Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Into That Good Night: The Image of Mortality in Art and Culture

Dylan Thomas.

In 1952, one year before his untimely passing at the far-too-young age of 39, Dylan Thomas wrote one of his most famous poems, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," in which that repeated chorus followed observations on why mortality seemed to bug him so much. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Ironically, in 1936, when he was younger and less literally at the doorstep of that diminishing light, Thomas had written a different but equally arresting poem, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," which optimistically celebrated the fact that we could never be vanquished by that damn light switch. Oh, what a subtle difference one’s proximity to the darkness can make.

Such deep poetic insights into the human condition invite us to consider the importance of three key subjects and themes that have recurred throughout human history: the fact of our mortality, the potential for immortality, and the opportunity for transcendence. Art and cultural history are both replete with a perpetually challenging wonderment relating to these basic human subjects, whether it is in the form of poetry, philosophy, religion, mythology, painting, sculpture or movies. In addition, these themes are explored equally through liturgical and sacred as well as secular and entertainment formats. In a sense these themes are tied to the elemental subjects expressed in art throughout its long history from the cave wall to the computer screen: the mysteries of the self, of society, of nature and of the spiritual.

As a writer and culture critic my role is to explicate both works of art and the cultures which create them, not from the usual judgmental point of view that assesses success or failure from the relative angle of value-laden aesthetics but from the phenomenological vantage point of encountering those works of art as what they actually are: embodied meanings. I often interpret whole cultures, and even whole civilizations, as if they were individual works of art, because that is precisely what they are. Such a comparative approach allows us to utterly preclude issues such as liking or disliking the relative features of works in any medium, or using our limited time and energy to declare the success or failure of their makers' intentions.

Cave painting, Altamira Spain, ca 20,000 BCE.

Works of art, whether they are visual, architectural, literary, musical, or durational, are all dark mirrors of the consciousness that created them. Like us, they succeed because they exist. Also, as per the work of Ernst Cassirer, all symbolic forms, including our own, are reflections of inherent and implicit limits and patterns. It matters little whether it’s a painting on a stone wall or a flickering set of images about a female superhero: the essential human content is identical: an arm wrestling contest between life and death.

We are therefore free to more fully experience the degree to which drastically different kinds of art objects, of embodied meanings, are really the immediate sense data reflections of the consciousness of the particular cultural context within which they were created. As such, none is superior or inferior in kind, apart from the accumulated aesthetic, psychic and spiritual assumptions of its culture. It suddenly becomes possible to understand the deeper strata levels at which a classically representational Vermeer painting is totally equivalent to an apparently randomly abstract Pollock painting, as well as the degree to which both utterly succeed in conveying the key elements of the space (and the time) in which they were produced. They are emblems of an enigma: their makers’ consciousness.

As Cassirer’s exemplary 1930s research indicated, the symbolic forms we utilize are multiple and include that of language, as well as of mathematics, the principal language with which the universe makes itself accessible to and discernible by us. In addition, one invisibly recurring, reciprocal and reconciling pattern ratio also governs everything in existence, both physical and immaterial. This ratio also includes the psychological products known as artworks and defines the parameters of their beauty.

(left) Delft by Johannes Vermeer, 1650.       (right) Untitled by Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1950.

This multi-faceted miracle is accomplished via a bio-mimicry motif that perpetually echoes the proportional harmonies in nature and culture and that replicates the spiral growth pattern of the Fibonacci sequence and its proportional ratio. This formal pattern, often called the golden section, is a diagram of life but is also a symbol of entropy, of energy loss and death.

In addition, we have at our disposal the symbolic forms of music, design, mythology, religion, philosophy and psychology, each of which is a distinct form-language with specific aims and accomplishments, e.g., Chartres Cathedral, Einstein’s relativity equation, Mozart’s concertos, Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, or the archetypal depth principles found in both Carl Jung and Tibetan Buddhism. These cultural artifacts and works of art are all about the reciprocal relationship between life and death as a subject or theme, as well as being about the proportional harmonies inherent in its ongoing structural design.

One of the most common of human subjects in the art of all cultures without exception is known as the vanitas or memento mori theme, an aesthetic meme which reminds us that our days are numbered and not to think too highly of ourselves. But the vanitas theme, signifying eventual emptiness and the vanishing of worldly material things, can also assume a multitude of other obscure and abstract forms.

(left) Vanitas Still Life by Willem Claesz, 1650.    (right) 11:00 am by Edward Hopper, 1940.

It might be possible that the occasionally obscure poetry of Wallace Stevens provides us with far deeper existential insights than the tomes of Heidegger or Sartre. This is equally true of the novels of Dostoevsky, Kafka or Camus: they are different from the suppositions of Descartes, Locke or Berkeley only due to the theatrical costumes and conceptual disguises they wear, by the symbolic form-mask  they have donned.

To entertain the notion that there is in fact an archaeopsychic realm at all is, of course, to also embrace the Jungian notion of a collectively shared zone out of which a myriad of archetypal images have emerged and will continue to emerge, as long as we sentient beings continue to utilize the delicate neurological operating system that has evolved in images over eons.

Such a map of consciousness could equally well be charted by the music of Erik Satie, for example, or a dance choreographed by Merce Cunningham, since, as I have already indicated, great works of art, at the embodied-meaning level, are also philosophical propositions.

I am not by profession an academic and as a cultural journalist I am, if anything, more of a professional voyeur, but since I take a scholarly approach to all art objects, whether they are prehistoric cave paintings, marble carvings or Andy Warhol silkscreens, I am perhaps advantageously positioned to speculate on some of the questions posed by this thematic map from a somewhat unique perspective. As an art critic, and one who also writes about photography and especially films as an integral part (maybe even the culmination) of the history of art and visual culture, I have observed a couple of key distinctions between the supposedly nebulous realm of aesthetics and the supposedly concrete realm of science.

Science, and especially the zones devoted to neurological speculations, appears to be devoted to reducing and eventually eliminating the unknown, to replacing the unknown with the known. Fair enough, up to a point.

Self-Portrait, Rembrandt, 1669.

Art, on the other hand, appears to be devoted to increasing the amount of unknowns in our world, expanding the unknown until there is perhaps nothing but the unknown, which would of course by synonymous with a state akin to perpetual wonderment, rapture, bliss or otherwise magical states of contentment and awe. Such awe is identical whether captured in the self-effacing gaze of Rembrandt or the sardonic dream visions of René Magritte.

One of the greatest psychologists and philosophers who asked pertinent questions about the nature of our consciousness, and especially of our identity, was the author Franz Kafka, who disguised his interrogative insights in the form of his fiction and even more powerfully in his personal diaries. His embodied meanings are riddled with riddles and parables that are easy for the distracted reader to misinterpret as depressing, gloomy, doomed or death-obsessed, but they are actually far from any of these things. One of his finest observations was hidden like a glistening little gem in the middle of his endless and exhaustive process of journal writing. It alone, if interpreted accurately, presents a clear indication of the depth of this man’s thought processes regarding the nature of consciousness.

“The meaning of life is that it stops,” Kafka remarked in a letter to his friend Max Brod. But this doesn’t mean, as many wrongly supposed, that he felt life was pointless, irrelevant, or fated to conclude with failure (even though often enough elsewhere he was all too consumed with his own perceived personal flaws and failures). If we interpret this entry correctly it simply states something as clearly as Wittgenstein himself might have put it. Life is temporary; its chief and primal characteristic is that of impermanence. Our world is literally teeming with drastically different diagrams of transcendence in the face of the basic fact of how temporary our fragile little lives really are, no matter how much we try to avoid or deny the fact by imagining we can live forever in some future immortal state.

How do we intend to spend our limited time? The corollary of such an insight is even more instructive and moves us to the most obvious extension of this basic existential observation: if that is the meaning of life, its temporary condition, then what is the purpose if it? The purpose of it, Kafka is suggesting by inference, is to make impermanence meaningful. More of our time might profitably be spent not by accruing more material profit but by examining the mysteries of the nature of consciousness.

(left) Cross by Salvador Dali, 1968.     (right) Buddha figure, ca 350 CE.

This, of course, is precisely what every maker of an embodied meaning, whether poem, novel, sculpture, building, dance or song, is actually up to pretty much twenty-four hours a day. Wondering what the hell is going on is in fact their ordinary job description. Another valid objective would be described as trying to access and measure magic, without making it vanish under the weight of our explanatory gaze. Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton, has posited:
Consciousness is a kind of con-game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself—a crude approximation of its own neurological processes. The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence—a self inside the head. But it’s all just data processing. The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it, and it calls the magic consciousness. (“The Mind Messing With the Mind,” The New York TimesScience, July 4, 2016)
Of course, his processing can’t quite ever explain how such a machine can produce T.S. Eliot’s poems, Picasso’s paintings, or Billie Holiday’s music. 

Research on binary creative design codes in both matter and mind was conducted beautifully by Gyorgy Doczi in a popular non-academic book, The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art and Architecture. In it the author explored the dizzying array of ways in which the reciprocal interaction of opposite forces creates recursive patterns from galaxies to seashells, crystals and DNA helices, from lilac leaves to jazz music, from ostrich feathers to Sgt. Pepper feathers.

My point is that the same observations can be made about the dual-sphere design of the brain and the cognitive patterns which result from the interaction of these two neurological sides to produce a self-reflexive awareness sophisticated enough to paint Sistine Chapels and write Tolstoy novels, as well as being intimate enough to wonder what is happening in the last moments of its own existence. Every single art work in any medium is in fact secretly a philosophical investigation into what it means to be a human being.

(left) John Coltrane, 1963.                      (right) A scene from Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring

Personally, I have no particular desire for resolution or answers. As I've suggested, I have a high comfort level for uncertainty and ambiguity and a low threshold for any finalities that accept or reject the conjectures of other theorists. Since none of us can ever be proven right or wrong in these matters, I tend to lean towards the attitudes of those guides who offer the most spacious, flexible, generous, open-minded and inclusive approaches.

So my own theories are deceptively simple: all physical objects (including us) and the physical space in which they are situated are actually durational in nature – they are frozen or congealed time moving too slowly to be discerned as what we and they are, mirror images of constant and perpetual flux. Flux is all there ever was and all there ever will be. Far from being merely a science-fiction concept, there really is a phenomenon we could call the archaeopsychic and it’s staring us in the face every single day.

Therefore, as I draw these speculations to a close, I return once again to the notion of an embodied meaning (or pattern) with which we have identified all structures that utilize any of the symbolic forms at our disposal, whether linguistic, visual, sculptural, mathematical, spiritual, musical or architectural. I also choose to suggest that the ways to survive the so-called death experience of self are twofold, and both involve some degree of “immortality” beyond our limited selves.

The first is simply to reproduce and have a family . . . something I seem to have forgotten to do. The second is to create or compose something in which your consciousness is embedded: if you are Dostoevsky you do this in the form of a novel like The Possessed, if you’re Martha Graham in the form of Appalachian Spring, if you’re Albert Einstein in the form of the Theory of Relativity, if you’re John Coltrane in the form of A Love Supreme . . . to name but a few obvious examples.

In effect, such artists in multiple mediums are the gardeners of the collective unconscious: growing these splendid blooms that are perennial, outlive them, and return to blossom with each new successive generation. They have found a way to live forever. In effect, almost all the art, music and literature in practically all our cultures is about one thing: the search for meaning in life and the wonderment about what occurs after life stops. Fabricating a purpose for what occurs in between these two poles is not solely the domain of philosophers. On the contrary, it’s what every one of us does every day when we wake up in the morning and go about what that other brilliant Dylan called the business of being born and dying.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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