Friday, January 20, 2012

the purity of inspiration, the impurity of self as filter

Agnes Martin
 Agnes Martin, one of my long-time favorite artists, spoke about inspiration in the following way:
"The best things in life happen to you when you are alone. You know, all of the revelations. Every day for twenty years, I've been saying 'What am I going to do next?' That's how I ask for an inspiration. I don't have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for. And I don't start to paint until after I have an inspiration. And after I have it, I make up my mind that I'm not going to interfere... not have any ideas. That's really the trouble with art today. It seems to me that artists have the inspiration, but before they can get on the canvas, they've had about 50 ideas. And the inspiration disappears." (Martin, 1997)
Books can inspire... art, music, poetry. The view from a mountaintop after a long hike can be inspiring. People can inspire by their courage, their dedication, their heart, or their words of hope in the face of adversity. This is a different sort of inspiration from what Martin speaks of above. The former is an encouragement, an injection of spirit, a reason to continue to believe in others and in the promise of the world. The latter, Martin's sort, is an incitement to "do," a stimulus which produces something new. It is this sort of inspiration on which I would like to focus this entry.

I think that for a lot of people who create, the source of inspiration is hard to define. I've heard it described starting as an "internal churn" and then this restlessness builds to the point where someone must begin. And it is in beginning, that the inspiration continues to unfold. I know this is true for me. As Martin suggests, when I am writing at my best, I am merely a conduit for something else. Rather than being most full of myself and my own ideas, I am most empty... so that something else can travel through me. Now, where does this "something else" come from and what is it?

The word 'inspiration' comes from ancient Greek in which it meant more directly "breathed upon" and usually by a god. It came to mean the imitation of this blowing into or onto something and maintained its sense of motion towards even as it took on the sense of creative power with which we now associate it. Much, in fact, has to do with breath -- aspire (rough breathing), conspire (breathing together), respire (breathe again), transpire (breathe across). Breath is the most basic action of life. With his first breath, a newborn often cries -- needing to force the air out with a sort of violence... life begun with shock and force. And so, either way the word is taken, we are breathed into and we breathe out again. The inspiration is a force moving through us, but in so transformed.

Van Gogh painted five versions of his famous "Sunflowers," the most challenging perhaps being the one below with its yellow-on yellow-on yellow composition that nonetheless resonates with life.
Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Was it the same force that inspired these paintings as inspired the incident with his ear? Is the restlessness that produces true greatness something that must also be, by definition, destructive?

And why did Van Gogh envision this painting as being part of a triptych -- two sunflower paintings flanking La Berceuse (Lullaby). An old woman sits rocking a cradle (indicated by the rope she holds). In this, she presents a source of solace, though the painting itself is dark and lonely. And her gaze drifts wistfully away from the viewer and the cradle (it seems). Lost in her own thoughts, the woman appears NOT in fact the archetype of motherhood that so many posit this painting to be... unless motherhood is taken to be complicated, weighty, esoteric, and somber. And perhaps there is accuracy in that portrait -- not as the entirety of motherhood, but as one particular angle of it.

Van Gogh, La Berceuse, 1889
Van Gogh was inspired not only to paint these three paintings, but to conceive of them as being displayed together -- the sunflowers acting as candles to illuminate the darkness of La Berceuse. "I don't want to paint the walls of cathedrals, but the gazes of men," said Van Gogh. "With red and yellow I want to paint all the miseries of society." Did painting bring Van Gogh a kind of peace? With the 1889 Sunflowers painting, he was apparently very satisfied... but this was the exception. Rather, his inspiration to paint, his need to create brought him continued suffering. His restlessness increased a restlessness and perhaps his anxiety. Inspiration is not a solace. It can indeed be a heavy burden.

Van Gogh himself felt that his work put his life at risk. But the inspiration that made him see and want to express the suffering he witnessed all around him never ceased. It seems there is something in that which connects us which is part of this thing called inspiration, but in its expression it becomes its own personal truth... of which there are an infinite number. As Picasso once said, "If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvasses on the same theme." Or as some English teachers will tell you, there are only 8 basic storylines in the world... but there are millions of stories... even if we take only one of these themes. (The 8 basic plots: The Cinderella story = unrecognized virtue is finally recognized; The Achilles story = fatal flaw leads to tragedy; The Orpheus story = good fortune is removed and result is examined; The Romeo & Juliet story = all love stories; The Irrepressible Hero story = protagonist confronts obstacles and finally succeeds; The Circe story = main character becomes entangled in devious plot planned by the villain; The Tristan story = love triangle; The Faust story = pact with the devil)

And so back to Martin. For she has explained how she painted "with my back to the world." Through this separation, she found she could listen more clearly to 'inspiration.'
"I think we don't deserve any credit. I think the inspiration comes to you, tells you exactly what to do, even when you are painting, tells you every brushstroke... I do take the blame though. With no credit, you'd think there'd be no blame but... You get shaken between inspiration and the finished product and you have to take the blame for that." (Martin, 1997)
The self can become an interference, according to Martin, between inspiration and its manifestation into something which the rest of the world can consume. Whatever inspiration is -- the divine, the supernatural, the supra-conscious -- there is a need to be open and receptive in order to receive it in the first place. In my humble opinion, I don't think inspiration has anything to do with divinity. I think it has to do with our personal connection with a certain truth, and perhaps there is a spirituality in the universal beginnings of that truth. But, because I believe that all truth is relative... or because inspiration must pass through each of us in order to be re-presented to others as its own truth, I think that the purity of inspiration as a force is lost through our personal interaction with it. We present a 'truth'... but in its impurity and imperfection. For that is the best that we can do. We can feel and sense something greater, but all we do can is reveal our personal (and very small) angle of perspective upon that 'truth.' Taking Picasso's quote as a starting point, one could say that if you took every person in the world to exist, to have existed, to exist in the future, and combined all of their painted canvasses depicting one particular cypress tree at a single point in time, for example, then perhaps we could come to the 'truth' of the matter. Perhaps we could touch again the fullness and purity of inspiration, but only through this combined effort. And therein lies the impossibility of it all... of course. And inspiration remains distant and inexplicable... and all the more wondrous because of it.

You don't have to like the paintings of Agnes Martin... or Picasso... or Van Gogh. Liking is not the point in art. The point is seeing. And perhaps trying to see both the self that produced this finality, and the inspiration that incited it. Your hand would not produce a square grid in quite the same way. No one's hand would. Therein lies a certain magic.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

finding your thoughts in the onslaught of information

In the middle of the night, there are thoughts. Thoughts that are completely my own. They wake me up and keep me awake. They circle around and manifest into new thoughts and bigger problems until they make my heart race. Sometimes I lay there listening to my heart and wishing it would just shut up so I could rest. Thank god not all wishes are granted.

These are original thoughts. They are thoughts of things to do, of things about which I fear and worry, of things of which I am unsure and do not know how to resolve. Every now and then, they are beautiful thoughts too. Something phrased in just the right way for a poem. An image of me and my son playing on the beach in a summer to come. The way my mother took my hand and squeezed it tight when my emotions got the best of me. I'm here, she said without speaking. And the thoughts come in waves, over and over, washing over me to make me feel like I'm drowning, and then rinsing me clean with notions of what can be... and finally I sleep.

The other day I was on Yahoo's main page clicking through their "news" items. I read about the best ways to lose holiday weight gain, about an NFL player's reaction to losing his beloved wife, about the top 10 gaming smartphones. I watched a video of Britney Spears' son showing off his dance moves. Did I care? No. Did I, in fact, really not care? Yes. What was I doing then? I stood up from the computer 15-20 minutes later, after perusing what Yahoo thought I needed to know, and felt stupider... and empty, almost dirty. Trashy, that was it. Something about the whole process felt cheap and empty and flimsy.

Guess when I started trying to sort this all out? Yup, in the middle of the night. And I began thinking about how this wrap-up of everything important by Yahoo was personally meaningless to me. My head was BEING filled, passively, with many things, most of which I moved away from not feeling any the better, the smarter, or the more enlightened for knowing. Perhaps I felt more 'on top' of the hype. But that was it.

I know someone who, whenever I see him, will ask me, "Did you hear about the historic tree that caught fire in Florida?" or "Can you believe this thing with the cruise ship sinking off the coast of Italy?" I've recently realized that he seems to feel a need to not only be on top of this gossip, but to spread it as if he discovered the story on some obscure website that is getting only 9 hits, rather than on the front page of Yahoo. This is also a person that can't seem to reconcile his 'empathy' for those who died in the cruise ship disaster ("it's terrible; people died!") with his lack of empathy for a family he has betrayed and deeply wounded.

Do we think our own thoughts anymore? At times other than 2 and 3am in the morning? Certainly, but it gets harder. It gets harder when one of our jobs as modern human beings is to always be on top of everything, including ALL of the news in the world, even the trash. For things are not pre-filtered for us, but rather poured on top of us and we must climb through the pile of trash... and sometimes that alone feels like a victory. So, in some small way, I can understand the person above... shouting his newly-found freedom from the top of the trash heap.

I remember when I was a senior in high school and I started reading the New York Times in the mornings. I'm a slow methodical reader (and other things) and I never got much further than the first few pages before I needed to rush to get off to school. I probably read three stories. I felt behind, as many of my classmates would come in mentioning articles from EVERY section. Not only had they read the whole paper, it seemed to me at the time, they had memorized it. And my father revealed to me how the headmaster at my brothers' school read through four whole papers every morning. FOUR WHOLE PAPERS?? I couldn't even comprehend it.

Nonetheless, I remembered the stories I had read. They stayed with me through the day. They brought up questions in my mind. They revealed to me that there were parts of the world whose geography I didn't even know. And because I only read two or three articles a day, I could go home later and pursue these questions, or look up the country on a map... and spend time thinking new thoughts. For that was the other thing these articles did for me. They made me think new thoughts... without overwhelming me with so much information that I just shut down completely.

I worry. I worry about too many things probably. But I do worry about how the overflow of information and our need to stay abreast of "everything" shuts out our ability to think new thoughts. We need that extra space in our heads. But habits become habitual so easily. And so we read what Yahoo believes we should know. And we read the updates of our friends and family on Facebook. And then we have had enough. Because we want to get to other things. We want to get back to life. But are we returning there thoughtlessly? Literally and figuratively?

Life will not move without new thoughts... original thoughts... sometimes ridiculous thoughts. If it is true that, as Marcus Aurelius once said, "The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts," then we must do a better job of thinking our own thoughts. Improve the quality, not the quantity. For thoughts make the world and thoughts make us. And I would rather be full of a single thought, labored over and rewritten and reworked and produced from a pen in my hand on a single blank sheet of paper -- my very own thought -- than be master of every news item to appear that day... but lost as to the direction of my very own life.

Friday, January 13, 2012

sense of humor, sense of balance

The other day I got to thinking about humors. Not haha humor, but the four humors that became the underpinning of Greek and Roman medicine.. and then continued to dominate Western beliefs about the human body and sickness for 2,000 years.

In short, the theory was that when a person was healthy, his four humors (four different bodily substances - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood) were all in the appropriate balance. Thus, illness came from an imbalance; having too much phlegm, for instance, meant that your lungs would be clogged up. Turns out, that's true. But, further, the humors were thought to influence your temperament as well. The excess of phlegm not only meant having a cold, it meant being sluggish and even timid. An imbalanced person would permanently exhibit these qualities, thereby defining his personality in terms of his humors.

Now, what got me to thinking is our phrase "sense of humor." So-and-so has such a good sense of humor. Etymologically, there is a connection. The above phlegmatic person or person with a chronic imbalance of liquids in his body would be a sort of eccentric, an odd duck. As time passed, the word 'humor' took on this meaning of oddness directly. After more time passed, it came to mean someone who took note of the oddities of life itself and could comment on them in order to make others laugh. By the early 18th century, the word humorous was being used to refer to those with whimsy, whit, and a laughable take on life (i.e. a sense of humor), the word funny itself appearing about 50 years afterwards.

My students used to laugh at the antiquated existence of their favorite term, saucy (kids think they've discovered everything, but mine took delight in finding the word in Shakespeare...), but it makes quite a lot of sense when you consider the above history of humors. For example, a short take from George Eliot:
Tommy was a saucy boy, impervious to all impressions of reverence, and excessively addicted to humming-tops and marbles, with which recreative resources he was in the habit of immoderately distending the pockets of his corduroys.
So, saucy, this irreverent cheekiness, comes in the form of a word referring to liquids, and also, in older times, to a certain salty quality. Our language still reflects the long-standing (and now long debunked) belief in humors.

But, there is even more that remains. We do not just possess humor, we possess a sense of humor... the suggestion being that seeing what is funny in life requires some kind of balance, and moreover, an ability to consciously recognize that balance. In other words, I won't be able to appreciate the levity of a baby laughing at peek-a-boo unless I understand the heaviness of some other tragic or traumatic life experience... or I won't be able to appreciate it as much.

But there is another kind of balance to humor. I've reproduced H.W. Fowler's table -- which categorizes types of humor -- below:

Throwing light
Inflicting pain
Human nature
Words & ideas
Morals & manners
Faults & foibles
The sympathetic
The intelligent
The self-satisfied
Victim & bystander
H.W. Fowler, "Modern English Usage" (1926)

Self- justification
Statement of facts
Direct statement
Exposure of nakedness
The public
An inner circle
The respectable
The self

Much like the original humors having been 'discovered' after watching blood clot and separate into four distinct layers, the modern sense of humor (according to Fowler) is based on observation and motivated by a similar desire to discover. And does it surprise that our most common modern type is the sarcastic when we see that his audience is the victimized? For we too often see ourselves as victims and pass off responsibility like a disease when it is in fact a privilege (this topic to be explored in an upcoming blog.)

Funny is not just funny. Humor changes and reflects the culture in which it originated. Teenagers reading Shakespeare will understand the jokes that refer to universal human behavior, but not the ones that refer to quirks and practices of the times. There is an actual scientific difference, in terms of activated brain activity, between recognizing a joke and finding it pleasure-inducing.

Humor is part of the balance of life. Black comedy is popular because sometimes our only saving grace in times of tragedy is to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. To laugh at the heaviness sometimes physically counters it. As Winston Churchill said, "A joke is a very serious thing."

Thus, humor is part of the balance.. and part of our defense again the imbalance. Freud thought that laughter was merely a release of tension, but recent science suggests that humor enables us to violate the world and its rules. Thereby, we are back in control. We can say what we cannot do and we can imagine what will never be. Maybe laughter is our modern form of blood-letting. :-)