827469

She was also an artist… These are linoleum cuts

A song from the practice story…

 

A lovely movie starring Rip Torn as Walt Whitman — Beautiful Dreamers

Rosebuds

I’ve begun reading the Goliard poetry. The commentary/introduction to the Goliards of the book I’m reading, Wine, Women and Song by John Addington Symonds irked me big time yesterday. It was all Renaissance this Renaissance that and you know, that bugs me. The way historians conventionally talk about the Renaissance you’d think all that just SPRANG out of nothing, that people lived their primitive, un-Roman, grubby little lives until, voilá, Leonardo. The book is around 150 years old, but that notion lingers on.

This historian compared Goliard poetry to Renaissance poetry and, IMO, that requires a time machine. If I were an intellectual living in the 1880s I’d be tempted to look more at INFLUENCE than comparison, but not this guy. I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. An example — at the end of a long and beautiful love poem, the benighted Mr. Symmonds writes:

It would surely be superfluous to point out the fluent elegance of this poem, or to dwell farther upon the astonishing fact that anything so purely Renaissance in tone should have been produced in the twelfth century.

I want to throttle him.

It’s funny to me how we name historical epochs (for our convenience) and then go on as if it were a real thing. “Hey, Leonardo, dude, here’s what I’m thinking. Renaissance? What’s your take on that? Like it? I think it’s a hell of a marketing stragedy for my badass ceiling and sculptures.”

“Mike, leave me alone. I’m writing secrets backwards.”

Yesterday I read this 12th century exhortation to love (remember, these are songs):

THE INVITATION TO YOUTH.
No. 8.

Take your pleasure, dance and play,
Each with other while ye may:
Youth is nimble, full of grace;
Age is lame, of tardy pace.

We the wars of love should wage,
Who are yet of tender age;
‘Neath the tents of Venus dwell
All the joys that youth loves well.

Young men kindle heart’s desire;
You may liken them to fire:
Old men frighten love away
With cold frost and dry decay.

For some reason, it reminded me of THIS (written during the Renaissance):

To the Virgins to Make Much of Time
Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former. 

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The Carmina Burana is filled with songs on this theme.

What IF (and this is a revolutionary thought) one thing leads to another?

But I’m not fair to Mr. Symmonds. His job was to open the minds of his readers to the notion that the Middle Ages were NOT a Dark Ages. He used the handholds he had to do this. I’m not exactly the audience for whom he was writing and I bet the audience he hoped to reach got his point which was, “Hey, these are really cool and beautiful songs kind of like all that stuff you like from the Renaissance!”

There are HUNDREDS of Goliard songs. I can’t imagine that they just lurked in dark taverns with iconoclastic young clerics. I’d bet they were EVERYWHERE these wandering scholars went in their, uh, wandering. I bet LOTS of non-wandering scholars — you know, just people? — knew them. I bet they had a larger influence than we know or the Church would not have wanted so badly to stem the tide of disillusioned drunken libidinous clerics wandering Europe, looking for teaching jobs and criticizing the hypocrisy of the church.

The OTHER egregious thing Mr. Symmonds does is compare some of the church-criticizing poetry to the Reformation. Again, that requires a time machine. BUT…WE look at the Reformation as a discrete event in history that sprang up spontaneously (simultaneous to the Renaissance?) but it wasn’t. Symmonds even opens his book with a quotation from Martin Luther. Again, for his Post-Reformation readers, that could strike a chord legitimizing the redemption of the “Dark Ages”.

The British art historian, Waldemar Januszczak, in his series for the BBC The Renaissance Unchained makes a good case (pretty much my case). His argument is that the Renaissance is Papist propaganda designed to combat the Reformation. When I began watching the series a year or so ago, and he made that point, I cheered. I’m not casting aspersions on so-called Renaissance art at all (it’s amazing), but those guys were PAID to paint and sculpt what they did to convey the message the Church wanted them to.

Do I like the songs/poems I’m reading? Not a lot, actually, but what’s behind them is very attractive. A whole world. Reading one spring/love/sex poem after another brought me to poor old Faust on Easter, bewailing his age and all the years he’d spent in study rather than gathering rosebuds.

That roses have thorns is, maybe, the wisdom of old age.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/mallet/

If I have the time, I will try to rhyme

There are people in this world who, though very gifted — brilliant, even — in useful ways, still want to be poets. My dad — a gifted mathematician — wanted to be a poet. I knew this about him, but until I cleaned out the garage this past spring, I didn’t realize how MUCH he wanted to be a poet.

There was a lot of (bad) poetry. Great poetry because my dad wrote it, but… One of his treasures was a rhyming dictionary. I treasured it for years and years and years — since I was 10 and he discovered I might be a REAL poet someday. My dad sometimes lectured me on vers libre, poetry with no rhyme or rhythm (often no rhyme or reason) and he wrote poetry in this style.

I did really want to be a poet. I personally (and somewhat secretly) love poetry. Poetry can make my emotions catch their breath. Last fall I was in Taos with a friend and met Pierre DeLattre, a painter and writer. It was an intense encounter because it involved paintings (beautiful paintings!) and Yeats.

Though the study of it enhanced my ability to love it, studying literature and loving poetry are not always the same thing. In my Critical Writing class (a great class with a fine professor) as an undergraduate we were tasked to write 10 different essays about ONE poem by Yeats. I learned more about academic writing in that class than any other I took. The poem I chose was “The Double-Vision of Michael Robartes” which honestly made no sense to me at all until I began writing about it and then it became more than just a poem (“just” a poem?) It does rhyme. The rhymes are somewhat agonized at times, but it all works to a beautiful effect at the end where the final rhyme is broken; close, but not quite there.

These days rhyme often gets a bad rap ( ha ha ). In my opinion, rhyme is a pretty cool thing. It helps people remember. It creates music, something often missing from my dad’s beloved vers libre. End rhymes and rhythm are part of nature. Inside each seed is the coded destination of the flower and the fruit.

For what but eye and ear silence the mind
With the minute particulars of mankind?

“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” William Butler Yeats

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/rhyme/

By Heart

In OLDEN days the poets were less writers of poetry than they were reciters of poetry. People would gather round them in the firelight — even if it was Athens it was firelight — and listen to them recite the stories of the heroic deeds of Achilles and Odysseus, the beauty of Helen of Troy, the sad death of Njal. Even the poets believed that the stories were told to them by the Gods. The poetry was there, waiting for a voice. Poetry is easier to learn when it rhymes, is alliterative and has a beat. The muses who gave the poems to the bards knew this. 🙂

In the eras before mine, kids learned poetry in school and they had to be able to recite it “by heart.” My grandfather could recite LONG poems and my mom could, too. I think the old man had all his kids learning poetry from a young age. Anyway, it was always a part of our house when I was growing up. My dad, too. He could recite Robert Service’ “The Ice Worm Cocktail” by heart. My mom could recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I like those poems but the Robert Service poem I like best is “The Call of the Wild” and I can recite most of it by heart.

The few poems I can recite (part or all) I actually feel they are part of my heart, more than words on paper. Some of them I was forced to learn in school and they evoke my school days when I think of them (“Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — the beginning of it). Others I learned because they meant a lot to me. Some of the poems are deep, some are silly, some are doggerel, some changed my life, my way of thinking. You see, I love poetry. ❤

In the summer of 2000 I taught Intro to Lit and the first day a student said, “Are we going to do poetry? I hate poetry. I don’t get it.”

I said, “We kind of have to. This is an intro to lit class.” I taught a poem every day, usually one of those I know “by heart.” And usually I recited them wrote them on the board — possible because most of those are short, almost epigrams. She ended up loving it.

“You know all those poems by heart, Teacher?”

“Yeah,” I said.

I’ve even written some poetry. I think some of it’s good, but the one I’m going to ‘recite’ (copy and paste) here is from my Pulitzer Prize winning book of catteral, Cats I’ve Known. It’s dedicated to all the great cats out there and the humans they own.

God Makes the First Cat

God made the world in just one week,
And every creature he made unique
He made the rabbit, horse and frog,
He made the loyal loving dog.

He made the fish, he made the spider,
A hippo to make the rivers wider.
He worked on butterflies and hens,
Then he sat down to think again.

“In all of my menagerie
There’s something missing. Let me see.
A world needs horses to pull plows,
A world needs chickens, dogs and cows.”

“But when the daily work is done,
A world must find some time for fun.
Some time to frolic and to play
Some time to sit in the sun all day.”

“Time to relax when work allows
I must make something to show them how!
Someone fluffy, someone funny,
But more intelligent than a bunny.”

God decided to make up cats,
To give them work, he made some rats.
When he was done, he picked one out
And started to throw the cat about!

The cat was cute, the cat was fluffy
But he didn’t like to be treated roughly.
The cat scratched God on the back of the hand,
And God said, “If you scratch a man,

“Like you scratched me,
You won’t be forgiven so easily.”
God watched the cat for signs of remorse,
But the cat didn’t feel remorse, of course.

The cat just cleaned his ears and hair
And ignored God as if He weren’t there.
“This will not do,” said God to the cat.
“You won’t succeed if you act like that!”

“You must learn to apologize
Or you won’t be fed and that won’t be nice!”
“Now, please, a penitent meow
and you can have a bowl of cat chow.”

The cat stood up and stretched one leg,
He absolutely refused to beg.
Well, God respects integrity,
In small animals you and me.

“You’re right,” sighed God, “I was too rough,
Don’t you think we’ve argued enough?”
God reached down and stroked the cat,
Behind his ears, and down his back.

He was rubbing his hand on the cat’s soft fur
When the cat began to purr.
“What a soft and soothing sound,”
Said tired old God as he sat down.

The cat curled up in God’s lap and stayed
And so God rested that seventh day.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/recite/

Is Life a Poem?

One of the skills at which I excelled in school was finding the “hidden meaning” in a poem and answering the question, “What is the poet trying to tell us?”

Now I know that was largely because of all the practice I had gotten at home trying to decipher the real meaning behind my mom’s words. It was also because my mom and dad both loved poetry making it a big part of my life as long as I can remember.

It’s a strangely useless and yet useful skill. I had to learn (as an adult) to resist looking for the hidden meaning because sometimes it just wasn’t that helpful. At the same time, if I did not examine reality, I was lost.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my place in life at this moment in time. I’ve had a hard time figuring that out. What am I supposed to be doing right now? I’m not going to teach anyone. I don’t want to write anything. Painting — uh, shudder. I can’t see doing volunteer work (I already taught for 35 years at slave wages), I’ve seen the seamy side of life and it’s over-rated. What am I here for NOW? It seems like things involving the house and chores take up too much time and are never finished. I don’t like yard work, though I kind of like my garden. It’s a big mystery to me. I like to travel, I like to walk and look at stuff. I love natural phenomenon. I like my dogs and friends. Is there a hidden meaning to all this, or is it right there in front of me and I can’t see it?

Then, last evening — troubled by this problem — I went for a walk with my dogs. This is what I got just by going out the back gate.

Just walked the dogs. It was raining. I got to the high school. Hard claps of thunder. Dusty doesn’t mind it if we’re outside together. I don’t know why, but that’s how he is.

Bear looks for messages. In vain? I don’t know.

Little girls riding bikes in the rain, “Hi!”

“Hi!”

“Woof!”

They keep riding, I look to the east, there is a rainbow, faint and half, but it’s there.
Rain falls just the way a gardener likes it, evenly, straight down. The sun comes out even more. The rainbow is now very intense and double. I look at it for a while. The rain keeps falling. I turn toward home.

The little girls are riding their bikes in the rain through the sprinklers, back-lit and every bit as beautiful as the rainbow behind me.

I don’t know where to turn. I watch the rainbow, I watch the girls.

I decide to go home for reals and the little girls decide to go home at the same time. They ride away like dragon flies in the rain and sunshine.

It’s a special men’s evening at the golf course and the rain isn’t stopping the play. Two guys are standing in the rain looking at the rainbow.

“Hi!”

“Hi! Beautiful rain,” I say then think that maybe my take on the rain and rainbow might be different from that of guys playing golf.

And after all of that wonder the alley wasn’t even muddy.

The moment lasted only as long as my walk. When we stepped outside the gate, there was only a desultory, half-hearted sprinkle. The sky was gray. In the distance, were rumbles of thunder and the sky was flat and obscure. When we stepped out of the alley, the magic began. On our return, turning into the alley, the sky was again obscure and gray, the rain fell in half-hearted sprinkles and the show was over.

I think that was a message…

Archibald MacLeish wrote a poem in defense of symbolist poetry entitled “Ars Poetica.” It’s kind of didactic, but it impressed me a lot when I was in high school. This morning the last line(s) seem to sum up the point of life at this moment of mine.

A poem should not mean
but be.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/hidden/

What’s Art, Anyway?

Last week I had lunch with new friends here in Heaven. They are all artists. We talked about — or expressed ourselves — about what makes art. Some cried out against landscapes. Some cried out against something else. Some expressed the opinion that certain photographs and certain kinds of paintings were steps in the “progress” one makes to become a real artist. Some cried out against painting from photographs. One of them and I agreed that if an artist isn’t pushing themselves, it’s boring.

I came home inhibited. I paint landscapes. I paint other things, but I do paint landscapes and I thought they were art because they’re not easy for me. I also paint from photographs — I consider many of the photos I take to be sketches from which I’ll paint at some point. I don’t see why anyone should sit in a mosquito infested field with a sketch pad and go home and paint from it when they could just take a photo. I do other paintings, too, but painting landscapes and painting from photos improve my technique with the brush and with color.

The great thing of painting, for me, has been freedom, but now I feel less free. As I listened, I also thought, ” These guys have been to school and gotten advanced degrees in art. I didn’t do that.”

As far as getting along with my art teachers, I’m 2 for 2. My experience of “studying” art can be distilled into Stephen Crane’s poem.

“Think as I think,” said a man,
“Or you are abominably wicked; you are
a toad.”
And after I thought of it, I said, “I will, then, be a toad.”

My artistic heroes are the guys who painted day in and day out whatever someone told them to paint because they needed to earn a living. Those guys would have mastered the craft in ways most modern artists never need to. When I was wandering around in Verona, I went to the cathedral and went through the oldest part of the church. The cathedral was an architectural concretion. There were workmen restoring frescoes that were more than 1000 years old. A canvas tarp hung between the passageway and their work to help keep their work clean. I sat down outside the tarp and listened to them talk.

They weren’t talking about the meaning of art or if they were or were not artists. They were talking a bit about the materials they were using (native ochres, mostly), but for the most part they were planning their weekends.

I envied them their skills and training, but, as Goethe wrote, through our lives — especially in our youth — we look ahead down myriad pathways. We go a little way on one and then the other before we find the one that fits us best. He was in his late 30s when he turned away forever from the possibility of being an artist. He was in Italy when he made this determination about himself. He’d lost interest in writing. He was weighed down by Sorrows of Young Werther and the resultant fame and the numerous copy-cat suicides. He wanted to write something else. He wondered if he could. Some months in Italy, and he found his way back to unfinished projects — Tasso and Iphegenia among others. The drawings he’d imagined he would do as a record of his Italian journey became the job of a young German artist, Christoph Heinrich Kniep.

I have a beautiful little book of Goethe’s watercolor sketches of places in Italy and Switzerland, some of which I have seen in real life, too. My favorite is his sketch of the Rheinfall. I have seen the Reinfall several times and it makes me happy to be able to look at the vision Goethe had while he was there.

He wrote about it, too, in Faust II, and I recognized it right away in his words — it is also my very favorite passage in all that Goethe wrote — and it is a painting in its way.

The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the Ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing,
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder, rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many hued reflection we have life.

A landscape.

A photo of the Rheinfalls -- there is very often a rainbow.

A photo of the Rheinfalls — there is very often a rainbow.

Water…a Miracle

Writing Challenge Ice, Water, Steam For this week’s writing challenge, take on the theme of H2O. What does it mean to be the same thing, in different forms?

Water is a miraculous compound, but I doubt it indulges in self-reflection. Like all things in nature, it simply IS. At this moment, crystalline bits of it are drifting very slowly past my window. Behind them is a dormant alder tree with its pine-cone like seed pods. On the ground is more water, crunchy, cold, broken, melted and recrystallized.

Identity — for water and for the self — exists in response to conditions in the external world. In the last 30 years the “idea” of an “external” world has been pushed aside in favor of subjectivism, the “personal” vision of reality. What this implies is that there is NOTHING but the self. As a result of the prevailing idea in the world in which I reached maturity, I worried a lot about who I am. It wasn’t until 1998 when I “met” Goethe, and read Italian Journey, that I understood that the varied iterations of our sacred fucking selves are — like water — defined by the conditions of our being. We ARE in relation to the world, the universe, each other. Our intrinsic nature is what it is, but not as unique and unexpected as we may like to believe. At the same time, it’s impossible for us — or anything in nature — to behave in opposition to our nature.

I am a creative person and, measurably, intelligent. Not my fault. An accident or result of genetics. I am also short. I have a droopy left eye-lid. My mom said, “All Kennedys have that. Look at JFK.” Well, this past summer I saw a photo of my paternal great-grandmother (not a Kennedy, a Mackay) and low and behold, there was my left eye looking out of her face, once more illustrating the fact that the truth might not be what we think it is. It’s not a Kennedy trait at all…

The way others perceive me is often quite different from who I really am. Over and over I’ve found myself standing up for my being; yes, I’m creative, but I’m not messy or disorganized or irresponsible. I am neat, organized and I meet (met 😉 ) deadlines. After a while I learned that much of who we are to other people is not us at all; it’s a projection of THEM. My intelligence doesn’t mean anything other than that and it has limits. I don’t feel — as some people do — that I need to prove anything to anyone. I’d rather get to know people than intimidate them, but there are a lot of smart people in this world who really like the game of intellectual domination.

So, if a person keeps their eyes open they can see themselves in life’s moments, especially in new and unfamiliar ones, they will learn a lot about the substance they are. This past week I spent with very good friends and found myself in a couple of situations that were not “usual” for me. One was returning to an environment I escaped when my mom died, proximity to a very intelligent and competitively facetious woman whose notion of conversation was to “win.” I felt myself backing into a corner where once, long ago, in order to “protect” myself, I would have played. I don’t play that any more. I don’t want to do that, be that. Later, I had the chance to change the rules to rules I feel are more valid than “winning.” I was able to offer a sincere compliment on something I was sure this woman both cared about and was insecure about. I watched her melt, turn human and relax, seeing there was no need to “win,” she was liberated. I know myself well enough NOW that I can choose the “iteration” of self that will act in a given situation — but choice is limited by who I am, fundamentally. That would be integrity which is part of every natural thing.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about this beautifully in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” As a Jesuit, his perception of nature’s law is the word God. His point is that nothing in nature can act in opposition to itself and that is inexpressibly lovely.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:            
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;    
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,    
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.    
 
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Kingfishers

Sometimes we have friends who see us as we are. I have several such friends (aren’t they the true friends?) One of them recently told me how he sees me. “…you are an artist, a mountain woman, an athlete, a friend.” Really that’s a perfect summary of who I hope I am, the person I want to be.

 

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