A Flowering Band to Bind Us to this Earth
It is proverbial that one may see the world more clearly when pausing and looking from a place of meditative peace, but it is also true that too much sitting in one place can lead to an ossification of vision. After a particularly difficult winter of discontent, I set off on a small journey and remembered how important it is for me to be temporarily unmoored from my usual dockings. I write most easily and most excitedly when traveling, and it is not only because of the new sites, stimulations, and experiences, but, I suspect, especially because traveling includes special interstitial hours of doing nothing, when one is on a train, a ferry, or waiting in a station or port for something or someone. Moments of inbetween when all of the ideas and feelings and words one has stored up over the long frozen days start to unfreeze and mingle and percolate.
In this sort of mood anything at all may be the impetus for a fresh idea or a fresh correspondence of ideas. Old, stale presentiments come in contact with new iterations and one is off on a thought adventure to rival the bodily one. Nietzsche said something about trusting only ideas born while walking ... but I will also trust ones born while on the way somewhere. An oscillation, then, between that pausing-meditative peace and some new excitement and new perspectives. One must walk, or ride, or glide, but then pause from a viewing platform, an eyrie, a particular vista, and let one's impressions settle and simmer.
I also even dined one evening on a boat. It swayed gently while we got drunk on cocktails and oysters and conversation, as the sky darkened and the windows of the skyscrapers in the distance lit up and the world began to spin in tender psychedelic patterns.
My ideas at the moment, it turns out, turn mostly upon what it is we do when we see the world, on how it is we think, arrange, make sense of the mad variety of impressions that make up our lives. I am thinking about Levi-Strauss, whose grand compendium of myths strove to encompass the complicated oppositions and correspondences, the intricate structures of minds, societies, imaginations with practically exhaustive scope. I am thinking about the German Nature Philosophers like Humboldt and Goethe, and later Haeckel, who saw the same forms and patterns in plants and rocks and bones. I am thinking of aesthetic visionaries like Bachelard and Focillon, who traced the repeating forms of shells, doorways, curves, arabesques, edges as portals to life force, to sensibility, to occult significance. I am thinking about phrenologists and other pseudo-scientific attempts to map the world (astrology, tarot, prophecy). I am thinking of the elaborate color-coded system of themes, terms, characters, scenes, philosophical questions kept by Robert Musil as he worked on writing his unfinishable novel. I am thinking of why we love printmaking, a process that reproduces the same image, but slightly differently each time.
In my rounds of lovely visits with family and friends, whom I was so relieved to finally see without masks and embrace without fear, one, David Auerbach, showed me his largest book, Aby Warburg's unfinished Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, an ambitious (mad) accumulation of images arranged according to a unique and mysterious system of correspondences. Crouched over the giant tome on the floor of his study, I examined photographs of the large pages of pictures, with collection titles such as "Dionysiac Formulae of Emotions," "From the Muses to Manet," "Coordinates of Memory". And wondered at what Novalis called the "magic wand of analogy," by which a visionary sees similarities in images and groups them according to these echoes, when, of course, someone else might have highlighted something else in each of the images that would induce him or her to group each one in some other arrangement. Metaphoric thinking, leaving things out that don't belong in one grouping, and then emphasizing others that enhance similarities. The mind! How extraordinary we are. David said that Warburg and Levi-Strauss, whom we also spoke of, were engaged in turning "intuition into a system". I find this process fascinating, while assuming that any system, no matter how exhaustive, is only one possible arrangement of the elements of the world, an approximation, an attempt. And thereby in itself, as process, a beautiful gesture of human fascination and love of the world.
In one of the prefaces to the Bilderatlas, I read that Warburg also saw the collection as an atlas, not just of pictures, but of "types," as "an abstraction that has materialized in concrete form, a concept inspired by Warburg's training in both biology and archaeology where the external form (morphe) or contour of a plant or figure was deemed to define its nature". Aha! I thought. shades of Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, Goethe's Urpflanze, Bachelard's seashell spirals. Or, the introduction continued, in a nod toward the metaphoric subconscious, a "'geneological' diagram to highlight both the migration and the independence of ideas, forming a complex network rather than a linear narrative".
It made me think again of Levi-Strauss, who made mobiles of the motifs of myths and regarded their gentle swaying movement above his head as he mused in his chair at his desk. Somehow, the motifs (secluded son, incest, discovery of water, indifference, non-indifference, etc.) circled and overlapped, were opposed to each other, inverted, reverted, passed each other by, shadowed each other, made contact and retreated, like images in a dream, revealing some insight that eludes linear logic. He was sitting still, but the images were moving.
The next day I walked across Central Park and downtown 50 blocks or so. People were running around and around the round pond and taxis and buses were speeding from West to East and East to West. Of course the world is always turning, but we do not usually feel it, do we? I arrived at The Morgan Library, in time for my 12 noon viewing slot and entered this sacred, quiet sanctum as if it were an island of stillness and calm, of sanity, a bulwark against all the spinning madness of the modern world. Indeed, I found, in an exhibition of drawings, the calm grounding necessary to experience, once again, the wonder of human vision in contact with the world. Standing in front of a small van Gogh ink drawing of birches and poplars....an avenue seemingly at dusk, with branches and leaves forming a dark mysterious crown overhead, tears came to my eyes to think that one man, about one hundred and fifty years ago, had looked at the world with this much love. That he had gathered his impressions together, the darks and the lights, the shapes and the textures, the open and the filled spaces, leaving out whatever did not serve to express his own particular vision, and had gifted us this picture. Others, especially a Canaletto from the 18th century, capturing one random morning in Venice, columns ranging up into a white sky, smeared with gray wash, people in their capes and hats, going about their daily business. A moment saved for us out of the mostly lost past. The world, so wide and various. So familiar and so strange.
Perhaps most moving of all was the stream of lone old men who had made their way, by bus, subway, on unsteady legs, just to stand before a piece of paper inscribed by some mortal hand. That some of us know that these fragments are infinite founts of refreshment, indeed, fountains of youth and regeneration.
Finally, I walked into the library itself, admiring the red velvet chairs, the sturdy desks and shelves, the Botticelli-round with its lovely angelic lads and gentle Madonna, the small dark Dutch master portraits, the serious sweetness of memento mori and attention. The special exhibition was of Keats manuscripts and I approached the vitrines with suitable awe and found myself face to face with an early manuscript of Endymion, in sepia ink; Keats' own hand, pretty and curling, neat and confident and clear, carving and etching his own vision of the world in words and phrases and lines, tempo, texture, contrast, idea. Sounds corresponded with sounds, rhymes and alliterations and conflicts, spaces and pauses and sometimes a gathering of momentum and force. And this is what the young man wrote:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its Loveliness increases; it will never
Fade into nothingness, but still will keep
A Bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowering band to bind us to this earth,
Spite of Despondence at the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and oer-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all
Some shape of beauty moves away the Pall
From our dark spirits.
Amen, dear Keats. May it still be so. May we be bound by flowering bands to this earth, wreathed by hands as deft as yours, may some shape of beauty, seen and shared by eyes as filled with love as van Gogh's, move away the Pall; spite of Despondence at the inhuman dearth of noble natures, let us gather close to us those who did care, those who attempted, in spite of all indifference, to make some sense of this chaos, this spinning globe, this variegated vale of tears and laughter, and those who still do care.
Visit your friends and family. Visit the pictures you love. Pilgrimage to the small evidences of attention paid, before they and we are no more.