Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Art & Tenebrae

As the usual martyrdoms have been fearsome of late—much of Yeats’s “rough beast,” much torture and death, the beheading of three young girls walking through a cocoa plantation on their way to school, and the heartbreaking scene of children rising up to slaughter their teacher and then burn her pulp of a body because she had touched a satchel containing a book belonging to another religion—I call it good to reflect on the inheritance passed to us by our ancestors.

For centuries past, artists in the West (and often elsewhere) created out of a Judao-Christian landscape. Not so long ago, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “I believe there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, and more perfect than the Savior; there is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ.” A dominant Christian worldview held that, despite the frail fabric of human nature, good and evil could be discerned and brokenness in the world redeemed and healed. For many artists in ‘developed’ countries, that lens for accurate seeing and restoration has been lost.

Every artist and lover of art ought to think about these things. Does one perform a metanoia, and turn one’s face away from trends and toward the handed-down vision of the timeless? Does one build an entirely different worldview? Or does one simply slide on into the gulfs of not-quite-thinking, never really being conscious of having a worldview at all? The last of these is a mushy state, and a shadowy destroyer of art and culture, quite prevalent in the West.

Me, I’m still thinking about the words of Tenebrae that stream forth in the darkness, closing with shivers of thunder. Afterward comes silence that waits on the footsteps of beauty.

***
The image of shadowy forms passing in front of an Easter bonfire were captured by Radu Lucian of Bucharest, Romania, and are used courtesy of the photographer and www.sxc.hu.

***

23 comments:

  1. Marly, I wrote a much pondered comment in response to this. I've got something to say and I'm not ashamed of my thoughts, but I don't want to bring my introspecting-out-loud to your corner of the internet with no warning. Is there somewhere I can email it to you?

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  2. Hi Annie--

    My public email is camellia (and that's at marlyyoumans.com). I'll be looking for you, as much lands in the Gulf of Spam when forwarded through the filter.

    Nothing wrong with replying discretely from time to time! I wasn't sure whether anybody at all would respond to this one. Worldview-and-art appears to be a dull topic for many...

    It's 4:00, the not-so-magic hour when I must drudge a bit--so it may take a while before I get back to you.

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  3. That last paragraph (before the picture acknowledgement)... it made me shiver. Thanks Marly, quite wonderful.

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  4. I think art should shake things up. I always try to affect social change in my historical work...like illuminatineg child labor in the city's history. How does this change things now? I dont really know but it feels like it does. Maybe exposing holes in socitey people will see that the holes are still there.

    Maybe art, poetry etc just make people remember what it is to human.

    Is that an ok reply. I am always afraid I am going to misinterpret.

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  5. Susanna,

    Misinterpretation is as interesting as interpretation. There's an aphorism. Not always true, but neither are most aphorisms.

    I like what Heaney says about Yeats, when he talks about art as establishing the radiant-most conditions for human life.

    Clare, the keeper of snails--

    Thanks! (Oh, I managed to get R to go through her tongue tricks. Five. I still think the four-leaf clover the best one.)

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  6. Marly, i rarely let myself enter into these discussions...because I do not manage my temper well with those who see only in black and white...but i read all of what youwrote...i usually do not...i dislike arguing and i almost always end up in an argument. But not this time.

    Remembering, and leaning upon your own words: i have taken the kernal of my own broken beginnings and my heart's needs and desires and finally gave in to becoming the only thing i could be...some type of artist. It turned out to be photography...and it began in the garden...the big marvelously messy one called "nature" and the construct outside my own back door. i'm sure that i turned to this because of the desert i grew up in...both inner and outer (it doesn't get much worse than that particular barren corner of Southern Nevada...country Brigham Young dubbed "Godforsaken" yet my ancestors would not leave).

    i am not ashamed to declare (even if some would roll their eyes) that moving to this landscape, in the company of an older sister...to this climate of 4 potent seasons saved me from a fury turned onto myself that would have ended with me evaporating into nothingness. The yearly metamorphosis expressed in Nikki's poem i shared here is my metaphor for the ressurection of my true self from near extinction. And every spring, summer, fall and winter, i relive the truth that one can be saved. And in that single truth, lies my belief that groups of us can be saved from ourselves.

    i do turn away from the news. i try to glean enough from printed sources on the Internet because television images invade me too deeply (besides, i use the television for my escape and "the news" feels like sacrilige of sacred experiences...like deep belly laughing or the poetry of a Merchant & Ivory film).

    i do have my world view...and my feelings of what it will take to end conflicts, hatred and all of those ugly things i turn away from...and sadly, too often, i catch my breath at just how far i am from the peaceable kingdom when a visitor comes into my garden or looks at my work and uses words that push my buttons.

    so, my work, my camera, continue to train my focus on the mystery and the miracle and the many motes i must remove from my own eyes... but also...it shows me that i have learned some things.

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  7. Ah, I like that heartfelt explanation, zephyr.

    And I think so, too. The mouse and shrew at Rope Walk would agree as well.

    Now I think that I'll read it over again.

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  8. Annie,

    I just checked that account and it was stuffed full. But is now empty. So sorry!

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  9. No worries. I wrote and posted as I should have been leaving for work.

    I'm just home now, and composing an envelope to put my electronic missive in.

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  10. i had to hurry off after my gushing post
    if not, i probably would have edited myself before hitting the "Publish Your Comment" button.
    and all the while i fussed over dinner i felt
    shy about my long winded response ...so thanks deeply for your kind response.

    'tis a tender time of reflection on darkness and light...and to puzzle over how to discern the various greys...or it that grays?

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  11. Agony. I wrote Annie, and my computer froze! I hate that.

    zephyr,

    In America, we are stuck with "gray," you know. "Grey" is much more genteel.

    No, I rather like gush. It has a note of vividness and gusto, a breath of the old original zephyr! That way I am sure that it is not a machine that is writing to me--"gush" is better than the cleverest "word verification."

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  12. Nothing to say with any clarity except to thank you.

    You gave me the excuse to delve into Tenebrae, a word I hadn't known and an experience I haven't had within a house of worship.

    But the gradual darkening, and stripping bare, until we -- our hearts and breath and despair and hope -- are the only things that shine...now that is something I've experienced.

    To hope for healing despite the madness that makes demons of others based on which scripture, and what flavor of it, one believes? An impossible passage.

    It takes an impossible vessel, like art, to help me travel there and back.

    It's late, the darkness and cold gathers...time to settle down in dreams until morning.

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  13. Marly, have the happiest of Easters. I am much enjoying your postings.

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  14. One o' clock, and I'm off to Esperance--fitting name!--for Easter dinner.

    Jan,

    Thank you, and the exact same good wish to you!

    Lori,

    And thanks for that interesting, thoughtful response. I hoped your dreams wrapped you round to good effect!

    All,

    Thanks for all the good replies of late. I've never gotten so many heartfelt and "thinking responses," both as comments and as email. It floats my little boat--toward the sweet shores of "esperance."

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  15. Marly,

    I was pondering how to respond to this post.

    I managed to get to church for Easter service for the first time in months, due to my household crises, of which you are aware.

    The church that I attend has recently expanded and remodeled their sanctuary, and it is beautiful with chandeliers, and wood. But there is no artwork save the wooden cross that hangs in the front, and was wrapped beautifully with purple cloth.

    But, as I was sitting there, I remembered that one of the things that I had promised God to do, was to reflect the glory, majesty, and radiance of God in my artwork, and I began to envision murals on the walls. I am not sure that the church wants this, but I am going to ask, and at least try to do some canvases that reflect mercy and grace.

    Also, this week at school we were talking about how the children that we teach, who are from really hard circumstances, do not have forgiveness modeled for them at home. They come to school with anger, hatred, and violence, having been modeled very acurately for them at home. I said, "Nope, mercy and grace are not a part of their vocabulary." We are deciding as a staff to model forgiveness for them, to teach them the art of communicating, offering forgiveness, and accepting others views. No small task, but one of the reasons I feel I have been led to teaching.

    Another thing that I do is to help children express themselves artistically, to be able to go to the place in their own life where there is some reflection of goodness, and create from there. Art in any form is a healing experience and the creative process comes from the Creators hand in my opinion.

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  16. Not to be difficult, but I find consciously constructed worldviews to be part of the problem. As Zhuangzi long ago noted, it is only when social harmony begins to break down that the moralists and inventers of religious systems appear on the scene.

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  17. The text is so Christian -- but the picture (the bonfire) reminds me of the great bonfires of the non-Christian European countryside discussed in "The Golden Bough"

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  18. It's past midnight. Perhaps I can make some small sense, between the yawns.

    Dave,

    Oh, I don't a worldview has to be "consciously constructed," even when it shoots up inside a shelter. It might grow more like a tree. It might be just as sheltering and as singular.

    Would you say that Blake or Hopkins or Herbert was diminished in any way by having a place to stand? Or Yeats, if you want a really singular vision?

    Some people choose what I'm calling a worldview. Most don't. But that doesn't mean that they don't have one--they have what I would call an "unconscious" or "default" worldview foisted upon them by the current culture. And I guess I'd say that leaves the amoralists and the materialists in charge of creating the world many Westerners know.

    Chris,

    I'm just wondering if unfettered fire might have something to do with passion...

    (I have read Frazer, because he certainly was important to Eliot, Pound, Yeats, etc. As far as comparative religions and anthropology go, he's a bit of a wash.)

    b. q.,

    I have to say that admire anybody who can work with large numbers of children and dream about hope and restoration. Perhaps I admire anybody who can get through the day with large numbers of children.

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  19. Somewhat late on the scene as usual, but it was all well worth reading and now it seems too late to add my tuppenceworth except to say "visiting the palace at any time of day is to be recommended".

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  20. Halloo, Robert, and thank you--

    Just rolled back into town and appreciate the little vote of confidence...

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  21. Late also, but wanting to say something, because I recognise that state of 'sliding into the gulfs of not-quite-thinking', which can be part of a too rigid world view as well as of apathy, and also of a kind of despair which can become so much of a background that one fails to recognise it as such. Simply to resist this is something, and things like this post are acts of that resistance.

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  22. Lucy,

    That gives me the pleasant feeling of understanding my own thoughts better...

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  23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.