art

REBLOG: “‘Tropic of Cancer’: A Few Excerpts”

An edited reblog-post from early 2015, off the aforementioned “throw-away” blog.

— ES (VSC)

Stuff and Things

NOTE: Updated on February 25, 2016.

Henry Miller (1891-1980) was one of the more unorthodox writers of his time. He’s also something of a personal inspiration to me.

Any half-decent reader is aware of the man… but, then again, who could forget him? He’s known for leading a rather odd, and yet edifying, life, and is also ubiquitous for the development of the modern autobiographical novel.

Arguably his most famous book, Tropic of Cancer (first published in 1934) is one such work. The novel, considered obscene for its candid and humorous expressions of sexuality, was banned in the United States until the 1960s.

The highlights of this book (like many of Miller’s, including Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn—both recommended) are, however, not Miller’s comedic sexual escapades, but rather his unique brand of non-confessional mysticism—a sort of artistic metaphysics.

Miller was something of a secular prophet, a clownish spiritual guru who taught that the pleasures of life…

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Thirteen Weeks (Bullshit—Layman’s Review of Unfathomable Art)

I’m a shitty student. I’m not a stupid person, but I am a shitty student. Just some sick and lazy undergrad. I had a writing class this semester, the topic of which was “hybrid genres.” It was a good class, and an easy class, but I still managed to score a C- overall, mostly out of sheer laziness.

Anyway, we had to make a research portfolio, with a study of a primary artist, as well as other artists encountered during our course of research, due each week, for 15 weeks. I cheesed most of it. (And only did 13 of the 15.) Still, the final product came out to about 30 pages of double spaced text, and I thought, why not? I’ll put it online. (With a few additions.)

So here’s something both heady and stupid, a bit of half-BS about art and music, multimedia, inter-textual things, and all those aesthetic shenanigans.

If this comes across to you as some name-dropping bonanza, then you’re definitely on to something. It’s basically supposed to be.

WEEK 1:

[…]

WEEK 2:

In the past several weeks I’ve encountered a variety of artists, musicians, and poets who inform contemporary artistic milieu. For instance—just to name a few of many examples—Pavarotti’s opera, Magritte’s surrealist paintings, and the poetry of Neruda have had various impacts on the many art-forms that we see proliferating today. I’d like to write a little on them, as well as Ed Ruscha (my first of many, henceforth, “weekly artists”) before initiating a discussion on, and observation of, the work of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Surrealism, in this case represented by the work of René Magritte (1898-1967), was a key player in the development of postmodern art. Magritte’s works are masterful portrayal of a world that exists outside the normal bounds of nature: they are symbolic, haunting, challenging—often a subtle trick on the viewer’s state of consciousness—and, perhaps above all, full of wit.

Magritte said of his work: “My painting is (sic) visible images which conceal nothing… they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question: ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

I was lucky enough to see some Magritte’s paintings (as well as Dali’s) in the MoMA a few years ago.

the-lovers-2

Magritte: The Lovers II (1928). (From ReneMagritte.org.)

Neruda (1904-1973) took on a slew of different topics in his poetry. His work tackled subjects as diverse as politics and nature, nostalgia and food. I recently finished reading his compilation On the Blue Shore of Silence, a series of beautiful contemplations on the sea. His diversity and the exquisite nature of his expression never fail to captivate me. They also did not fail to inform a greater postmodern aesthetic.

Pablo Neruda in 1966.

Pablo Neruda in 1966. (From Wikimedia.)

One of his most striking poems from that collection is, in my opinion, “The Sea”:

I need the sea because it teaches me.
I don’t know if I learn music or awareness,
if it’s a single wave or its vast existence,
or only its harsh voice or its shining
suggestion of fishes and ships.
The fact is that until I fall asleep,
in some magnetic way I move in
the university of the waves.
It’s not simply the shells crunched
as if some shivering planet
were giving signs of its gradual death;
no, I reconstruct the day out of a fragment,
the stalactite from the sliver of salt,
and the great god out of a spoonful.
What it taught me before, I keep. It’s air
ceaseless wind, water and sand.
It seems a small thing for a young man,
to have come here to live with his own fire;
nevertheless, the pulse that rose
and fell in its abyss,
the crackling of the blue cold,
the gradual wearing away of the star,
the soft unfolding of the wave
squandering snow with its foam,
the quiet power out there, sure
as a stone shrine in the depths,
replaced my world in which were growing
stubborn sorrow, gathering oblivion,
and my life changed suddenly:
as I became part of its pure movement.

Pavarotti’s (1935-2007) voice was as powerful and moving as Neruda’s poetry. I grew up listening to some of his aria: My grandfather would often put on a Pavarotti cassette when he would drive me to church on Sundays. In retrospect, listening to his opera is much different than watching a video of him singing. Due to the advent of the Internet, we can experience music differently: The result is a blending of media, and a very different reception of it. There is something so much more gratifying, for instance, in seeing Pavarotti take a first, long breath before unleashing Vesti la giubba on a crowd. Film, and its proliferation as streaming video, has undoubtedly changed the way we experience music… In any case, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors made opera more accessible to a wider audience.

pavarotti

Pavarotti singing (n.d.). (From La Repubblica.it.)

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) is one of the most recognizable artists involved in the pop art movement, a style of visual art that, while its inception was in the 1950s, is quite alive and well today. Pop art is perhaps best known by the work of Andy Warhol, although there were, and are, many artists who could be considered “pop” in some sense or another. Ruscha’s work seems to mostly rely upon typography. I, as an uninformed viewer, would describe his use of words and scripts as self-referential, idiosyncratic, ironic, and clever. I would almost guess that there is a kind of subtle, continuous scrutiny of of advertising and commercialism woven through much of his work. This is, of course, just my initial impression. In any case, his conflation of writing and visual art makes for a happy medium, a style that easily fits between and takes on the best of these two types of media.

Ruscha: Pay Nothing Until April (2003). (From Tate.)

Far from the time of Ruscha, albeit just as (if not more) prolific, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) made a lasting impression on the world of painting. His post-impressionist portrayals of 19th century France are iconic examples of the culture of the time, soulful depictions of lives and livelihoods, chatter among the high society and lonely, impoverished dreamers drunk over bottles of absinthe. Encyclopedia Britannica states that, “Despite his deformity and the effects of alcoholism and mental collapse later in life, Toulouse-Lautrec helped set the course of avant-garde art well beyond his early and tragic death at the age of 36.”

Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec_-_At_the_Moulin_Rouge_-_Google_Art_Project

Toulouse-Lautrec: At the Moulin Rouge (1892-1895). (From Wikimedia.)

WEEK 3:

This week, I encountered and made note of Gustav Mahler and Anselm Berrigan. I’ll also discuss Guillaume Apollinaire, and give a less cursory addition to what I’ve already written on Toulouse-Lautrec.

To begin with Mahler (1860-1911): A close friend had introduced me to his music not long ago. In particular the 4th movement of his 5th symphony—that is, the string-leaden Adagietto. (Which he is perhaps most well known for.) There are few pieces of music so poignant. Characteristic of this piece is a peculiar “climb” toward higher notes, an implication of an audible“peak,” and then a quick, somehow deceptive drawback and descent into the lower register, all the while tantalizing the listener with a unique pairing of musical voices. It was an interesting coincidence that, at the time I was listening to Adagietto, I was reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a book full of recurring metaphors about going “above” and “below,” noting the climbing of mountains and descents into valleys, the rising and falling of the sun, death and life, victory and defeat, self-overcoming and self-indulgence, etc. In any case, the dichotomizing nature of the piece makes it stand out.

Mahler (1907?). (From GustavMahler.com)

Mahler (1907?). (From GustavMahler.com)

I hadn’t heard of Anselm Berrigan (b. 1972) until several days ago, when I picked up the latest issue of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project newsletter. Flipping through the magazine, I found around the mid-section two of Berrigan’s poems. I was really very impressed by the duo “Pregrets” and “Regrets.” Here is a sample of the former:

brain will skip these stations in both directions, black
out blink on the mind, on-the-go transit info kiosks a
hit, you know Planned Service Chances didn’t do it
the Degas rehearsal dancers in their slasher flick masks
didn’t do it, the El Greco portrait of St. Jerome’s hung
too high over the fucking fireplace to do anything, no …

berrigan

Berrigan (n.d.). (From Poetry Foundation.)

The tonal aspects of this poem, as well as its stream-of-consciousness, narrative style are captivating. In this particular part of the poem alliteration and repetition are evident, and “carry” the reader through the writing. The wild, urban scenery of “Pregrets” is given a certain weight with the introduction of disgruntled and dream-like, associative observations.

Berrigan has taught writing in New York, as well as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University—famous for its association with the Beat poets, perhaps most notably Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) is someone whom, before now, I’d never heard of. Reading a bit of his biography, I get a sense that his life was a little Byronesque: few poets seem to come off the battlefield, especially considering the horrors of the Great War. His poetry collection Alcools is listed by Le Monde in their “100 Books of the Century” list. One of his most famous poems, “Zone,” opens that work, and its translators include Samuel Beckett. (Beckett is a personal favorite.) While it’s too long to include the entire poem here, I’ll provide an excerpt:

You are weary at last of this ancient world

Shepherdess O Eiffel tower whose flock of bridges bleats at the morning

You have lived long enough with Greek and Roman antiquity

Here even automobiles look old
Only religion stays news religion
As simple as hangars at the airfield

Alone in Europe you Christianity are not antique
The one modern European is you Pope Pius X
And you whom windows watch what shame keeps you
From entering a church and confessing your sins this morning
Handbills catalogues advertisements that sing overhead
Furnish your morning’s poetry for prose there are newspapers
Dime detective novels packed with adventure
Biographies of great men a thousand and one titles

This morning I saw a fine street whose name slips my mind
New and bright the sun’s clarion
Where executives and workers sweet stenographers
Hurry every weekday dawn and dusk
Three times a morning sirens groan
A choleric bell barks at noon
Billboards posters and
Doorplates twitter like parakeets
There is charm to this Paris factory street
Between rue Aumont-Thiéville and the avenue des Ternes

Apollinaire.

Apollinaire (n.d.). (From Poetry Foundation.)

Martin Sorrell called this work “the great poem of early Modernism.” Indeed, while it was published in 1913, Apollinaire’s work, in a way, heralds the 20th century, and captures its spirit. The fast-paced, near-constant sense of technological and cultural innovation inundates us in this poem. Capitalism, and the culture of consumerism, screams at us through advertisements and titles, catalogues and handbills. These stand in stark contrast to the “Greek and Roman antiquity” mentioned during the beginning. Apollinaire’s style of writing very much reminds me of the concept of flânerie, the kind of urban narrative and poetics made popular by Baudelaire.

Back to Lautrec: This week, I was looking at more of his illustrations and lithographs, rather than proper paintings. It’s interesting to note just how much Lautrec’s work has characterized the Belle Epoque of France. He is remembered, quite properly, for his frequenting of the infamous French cabaret, the Moulin Rouge. His illustrations also remind us of the Orientalist Japonism (by which he was inspired, in part) popular during the late 19th century, as well as the Art Nouveau style. Finally, his work is also associated with the culture of absinthe, a long-banned and mysterious alcoholic beverage, known for its popularity in 19th-century France. Lautrec’s work symbolizes an entire culture, time period, and way of life.

divan japonais lithograph

Toulouse-Lautrec: Divan Japonais lithograph (1892-1893). (From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

WEEK 4:

This week I’m going to provide a few observations of the work of Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), as well as Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).

Holzer makes a nice addition to the current roster of textual artists. My first impression of her work makes me recall Ruscha, in that it seems to be mostly constituted by text, though—importantly—text as it’s presented in a very particular manner. Her dark, noir-esque, monochrome photography seems to stand in contrast to the more exuberant, colorful tones of Ruscha’s artworks (and, when he did produce black and white photography, his lighter, sparcer scenery), and when her pieces are colored they employ different tones. This Whitney installation, for instance, is neon and vibrant, and exemplifies her use of LED lights:

(From Yatzer.)

Holzer: MONUMENT (2008). (From Yatzer.)

Pertinent is the fact that Holzer combines text with installation art. This element, and its more overt conceptuality (her work often presents feminist themes), is something lacking from Ruscha’s pop art repertoire. The way she uses color, shape, and light to bend and juxtapose text adds a refreshingly innovative dimension to intertextual artwork. She is also known for her use everyday objects and cityscapes, as well as projection:

words landmines

Holzer: WORDS, LAND MINES EXPLODING, LOVE AND HATE. (n.d.) (From Oh My Jenny Holzer.)

I came upon Alphonse Mucha by accident, in my study of Lautrec. Both men were important in the Art Nouveau movement, and both blended, and blurred the lines between, art and advertising, helping to create a bridge between the 19th century and 20th-century Modernism. Mucha placed a lot of emphasis on detail in his illustrations, and, in comparison to Lautrec, his works are noted by sharper, more natural lines and curves, vibrant colors, greater ornamentation, and less physical depth. Lautrec is earthy, spacious, and mysterious, whereas Mucha is bright, centered, and whimsical:

job cigs

Mucha: advertisement for Job cigarettes (1896). (From Everything Alphonse Mucha.)

WEEK 5:

This week I’m going to discuss the work of Hollis Frampton (1936-1984), the artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)—one of the first installation artists I came into contact with—as well as the Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

To begin with Bourgeois: I encountered her work in Manhattan a number of years ago, when visiting the Guggenheim. At the entrance stood her famous Maman, a huge, metallic, spindly arachnid figure. This distorted, somewhat disturbing sculpture—like many of Bourgeois’ works—explores femininity, and, in particular, motherhood:

Bourgeois

Bourgeois: Maman (1999). (From Guggenheim Bilbao.)

Many of Bourgeois’ sculptures are minimalistic, twisted, distorted, metallic, and concrete. They often take on the likeness of bodies—more often female bodies—and feminine shapes, albeit stretched, amputated, contorted, cool-colored, and surreal. What kind of impression do we have of the feminine, I wonder, and what is Bourgeois trying to tell us about it? Is she celebrating our understanding of femininity, or lashing out against negative perceptions and connotations?

Furthermore, how do we relate to bodies more generally? At what point is the line between object and subject crossed?

Far removed from the stillness of Bourgeois’ works are the experimental films of Hollis Frampton, which, while avant-garde in their own right, make us consider objects and scenery in a different way, often alluding to the nature of film itself. His short film Lemon (1969), for instance, depicts how lighting can dramatically change the way we perceive objects. Zorns Lemma (1970), a primary example of structural film, also uses objects and light—as well as sound and text—in this case to elucidate, quite appropriately, the piece’s own structure and mechanics. Reading reviews of the film by P. Adams Sitney and Bill Simon (two critics who examine Hollis’s work with great care), one quickly comes to understand how, what to the untrained eye might seem merely like a series of letters, scenes, monologues, etc., is in actuality a complex film leaden with intricate structures and concepts. In a sense, Frampton’s work is a kind of “meta-film,” or a feedback loop, in that it examines the very underpinnings of its own cinematic expression.

Alphabetic stills from Frampton's Zorns Lemma.

Alphabetic stills from Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). (From the Cleveland Institute of Art.)

As a departure from the previously examined artists, I’d like to make mention of Hieronymous Bosch. I have long been drawn to his work out of a fascination with Renaissance and Medieval art. A Netherlandish painter, Bosch was known for his landscapes and triptychs in which, like many artists of that time, he explored religious themes. His unique and grotesque depictions of the Christian Hell perhaps stand out the most:

The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch-tree_man

Bosch: From The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (1490-1510). (From In Defence of Marxism.)

WEEK 6:

On Barbara Kruger:

Having previously examine Jenny Holzer’s works, and now Barbara Kruger’s, I notice a certain similarity. Beyond the fact that they share an inter-textual medium, both of their bodies of work seem to be within the fold of conceptual art. Their artworks are both declarative and aesthetically interesting. See, for instance, Kruger’s following piece:

divinity

Kruger: Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece) (1982). (From MoMA.)

Kruger is, in a way, more provocative than Holzer, actively engaging and confronting her viewers. Kruger’s work also seems mostly confined to monochrome appropriations of other art or photography. This itself lends a certain cultural nuance to her art, and with the addition of text, her work then enters into a realm of revelation and upheaval. She tackles culture, art, consumerism, and gender, re-contextualizing familiar images with bold swathes of text. In any case, I really enjoy Kruger’s unabashed dismantling of archetypes and her ability to turn commonplace ideas on their heads. Kruger is bold and her work is a perfect exposition of hypocrisy and constraint as it exists in contemporary society:

Kruger: Untitled (Who’s the Fairest of Them All) (1989). (From The Atomic Irish Mommy.)

WEEK 7:

This week, I’d like to observe the work of Howard Finster, as well as Zdzisław Beksiński, and filmmaker David Lynch.

To begin with Finster (1916-2001):

Finster’s artwork verges on the visionary. Colorful portraits and scenery are arranged in whimsical ways, with deep curves and bevels filled with pastel-like tones, breathing life into his visuals. His art covers a wide range of subjects, from war and politics to religion and pop culture, and mixed into this is a kind of playfulness, embodied by Finster’s unique use of shape and tone. Lehigh University Art Galleries places Finster in the realm of “outsider art”—that is, art that may be considered trans-cultural, or beyond established artistic circles and styles. He is also considered something of a folk artist, and many of his works present a sort of “homemade” portraiture and iconography.

american-devils-are-friendly-1981

Finster: American Devils Are Friendly (1981). (From WikiArt.)

Finster’s story is itself something odd. A long-time travelling preacher, Finster became a painter later in life, after having a religious epiphany. The importance of faith is evident in his artworks, a number of which depict or reference Biblical stories. At times, he makes his religious overtones clearer through the introduction of text. His use of text, moreover, provides more content and context to his art. Compared to the in-your-face conceptuality and use of photography and installation seen in the works of Holzer and Kruger, Finster’s small lettering, religious overtones, and flattened imagery makes for a lighter, less confrontational—albeit still declarative—and less overwhelming style of visual art.

In the past year I became fascinated with the art of Zdzisław Beksiński (1929-2005), a Polish artist with a penchant for both the surreal and the macabre. Beksiński’s sketches, paintings, and computer graphics are positively nightmarish, often depicting fantastical hellscapes and devastated wastelands, and their strange, tormented residents. Bodies and architecture are broken down and re-imagined in forms that are truly disturbing and otherworldly.

beksinski1984

Beksiński: Untitled (1984). (From Wikimedia.)

Despite his penchant for the macabre, Beksinski said that some of his works were, in fact, meant to be humorous, although overall he declined to offer interpretations of many of his paintings.

untitled-158

Beksinski: Untitled (n.d.). (From WikiArt.)

David Lynch (b. 1946) is probably one of my favorite directors. I think he makes a nice follow-up to Beksinski, considering his predilection for visuals that are ominous and disturbing. His films are surreal, to say the least, and by his own admission, some of them follow a style he calls “dream logic.” Many of his movies appear strange in the sense that they are highly associative, non-linear, and often present some element of symbolism. Their atmosphere does indeed make them seem dreamlike, and nightmarish or creepy, in particular. Lynch’s films are often thrillers or mysteries of some kind, but an element of psychological horror is also pervasive.

eraserhead

Lynch: still from Eraserhead (1977). (Source unknown.)

Inland Empire (2006) is probably my favorite Lynch film thus far. While all of his movies involve some level of strangeness, the driving force behind Inland Empire is that it begins normally—with a basically coherent plot—and then quickly dives into a melange of bizarre scenes, scenarios, and symbols. The sudden movement from reality to fantasy is startling and captivating. Through this descent various scenes take on a terrifying, get-under-your-skin tone that is very much unique to Lynch. You can’t really compare his style of cinematography to anyone else’s. He is not merely “surreal,” but is a self-contained artist with a touch of otherworldly brilliance that is itself meted out in the mundane. From Mulholland Drive (2001) to Blue Velvet (1986) to Inland Empire, many of Lynch’s films take place in otherwise normal settings, but their dark, fantastical nature is realized in the atmosphere of his movies, in the nebulous plots and dialogues that seem to be ubiquitous to his work. In every light, for Lynch, there is a dark underbelly, in every pattern a ray of disarray.

It is fair to mention that, aside from film-making, Lynch is also a painter, musician, and advocate of transcendental meditation, and that his broad interests certainly factor into his movies, web series, and his television program, Twin Peaks (1990-1991). His use of music and musical performance is ubiquitous, and forms an important part of films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet.

indland empire

Lynch: still from Inland Empire (2006). (From Complex.)

To quote Complex, “Disorientation is one of many byproducts you experience while watching a David Lynch film—reality becomes distorted, characters are oblique to the point where they no longer feel human, and the unsettling mood forever teeters are the brink of mind-warping horror.”

WEEK 8:

This week I’d like to shed some light on the works of Lynda Barry and Eugenia Loli.

Barry (b. 1956) is a well-known American cartoonist and author, known primarily for her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, as well has her book The Good Times Are Killing Me. Her style of illustration varies, with some of her works reminding me, to a certain degree, of Karen Romano Young’s intentionally childlike drawings. Other works are reminiscent of more mainstream comic strips and some graphic novels. (I am not well versed in graphic novels, though Art Spiegelman’s Maus comes to mind, as opposed to much more richly detailed books like, say, Alan Moore’s Watchmen.) Her work is creative and humorous, and she maintains a very playful, colorful tone, at times poking fun at herself. Barry’s The Good Times are Killing Me (1988), an illustrated novel about an interracial relationship, garnered her critical acclaim, and was later made into a play. In 2002 she published One! Hundred! Demons! (2002), a graphic novel she terms “Autobiofictionalography.” Barry’s work can be playful and whimsical, and at the same time present as serious and poignant, and she is well-established as both a writer and an illustrator. I really enjoy the fact that much of her work is done on lined paper. It makes her drawings very inviting and down-to-earth.

what it is

Barry: excerpt from What It Is (2008). (From Fuzzy Undertones.)

Eugenia Loli is a Greek-American filmmaker, collage artist, and illustrator. I first stumbled upon her online. She uses photos and vintage cutouts, as well as computer software, to produce psychedelic collages full of precision and detail. I’d almost call her “maximalistic.” I find myself wondering how she sources and repurposes different materials. There are times when she presents the viewer with such a wide variety of imagery that it’s almost overwhelming.

it ends with a bang

Loli: It Ends with a Bang! (n.d.) (From Eugenia’s Collages.)

Her art bombards the viewer with images that juxtapose the mundane with the cosmic, ordinary life with touches of dream, sex, and drugged imagination. Loli is a truly imaginative artist who makes no reservation on what to put in her work. There is, therefore, a huge element of surprise to be found in her collages, and I almost find myself playing Where’s Waldo as I pick apart her artwork detail by detail.

Inappropriate Business Offer

Loli: Inappropriate Business Offer (n.d.) (From Eugenia’s Collages.)

WEEK 9:

On Roz Chast (b. 1954), an American author, cartoonist, and staff cartoonist for The New Yorker:

I’ve always enjoyed Chast’s cartoons. Before I was old enough to read—that is, read anything beyond a small chapter book—I would pick up copies of The New Yorker and flip through the pages, skipping over the articles themselves in order to find her (ubiquitously humorous) comics. Her writing is witty and often pokes fun at modern life and domestic issues, with her monochrome characters meting out significant doses of sarcasm and observational comedy. Her style of drawing reminds me of Lynda Barry’s, but usually involves less text and more detailed backgrounds—often indoor environments.

Chast:

Chast: “Pre-Existing Conditions,” from The New Yorker (n.d.). (From the Conde Nast Collection.)

Chast’s color works seem mostly confined to her books, such as What I Hate from A to Z (2011) and her Steve Martin-coauthored The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z! (2007) Her wry sense of humor never fails to put a smile on my face.

WEEK 10:

This week I’d like to look at the work of Art Spiegelman, as well as Alex Grey, and H.R. Giger.

I have a fondness for Spiegelman. (b. 1948.) I first read his graphic novel Maus in my senior English class in high school. This was my first experience with graphic novels and/or comics (beyond, say, comic strips—if you consider those part of the same genre as full-fledged comic books), and portended my reading of books like Watchmen, the graphic novel version of Fahrenheit 451, Jodorowsky’s The Incal and Metabarons, the horror manga Uzumaki, and the comic Transmetropolitan.

Going based off of Maus, as it’s the only work of Spiegelman’s that I’m familiar with, I will first say that I was impressed by his merging of comics—a format that I was hitherto used to seeing only in the context of humor, or light fiction, and in a very superficial way—with a gravely serious topic like the Holocaust. I thought this was startling, at first. I certainly found it unconventional. But, as I made my way through the two volumes of Maus, I found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by the depth and personality of Spiegelman’s story, and the characters that call it home. The obstinate racism of Vladek Spiegelman (the narrator’s grandfather, who, in the novel, recites his experiences during the Holocaust) is surprising, and also aggravating, given his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. But, all the more, the character’s stubbornness ultimately fleshes out his persona, and draws the reader inward, toward forming a more meaningful relationship with the events unfolding in the novel. Spiegelman is an almost masterful storyteller, and his book is both captivating and disturbing.

maus

Spiegelman: excerpt from Maus (serialized 1980-1991). (From Flickr.)

Alex Grey (b. 1953) is a well-renowned visionary and psychedelic artist—a painter, sculptor, and illustrator. The visionary aspect of his work is different from that of, say, Howard Finster, in that—while his paintings do present mystical and transcendent themes—they are not filled with overtly Christian and Biblical imagery. Grey promotes a holistic, universalist view of world religions and “wisdom traditions” from various cultures, symbolizing humanity’s quest for enlightenment. (Though Grey himself claims to practice Vajrayana Buddhism.) Grey is also very honest about the psychedelic nature of many of his paintings, noting that he was inspired to produce some of them under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, or actually produced them under the influence. His “Sacred Mirrors” series of paintings depict beings in transition from corporeal states of life to those of “higher planes,” and, otherwise, much of his art explores states of being that could be called “yogic” or “energetic,” in a New Age or esoteric sense. In contrast to the hodge podge, finely delineated objects of Loli’s collages, many of Grey’s paintings depict figures that are intimately connected on a metaphysical level, their physical structures transforming into brilliant light. The sheer amount of detail—particularly his use of transparency—that goes into his art is staggering.

Alex_Grey-Collective_Vision

Grey: Collective Vision (1995). (From AlexGrey.com)

H.R. Giger (1940-2014) is much more comparable to someone like Beksiński than Grey. His work, while just as otherworldly and detailed as Grey’s, is far darker. Still, Giger, like Grey, depicted bodies in an exquisite fashion, though his depiction of them is far more cool and mechanical than transcendent and vibrant. Whereas Grey’s use of religious imagery is largely predicated on Eastern traditions (with admitted references to Western ones), Giger presents us with jarring occult and disturbingly alien themes. Whereas Grey celebrates sexuality as force for cosmic union, Giger transforms it into a biomechanical carnality. Grey celebrates the light and life of the psychedelic counterculture, in all its abundant love and hallucinogenic revelry, whereas Giger is something of a shock jock, transgressive and nightmarish—though equally fantastical. As Giger noted, “A sick landscape marks men. And my landscapes are nothing more than the transplanting of human skin onto our surroundings.”

hr-giger-erotomechanics-vii1

Giger: Erotomechanics VII (n.d.) (From Count Orlok’s Blog.)

WEEK 11:

Peter Greenaway (b. 1942) is another one of those well-respected filmmakers who, up until this point, I knew nothing about. While I haven’t seen any of his full-fledged movies, I got a taste of his style from his 17-minute, 1977 short film Dear Phone. Like Frampton, Greenaway’s incorporation of text is essential. Unlike Frampton, however (in this case comparing Dear Phone to Zorns Lemma), narration seems more prominent. Zorns Lemma is, admittedly, a longer film, but it gets a lot of its aesthetic from long stretches of silence, whereas a definite story—albeit one that we are somewhat distanced from, as viewers—is the primum mobile for Greenaway’s short movie. There is a consistent element of contrast in Greenaway’s films. I noticed this more keenly in Vertical Features Remake (1978), which, in a very experimental fashion, comes out as something of an intentionally broken documentary, or at least a negligently incomplete one. A kind of meta-film, it documents the restoration or assemblage of footage taken by a fictional ornithologist. There’s an undertone of absurd humor to Greenaway, through his use of narration, which makes his films a little more accessible and level-headed than Frampton’s.

Poster for Greenaway's Vertical Features Remake (1978). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From FilmAffinity.)

Poster for Greenaway’s Vertical Features Remake (1978). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From FilmAffinity.)

My first serious encounter with poetry came from Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whom I’ve revisited recently. (I recently picked up his Artificial Paradises.) After reading his seminal collection The Flowers of Evil (sometime around 2008 or 2009), I was inspired to take on at least several more poets, working my way through Neruda, Williams, Rilke, Coleridge, and Poe; as well as more contemporary writers like Berrigan, Brenda Hillman, and Tate; the Zen poets Ikkyū Sōjun, Ryokan; and the collective Cold Mountain poets of China. Baudelaire is an important figure in modernism, and without him it seems difficult to fully appreciate the history and nature of poetry, from the Romantic period up until well into modern times.

Baudelaire, circa 1862. Portrait by Étienne Carjat. (From Wikimedia.)

Baudelaire, circa 1862. Portrait by Étienne Carjat. (From Wikimedia.)

I very much enjoy one particular poem from The Flowers of Evil, “The Spiritual Dawn”:

When the morning white and rosy breaks,
With the gnawing Ideal, upon the debauchee,
By the power of a strange decree,
Within the sotted beast an Angel wakes.

The mental Heaven’s inaccessible blue,
For wearied mortals that still dream and mourn,
Expands and sinks; towards the chasm drawn.
Thus, cherished goddess, Being pure and true

Upon the rests of foolish orgy-nights

Thine image, more sublime, more pink, more clear,

Before my staring eyes is ever there.

The sun has darkened all the candle lights;
And thus thy spectre like the immortal sun,
Is ever victorious thou resplendent one!

The beautiful image of a beloved goddess, confined to the clouds, reminds me of Dante’s vision of Heaven, and his quest to reunite with Beatrice, in Paradiso. Baudelaire often seems to posit lofty goals and great attainments that, for us mere mortals, always remain just out of reach. Thus his poetry is very much both a glorification and lamentation of human life.

WEEK 12:

I would like to present some information on Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) this week.

Salomon was a Jewish-German artist from Berlin. Her art, much of it expressionist in its nature, mostly makes reference to Nazi Germany and her experiences during the Holocaust. (Salomon and her unborn baby were gassed in Auschwitz, and much of her family committed suicide during the upheaval.) One finds that in her watercolors, full of opaque tones contrasted by darker, hardened lines (which give the amorphous splotches of paint a more definite form), Salomon puts human suffering into perspective, giving the viewer a visceral sense of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.

Salomon is perhaps best known for her cross-genre Leben? order Theater (German: “Life? or Theater?”), a series of gouaches, transparencies, and texts which collectively form a narrative that documents her life, love, and struggles within the backdrop of the Nazi German political and cultural landscape. Salomon intended for the series to combine various artistic approaches, and so the use of text is unconventional. Transparencies, often containing shaped text, are laid over the gouaches in such a way that the viewer can see their “interaction.” See, for instance, this overlay:

Charlotte_Salomon_-_JHM_4175TC

Salomon: excerpt from Leben? oder Theater? (n.d.). (From Wikimedia.)

In this clever scene, the phrase “Im Himmel…” is written upward, beginning an ascension, wherein it appears that a spirit, or spirits, leave for paradise. “… Ist oben” means “is above,” and, appropriately, the text is overlaid in the shape of a tree, against a window, above a figure in bed.

WEEK 13:

I’ve always been fascinated by optical illusions, and particularly impossible objects: the blivet, the impossible cube, the Penrose stairs, and (especially) the Penrose triangle. (As examples.) I was, for this reason, attracted to the works of M.C. Escher (1898-1972)—quite the master of optical illusions, and a highly imaginative and thoughtful artist.

Architecture and illusion often come together to create incredible scenes in Escher’s drawings, lithographs, and woodcuts. Otherwise, he was known for his fascination with symmetry, tessellations, and mathematics, generally. The physics of Escher’s “worlds” are distorted, and yet eerily orderly, giving the viewer a sense of disorientation. His impossible geometry makes one scrutinize his art for quite some time, trying to “figure out” the strange-shaped images that are so unique to his body of work.

Escher: Relativity

Escher: Relativity (1953). (From Wikimedia.)

Possibly my favorite filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies are one of my biggest inspirations as a writer.

It is unfair to simply deem Jodorowsky a filmmaker, as he is also an author, comic book artist, playwright, actor, former mime, tarot expert, and performance artist. However, this broad set of skills and proclivities figures into Jodorowsky’s films almost more than any of his other works, so I’d like to examine one of those.

Poster for Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1973). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From Wikimedia.)

Poster for Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From Wikimedia.)

Jodorowsky’s 1973 cult hit The Holy Mountain is filled with iconic scenes. Known for his avant-garde and provocative presentation of mystical and cultural symbols, The Holy Mountain teems with images that are both disturbing and beautiful, moving and terrifying. Jodorowsky is, like Lynch, a master of emotion, and pulls his viewers into a world that is—at least for The Holy Mountain—teeming with spiritual brilliance and sacred metaphors, colors and sound and light. I would almost argue that Jodorowsky’s films—while rightly quite beyond adequate description—could be compared to a bizarre merging of David Lynch’s movies with the artwork of Alex Grey. (Just to create an example using artists mentioned above.) In reality, Jodorowsky notes influence from Fellini, and performance art. He was an instrumental part of the reactionary performance art Panic Movement, influenced by Luis Buñuel’s Theater of Cruelty—a reaction to the mainstreaming of surrealism.

~

HONORABLE MENTIONS

(I wanted to write on these fine folks, but didn’t get around to it.)

  • Alfred Jarry
  • Austin Osman Spare
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • David Tibet
  • Genesis P-Orridge
  • Henry Miller
  • Jean Cocteau
  • Kazuo Ohno
  • PFFR (group)
  • Pierre Schaeffer
  • Rozz Williams
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Silk Road Ensemble (group)
  • Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound)
  • Terrence E. Holt

Mystical Aesthetics—Post Script

As an addendum to « Mystical Aesthetics », I wanted to publish some additional material that I had forgotten to elaborate on in that article. I mentioned, at least, art forms and styles of media through which the aesthetic engenders the mystical, and I’d like to add to that dance, modern and contemporary visual art, and some philosophical observations…

~

I touched on dance with the inclusion of the Mevlevi sema, exemplified by the dervishes of Turkey. The essence of Sufi achievement, the experience of the Absolute, was extracted from the trappings of Islam by the Universal Sufi movement, which is (as the name, in a way, implies) universalist in its philosophy, pertaining to no particular religion—rather embracing the mystical-spiritual heart of all great religious experience.

sema

The Mevlevi sema. (From UNESCO.)

Dance also undoubtedly affected another, much more distinct spiritual system, one which some of the aforementioned Sufis (notably Idries Shah, an important modern mystic) claimed had borrowed some of its concepts from their tradition. (Some have also claimed an Orthodox Christian, Hermetic, and/or Kabbalistic influence.) This practice is called the Fourth Way. The system (which I am reluctant to deem a religion or philosophy, as it doesn’t neatly fit into either of those camps), ironically also called “the System”, as well as “the Work”, was developed by the Greek-Armenian, Russian-born mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (also known as G.I. Gurdjieff). Gurdjieff was interested in the methods whereby humans could achieve their greatest potential, and saw the aim of his methods as waking individuals from a state of “waking sleep” into a higher, more fully-realized mode of consciousness that embraced the complete nature of being and self-awareness. Gurdjieff noted his school of thought was a kind of “esoteric Christianity,” and introduced the idea of “self-remembering.” The Fourth Way was further developed by Gurdjieff’s student, the esotericist P.D. Ouspensky, who wrote much on the subject and popularized it.

The Fourth Way is represented by the enneagram, developed (in this context) by Ouspensky, and symbolizes and systematizes the method[s] Gurdjieff and Ouspensky had elaborated. The points of the Fourth Way enneagram correspond to certain numbers, archetypes, or properties of life and nature.

Gurdjieff’s legacy of sacred dance—perhaps more appropriately deemed choreography, or “movements”, as he called them—and the co-composed music they were later set to, figures into the Fourth Way as a method of self-realization.

I’ve yet to experience one of these performances for myself, although, in any case, I’ve been raring to attend one of the “movements” since learning of Gurdjieff’s philosophy. (Granted, public performances of this kind seem very difficult to locate.) I first encountered the concepts of the Fourth Way through Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, undoubtedly one of the outright weirdest movies of all time. (And one that I highly recommend!) That movie also spurred my reading of the incomplete novel Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal. (Also highly recommended.)

gurdjieff-enneagram-dance

Dancers perform Gurdjieff’s “movements” in front of an enneagram. (From The Ritman Library: Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.)

Returning to the visual arts, and not in a particularly religious sense, we find that the quiet reflection involved in appreciating a painting, for instance, can be meditative and, perhaps, ineffable.

The surrealists have always struck a chord with me: they could take us to other worlds, and imbue the mind with strange modes of understanding. Magritte has long been one of my favorites. I vaguely remember seeing his The Palace of Curtains, III in the MoMA, several years back, not far from Dali’s The Persistence of Memory and  a Van Gogh painting. (Starry Night?)

Anyway, I like his The Son of Man (French: Le fils de l’homme) very much in particular. This piece is haunting, mysterious, and (like many of his paintings) plays subtle tricks on the mind, and causes us to reevaluate our own consciousnesses and the way they relate to familiar objects and symbols:

sonofman

The Son of Man (Le fils de l’homme) by Magritte. (1964.)

Schopenhauer, whose aesthetics (here as in the philosophical discipline or study) were elaborate and sophisticated (Cf. The World as Will and Representation), divided aesthetic appreciation into different types based on their effects on human consciousness and humans’ relationship to an overarching Will. (This is a topic I won’t elaborate on here.) He noted that a state of tranquility and will-lessness (maybe a sort of quiet, ineffable absorption or contemplation, free from immediate cravings and striving) followed from the appreciation of “the beautiful”, for instance.

A definite mystical aesthetic comes out in the work of psychedelic and visionary artists. This is sensible: Few phenomena (other than religion and spirituality) are as closely associated with mystical experiences (and religion and spirituality, for that matter…) than hallucinogenic drugs. Now, while I don’t personally partake in yagé or peyote or any other mind-bending entheogens, I am vastly intrigued by their potential, not only as tools for the promotion of psychological and spiritual well-being, but also as catalysts for artistic inspiration. (Cf. McKenna’s The Invisible Landscape, etc.) In this way they are invaluable aids for some who wish to plumb and probe the greatest depths of the mind in order to retrieve powerful creativity.

One visionary artist, who deserves nothing less than a standing ovation for the absolutely meticulous detail and sublimeness of his work, is Alex Grey. He’s maybe best known for his collaborations with the band Tool, for whom he has produced album artwork and some stunning visuals for their music videos.

While Alex Grey and other psychedelic and visionary artists are not as highly regarded among the bohemian circles as many of their high-brow contemporaries, they have carved out a unique niche in the world of painting, collage, illustration, and so forth.

Alex_Grey-Ecstacy

Ecstasy by Alex Grey.

… Pablo Amaringo, a Peruvian native who incorporates shamanistic and other indigenous elements into his works, is also well known in this regard:

Ayari Huarmi by Pablo Amaringo

Ayari Huarmi by Pablo Amaringo.

… Similarly psychedelic, and yet also very different by impression and method, are the collages of Eugenia Loli:

Three Minutes to Nirvana

Three Minutes to Nirvana (“Minute One”) by Eugenia Loli.

Mystical Aesthetics

“By losing myself in the colors and shapes around me I seemed to become very detached… The feeling wasn’t only caused by observing, being aware of, “beautiful” things, such as goldfish or pieces of moss; a full dustbin of dogshit with flies around it led to exactly the same result…”

Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery

~

The ecstatic dimensions of human life are often left in the periphery of thought and culture. Sure, popular religion may give many of us some sort of ultimatum, but you often don’t hear about the core of it all: mysticism.

Now “mysticism” is a finicky term with a myriad of definitions. While it always relates to something either spiritual, religious, or paranormal (or any combination thereof), there are different views regarding exactly what it means: dictionary descriptions differ, and put it as anything from “the belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender,” to a “belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies…” Merriam-Webster states that mysticism is “the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics,” and also defines it as “vague speculation:  a belief without sound basis,” as well as “a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power…”

For my purposes, I will side with the very last definition as best explaining what it is that I’m trying to get at: A direct experience and acquisition of a certain state of being or understanding.

Anyway, while I am of the opinion that genuine spiritual experience, which you might call transcendent, mystical (as I say), or (using a term Sam Harris is fond of) “numinous,” is available to every competent human being, religious or not, religion proper is perhaps the most recognizable vehicle for spiritual experience and the realization of what some may call “divinity”—to use a broad, and frankly quite connotative, phrase—otherwise a direct experience of metaphysically-, or spiritually-, directed consciousness.

No: To my mind there is no need whatsoever to introduce dogmatism, ritual, or anything outside of an evidentialist worldview in order to realize and experience the ineffable. This is a profound and profoundly powerful feeling recognized by individuals throughout history, by a variety of means, individuals who, say, utilize hallucinogens or practice deep meditation, or perhaps pondering philosophers, and artists of all stripes (in this case see Henry Miller’s The Wisdom of the Heart, esp. the essay “Creative Death”), many of whom have no specified religion or belief in the supernatural. Often we equate the supernatural with the metaphysical, or the mystical, but it is not always the case! Semantics or otherwise, these terms all bear unique meanings and impart flavors that, while quite similar, are very different in subtlety.

—I wanted to clear that up, first off.

So, in any case, religion is a vehicle for mysticality, or whatever one defines as “mystical” (or “numinous” or “transcendent”)—admittedly vague terms that quite obviously fall short of explaining what can only be “known” through direct experience. As the late wise moon-bat Terence McKenna once noted: … direct experience has been discounted and in its place all kind of belief systems have been erected… If you believe something, you’re automatically precluded from believing in the opposite, which means that a degree of your human freedom has been forfeited in the act of this belief.” While I don’t necessarily agree or believe (heh) that beliefs are inherently bad for spiritual well being or “human freedom” (cf. chaos magic), they really do represent something less meaningful and profound than direct experience, which, to my mind, is really the holy grail, the ultimate end of having beliefs in the first place.

So it is here that we can establish, I think, that religion is characterized by certain traits that are perhaps more mysterious, inexplicable, to-the-point in a way that can’t be articulated. We don’t often think of it this way: militant atheists, at least, contend that religion is all bullshit or blind dogmatism. But even Richard Dawkins, the infamous disbeliever extraordinaire, admits that religion has given us art, beauty, awe, in some sense. In a four-way conversation with his other colleagues (the collective  “New Atheists,” including the aforementioned Harris, as well as Dan Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens), he notes religious architecture as being particularly worthwhile, making the point that even hardline atheists don’t want to see history destroyed through, say, the burning of churches or demolishing of mosques. (To paraphrase loosely.) We can admit that many places of worship erected throughout the ages represent some of the most astounding examples of human creativity, and this is patently obvious to anyone who cares to really look…

But aren’t they also something more, as well?

Look, for instance, at this photograph:

(Source unknown.)

(Source unknown.)

This is the vaulted dome of the interior of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan. The ornate details are beautiful. The coloring is wild and vivid. And yet what seems to strike the heart is the ascendance of all these details towards a central point. There is almost a fractal-like quality which aspires toward a unification in the one, prime shape. Without any supernatural or philosophical injunction, without any speculation or lengthy discussion, we almost immediately appreciate this. It strikes a chord. Is that merely an aesthetic appreciation? Or does it go beyond that in some sense? If so, why?

What is it about this photo that seems so incredible?:

The north rose window in Notre Dame de Paris.

The north rose window in Notre Dame de Paris. (Source unknown.)

… Or this one?:

The Triumurti temples at the Prambanan Hindu temple complex.

The Triumurti temples at the Prambanan Hindu temple complex. (Source unknown.)

Call it a matter of giving credit where it’s unwelcome, but to me every “sacred space,” plain or ostentatious, gilded or glued together, opens up into the mystery, the mystical. Even in plain, rural Baptist churches the uniformity of the pews and aisles and the act of people coming together to embrace a great, final unknown… well, that’s something, isn’t it? It’s something that strikes me in holy places, whether empty or brimming with crowds of worshipers. Well, what do you deem that?

To me, the temple, the mosque, and the synagogue all come down to this: A place is set aside, somewhere in a world otherwise wild, and within the confines of the space a sense of unity and awe is erected. Unity is found through some kind of order amid the wrack and commotion of everything outside, the indifference of the universe.

On that topic, both order and unity seem important in mystical aesthetics…. (And perhaps unity more so…) The idea that everything is pervaded by one substance or essence, even if (as Buddhists contend) that essence is, in fact, non-essence or emptiness. This thing, however you imagine it, is a perhaps a monad beneath the surface, a universal so slight that you can barely see it. Yet it passes through your mind as you wander the halls of vaulted cathedrals or circumambulate the borders of a stupa: order, pattern, singularity, microcosm and macrocosm coming together in a beautiful, inseparable whole. You don’t know it or talk about it, you don’t quantify or qualify it… you experience it, become it, are it.

Recently, I discovered a phrase and concept that helps shine some light on the ubiquitous beauty of mystical aesthetics: Shapes and visual patterns ascribed to the “sacred,” such as religious structures, as well as visionary, psychedelic, and religious art; and non-religious objects and spaces that may otherwise be considered “spiritual,” can fall under the category of “sacred geometry.” (No superstitious associations necessary.) According to Paul Calter, et al (thank you Wikipedia), sacred geometry is any, well, geometry that provides or elucidates symbolic and sacred meanings. More broadly (by my own definition), it may be geometry that evokes a sense of awe, interconnectedness, and transcendence (a preferred phrase which is comprehensive enough to include most religions); or an example of the work of a divine being or agent (i.e. the monotheistic, often Abrahamic God) through said being’s establishment of order in the universe, or a visual appeal to or glorification of that being/God.

A Sri Yantra, a sacred diagram which figures into Hindu tantra, and is related to the Tantric or Tibetan Buddhist mandala. (Source unknown.)

A Sri Yantra, a sacred diagram which figures into Hindu tantra, and is related to the Tantric or Tibetan Buddhist mandala. (Source unknown.)

The squared circle, an alchemical symbol of the philosopher's stone.

The squared circle, an alchemical symbol of the philosopher’s stone and an example of sacred geometry. (Source unknown.)

Another depiction of the squaring of the circle, this depiction from a work by the 17th century alchemist Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg.

Another depiction of the squaring of the circle, this from a work by the 17th century alchemist Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg. Note the representation of non-duality, or the pairing of opposites, in male (Sun) and female (Moon) coming together as one.

Sacred geometry seems to play a larger role in religious architecture and art relegated to certain traditions or contexts. A prime example: While alchemy is not in any full sense a religious endeavor, alchemical symbols, motifs, etc. (as shown above) figure in religions and systems of ceremonial magic (which may, depending, rely on supernatural or paranormal claims) such as those associated with the Hermetic and [broader] Western esoteric tradition—Hermeticism, the Golden Dawn, Thelema, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, and some other belief systems associated with a Neoplatonic worldview or “occult” practices. Alchemical symbols often denote certain elements, substances, forces, or other aspects of reality, and thus provide a measure of “language” with which these belief systems can communicate particular ideas.

A Tibetan Buddhist mandala. (Source unknown.)

A Tibetan Buddhist mandala. (Source unknown.)

Another case: Islamic architecture has long featured extremely detailed, maximalistic tiling, calligraphy, etc., especially—it seems—in Persian and Ottoman Islamic architecture. (To an extent some features were borrowed from Byzantine Christian aesthetics, as well as earlier Roman and pre-Islamic or Zoroastrian Persian styles.) One thing to note is that while the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches were generally—or at least some time after Christ’s death—comfortable with the depiction of saints, angels, and other revered individuals or beings, iconoclasm was much more frowned upon in Islam, as idolatry is a serious sin (as far as I understand) in the faith of Muhammad. Thus Islamic artists and architects specialized in the aforementioned elements, whereas Christian artists and architects more easily took to depicting the human form. 

In any case, this use of geometry and whimsical, curving calligraphy beautifies and glorifies the interior of great mosques, pointing to the oneness and uniqueness of Allah (Arabic: توحيد‎ tawḥīd), a cornerstone of Islamic theology.

Again, the interior of the Iranian Shah Mosque is striking, and strikingly relevant:

800px-Imamsquare2

The Shah Mosque of Isfahan. Notice the Qur’anic scriptures laid out against the blue. (Source unknown.)

No doubt, this work moves the heart, whether one is religious or not. For Islamic mystics, or Sufis, this may just lay the soul bare…

shah

More of the masjid. (Source unknown.)

… And now notice the difference between this and the statuary of Catholic Christendom, which yet engenders mystical or transcendent feeling, albeit in a much different way:

Rom,_Santa_Maria_della_Vittoria,_Die_Verzückung_der_Heiligen_Theresa_(Bernini)

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini. (1652.) In the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome. (Source unknown.)

This statue gives us insight into ecstasy (in the mystical sense), or more specifically religious ecstasy, a feeling of blissful communion with something much greater than oneself. The Catholic mystics have long reported this experience.

Taking a gander at statues, we slip from the world of religious architecture into religious visual art proper, which also clarifies the mystical state of being.

Adi Shankara (ca. 8th century CE) with disciples. Shankara consolidated the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which posits the non-duality, or unity of all objects and subjects in one's self (atman) and the supreme self (Brahman).

Adi Shankara (ca. 8th century CE) with disciples. Shankara consolidated the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which posits the non-duality, or unity, of all objects and subjects in one’s self (atman) and the supreme self (Brahman). (Source unknown.)

Here we see Adi Shankara in a state of peace and perhaps meditative absorption. Shankara is revered as one of the greatest gurus in Hinduism and the consolidator of the profound philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. This mystical ideology posits the unity of oneself and the universe, of object and subject, and of the notion that it is an illusion to see oneself as detached from anything in the universe. This philosophy was no doubt influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideas, with their concepts of Tathatā (Sanskrit: तथता “suchness”, or the state of things being simply what they are) or Dharmata, as well as Dharmakāya. (The inconceivable aspect of an enlightened being, or Buddha, which goes beyond characteristic.)

In Tibetan Buddhism religious art is especially important as a means of meditation. Hence there are a number of “meditational deities” (yidam) upon whose images meditators gaze in order to view themselves as being said deity, or embodying its qualities to a certain degree.

Vajrakilaya, a yidam or meditational deity in Tibetan Buddhism.

Vajrakilaya, a yidam or meditational deity in Tibetan Buddhism. (Source unknown.)

Now to digress a little:

Visual art is maybe the most obvious means of conveying sacred feeling, as far as religion and associated worldviews go. I dug up a pertinent excerpt from blogger Sean Robsville, who notes of the aesthetician Roger Scruton in his blog Transcultural Buddhism, “Scruton believes that all great art has a ‘spiritual’ dimension, even if it is not overtly religious. It is this transcendence of the mundane that we recognise as ‘beauty’.”

However, it’s important to remember that religion, while imagined by its outward appearances, conveys its greatest teachings, its bare-bones paradigms, through its literature. (Granted, this is omitting many indigenous and shamanistic or animistic religions which depend on oral traditions.) After all, most religions have their religious texts. Without these from whence do we proceed, philosophically or otherwise?

In the major Abrahamic religions (at least), this is where esotericism, or esoteric interpretation, is important. Many readers of the Christian Bible, the Torah or Tanakh, or the Qur’an may find those texts to contain rather straightforward injunctions regarding societal organization, politics, and morality. (Although it must be noted that even the basic interpretations of these texts, whether literal or metaphorical, vary significantly. It seems there are many translations and versions of the Bible (among Christian denominations) in particular.) Yet each of these religions has adherents who see the deeper, more profound meanings hidden behind platitudes and proverbs. Mystics among all traditions have long divided their pertinent holy writings into different levels of meaning.

The beautiful allegories of many religious texts are championed by monastics and mystics alike (although monasticism often reflects a degree of mysticism, if it is not simply a subset of, or is related to a mystic’s style of life, as exemplified by Christian tradition primarily) to validate a deep-seated sense of spirituality. In the case of many monotheistic religions, nearness to or union with God is a primary objective.

Two passages, from the Bible and Qur’an, are pertinent:

  • Bible (New Testament):  John 14:20: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father (God), and you in me, and I in you.”
  • Qur’an: Qaf 6/16[?]: And We (God) have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.”

In Eastern religions, the concept of union is also important (cf. yoga, which literally means “to yoke” or “to unite”), although it is presented in a different light.

  • Mandukya Upanishad: 1.2: “All this is, indeed, Brahman. This Atman is Brahman.”
    • Note: In Hinduism, “Brahman” refers to the supreme self, the “self” of  the cosmos, which is ultimately indefinable. “Atman” refers to one’s self. In the Upanishads (which reveal the aforementioned Vedanta) it is consistently reaffirmed that oneself is not separate from the supreme self and the universe.
  •  Tao Te Ching: Ch. 16:

“Attain the ultimate emptiness
Hold on to the truest tranquility
The myriad things are all active
I therefore watch their return”

  •  Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: Ch. 4: “When appearances and names are put away and all discrimination ceases, that which remains is the true and essential nature of things and, as nothing can be predicated as to the nature of essence, is called the “Suchness” of Reality.”

From all of these texts we can pick out the commonality of oneness and universalism—union, interconnectivity, non-duality, “suchness”; the return to a mysterious, inscrutable (and yet perceived!) source.

Now, the media of experiential spirituality is not limited to religious work. This must be understood in order to truly cross over into the fold of spirituality/mysticism—that it is not merely in the domain or possession of religion. Religion certainly is the traditional vehicle or vessel of spirituality and mystical experience, but as I have stated, similar states can be engaged by people with no religious background. Certainly philosophers and artists of all stripes can come close to these experiences in their own ways. (While philosophy is mainly about intellectual analysis and the arts about creative work, the trance state can and has historically been engaged (albeit not often reported) in the course of doing philosophy and art. Not to mention the fact that throughout history throngs of artists (by this I mean musicians, writers, etc. as well) and philosophers have also been “mystics”, or have at least reported or sought out mystical experiences by one means or another. (Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre and Alan Watts’ experiences with mescaline.))

Mystical poetry is a long-standing tradition, and many people have expressed a connection to some Absolute or another, or a sort of universal love, by way of poetry. The great Persian poet Rumi—a Sufi (Islamic) mystic and antecedent of the Mevlevi Order—is perhaps the most famous example, especially in the case of love. (Particularly a sort of Islamic divine love. (the Christian phrase, from the Greek, is agape.)) This, for instance, comes from his Masnavi:

“The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.”

This is another outstanding piece entitled “Only Breath”:

“Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
 
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
 
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
 
am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
 
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
 
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
 
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.”

Even more explicitly non-particular in his tradition was the fantastical poet and mythologist (called a “glorious luminary” by William Rossetti) William Blake, who, although nominally Christian, expressed universalism and the all-pursuing qualities of a philosopher-mystic throughout his writing and art.

William_Blake_-_Sconfitta_-_Frontispiece_to_The_Song_of_Los

Blake’s frontispiece, depicting gnostic themes, for his book The Song of Los (written 1795).

 … Here is his “The Divine Image”, originally featured in Songs of Innocence:

“To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.”

Poetry and prose have always had the potential, as much as art, to evoke mystical feeling. The variety of written works that may be characterized as “mystical” or “spiritual” is incredible. And yet as disparate as they may be, they all share in the perennial force of an Absolute, or engender a connection to this ineffable quality.

In contrast with the flowery language of Rumi and Blake, I will provide a much more contemporary example from the writings of the aforementioned Henry Miller (a personal hero—I’m currently working on my fourth book of his (Moloch: or, This Gentile World), since I recently finished Black Spring, and both of the Tropic novels before that), who, while quite gritty and very surreal by comparison, is yet like the proverbial “finger pointing at the moon” (spoken of in Zen discourse).

… From Tropic of Cancer:

“Today I awoke from a sound sleep with curses of joy on my lips, with gibberish on my tongue, repeating to myself like a litany – “Fay ce que vouldras!… fay ce que vouldras!”; Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy. So much crowds into my head when I say this to myself: images, gay ones, terrible ones, maddening ones, the wolf and the goat, the spider, the crab, syphilis with her wings outstretched and the door of the womb always on the latch, always open, ready like the tomb. Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy!”

Henry Miller

Henry Miller. (Source unknown.)

(Interestingly, fay ce que vouldras is French for “do what thou wilt” (the common translation), from Rabelais (whom Miller was acquainted with), and the essential motto of the religion and [religious] philosophy of Thelema.)

As Miller said of his book, “My idea briefly has been to present a resurrection of the emotions, to depict the conduct of a human being in the stratosphere of ideas, that is, in the grip of delirium.”

Is this truly delirium, or mystical psychosis?

It is noteworthy that Miller was influenced to some degree by Theosophy and the ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom he mentions several times in at least one book.

… Lastly, I’d like to look at music. I’ve left this one for last in honor of Aldous Huxley’s well-known statement: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

Whether this statement is true or not, music is an art form that quite seriously depends on states of duality, being and non-being… that is, sound and silence. The dance of dichotomy, of existence and non-existence, is readily noticeable in music. It is an aesthetic employed for mystical means in the appreciation of some traditional Japanese compositions, what with the notion of ma (間, “negative space”).

And Japan has a long, variegated tradition of sacred music. From Shintō court scores to monosyllabic Buddhist chants, music has been featured in much of Japanese religious life. Perhaps the most mysterious example is that of the shakuhachi…

The shakuhachi, known by a few as kyotaku (“empty bell”) and in certain forms as hocchiku (“dharma bamboo”), was originally more of a religious tool than an instrument: this vertical bamboo flute was employed by komusō, the eccentric-looking monks of the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen, who played it for enlightenment and alms as they wandered the countryside. They practiced suizen, or “blowing zen”, as a form of meditation, and concentrated on honkyoku, sacred Zen Buddhist pieces that reflect deep mystery (embodying the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen) and the qualities of enlightenment. I myself will admit to having dabbled in this instrument,  and, by my own experience, it requires nothing if not the patience and persistence of a Zen master. A simple, holed-out length of bamboo can, in the correct state of mind, produce an audible symbol of gnosis. Hokyoku are spontaneous and utterly indescribable, and rightly so. I personally came face to face with this experience, this intangible nature, during a shakuhachi concert at Roulette in Brooklyn several years ago. (Props to the Japan Society, Ned Rothenberg, Kinya Sogawa, and Ralph Samuelson for an amazing performance. I remember it fondly!) The concert was indescribably mysterious. (Yūgen?)

komuso

A komusō in traditional garb, begging at Jochi-ji temple in Kita-Kamakura, Japan. (From Wikipedia.)

… Bamboo is also the basis of the bansuri, an Indian transverse flute famously employed by Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, admired (and even worshiped) by millions of mainstream Hindus, and beloved mystagogue of the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism. (More properly known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.) The flute is involved in Krishna’s romance with Radha, and the sound of classical Hindustani music as played on the bansuri encapsulates a spirit of serene bliss and love. Whereas the shakuhachi’s typical music is characterized by a benign, wild indifference—blasts of air like claps of thunder centered and contrasted by soft drones and strange vibratos—the bansuri’s domain is one of ecstasy and calm joy painted by colorful tones and and a sense of pervasiveness. While the bansuri’s song is peaceful in the same sense as the shakuhachi’s, it’s more of a divine love ballad born from the depths of the heart and pouring over the world, whereas the shakuhachi’s is the portrait of a mind that has been liberated, one that resides on top of a mountain in the rain, or hides in the mist that hangs in a deciduous grove.

Krishna with his bansuri. (From GodofIndia.com)

Krishna playing his bansuri. (From GodofIndia.com)

A similar instrument, although not bamboo, is the ney. A Middle-Eastern rim-blown woodwind, it is possibly most famous in Turkey and Iran. The ney is made from reeds, and so has the same basic properties as bamboo. (Canes and reeds are grasses like bamboo, albeit smaller.) The Turkish ney in particular is known for its use in the rites (sema) of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism (as per Rumi). By all rights, this order, known for its famous whirling dervishes, is probably the face of Sufism in the non-Islamic world. Their whirling is often accompanied by the ney and various other instruments.

Medvlevi whirling dervishes and ney players in 1887. (Source unknown.)

Mevlevi whirling dervishes and ney players in 1887. (Source unknown.)

Whether by the means and methods of music, art, architecture, poetry, prose, dance, or sculpture—or anything at all, for that matter—the aesthetic is not merely the superficial face-value of a modern consumerist aeon; not evil as it may be to the gnostics, who have long regarded the material realm the creation of an opressive demiurge; not a fleeting hedonistic playground where every sense is tantalized and inundated with meaningless data, as per Kierkegaard… no, that couldn’t be further from the truth! The aesthetic is the portent of the spiritual, a portal into the mysterium tremendum, a bridge and not an end. The end, then, is left to be determined by us as individuals, who with our hands and blood and sweat and tears carve out art and engrave our souls into the vast mundaneness of of the universe, a blank scape laid below us and an immovable ridgepole supporting our existence. If we can see the beauty in the everyday, and fashion from the clay of the earth the mantle of the stars, then we may just be able to see the One thing, the mystic thing, the nameless thing, that lies at the end of the oft-trodden road.

~

AFTERWARD

As I posted to Unknown Dopeness (and I feel makes for a good summary):

“This is a tangentially philosophical article and examination that I wrote on my blog. In essence, it’s an exploration of what I like to call “mystical aesthetics,” which comprises the methods whereby art symbolizes and acts as a portent of the mystical. Basically, the aesthetic (the arts) have the potential to channel the metaphysical, or engender states of spiritual experience.

Schopenhauer, in essence, implied our contact with the nature of the world can come through music, for instance. Aldous Huxley said that music was only outdone by silence as “expressing the inexpressible”. Mystical poetry, visionary art, religious architecture, sacred geometry, and other mediums of expression point toward higher states of consciousness. It is my view that the artist may enter these states through the spirit of abstract work.

I hope you enjoy!”

—See the post script HERE.