Archive for May, 2011

And I Thought It Was My Appendix

May 27, 2011


  In about the seventh grade I went to a church youth group meeting led by a dapper dude named Oliver something.  He told us he was forty years old and that his “way of thinking hadn’t changed much since I turned thirty-five”.  I was thrilled.  I hated junior high and though that birthday was some distance ahead, it was great to know one day the path ahead would be clear!

  No such luck.  Dude must have been lobotomized.  Or fundamentalized maybe.  That Christmas I watched William F Buckley interview Malcolm Muggeridge.  Even though they were both Catholics (Muggeridge one of great zeal) I found comfort in the overlap of our metaphysical perspectives.  Muggeridge:

  “It is only possible to succeed at second rate pursuits – like becoming a millionaire or a prime minister, winning a war, seducing beautiful women, flying through the stratosphere or landing on the moon.  First-rate pursuits – involving, as they must, trying to understand what life is about and trying to convey that understanding – inevitably result in a sense of failure.  A Napoleon, a Churchill, a Roosevelt can feel themselves to be successful, but never a Socrates, a Pascal, a Blake.  Understanding is for ever unattainable.  Therein lies the inevitability of failure in embarking upon its quest, which is none the less the only one worthy of serious attention.”

  Well, Blake framed his take as the apocalyptic “fearful symmetry” of tyger and lamb.  As I’ve said before* I prefer Jung’s: “Life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries which yet are one” with its intimation of meaning and perhaps even numinosity.  Both would probably agree that courage and will are necessary to emerge from problematic phases of the ‘pause’.

  In his book The Middle Passage, Jungian analyst James Hollis quotes Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas**: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”**.

Hmm.  Just what is it that’s eatin’ at me…?


**The Gospel of St Thomas?  It’s one of the Gnostic Gospels as described by Elaine Pagels in her book The Gnostic Gospels.  They were discovered by farmers in Egypt in 1945.  The Gospel of Thomas dates to the second century.  Gnostics held that salvation will come from within.  Without need for clerical intercession.

***The pictures above are drawings from Jung’s Red Book.  They are his representations of self induced hallucinations undergone in a midlife effort to figure out what was inside him trying to get out.

I (Sorta) Wonder What It’d Be Like…

May 20, 2011


  Brother was riding his bike recently, came upon an unexpected obstruction, went over the handlebars, and fractured his wrist.  His recollection of the event was interesting.  “It was all in slow motion.  I remember the sound pattern made by my helmet on the sidewalk.”

  Perfect timing.  Maybe not for him, but for us.  In the April 25 edition of the New Yorker, there’s an article about scientist David Eaglemen whose research seeks to understand our perception of time.  He was drawn to that study by the experience of falling off a roof as a child.  “In life threatening situations, time seems to slow down.  It’s a moment of absolute calm and eerie mental acuity.”

  Why?  Well, it seems that it’s a matter of how much information is on the way to the brain and how it coordinates.  By way of example, light travels faster than sound, but they use a starting pistol in the Olympics instead of a light flash because the brain reacts more quickly to sound.  Cavemen would have been well advised to flee a rustling of the brush long before a predator presented itself visually.

  The more stimulating and/or serious a situation, the more input sent to our accreted cerebral “hodgepodge of systems”.  One component, the amygdala, is sort of an emotional node and seems to become hyperactive when scared and records far more detail than when bored. 

  As a result, one’s experience of the passage of time is vivid and slows significantly.  During an experiment, subjects terrified by a uniquely “plausibly deadly” amusement park ride overestimated the passage of time by thirty-six percent.

  Ok.  What event would put one most in extremis… would push the phenomena the furthest?  Having your head cut off comes most immediately to my mind, but to be honest I have to admit that not an original thought.    

  From the perspective first of a caveman finding his neck in the jaws of a saber toothed tiger, through the likes of John the Baptist, Anne Boleyn, and Marie Antoinette, writer Robert Olin Butler wrote a book entitled Severance in which he presents sixty-two different takes of what the experience of decapitation might be like.

  He begins with these two epigrams to set tone and style:  “After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.” (Attributed to a Dr. Dassy D’Estaing 1883) And: “In heightened state of emotion people speak at the rate of 160 words a minute.”  The math works out to about 240 words for that ninety seconds and is thus the length of each of the stories.

  Sweet précis, eh?  Mull that around a bit.  Would you be dizzy if your head rolled? Would it feel claustrophobic if your noggin fell into a basket?  Would you be able to close your eyelids?  Would you if you could?

  Courtesy of Mr. Butler, here’re the last 240 words that came to the mind of Ta Chin, a Chinese wife beheaded by her husband in 1838:

“straight and whole are my feet I would rise and run as I have loved for many winkings of the moon to run with my brothers but I press my feet side by side and wiggle my toes this last time and whisper to them goodbye I know what is before me my mother in the courtyard singing prayers to Kuan Yin the goddess of mercy, not to spare me a life of pain but to wither my feet to perfection, the mercy of the golden lotus, the mercy of a wealthy man to keep me, I tremble I am ready to weep but for these tiny stones of anger Kuan Yin has placed in the corners of my eyes even as the footbinder puts the soaking tub before me that first night even as my husband trembles before me in the torch light trembling always from the opium but this night he trembles from what he believes about the brushing of my sleeve by a man he himself brought to our house and my mother sings and my toes are seized and folded hard under and the wrappings wind and wind and squeeze and my arch cracks and I see Buddha in heaven sitting on his lotus but it is my naked foot the golden lotus he sits upon and hands push me down my neck made bare and I cry please, before my head cut off my feet

  Think I’d try to think of the Marx Brothers.  Or maybe Mel Brooks.  Ya, that’s it – Young Frankenstein.

*New Yorker, April 25, 2011, “The Possibilian” by Burkhard Bilger

**Sculpture above?  It’s Woman With Her Throat Cut by Alberto Giacometti.

I’m Glad I Don’t Have A Tail

May 13, 2011


  Please, please, please don’t repeat this to anyone.  Last Friday wife and I rode our bikes along the river to a brew pub for dinner.  On way home via a different route just before dusk she (up ahead) exclaimed: “Is that what I think it is!?  Let me have your knife!”

  I did so and then watched as she cut the tail off of a dead black squirrel.  Jeesh.  Unfortunately I’ve many times found myself part of that peculiar sort of excision separating tail from torso of skunk, deer, raccoons, and more.  All in service to art.  She makes fine brushes with the hair.

  Jung wrote some interesting stuff about artists: “The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts for two forces are at war within him (her) – on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire”.

  Furthermore: “The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his (her) own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him (her)”.*  Mission for god as the Blues Brothers put it.

  Demanding a muse might be, but a grand thing which to follow should an audience later manifest.  What a way to live if people would cathect emotion and fork over dinero in response to what might express from the depths of one’s soul through a trained and tamed skill set.  Two examples:

  Mick Jagger arranged for Lucien Freud to paint his then wife Jerry Hall and baby.  Sitting for Sigmund’s grandson is an arduous process and Mrs. Jagger spent many many hours in his studio over the course of four months. 

  One day Freud called his dealer William Acquavella: “I want you to be the first to know, the painting’s had a sex change.”  “What!” Acquavella responeded.  “Well, Jerry didn’t show up for two sittings so I changed her into a man”.  Jagger rang up Acquavella but there was nothing that could be done.** 

  Similarly, if not quite as obstinately, architect Peter Zumthor picks his clients not visa versa.  “Normally architects render a service.  They implement what other people want.  This is not what I do.”  What he does is to take the measure of a site and client from which to distill his vision.  Not theirs.

  Actor Toby Maguire hoped for a Zumthor house in the LA hills.  The architect said he’d look at the site if Maguire’d educate himself by visiting several projects in Europe such as his spa in Vals Switzerland and museum in Bregenz Austria.  House went ahead.  Maguire asked for a basketball court, but apparently got a garden instead.***

  Uhm, I’m glad I don’t have a tail.

*Both Jung quotes are from his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul

**WSJ Weekend April 2011 by Tom Vandrbilt

***New York Times Magazine by Michael Kimmelman


Beyond the Blare of the News

May 6, 2011


  There are small minds everywhere, but fortunately there are about big ones too.  Above you see the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.  It was designed by IM Pei who went to very great effort – wide peregrination and deep cultural immersion – to find the heart of Islamic architecture.  “Might it not lie in the desert, severe and simple in its design, where sunlight brings form to life?”*

  Most collections of Islamic art are in the west, minded by non Muslims.  The original vision of The Emir and his wife Sheikha Moza was not only to emplace fine objects in the region of their origin, but also to provide a center of culture and education.  “Here is a museum in the Muslim world capable of bridging the gap between tradition and modernity” said the original curator Sabiha Al-Khemir.

  As you may know, pictorial representation contravenes a precept of Islam.  There is thus no tradition of landscape or portraiture.  Think then about how it must currently be for visitors to that museum to look upon the likes of Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer for the first time in an exhibition of the Dutch golden age.

  For an article in the May 2011 Art Newspaper editor Anna Somers Cocks toured the show with a young volunteer.  The responses of the latter to Ms Cocks’ “just tell me what you see” were fresh and felt and fascinating.  About Church Interior by Emanuel de Witte (below) she said:

  “I like this very much; if you stand back you feel like you can go inside it.  I like that he drew if very well; you can see the small things like the details of the column.  They told me that they put dead people under the floor and I said how can you prey with dead people beneath you? I am told that when a woman got married the only thing she could do for fun was to go to church.”

  Above you see Jan Steen’s The Very Merry Family: “Because everybody is happy about something, everyone is doing a different thing, but because they are ignoring each other, the small child is on its own, drinking.  So this is a troubled family and very dirty and things are falling down.”

  She liked Rembrandt’s Self Portrait: “I love this person because he has been painting himself since he was young.  Maybe this is his last portrait.  I have heard that he painted himself all through his life, how his face, how his body changed.  It’s a very nice idea.  You can feel he is very old, even from how he is drowning his hair.  He does not put in many details so that you can focus on the face”.

  Hmm.  There is so much behind and beyond the blare of the 24/7 news cycle…

*I.M. Pei Complete Works by Jodido and Strong, Rizzoli, 2008