Monday, November 30, 2020

Narrow Borderland of the Senses

"Outside our consciousness
there lies the cold and alien
world of actual things.
Between the two stretches
the narrow borderland of the senses. 
No communication between
the two worlds is possible excepting
across the narrow strip. 
For a proper understanding of
ourselves and of the world,
it is of the highest importance
that this borderland should
be thoroughly explored."

- Heinrich Hertz (1857 - 1894)

Postscript. Brooks Jensen (editor of Lenswork) offers a neat "trick" to jump-start - and otherwise stimulate - the creative process: spread a portfolio of your images or artwork (small physical prints work best) on the floor, and just play with various arrangements. You may either find stepping stones to ideas percolating just beneath the surface of your muse; or (if you are especially lucky), you may discover latent patterns-of-patterns that define you as an artist - invisible threads that run through your work that only a meditative bird's eye glimpse can reveal; or, as has happened here, you just happily stumble upon heretofore unrelated images that combine to tell their own story to you. The three images assembled together in the triptych above are unrelated, except that all were captured by me at very different times: the left-most image was an "accident" (literally, a waterlogged remnant of a 20 yo print of trees, if you can believe it!); the middle image is an 8yo shot of my ongoing "synesthetic landscape" series; and the right-most image is an oil abstract taken about a decade ago (which, up until my self-imposed "Brooks-Jensenian-exercise," was quietly sitting on an old hard-drive in its pristine raw form). The three images inexplicably aligned themselves - in sequence and correct orientation! - as I threw the first batch of 50 or so small prints on the floor to view. I imagine some Arthur-Clarkian tale being woven of an alien world: first "seen" by a probe as it navigates its way through a hole in an orbiting asteroid; it hurls through the planet's atmosphere and plunges into a stormy methane ocean; and starts collecting data on strange boundaryless lifeforms. Or, it could just be a randomly assembled meaningless triptych of equally random meaningless images ... though, for me, meaning, as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder :) Indeed, I wonder how many other phantasmagoric worlds will remain forever invisible to me, because there are not enough moments of time left in my life to conjure the right sequence?

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Turning Matter Into Spirit

 "I did not know what I was going to do with my life; before anything else I wanted to find an answer, my answer, to the timeless questions, and then after that I would decide what I would become. If I did not begin by discovering what was the grand purpose of life on earth, I said to myself, how would I be able to discover the purpose of my tiny ephemeral life? And if I did not give my life a purpose, how would I be able to engage in action? I was not interested in finding what life's purpose was objectively - this, I divined, was impossible and futile - but simply what purpose I, of my own free will, could give it in accord with my spiritual and intellectual needs. Whether or not this purpose was the true one did not, at that time, have any great significance for me. The important thing was that I should find (should create) a purpose congruent with my own self, and thus, by following it, reel out my particular desires and abilities to the furthest possible limit. For then at last I would be collaborating harmoniously with the totality of the universe.
There are those who aim at living the life of the entire universe - everything, men, animals, trees, stars, we are all one, we are all one substance involved in the same terrible struggle. What struggle?... Turning matter into spirit."

- Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 - 1957)

Friday, November 27, 2020

Order and Harmony

"There is a strange ring of feeling and emotion in these reactions [of scientists to evidence that the universe had a sudden beginning]. They come from the heart whereas you would expect the judgments to come from the brain. Why? I think part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money. There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause, there is no First Cause. … This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized."

- Robert Jastrow (1925 - 2008)
The Enchanted Loom

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Imposing of Order

 "For what are myths
if not the imposing of order
on phenomena that do not possess
order in themselves?
And all myths,
however they differ from
philosophical systems and scientific theories,
share this with them,
that they negate the principle of
randomness in the world."

- Stanislaw Lem (1921 - 2006)
Highcastle: A Remembrance

Monday, November 23, 2020

Answers, Questions, Mysteries

"'Look at that,' he said. 'How the ink bleeds.' He loved the way it looked, to write on a thick pillow of the pad, the way the thicker width of paper underneath was softer and allowed for a more cushiony interface between pen and surface, which meant more time the two would be in contact for any given point, allowing the fiber of the paper to pull, through capillary action, more ink from the pen, more ink, which meant more evenness of ink, a thicker, more even line, a line with character, with solidity. The pad, all those ninety-nine sheets underneath him, the hundred, the even number, ten to the second power, the exponent, the clean block of planes, the space-time, really, represented by that pad, all of the possible drawings, graphs, curves, relationships, all of the answers, questions, mysteries, all of the problems solvable in that space, in those sheets, in those squares."

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Emergence Magazine

 "Silence isn't the absence of something,
but the presence of everything.
When I speak of silence, 
I mean silence from the
noise pollution of modern life,
sounds that have nothing to do
with the natural acoustic system.
Silence is the poetics of space,
what it means to be in a place."

As so often happens when one encounters something one's soul resonates with on a deep level - such as my "accidental" discovery of the film In Pursuit of Silence and its accompanying book Notes on Silence (that I wrote about in a previous post) - other related phenomena soon make their appearance. Case in point: the quote above is taken from Emergence Magazine - or, more precisely, volume 1 of (what I hope is) a series of future publications - which I stumbled across by following up a link to a short essay on Hempton's ongoing efforts on documenting "silence." Since I have abused the adjective "extraordinary" far too many times on my blog (when referring to books and other things I've been touched by) for it to retain any semblance of intended meaning, please take your pick of any of a host of substitutes: exceptional, remarkable, phenomenal, magnificent,...for they all apply. Emergence is a quarterly online magazine that contains essays, interviews, podcasts, and photography on an enormous range of topics at the crossroads of culture, ecology and spirituality. Indeed, it is a veritable treasure trove of textual and visual wisdom, ranging from an homage to the photographic sensibilities of Christian mystic Thomas Merton, to David Abram's musings on animistic engagement with our perceptual world, to the poetic recollections of experiencing the first "Earthrise" from the moon by the Apollo 8 astronauts. But this short list hardly does justice to the wonders you'll find lurking in a Borges' Aleph-like Volume 1's 296 pages! Like In Pursuit of SilenceEmergence Magazine offers gentle guidance and meditative comfort as I struggle to shake the cobwebs off my creative muse. By happy coincidence, just as I was about to close the link I just opened to the online magazine to check that I got it right, I saw that Volume 2 is ready for pre-order! I suspect that those of you who have found something of value on my humble blog will find great - spiritually creative - value in the offerings this online magazine has to offer.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Mazes of Silence

"Theologians push the origins of the pursuit of silence far back in time. The doctrine of tsimtsum, developed by Isaac Luria, a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, makes the pursuit of silence nothing less than the foundational act of the universe.

Luria began his own pursuit as a young man in a series of solitary retreats to islands in the Nile, where he gained renown for being able to interpret the language of birds, swishing palm-tree fronds, and burning embers. (Certain kabbalists thought that after the destruction of the temple, guardian angels used birds as a kind of remote storage for some of the deepest secrets of the Torah, hence their chirping was full of wisdom. Luria kept mum about what the leaves and coals had to say.) Eventually he moved to Safed in Palestine, and there developed the body of mystical thought for which he is most remembered. He himself wrote almost nothing, being constrained by the vastness of the truth he wished to articulate. “I can hardly open up my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed,” he explained. Tsimtsum (roughly translated as “contraction”) is also premised on a problem of space. If God is everything—infinite and all-filling—how could there be any room for God’s creations? Thus, the first act in genesis had to be God’s withdrawal of Himself into Himself in order to make space for anything else. This withdrawal—a kind of inner retreat of the Divine—has been described both as a self-limiting and a self-silencing. (The Jewish identification of God with language makes any pullback on His part a retraction of the Divine tongue.) In Luria’s vision, God becomes the original monkish pursuer of silence, retreating into the dark, secluded depths of His nature so that creation would one day have the chance to sing in the light. Early commentators on Luria’s theories likened this process to a kind of cosmic inhalation: “How did He produce and create His world? Like a man who holds and restricts his breath, in order that the little may contain the many.” Each new expression of God’s creative force had to be preceded by another withdrawal, another self-emptying.

A humanistic reading of Luria’s myth might lead us to reflect that when we shut up and yank ourselves out of the picture, the world rushes vibrantly into the gap we leave behind—springing into fresh visibility and audibility. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master Nahman of Bratslav, however, invested the lesson of tsimtsum with a further mystical twist. Nahman argued that mankind had to reproduce the steps the Divine had gone through in His self-silencing so as to make contact with God’s essence. A process of emptying and quieting takes the pursuer deep into an inner void that opens onto the emptiness left behind by God. Yet once inside what Nahman described as the “mazes of silence,” the righteous one discovers that in some inexpressible fashion God exists within the void as well."

- George Prochnik (1961 - )

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Silent Language

"Images are silent, but they speak in silence. They are a silent language. They are a station on the way from silence to language. They stand on the frontier where silence and language face each other closer than anywhere else, but the tension between them is resolved by beauty. Images and pictures remind man of life before the coming of language.

In the ancient languages one notices that the birth of words from silence was not taken for granted but was considered an event of sufficient importance to require a pause in the flow of language before the arrival of the next word. Words were constantly being interrupted by silence. As a river being born receives at every moment waters from different springs, in like manner after every word a new spring of silence flowed into the stream of the sentence.

In the ancient languages the word was merely an interruption of the silence. Every word was rimmed around with silence. It was this surrounding rim of silence that gave it its individual shape, and kept it separate and distinct from all other words, fenced off from them with its individuality guarded by the silence. If there is no silence between words they lose their individual shape and personality. Instead of being persons they become an undifferentiated mass.

In the ancient languages there was a silence in the interval between two words. The language breathed silence, spoke silence, into the great silence from which it came."

- Max Picard (1888 - 1965)
World of Silence

Monday, November 02, 2020

Meeting Yourself in Silence

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful."

- Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

For regular followers of my blog (I hope at least a few of you remain!), I apologize for the recent dearth - heck, a veritable void - of posts and images. While legitimate reasons may (oh, so slightly) outweigh embarrassed half-baked excuses, the real truth(s) are revealed in Merton's quote: the dearth has as much to do with surrendering to too many (non photography related) projects as it does to my - and, everyone else's - ongoing battle to maintain some semblance of "inner peace" that - without which - it is impossible to sustain the creative process. 

I have always been a photographer of the heart; meaning, that I when I sense my left brain working - thinking, processing, analyzing - I put my camera back in its bag and turn my attention to other matters. I have also long embraced my heart's need for a deep contemplative quiet before my muse awakens. Unfortunately, such states have been increasingly hard to come by; what, with an unceasing pandemic, growing unrest in my country (a day away from a profoundly important election as I type these words), and spillage of day-time anxiety over what the next few months and year will bring over into dreams (and nightmares). And so, in turn, my camera sits patiently in its bag, and my blog wallows in its dearth of new images. But, alas, a ray of hope...

Merton's quote is taken from an essay ("The Modern-Day Desert") that appears in a truly extraordinary book, Notes on Silence, written and edited by Cassidy Hall and Patrick Shen. This book - discovered by chance as I was looking for something "completely unrelated" on the web a few weeks ago - has been a blessing; it is, at once, a spiritual salve, a place of solace, and a portal to precisely what my soul needs to help stumble its way through the muck and morass of this dark time. The book is also as much a metaphoric portal to otherworldly spiritual realms as it is a direct one to the mother project from which it was spawned; namely, an equally remarkable (and multiple award-winning film) called In Pursuit of Silence

Both film and book are joyously mystical meditations on the ineffability of silence. Not in a pedantic "let's listen to sounds of silence" sort of way (a topic well covered by other documentaries), but as revelatory / participatory pointers-to / glimpses-of what lies beyond the silence. Words, images, film stills, quotations, transcripts (in the book) - and, yes, "sounds" (and the lack of them) in the film - are brilliantly combined, mutated, and transformed into a new transcendent meta-language that hints of truths that pure silence is itself but a waystation to. You will meet myriad musicians, artists, mystics, philosophers, monastics, and theologians, and learn about the infinite variety of silences that permeate existence. 

Of course, the inner serenity I thought I had lost - and which I most certainly, and inexcusably, took for granted - was never gone! But it took this film and its accompanying Notes on Silence to remind me what "inner serenity" looks like. Seeing silence is akin to meeting yourself for the very first time.

I encourage anyone whose artistic muse dwells in inner silence to first view the film, and then order a copy of the book to keep by your bedside reading table. It is a treasure trove of timeless wisdom.

PS/Postscript. The image at the top of this post was taken mid-Oct at the Peaks of Otter Lake (along the Blue Ridge Parkway in VA). Apart from a few forgettable "snapshots" around the house and garden, this image is among the first "real" photographs I've taken in months. My muse may not have fully awakened, but I can see vestiges of an "inner serenity" that Notes on Silence reminded me never really left.