This fine poem by poet and scientist Rebecca Elson explores these themes which have accompanied our human journey for thousands of years. (Via “The Marginalian” blog by Maria Popova)
Category Archives: Philosophy
Blog posts, articles and stories about philosophy, science (social neuroscience, memory, etc), ethics, and related interests.
My 4 Kindle Books #Holiday Sale
Four of my Kindle books on Amazon are 99 cents from today until midnight December 27th: two novels, a novella, and an illustrated epic poem.
A woman who lives both in the future as well as the present, Leila Payson strives to realize her visions. As a Miami high school teacher, she hopes that when her students fly, they’ll see beyond the horizon to where imagination and courage can take them. In her own life, she is haunted by early trauma, a failed romance, and a more recent loss. She doesn’t dwell on the past, though she learns from it, and instead challenges herself to be a better human being. Early in her teaching career, she goes to South Africa for a year, where she meets Baruti, the therapist who works with people with disabilities. When she returns, she puts what she’s learned to use. Raoul, a student, is losing his hearing and asks for her support. This begins the next step of her journey. All the while an attractive man with a book keeps appearing at her favorite places.
As Leila drives to school, she is in a world of shining buildings. Doors are at ground level or have moveable ramps. She looks at the open space, trees, and people on foot or sitting in compact pods that pass quietly. The most visible part are the people. Calm, smiling, in apparent good health, they move through a landscape designed to accommodate the natural beauty around them.
Where is this? she wonders. What has happened? A couple walk on what appears to be a continually moving mini-magical carpet. Next to them, a child rides, a child with dark glasses. Blind?
Leila presses a button, and when a portal opens, she realizes she knew that would happen. The couple pause, hovering on their carpet, which is malleable enough to form fit their feet.
“Where is this?”
‘The vine community.”
“And um, I know this sounds odd, but what year is it?”
“We don’t think in years anymore. It’s the fourth quadrant. But if you want you can convert that to November 2084.”
“And your daughter, is she blind?”
“I thought that could be engineered out.”
“We chose not to.”
When Leila leaves the pod in a recharging slip, she walks to the school, and notices the building has changed. Gone is the brick and concrete and prison-like windows. It looks like wood and glass in artistic arrangement, a peaked roof on one section holding solar panels.
She tells herself it’s a vision. A look at an alternative life, at the future. It’s not real. Not yet anyway. To test this hypothesis, she touches a glass window. It feels hard, cool.
Walking into the school, the hallways revert to 2015. She shakes her head in disbelief. Am I losing my mind?
No, she decides. If I’m able to envision this, it might exist. Part of me is already living there.
In Book 2 of The Horizon Seekers Series, Leila Payson’s adventures in the present and the future continue as she handles with humor and the right mix of patience and impatience a new man in her life, an eclectic crew of friends, and a possible career change. She and her bf Caroline discuss aliens, panspermia, and artificial intelligence. She is surprised by a DNA match and changes in her family. Leila works on her new disability group, envisions playgrounds of the future, and aids Doug, a young man who is designing next gen wheelchairs. Haunted by a terrible memory, she hears a familiar voice in a crowd but can’t locate the man who’s spoken. Are some things simply never resolved? In that vein, her friend Dov travels to Cuba to see his lover, only to be rebuffed. But the others in the group are inspired to work on that; will they succeed? Another friend’s father is injured in a car accident. His adjustment to life as a disabled person intersects with Leila and Doug’s endeavors. At her school, Leila organizes a big tent meeting to discuss complaints in response to the rumors of a renegade guidance counselor. Meanwhile, Leila enlists the erstwhile Maria to help investigate the guidance counselor’s mysterious sister. Returning for a short visit to South Africa, she reunites with her mentor, the disability advocate Baruti. And finally, driving across SA to see the native flamingos, she discovers what Doug meant when he said he was “racing the sun.”
Four children discover their Florida paradise has many layers. They become friends in changing times, which see the advent of the Civil Rights movement and rock’n’roll. Below the surface in their family lives, they find heights of hope and dreams, and dark secrets and nightmares. And they form a covenant which is challenged unexpectedly as they reach the threshold of freedom.
From the Prologue: Echoes of Atlantis. Old worlds bloom anew, spiral, drop, rise and soar, in a divine glare. Harsh angles appear in our lives, surfaces, beneath the surface of the sky: buildings, beaches, ranch houses in the pine forest and sand, alligator farms, the circus. Mirages and miracles, stringent salt and pungent seaweed, ghost towns in blue-eyed grass and dust, piano notes played by the flowering orange setting sun, we breathe the fresh bouquet of the lemon haze, emerge to the sweet melodies of dawn. And when, beneath a bright spotlight moon, the ships ride the midnight tide—sailing, circling, in concert with the fold and mantle of sea and sky, will we come back alive? Will we circle around and make it to the other side?
Dia, a young girl who lives on an island with her mother, discovers a boy who says his name is La-ha-ta, living in the wild. She brings him home. A kindly neighbor, Miss Pacer, befriends them. The Old Man of the Island fascinates and sometimes advises the children. La-ha-ta is placed in a group home. He escapes with Dia’s help, to be recaptured later and held in a detention center. He escapes and after a journey through wild Florida finds refuge in a small isolated community near the Everglades. Over the years, the children’s bond deepens. They seek relationships that will not compromise the integrity of others or themselves. One man hunts La-ha-ta, hoping to study him. Another boy, Eric, joins them, but must follow his own path. When Dia and La-ha-ta are captured, it seems all is lost. If they escape, if they survive, what will their relationship be, and will one or both return, and to what degree, to society?
Will we learn to live in society which allows each of us to have a personal recognition of reality and also a shared consciousness that accepts diversity and even conflict without physical violence, brainwashing or bullying, and exploitation? The active presence of those who are compassionate and reflective is essential. One character represents the calm values of Jesus, another is the initiator of the good, another the conflicted soul, another is flawed with hard-earned wisdom, and another the constant, the “charming gardener.”
Mary Clark has brought us an achingly beautiful chain of poems that both watch and listen: the sun, the sea, the darkness, the light, the passing of time—and the people who live among them. — The Reverend Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
This is Not My First Pandemic
In my book, Community, the word “AIDS’ appears 54 times. Our midtown New York City neighborhood was hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. In November 1985 the local hospital, St. Clare’s, opened the first state-designated AIDS unit. Many of the patients were uninsured. People were unprepared for this disease, which was found in other countries as well. A true pandemic, HIV/AIDS continues to infect millions around the world.
In the 1980s it killed people I knew, neighbors and co-workers, in the city and the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. For several years, we didn’t know how it was transmitted. We didn’t know what the stages were. People were afraid to be near a person with AIDS, to shake their hands, or breathe the same air. Then it seemed only certain people got AIDS: gay men, drug addicts, and sex workers. As with COVID-19, many people felt they were not at risk. They were wrong. It killed people in all walks of life, all ages, rich and poor, black and brown and white. One was a postal worker in my building, another an innovative developer, and another the head of a major homeless services organization.
Initially, the gay community was hit hard. My personal experience with AIDS began with a young man who lived in the apartment next door, whose mother came up from South Carolina to be with him in his last weeks. I saw the sores on his legs, his wasted body. A friend had a neighbor going through the same thing, another young guy with his life before him; his parents came to be with him, too. Another young man, Frank Clemmons, had started out in community activism at the same time I did. When Frank told me he had AIDS, it was just before going into a community meeting. We were in the Art Deco main hall of the McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, green and gold motif, decorated elevators around the corner at the far end.
Several years later, I dreamed I was in the elevator at the McGraw-Hill building. Muted light. Green, gold. Quiet. The elevator operator was a cab driver-philosopher. Going up was against the gravity of my mind, coming down we slipped 1-2-3 floors. Then 6 and 7, then 17. Fast. I stood watching the lights, the floor numbers flashing by. Wondered if I should care, say anything. Time slipped away.
I said, isn’t there anything you can do?
I saw a notice in a newsletter that Frank Clemmons had died in February, 1996.
Frank had been the Chelsea Reform Club’s “district leader from 1989-1991. Frank served on Community Board 4, Area Policy Board 4, and as a board member of NYS Gay & Lesbian Lobby—the predecessor of the Empire State Agenda. He was also a strong supporter and fundraiser for the Gay Men’s Chorus and a member of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.” He was also active in the 30th Street Block Association, Chelsea Waterside Park Association, and the Midtown South Precinct Community Council.
“Frank’s gentle manner and devotion to helping others will long be remembered by those he touched,” the notice said. “He was forty years old and died after a long illness of complications, due to AIDS.”
This is not my first pandemic. It amazes me that so many people have a casual attitude towards it. Every life lost is precious. And that should not be tolerated.
Tally: Lucid 90 Proof Vodka
Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark
Amazon UK Review by Philippa Rees
I think a reviewer owes a reader some declaration of his or her intersection with a book, why they read it and why review it, so any opinion is given a clear lens.
I bought this book for its title, knowing little about its subject, except that it was bound to be philosophical. I am interested in any reflections on the meaning of our seemingly haphazard existence and any wisdom pulled like threads from a personal tapestry and rewoven.
The discovery that it was about the near heyday of Greenwich Village, and characters living like rats in neglected garrets or churches momentarily vacant and underused, and the noble small presses pushing out chapbooks or poetry readings was a definite plus. This is a world I had heard about, but never directly sampled. The shadow of Alan Ginsberg and his ilk loomed large.
My only connection with this world was through a long and wonderful correspondence with an editor at Alfred Knopf, Sophie Wilkins who had mentored John Updike, George Braziller, Thomas Bernhard, William F. Buckley and many others now renowned, but who also found time for me. I did not deserve the attention she gave me but that was a reflection of the world of letters in that period, and this book, and the character of PJ evoked that distant generosity in which writers and writing were the only things that mattered. So my inclination was to absorb it as it came; sympathetic to the exhilaration of a world open to youth, even jejune youth avid for acceptance. That I did understand.
What makes reviewing it problematical is the autobiographical celebration of the main character PJ (Paul Johnston) who was clearly the seminal influence of the author’s life. His almost total (and vividly recreated – seemingly verbatim) philosophical reflections are almost all interesting, many provocative, never dull. Yet he is in unwinking focus throughout. I seldom abandon a book once I have committed to it, and I was never tempted to abandon this, for its lucid re-creation compelled, and it is cleanly written. That ‘cleanly’ is not meant to be derogatory, on the contrary, it served to keep the tungsten light firmly on the stature of its single character PJ whose shadow deepened increasingly, although his actual daily presence diminished. He was like a thread of elastic, the more stretched the greater his pull.
In a way the influence of PJ was to effect a growth of the author, incrementally strong enough to escape him. Yet the narrator Erin is in such thrall to PJ, so bent upon her tribute to his ideas, and his tragically diminishing physical powers she hardly seems to exist. Her peripheral relationships founder one after another, as perhaps they did, but this self-abnegation extends even to the absence of smell, or colour or atmosphere. It is a work about ideas, mostly the ideas of PJ, and nobody has a greater appetite for ideas than I do – a wonderful section on art being invisible but authoritative when it takes the creative reins – yet the author gave herself little liberty to live outside the mind. Or not on the pages of this seeming memoir.
What seems to happen is the repeated distillation of ideas repeated and refined until they have the clarity of 90 proof vodka, sharp, invigorating but with scant taste. I would love to meet this author and exchange vodka for single malt whisky with peat and autumn and the scent of heather, and woodsmoke and ask her to tell me about why PJ had such power, and whether having delivered her tribute she could now live a little lighter for it?
I urge you to read it nevertheless, if only to enjoy a quarrel with PJ, or to give thought to his uncompromising belief in intuition as the basis of relationship, a better index of love, a more autonomous source of creativity. In this he did master an understanding; and this work does certainly illuminate his originality, recognised by his (over) modest scribe, Erin.
Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble
Favorite Books of 2019
Viv is a special needs person who is functioning in her unique way. As she says, “my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.” But what a symphony she composes from these notes. Viv (or VIV or Vivian) is a great character who totally inhabits her skin and we see everything through her eyes. The humor occurs at piquant moments, elevating the narrative into a mythical realm. And she is at home in Dublin. “I like living in a city where I am mostly unknown, and going into small places where I am known.” She writes in a notebook of her daily journeys and makes lists of things she notices or likes. Her tour of Dublin is more than a spoof of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While radically different, it is just as revelatory about humanity and myth-making.
Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck
This New York Times Notable Book 2018 and bestseller in Germany takes on one of the most controversial issues of our time. Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a widowed man and retired linguistics professor in Berlin who at first does not notice the refugees in a nearby square, but when he does, he is drawn in to learn about them. Shy and uncertain, he comes to know them and understand how they are caught in the barbed wire of laws and policies designed to reject refugees. Slowly, as Richard is enlightened, he is also emancipated from the falsehoods of politicians and populist rhetoric. You’ll have to read the book to know what he does.
Attila, an expert on PTSD, and Jean, a wildlife biologist, meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Through these acts, and their accompanying thoughts and emotions, people find the strength to overcome trauma. A book worth reading.
Uncertain Light, by Marion Molteno
The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action. In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them, are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds.
An Honest House: A Memoir Continued, by Cynthia Reyes
This sequel to A Good Home continues the intimate journey of its author and her husband as they deal with her illness and major changes in their lives. The home stands strong and almost has an eternal quality as the human beings in it struggle and strive toward health, hope, faith and joy. I admire and enjoy Reyes’ writing and highly recommend her books.
Woodstock Memories 2
The Woodstock Music Festival site today is on the National Register for Historic Sites and part of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
We arrived on Saturday mid-day, August 16, 1969. (See the previous post, Woodstock Memories).
People were moving around, in front of the stage and up the hill, standing and chanting. Country Joe was leading the chant about fixin’ to die in Vietnam.
The hillside was densely packed in front of the stage and on our right, so we decided to try to cross to the other side. First, we took a path in front of the stage, only to have our shoes sink into the mud. Turning back, we followed a clear corridor in the crowd up the hill, and then another path, single file, across to the far side.
We were riding the high of anticipation. We heard people talking, learned the band playing was Santana. The place was rocking. What a great soundtrack for what I was feeling. What I felt others were feeling too. For what the experience was like on many levels.
We reached the other side of the hill, and there, on what was like the arm of an easy chair, we found a good spot. We could see the side of the stage. My brother spread the little blanket and with relief and a feeling of accomplishment we sat down. Not far away another corridor ran to the top of the hill.
People were in small groups, some couples, sitting in their own spaces, sleeping or dozing, talking, or getting up and moving around. When Santana finished their set, I told my brother, “I’m going to look for food. I heard there were food vendors at the top of the hill.”
As I walked uphill I stopped several times to look at the crowd. I got to the top and headed for some wooden structures. They were empty. A couple of people said the food ran out yesterday.
A row of port-o-sans stood nearby with people waiting in line. A woman coming away said, “It’s disgusting.”
Some people, I later heard, were using the woods lining the hillside.
I turned around and walked back downhill. I told my brother the news: there’s no food or water.
A man and woman sitting near us must have heard me.
“Would you like a coke?” the woman asked.
I was embarrassed to answer. I hated to take something they might need.
But we said, yes, and they handed us the coke. That sustained us for hours. My brother and I talked about what bands might have played already, and which were yet to play. We didn’t know. Announcements were being made from the stage. We were ready for a concert, and at the same time, with so much to absorb, with all that was before us, time and space and what was important took on a different quality.
This was more than a music festival. This was something else.
An army helicopter came over and looped around.
“They’re going to suck us up and take us directly to Vietnam,” someone said.
“I think they’re dropping flowers,” another person said.
Canned Heat played their bluesy rock, and the witty “Going Up The Country, “perfect for the journey we’d just made – and were now making in a different way.
From time to time I walked about twenty feet toward the center of the hill to where two vans were parked, and looked down at the stage. Creedence Clearwater rocked.
Walking toward a spot where I could see the full stage. Note the people without shoes and socks on. The ground was wet and muddy. We were sitting in a less muddy spot.
I was staring at the hospital tent across the road, white with vertical pink stripes, and a smaller tent not far away. A helicopter lifted off near the tents and flew low over us. The noise shredded the music. I was annoyed, distracted. Another one took off, and then another, and after a while the sound melded into the music, into the murmuring and cheering from the hillside, part of the soundtrack of the experience.
A man staggered toward the fence. I heard people say, “He’s tripping. He needs help.” Two men appeared and helped him, half-carrying him away. Later, a woman came down the hill and freaked out along the fence. Someone following her told us, “She’s freaked out by the crowd. It’s got to her. We’ve been here since yesterday.” He helped her along the fence and down to the road.
I wondered at that. Could it become too much for a person? And taking drugs in such a situation. Things could go awry. This was not helped by the lack of food, water and shelter. I wasn’t into drugs, and no one tried to get me or my brother to take any.
Suddenly I thought, I should take a picture of the crowd. Walking uphill, some people smiled at me, others were sleeping, but most were sitting as if they were in the best place in the world. Not in the mud, on wet grass, in summer heat and humidity, but in a place of the heart and appreciation of living, as if beyond space and time, in a collective imagination.
Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Saturday, August 16, 1969. Photo: Mary Clark
The crowd became part of my mental experience. More than just sensory experience. Watching the helicopters come in and lift off at the hospital across the road, I was looking at the lake behind it, and for a moment I experienced “seeing” into the future. I saw a world where people related to one another in a new way, not with social pressure or any kind of violent force. It was a completely different atmosphere.
What was happening here was one of the possibilities for human beings. For how we could live together without an overload of rules, with behaviors decided by those involved in quiet negotiation, respecting one another’s space.
When evening was coming on, people lit the way with flashlights for those walking up and down the path near us.
Night fell and the music played on, punctuated by silences and announcements. For me, the highlight of the evening in terms of music was Janis Joplin’s performance. Her voice was filled with many notes and frequencies besides the dominant one. It came down over us, expansive, resonant, and made an immediate connection. (Later I heard she was stoned and her performance was shrill and fragmented. That’s not what I heard. Maybe it was the difference between being directly in front of the stage and getting the dominant notes versus hearing her through the large amps placed partway up the hill. That technology may have caught all the notes and nuances.)
After Janis, Sly and The Family Stone came on. Many in the crowd rose to their feet, higher and higher. I rose but quickly sat back down. I put on my jacket and zipped it tight, but the damp chill of the ground made its way through. I tried to hold on because I knew my brother wanted to hear The Who. I thought it was about 1 or 2 a.m. and did not want to leave so early. So I lay down and shivered. Finally, I said, “I have to leave.”
He wanted to stay, so I said, “You stay, and I’ll walk back to the car. You can come later.” (Obviously, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I may have breathed in quite a lot of pot in the time we were there.)
“No, I’ll go with you,” he said.
We made our way to the fence, along it and down a short slope to the road, a way we’d seen others do it during the day. We began walking and must have taken a turn too soon. It was very dark on the road. Only a few people were walking near us.
“I don’t think this is the way we came,” I said. “We might be lost.”
He asked if we should turn back, and I said no, let’s keep going. I think this is the right direction. In truth, I was happy, floating along.
I heard the other people having a similar conversation.
A sound came rolling over the hills. The Who. The unmistakable chords of Pete Townsend.
“You’re hearing The Who,” I said.
“It’s not the same thing,” he groused.
I’ll never forget the sound of The Who rolling over the hills.
We saw a lake through a line of trees, glimmering with lights here and there. A couple or small group of people approached, headed the other way. We told them we didn’t know where we were and where we wanted to go.
“Just keep going and when you get to the end, turn left, and you’ll find the road you’re looking for.”
They were right. Soon we were walking away from the town of Bethel. Time grooved by and I began to wonder, but with only a slight thrill of panic, whether we would ever get back to our car.
Dawn came, and a familiar shape appeared in the near distance.
“There it is.”
The little white Corvair. What a welcome sight.
The sound of the doors opening gave me a sense of comfort. I drank from the thermos. We were on our way home.
(Later I would learn that Janis sang at 2 a.m., and Sly and The Family Stone about 3 a.m. The Who started at 5 a.m. We must have left about 4 a.m. or later.)
I realized a number of things afterward. I realized that I liked people, that I liked being with people. And that they could organize themselves, just coming together to do something because they wanted to do it and make it work and then go away. They could express themselves, whatever they thought and felt was fulfilling. Woodstock was a social and emotional, an intellectual and artistic experience. People made up their own things to do, games to play, an art gallery out in the trees.
For me it was also very personal. I didn’t feel judged as I did in high school and college. The people at the festival were interested in things other than themselves, than in appearances and status.
We wanted to be free and we were saying, we can do it. It was a glimpse of the potential for people, for what we can do if we want to.
Woodstock was a phenomenon, those performances and the coming together. It won’t happen again for a long time. I hope, someday, such large peaceful gatherings will be commonplace.
The Red and Black Aquatints of Robert Motherwell
Red Sea 1 (1976)
In the early 1990s I published a monthly community newspaper called the Clinton Chronicle (NYC). This review was written by Claire Machaver, a woman whose joy was manifest along with her generosity.
Long Fine Art Gallery, March 2 – April 30, 1994, 24 West 57th Street, New York
At the Long Fine Art Gallery, the cumulative effect of the glow of the multiple dense Red and Black Aquatints is striking. Robert Motherwell likened this effect to Plato’s image of art as the shadow cast on the dark cave’s wall by persons passing by the fire. In the Republic, Plato regarded such viewing of shadows as the first step in the path toward viewing the brightest of all things in the material world, the Sun – a metaphor for the vision of the best among realities, wisdom.
Motherwell’s graduate work in philosophy and psychology at Harvard and later studies in art history with Meyer Schapiro provided him with the impetus to address problems of visual communication. With this background, he could draw upon such masters as Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso.
For nearly a decade Motherwell addressed a continual problem of uniting disparate elements in his work.
“It used to cross my mind from time to time that it would be much more intelligent to go the other way – To begin with unity and then, within unity, create (through dividing) disparate elements.”
Motherwell became the heir to Mondrian’s rectilinear geometry and Matisse’s reduction and simplification of his own prior paintings.
Resolving the issue of inside/outside in his Open series of paintings, Motherwell employed a window motif that remains on the picture plane rather than functioning as an illusion of space. These windows do not describe a view. Instead they distill the geometry of all windows and act as symbols. Motherwell’s spare, elegant black lines suggestive of open windows in number 9, Red Open With White Line (1979), and in numbers 4 and 5 in the exhibit, Untitled (1972-73) recall the windows in Matisse’s 1914 painting, French Window at Collioure, a simplification of his 1905 painting, The Open Window (Collioure), and his 1914, View of Notre Dame, a simplification of an earlier View of Notre Dame painted the same year.
The A la Pintura aquatints are illuminations for Rafael Alberti’s poem, A la Pintura (Homage to Painting), first published in 1948. There are three major works in the exhibition: Red 1 – 3 from A la Pintura (1991); Red 4 – 7 from A la Pintura (1969); and Red 8 – 11 from A la Pintura (1971). These aquatints are subtle variations of square and rectangular black imagery on a red ground, with the Spanish text printed in red and the English translation printed in black.
It was Picasso who first indicated in his writings as director of the Prado museum and in Guernica, with its symbolic and mythological references, how a painter might bring together images that would be universally recognized as archetypal symbols, with the expression of the social consciousness of the artist.
Motherwell wrote, “Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head.” The abstract imagery he developed was derived from dialogues with political events, other art, literature and psychoanalysis. Red Sea 1 (1976) is one of the first prints to fully employ automatic “gestural” drawing. Referring to the gesture, Motherwell said, “the true way to imitate nature is to employ its own processes.”
Motherwell explained the intensity of the Red and Black Aquatints. “What aquatint can do . . . better than any other means of a painter, is to saturate certain mould-made papers with an intensity of hue that cannot be equaled (except perhaps in stained glass light).” Aquatint is a specialized technique which uses a metal plate coated with a porous resin to create a granulated effect. This beautiful show provided a lasting impression of a master’s graphic oeuvre and his remarkable ability to use the gestural image in abstract art.
Happiness: A Review
In a series of stories linked by characters and themes, Happiness by Aminatta Forna describes two lives on the front lines of human cruelty and resilience. Attila, an expert on PTSD, works in war zones and disaster areas. The other main character, Jean, a wildlife biologist, has seen the cruelty of humans toward wild animals firsthand. They meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. Attila loves music and dance, and Jean plants gardens in the most improbable places. One is self-care with the hope of sharing, the other combines self-care with caring for the environment and wildlife. They refuse to be alienated, they continue to relate to people they’ve known a long time and to strangers who need help or offer to help them in their ventures.
The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, ‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. However, in my view, Nietzsche’s statement is a generalization. Human beings are more complex. Some people will be damaged by trauma, some will be resilient, and some will be both.
Both Jean and Attila see the real illness, the worst loss, and it’s not the damage done by traumatic events. It’s our capacity for denial, of death, and of life in all its messiness. We try then to eliminate things we cannot control. The coyote and fox, both species Jean has studied in the field, are beyond our control. Some people welcome their presence as reminders of the wild and free in themselves, while others are threatened because these animals cannot be managed and thrive independently of humans.
The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Surmounting our difficulties to take this kind of action is pure rebellion against the damage done. There’s joy in this, and helping another person or animal affirms our humanity. It can be the simple act of giving a bit of food to a hungry fox on your lunch break at the back of the hotel you work in. It can be the more complex interaction with an old friend who now has dementia. A brief time of meditation or contemplation, a silent reverie by a river, or in a field making eye contact with a coyote, renews our connection with life. Through these acts, and the thoughts and emotions which give them a basket of flesh and blood, people find the strength to overcome trauma.
The passages meant to convey this joy often fall flat, at times detailed to death, other times described more as an ordeal or willful event that is fraught with the character’s anxiety. While there’s truth in these last two situations, the subduing of happiness seems to serve the author’s goal of setting aside happiness for hope. My other flushed grouse, to use a wildlife allusion, is the gratuitous first chapter. To equate the thrill of the hunt by a professional hunter or sports hunter with the hunt of a conservationist disregards the difference in intent, beliefs, and consequences, and emphasize the heightened senses of the hunt, and the similarity of human and animal behavior. Forna does better when she shows the difference between blood lust and its opposite: the strength that caring requires, the effort of advocating, saving and letting live.
My Top Five Book Picks for 2018
These books range from non-fiction to memoir to fiction. Each one had revelations for me, which were communicated in language far beyond my own abilities.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions 2013
Kimmerer is a research biologist and an active member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation. She lives near, but not on, the Onondaga reservation in upstate New York, near Syracuse. She gives us “woven essays,” often in the form of stories about people she’s met, lived with, engaged with, and places she’s lived and visited. When I read this book, I came to understand the Native American view of the world (although I had previously thought I did); and more than understand, experience it. In the first chapter she says of sweetgrass: “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” From the meaning of sweetgrass, to the consideration of actions taken to the seventh generation, the practices of gratitude and thanksgiving, the operation of a gift economy, to the hope presented by the coming of the People of the Seventh Fire, this book held me in thrall. She tells the story of the Peacemaker who came to the Haudosaunee (Iroquois), and of the dispersal to reservations of her ancestors. Her grandfather was taken from his family to the infamous Carlisle school for re-education. He was forbidden to speak his own language. She writes of the loss of indigenous language, and her efforts to relearn Potawatomi. Throughout all she shows the resilience of Native Americans. Now they are beginning to reclaim their heritage. Her contribution is this book, which opens a new way of looking at the world to non-Native Americans. And she considers how long the immigrants from Europe have to live in a place before they become native, and what being native to a place entails. The writing in this book is among the best I’ve read in years. One of the most beautiful stories is of the salmon “coming home” in the Pacific Northwest. In all the role of the land, the trees and plants, is interwoven. I thoroughly recommend this book.
The Color of Water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother, by James McBride, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 1996, 2006
McBride starts with: “As a boy I never knew where my mother was from – where she was born, who her parents were.” The most interesting part of this story is his discovery that his mother is Jewish by birth and upbringing, and that her family were immigrants who lived in a small southern town. The radical contrast of cultures is surreal, but the family dynamics are all too common. His mother left the family and converted to Christianity, which resulted in her being estranged from them. Alone after her husband’s death with multiple children to raise, she managed with fierce dedication, and occasional violence, as she’s only human and flawed, to see them all through to healthy and successful lives. As with his book of stories, Five-Carat Soul, which I’d read before this book, McBride’s language is edgy and poetic, and so is his social commentary. His writing has a pace and rhythm that comes from his other profession as a jazz musician. Most of all, this is a penetrating look at race and religion, and family and community, in America. A very memorable read.
Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2015
A biracial man returns from a decade in England to his old neighborhood in Germantown, Philadelphia. His father was white and his mother black, but he looks like a Celtic warrior. He is exposed to and has to deal with racial attitudes and behaviors every day of his life. The story begins with: “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house.” The ghetto inhabitants see him as white, but he knows he’s black. “I will not be rejected. I want to run, but not to be run off.” Soon afterward, a wizened elderly Jewish man and a striking teenaged girl visit him. The elderly man tells him he is the girl’s grandfather. He learns that the girl is his daughter, the result of a short fling with a young woman years ago. For reasons I’ll leave out now, his new-found daughter comes to live with him in the ramshackle mansion. The scenes are often funny, and some are funny and sad at the same time. A biracial “Adam and Eve” couple’s ghosts, or reality, haunt the place. How he and his daughter, among the other biracial, transgender, and marginalized people, cope with the persistent prejudices, and how they convert their experiences into strong human bonds, is well worth reading. There are flaws in this book, involving some confusing paranormal scenes which seem out of place, but the disclosure of being human in the midst of the absurdity of racism, is unforgettable. I’m glad I read this book.
A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, Little, Brown & Co., 2015
This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves us with a vision of what was, what might have been, and what might be.
Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, by Diane M. Denton, All Things That Matter Press, 2018
Now we’re in England, there’s Diane Denton’s luminous account of Anne Brontë’s short but productive life. The sisters’ books are populated with people who live large lives, with secret loves, deception, greed, passion, and loyalty. In this setting, quiet Anne makes her own way, exploring human relationships with a keen sense of morality and ethics. In a prescient way, she was ahead of her time in her thinking about the role of women, about freedom and equality.
Living Consciously Alive
Can a person live an un-repressed life, a life of all possibilities, or is the price always madness, because the terror of reality, the fear of life and of death, as Ernest Becker said, are too much to bear without defense?
Some, like R. D. Laing, say therefore prefer madness; at least, respect the mad for their courage.
I wonder if that release into all possibilities has to be a leap into insanity?
If I develop my attributes – intellect, emotions, sexuality, “soul” – and have no center other than a fire of gases like the sun, can I live fully, freely, courageously? I feel in myself the strong desire, stronger than the fear of breaking down, death and pain, to go into the world in all of its alarming chaos and be transfixed by it, to experience it all with courage as well as fear.
Ernest Becker (Denial of Death) would say I have fabricated my own “symbolic transcendence” over “the darkness and the dread of the human condition.”
But isn’t there equally glory in the human condition, in nature, in oneself? And just as hard to take, for most people, because of the guilt of being happy, successful (at whose cost) and the fear of being betrayed by happiness into forgetting horror – then it suddenly happens. Still, the beauty is equal to the ugliness. I don’t believe people create, always or necessarily, to “mediate natural terror” and triumph over it.
What I mean is not transcendence, but instead as fully experiencing life as I can. These experiences may shatter me, they may improve me; surely they will transform me.
Is it possible to experience the world purely without being completely destroyed?
Reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I kept thinking: but I don’t take these drugs and I have these experiences. When I walked in New York, I was sometimes mesmerized by the blue sky above the city streets,. I walked for blocks looking up until I came to see the faded lemon-blue near the western horizon. In Riverside Park, I watched flotillas of ducks, saw how they converged with the river’s currents, bobbing into one another’s area, the rhythm or actually the lack of rhythm, a kind of staccato randomness, changing formations and no clear purpose, but the purpose was clear. Dove blue lights went on the George Washington Bridge and upriver the crusty castle of Riverside Church towered in failing light.
How easy it is for me to visualize, hear and remember the feel of things, how sensory oriented I have always been, the importance of color and how I find it hard to look away from the angles and line in architecture, street after street. I always look and listen, drinking in, as I pass Lincoln Center, walking or in a bus, those colorful “pastiches” of Klee’s, the fountain, the whole.
In art and in life, in our perpetual consciousness, there are layers of perception. Cezanne’s paintings show this gestalt visual memory. There is a synthesis of objects, events and people seen from different points of view, in different lights, from different angles, at different times.
Huxley was looking for a bio-chemical-neurological similarity between “schizos” and artists. Too much stimulation can frighten and overwhelm, or it can fascinate and enrich. The ability to have faith in one’s experience is important, as Laing said, to not care what others judge it to be, to ascertain its value yourself.
“Crazy” people and artists are not the same from my experience. The crazy people I knew were often people of limited or a false empathy. Some are emotionally crippled: the ideologue; the man who screams all night on the church steps.
Anyone who was still alive and battling was not crazy. They had courage and imagination, but were in trouble. They were people who needed to be re-stabilized. I knew that, because I was one of them.
I am leading a peculiar life outside the mainstream, not a crazy life but one arrived at through choosing to live, fully, to be what I am.
Huxley wrote of artists that they are “congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness.”
This ability is inherent, however, in every person. Some choose to develop it, others to evade the reality of their own experience.
In my book Tally: An Intuitive Life, PJ said, “People find, if they ever do, that it ever so easy—and so difficult—to tap into one’s stream of consciousness. That’s what I mean by living consciously alive.”