Archive for Philosphy
There is a certain precision to be found in William Maxwell’s prose that is breathtaking and arguably without equal. Maxwell, however, may be best known for using atypical points-of-view to distill an experience down to its barest essence. Essentialism can be a loaded term, especially in academic circles, but I am using it here to highlight Maxwell’s aperture for experience, which he opens as wide as possible to take in every aspect of a moment in time. Essentialism in this case equals universalism.
Maxwell’s essentialism is evidenced in the following, heart-breakingly beautiful passage from The Château:
“In the first luminous quarter-hour of daylight, the Place Pierre-Joseph Redouté in the 16th arrondissement of Paris was given over to philosophical and mathematical speculation. The swallows skimming the wet rooftops said: What are numbers? The sky, growing paler, said: What is being when being becomes morning? What is “five,” asked the birds, apart from “five” swallows?”
The Château is, of course, Maxwell’s endearing novel of a young American couple abroad in post-war France. It is early morning in Paris and Maxwell begins with as wide a lens as possible to capture the moment before Barbara and Harold Rhodes awaken. He continues:
“The French painter and lithographer who belonged in the center of the Place and who from his tireless study of natural forms might have been able to answer those questions was unfortunately not there any more; he had been melted down and made into bullets by the Germans.”
Here is war’s destruction rendered completely in one terse independent clause. It is just after daylight and the couple is still not awake, and yet:
“The huge block of rough granite that was substituting for him said: Matter is energy not in motion, and the swallows said: Very well, try this, then, why don’t you… and this…”
Here is action without depiction; a painterly vision of swallows diving in the post-dawn light.
“Though proof was easy and the argument had long ago grown tiresome, the granite refrained. But it could not resist some slight demonstration, and so it gave off concentric circles of green grass, scarlet salvia, curbing and cobblestone.”
The solidity of matter again as a refrain, and even the pissoir has its say: “Everything that happens, in spite of the best efforts of the police, is determined by the space co-ordinates x, y, and z, and the time co-ordinate t.”
The lovers toss and turn and dream. Harold gropes for Barbara who evades him in her sleep. The sun rises. The rain has stopped. And then:
“Crowded to the extreme edge of the bed by his half-waking and half sleeping lust, she turns.
‘Are you awake?’ he says softly.
‘We’re back in Paris.’
‘So I see.’”
Here is a moment so exquisitely rendered that it almost defies interpretation. The timelessness of the moment is palpable in its simplicity. These passages are beautiful because they are simple and tender and also because they are universal.
The following passage from earlier in The Château highlights Maxwell’s method and needs no commentary, only a short preface.
Barbara Rhodes and Alix (a girlfriend) are swimming in a river. Harold turns to see the girls wading deeper into the water, their white thighs exposed.
“There are certain scenes that (far more than artifacts dug up out of the ground or prehistoric cave paintings, which have a confusing freshness and newness) serve to remind us of how old the human race is, and of the beautiful, touching sameness of most human occasions. Anything that is not anonymous is all a dream. And who we are, and whether our parents embraced life or were disappointed by it, and what will be come of our children couldn’t be less important. Nobody asks the name of the Greek vase or whether the lonely traveler on the Chinese scroll arrived at the inn before dark.”
New York artist Adam Pendleton on New York photographer Xaviera Simmons.
Simmons, as an artist, doubles down. She captures the fiction/truth dialectic as well as anyone, dis-articulating assumptions about the quietly composed and staged images she makes. She’s a Brecht of the photographic endeavor. In her work, Simmons is not so much documenting the performance before the camera, but the performance itself. In one image from the series If We Believe in Theory, Simmons captures a young girl in the woods dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. It’s an example of Simmons using the suggestion of performance to capture the explicit and contradictory nature of individuality. Her subject becomes herself, and also a dismembered characterization of what we’re accustomed to look at. Still, it is not simply Simmons’s understanding of the imagistic theater of photography that is useful, but her way of using form to acknowledge that image is at the center of the creative construction of collective and personal histories. Simmons is a lexicographer who fuses live material and conceptual conceit; she deconstructs and retains a relation to specific times and places. Perhaps paradoxically, she often achieves this through unabashedly excessive detail, like in One Day and Back Then (Standing), where her character stands in a field of sea reeds in blackface, looking out at us, wearing all black (including stiletto boots), ready for a night out on the town.
Setting aside the tortured artist trope for a moment, it can be said that art is a living philosophy. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his essay, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” (from Sens et non-sens, 1948) extracts Cézanne’s aesthetic from a life seemingly ill fitted for day-to-day existence. Cézanne was unhappy, unapproachable, at times quite unfriendly; a man at odds with himself and the world around him. Diagnosed schizothymia could explain away the rough behavior, however, Cézanne’s actions are also a by-product of his “painting from nature.” Building a living aesthetic is hard work and Cézanne took this work very seriously.
A Cézanne still life is a physical exegesis of perspective. According to Merleau-Ponty, “The lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one. […] To say that a circle seen obliquely is seen as an ellipse is to substitute for our actual perception what we would see if we were cameras: in reality we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse.” Cézanne’s cups and saucers and pears and oranges are seen almost from all sides at once.
Cézanne’s landscapes are an even bolder undertaking: to represent the world fully, as it exists in a single moment in time and all at once. To this end, “…All the partial views one catches sight of must be welded together; all that the eye’s versatility disperses must be reunited; one must, as Gasquet put it, “join the wandering hands of nature.””
The science behind this aesthetic is crucial; Cézanne’s palette more than doubles the number of colors in the spectrum. “If the painter is to express the world, the arrangement of his colors must bear within this indivisible whole, or else his painting will only hint at things and will not give them in the imperious unity, the presence, unsurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real. This is why each brushstroke must satisfy an infinite number of conditions. Cézanne sometimes pondered hours at a time before putting down a certain stroke, for, as Bernard said, each stroke must “contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style.” Expressing what exists is an endless task.”
On landscapes: “”A minute of the world is going by which must be painted in its full reality.” His meditation would suddenly be consummated: “I have a hold on my motif,” Cézanne would say, and he would explain that the landscape had to be tackled neither too high nor too low, caught alive in a net which would let nothing escape. Then he began to paint all parts of the painting at the same time, using patches of color to surround his original charcoal sketch of the geological skeleton. The picture took on fullness and density; it grew in structure and balance; it came to maturity all at once. “The landscape thinks itself in me,” he would say, “and I am its consciousness.””
On the constitution of a romantic realism: “In La Peau de chagrin Balzac describes a “tablecloth white as a layer of fresh-fallen snow, upon which, the place settings rose symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls.” “All through my youth,” said Cézanne, “I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of fresh-fallen snow…. Now I know that one must only want to paint ‘rose, symmetrically, the place settings’ and ‘blond rolls.’ If I paint ‘crowned’ I’m done for, you understand? But if I really balance and shade my place settings and rolls as they are in nature, you can be sure the crowns, the snow and the whole shebang will be there.”
Despite the certitude of the above statement: “[…Cézanne] was never at the center of himself: nine days out of ten all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the debris of an unknown celebration. Yet it was in the world that he had to realize his freedom, with colors upon a canvas. It was from the approval of others that he had to await the proof of his worth. That is why he questioned the picture emerging beneath his hand, why he hung on the glances other people directed toward his canvas. That is why he never finished working. We never get away from our life. We never see ideas or freedom face to face.”
(Text from “Cézanne’s Doubt”, Sense and Non-Sense by Maurice Merleau-Ponty; images from The National Gallery of Art – Cézanne in Provence: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2006/cezanne/)
Richard Rorty’s essay, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” published in Philosophy and Social Hope, is a brief but powerful intellectual biography. Here Rorty charts his interests as a child through his philosophical education to his conclusive pragmatism.
We follow Rorty from his prurient, affable, pre-teen interest in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and his well-intentioned (but understandably incomplete) efforts to conquer Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, to his volunteer years with the Workers’ Defense League, to an obsession with wild orchids. Finally to the University of Chicago in 1946 where Rorty, as an undergraduate intended to, “[…] reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me – in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats – ‘hold reality and justice in a single vision’.
He continues, “By reality I meant more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which […] I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I meant what Norman Thomas and Trotsky both stood for, the liberation of the weak from the strong. I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity – a nerd recluse and a fighter for justice. I was very confused, but reasonably sure that at Chicago I would find out how grown-ups managed to work the trick I had in mind.”
For quite some time I believed likewise that philosophy, theology, and art held the keys to this sort of ‘unification theory’ wherein absolutes could be distilled, understood, and then held up as signposts pointing the way to a truthful life. In this manner, I could transcend the ‘Thuggism of Ideas’ prevalent in evangelical Christianity and Conservatism (this was the 1980’s; the term ‘neo-con’ was not yet a part of the daily vernacular, this was the real deal).
Much of my youth and early adulthood was spent trying to reconcile multiple different aesthetic and religious frameworks and mash them together (a love for the Grateful Dead with a love for Black Flag for example, or Gnostic Christianity and the Old Testament, or Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mark Rothko—the list is fairly long).
In retrospect, these pursuits were just easy ways to lose oneself for months or years at a time. What mattered not was the assemblage of these items; what mattered was the enjoyment of them. A few steps further, however, takes us to Rorty’s conclusion that no matter how much we enjoy Proust or Yeats or wild flowers, Dewey’s community of human solidarity and secularist society make these artistic achievements orchidaceous extras.
In the end, I lacked the intellectual fortitude—let’s face it, I can be rather lazy—to assemble something along the lines of Rorty’s pragmatism. But I still like to think of Rorty as the strong man at the circus and I recall the lines to Superchunk’s “1000 Pounds”:
“Now you wish you weighed a thousand pounds / So you could crush all those bullies and demons down / From your seat at the back of the bus / You’re still waving back at us.”
Recently, I stumbled on the following passage in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch: “THE same thing happens to everybody, the statue of Janus is a useless waste, the truth is that after forty years of age we have our real face on the back of our heads, looking desperately backwards. It is what in all truth is called a commonplace. You can’t do anything about it, that’s about the strength of it, with the words that come twisting out from between the bored lips of one-faced adolescents. Surrounded by boys in baggy sweaters and delightfully funky girls in the smoke of the café-crèmes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés who read Durrell, Beauvoir, Duras, Douassot, Queneau, Sarraute, here I am a Frenchified Argentinian (horror of horrors), already beyond the adolescent vogue, the cool with an Etes-vous fous?”
I include that last line primarily because it’s fun–in the pre-autumn of a college town with students just returning–to think of baggy sweaters and funky girls and a long list of nouveau romans to tunnel through. I include the last sentence here as well because of the way that Cortázar so simply and elegantly goes back in time with nothing to mark the transition other than the single period.
I quote from Cortázar at length, after having just turned forty, and after having involuntarily begun the process of looking backwards. In the process of looking forwards, I have also become obsessed with time travel and with memory.
This evening I took our three children to a kindergarten orientation that our oldest had experienced exactly four years ago. I watched her as she was overwhelmed by the memories storming over her. I was shocked at how specific they were, how full of details. She reveled in seeing the courtyard and the playground and rattled off how this and that happened here and here and there. She did not recall, it is worth noting, how terrified she was of time machines back then, half a lifetime ago.
Coincidentally, this evening I also met an old friend (a woman I hadn’t seen in some time) who had gone to the same school and who had just enrolled her oldest child in the same kindergarten. As she stood there in the courtyard, she was blessedly, divinely overcome with déjà vu.
Standing on the blacktop, I recalled my own kindergarten experience (remarkably well-preserved at least in the sense of narrative truth) and also the long expanse, the grainy vista, of the jetty at Orly airport in Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The little boy standing on the railing of the airport observation platform, watching the planes arriving and taking off. The sight of a woman’s smile. The time before the war.
I first saw Marker’s masterpiece, the basis for Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (and probably half a dozen other films, short stories, etc.), in a French class in Dey Hall, perhaps on a chilly autumn morning with the bright ting of wood smoke and burning leaves in the air. Or perhaps it was on a warm spring afternoon. Who can say for sure?
The whole script for La Jetée is fifteen hundred words, give or take, but in that limited amount of space he captures so succinctly the desire to transcend memory and time to return to our childhood and to our memories even if they might not be our own. It is an incredibly powerful film, shot entirely with stills, that stretches to get to the twenty-eight minute mark.
I love this line quite near the end, “Once again the main jetty at Orly, in the middle of this warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, he though in a confused way that the child he had been was due to be there too, watching the planes.”
A warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, watching the planes.
I held enraptured by Rorty’s passage in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” so I will quote it here once more. He is discussing the philosopher’s purpose as he writes, “[…]we philosophy professors are people who have a certain familiarity with a certain intellectual tradition, as chemists have a certain familiarity with what happens when you mix various substances together. We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought. But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is ‘rational and objective’ rather than ‘just’ a result of how you were brought up.”
To hold our time in thought.
That seems to me to be an awfully difficult task, but one that is perhaps achievable by applying intellectual rigor to the creative process. It seems to me also an imperative.
You can purchase La Jetée at Amazon or stream it online though the quality is rather poor. The entire script can be found here: http://www.godamongdirectors.com/scripts/lajette.shtml
Michael D. Jackson, Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, has a beautiful piece on Richard Rorty in the new issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
“The Philosopher Who Would Not Be King,” is an excerpt from Jackson’s unpublished manuscript titled, The Stone in the Stream: Being With Oneself and Being With Others. Here Jackson (a novelist, poet, anthropologist, and author of Paths Toward a Clearing and At Home in the World as well as many others) excerpts at length an interview with Rorty from Dutch TV.
The interview portrays Rorty as a kind and deeply thoughtful man who, as a painfully shy child, found solace in reading and in the processes of the mind. Jackson’s own personal experiences with Rorty imply that Rorty was a man who simultaneously lacked and craved friends and who treasured human contact. Rorty, who introduced Jackson to William James and John Dewey, convinced Jackson of the strength of pragmatism and pragmatic thought in the face of existential crisis.
Jackson balances this notion of the isolated, sheltered thinker with the concept of an engaged activist. Is there anything one can do to better the lives of another? Or are the chasms between individuals ultimately and fundamentally unbridgeable?
Jackson (via Rorty) also posits that art has the capacity to enhance existence whether or not you believe that poets (for example) have deeper insights into life and death than do philosophers.
Jackson quotes from the work of Bruce Kapferer (author of The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power) to highlight the ways that religion and spirituality can blend or even overcome the temporal world, the here and now, to provide a broader, deeper existence (and perhaps also to heal the broken spirit).
With this dichotomy, the ideologue versus the activist, theory versus praxis–or maybe this is better framed as a polychotomy including the artist and the writer and the poet as well–it appears that philosophical frameworks (choose your poison) may help underscore certain nuances in the different ways we think about and interpret the world, but that art has the power to create connections between human beings, between the temporal and the otherworldly.
At the very least, philosophers and their philosophies may help create a frame of reference, which can act as a divining rod of sorts pointing the way to some clearer understanding of relative experience.
A quote from Rorty’s “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” where he outlines the philosopher’s purpose, is illustrative:
“We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought. But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is ‘rational and objective’ rather than ‘just’ a result of how you were brought up.”