Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life...

The poems in Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours (Stundenbuch) were inspired by the "simple spirituality" he experienced on a student pilgrimage to Russia at the end of the 19th century. The 12th poem in the central section of the triptych opens with these resonant lines:

And yet, although we strain against
the inner prison that holds us back--
I sense a great wonder in the world:
Life wants to live.

Who then is living it? Is it the things themselves,
like an unplayed melody
of a harp at eventide?

(my translation)

Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy have a new translation (Riverhead, 2005) that captures Rilke's sense (at the expense of literalism). Their opening verse reads:

And yet, though we strain
against the deadening grip
of daily necessity;
I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Iain McGilchrist has written "a landmark new book" called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (Yale, 2010). His premise is that the rational, analytical left hemisphere of the brain has assumed primacy over the integrative, metaphor-connecting right hemisphere. According to the ever-reliable book cover, "he traces how the left hemisphere has grabbed more than its fair share of power, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world hold sway, at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us."

The book has won awards from the scientific and medical fields, though I encountered it in the current issue of Poetry magazine. McGilchrist demonstrates how music predates language and poetry comes before prose. We need more neuroimaging physicians like Dr McGilchrist offering diagnoses like this one:

"the importance of metaphor is that it underlies all forms of understanding whatsoever, science and philosophy no less than poetry and art...metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world" (author's emphasis).

As the first William James Lecturer at Harvard in 1932, John Dewey's talks on aesthetics are equally relevant today (and resonant as ever). Just ahead of the Chorale's season opening concert I wrote about poetry and art and music via Jung's "transcendent function." I often quote E.M. Forster's aphorism "only connect" as motivation (&/or justification) for these discursions. Dewey's aim is to connect types of experience:

"This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience" (Art as Experience. Perigree Edition, 2005).

I am only one-third of the way through McGilchrist's and Dewey's books. Rilke is an old friend to whom I've turned at nearly every season of my adult life. I referenced James Hollis' Finding Meaning book in that last post and wish I had not been put off by its "self-help" title (and thus read it sooner). Hollis is a Jungian psychiatrist and his prescriptions for what ails us are timely:

"A culture without living mythological access to the mysterious is a culture in trouble."

As I reread that quote this morning I thought of one of the current "culture wars;" not between "family values" and "progressive" ones but between atheism and faith. The Rilke poem above emerges from the poet's mystical Christianity (which evolved into an increasingly universalist vision). An almost exact contemporary of Jung, Rilke's "love poems to God" resonate across the spectrum of experience described by (another contemporary) Dewey with the immediacy of metaphor McGilchrist might have used as proof.

Another book that is a recent/current addition to my "in progress" reading list is Arthur C. Danto's Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art & Life (Columbia, 2005). Holding a position at Columbia today similar to Dewey's at Harvard 80 years ago, Danto (b.1924) writes compellingly about art in our post-modern world. He quotes Dewey in his introductory essay:

"Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men" [sic].

One of the "problems" lost in the cacophony from the culture wars is our collective failure to embrace mystery. Drawing on Keats' and Shakespeare's paradigm of the aesthetic ideal in nature itself, Dewey incisively states:

"Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities-to imagination and art."

Before last Saturday night's concert, I read the second half of the following quote from Hollis' book. The first half is a clear argument against fundamentalism and the dangers of any worldview that is fixed (or hardened or stuck):

"Certainties lead to dogma; dogma leads to rigidity; rigidity leads to idolatry; idolatry always banishes the mystery and thus leads to [spiritual] narrowing."

Learning to live with our anxieties and doubts-conquering fear not by force (an oxymoronic impossibility) nor by repression (in any of its guises, namely denial and escape)-is a lifelong task. Hollis is at his most relevant and inspiring with observations like this:

"To bear the anxiety of doubt is to be led to openness; openness leads to revelation; revelation leads to discovery; discovery leads to enlargement."

And though I am only 1/3 of the way through Dewey's series of lectures, it seems enlarging our collective sense of what constitutes meaningful experience is his modus operandus. And bridging the proverbial "gap between art & life" is the path he takes. I have written below about the enlarging experience of appreciating sacred texts as poetry and literature. As I reflect on the following I am reminded of Christ's injunctions to "consider the lilies...consider the birds of the air..." While intended as lessons in anxiety management, it is equally valid to attend to the inherent aesthetic quality in such proverbs (consider a cliché like "stop and smell the roses").

Collapsing the distance between "everyday" experience and "artistic" experience should be the work of all of us. Among other things, it would render obsolete the notion of "art for art's sake" and would nullify arguments from "I know what I like" (read "I like what I know") to "I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles" (President Eisenhower to Leonard Bernstein).

"Experience in the degree in which it is experience is heightened signifies active and alert commerce with the world...experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievement in a world of things, it is art in contains the promise of that delightful perception which is esthetic experience" (Dewey, 18-19).

McGilchrist laments that "we have lost the sense of the central position that music once occupied in communal life." Really?!? Dewey notes the ancient connection in civic life between not only the (now-distant) "fine arts"-music, painting and drama-but between art and sport (the "funeral games" in Homer are classic examples of this unity and continuity between ritual, art and sport in communal life. See Hollis' warning above about our loss of "mythological access" and the connection to mystery. When I wrote a series of essays on Greek mythology and modern-day versions of it earlier this year, Hollis was not on my radar. Ah, sweet mysteries of life).

My latest opera blog is a preview of the Met's new production of Boris Godunov (which will be broadcast in Roanoke October 30). Knowing it would inspire an episode of Russophilia, I moved Tarkovsky's epic masterpiece of Russian cinema, Andrei Rublev to the top of our netflix cue and rewatched it. Like Mussorgsky's great opera, it is a series of tableaus and chronicles both a central episode in the life of its protagonist while offering a panorama of the life of the suffering Russian people. The final tableau of the casting of the great bell is worth the preceding 3 hours of film alone. If you watch it, be sure to view the extras included in the Criterion edition (which is the version Netflix uses, to its credit).

Tarkovsky's description of his great film (it is as long as Boris Godunov) is a fitting way to wind down today's sermon.

"The artist exists because the world is not perfect...[All art is about] the search for harmonic relationships between men, between art and life, between time and history."

That description parallels another made by Dewey in his introductory lecture:

"Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is."

That could apply to the icon painter Andrei Rublev, Homer's "funeral games," Jung's "collective unconscious" and "transcendent function." It is what Rilke means when he talks about "learning to see" and it helps bridge the span between the competing hemispheres of the brain. It might even chink the wall between the screaming sides of the culture wars. It "minds the gap" between art and life.

Mussorgsky said "art is a medium of conversing with people." Could it be as simple as that? The aesthetic is our primary means of making sense of the world and every system humankind has developed to aid in that aim-from sport to science to religion-depends on it. Through the work, words and images of everyone quoted above, this is another view through the looking glass, celebrating the sweet mysteries of life.

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