V. Death and Erection

Remember we were talking about the grace of the bear, the grace of a tree blowing in the wind? Last night I watched The Soloist, the movie about Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless guy who played his 2-string violin on the streets of L.A. for years, under a statue of his hero Beethoven. Steve Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. times, looking for a story, discovered that Ayers had been a top student at Julliard years ago, a cellist, and had dropped out. He was a schizophrenic and his voices wouldn't

let him play. Lopez, played by Robert Downy Jr. in the movie, befriended him, gave him a cello and wrote a series of stories about him. Nathaniel was very claustrophobic and did NOT want to go inside, but Steve fixed it so they could attend a rehearsal of the L.A. Symphony Orchestra, just the two of them. They played Beethoven's 3rd. Nathaniel was in heaven.

Later in a noisy bar Steve tried to explain the experience to his exwife -- Steve was not a classical music freak. He's yelling over the noise and he says, "If only you could have seen him and felt him! He's hearing something I couldn't hear! I thought, my God, there's something higher out there! I don't even know what you fucking call it!" And she yells in his ear, "Grace. It's called grace."



 I played this excerpt from Messiaen's "Blackbird" because I thought it went well with the bird-headed shaman in this painting from Lascaux, but it occurs to me now that I could have included Messiaen in the preceding section. Like Morandi, he too said that nature was his supreme resource, meaning that all he did was transcribe the songs of birds, the wind, reflections on the water, etc. More on Messiaen on the next page.

The Shaft of the Dead Man, Lascaux


Passage through the membrane can also be thought of a kind of death and resurrection, a theme as old as mankind. Billy Collins says, "... death is the subject matter of poetry. I tell college students, if they're majoring in English, they're basically majoring in death. That's what you're getting for your tuition."

Lewis-Williams (The Mind in the Cave) thinks it was present in the caves, that the dying man with the head of a bird and an erection is a kind of Christlike character, signaling a new phase of the religion. Almost every mythology, past and present, has some version of this cycle of withdrawal and re-emergence. Mahler had to retreat into his hut to compose, the Paleolithic painters crawled into the farthest reaches of the dark caves to receive their visions. A lot of us artists today have to lock ourselves in our studios or go alone into the woods. We've already heard Andrew Wiles's emotional description of his "dark mansion." The essence of all these is the leaving behind of normal life to gain access to another kind of life.

-- Here I have to show you a poem Bob Boury sent me last night after hearing this part of my lecture: "The Midnight Club" by Mark Strand.


The gifted have told us for years that they want to be loved
For what they are, that they, in whatever fullness is theirs,
Are perishable in twilight, just like us. So they work all night
In rooms that are cold and webbed with the moon's light,
Sometimes, during the day, they lean on their cars,
And stare into the blistering valley, glassy and golden,
But mainly they sit, hunched in the dark, feet on the floor,
Hands on the table, shirts with a bloodstain over the heart.


 I drew that! ...

Poor Poor Pitiful Me, 9/25/06, sanguine chalk on beige laid paper, 24 x 18 inches

I went down to the crossroads
tried to flag a ride
ain't nobody seemed to know me
everybody passed me by

...............(Robert Johnson)

The blues men knew how to laugh at themselves, and as King Lear said, "I would learn that."

 And then there's the Little Death, La Petite Mort. This refers to "the spiritual release that comes with orgasm, or a short period of melancholy or transcendence, as a result of the expenditure of the life force." Roland Barthes spoke of la petite mort as the chief objective of reading literature. He used the concept as a metaphor to describe the feeling one should get when experiencing any great literature, art or music.

Okay, maybe not. But this is not so far fetched as you might think. Around the Mediterranean before the coming of the Greeks in Europe and patrilineal Semites in the Middle East, God was a woman. The image in Shaft of the Dead Man echoes all the way down to the Temple of Apollo and the Pythoness. The dead man's bird mask and staff remind us that Athena's symbols were the owl and the snake.

The early Greeks incorporated the goddesses they found in the lands they invaded with the gods they brought with them, but after Plato and then Christianity, the body and spirit were divided and set against each other in an eternal struggle. Before that sexuality was considered a divine celebration, a communion between the corporeal and the spiritual, and that may have been the prevailing attitude all the way back to the Upper Paleolithic. We can't know for sure, but maybe the dying shaman with the erection had an important symbolic and religious meaning, as Lewis-Williams thinks.


Venus and the Sorcerer, Chauvet

This is oldest surviving painting of a female nude. Look how she's part of two animals-- a bison on the right, a lion on the left. She seems to embody both life and death. And notice that it's painted on a phallic stalactite, maybe symbolizing a union of male and female. There are a lot of Paleolithic engravings of nude women on ivory penises. (See The Nature of Paleolithic Art by R. Dale Guthrie)

There's an ongoing debate about whether the erotic images of the Upper Paleolithic (35,000 to 10,000 years ago) were porn or religious symbols. It's possible that they were both and that it's only our cultural bias that makes the two seem mutually exclusive.

The Woman with a Horn, or Venus of Laussel (23,000 BCE), the oldest know bas-relief sculpture.

This is much older, a recent find in Germany, at least 35,000 years old.
So you see, the push-up bra is not after
all an invention of the 20th century. 

The famous Venus of Willendorf. More "Venuses" here.

Thirty of these were found in Siberia in a site dated 24,000 years ago, indicating that the worship of the Goddess stretched all the way across Europe and Asia. (New York Times, Oct. 21, 2013)

 There was a recent study, using PET scans (Positron Emission Tomography) of the brain activity of women that seems to support the idea of the small death: "To some degree, the present results seem to be in accordance with this notion, because female orgasm is associated with decreased blood flow in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is crucial for behavioral control." (I am not making this up.)

So making art and making love are similar -- you lose control and yet are in control. And you don't want to be analyzing either one while you're doing it. Whether making a painting or making love, it's best to wait till later to think about it.

And speaking of Tiresias, he seems to have known about this without the help of a PET scan. In one version of how he went blind, Hera and Zeus were having an argument about which gender got the most pleasure from sex. They consulted Tiresias, who had spent seven years as a woman, and he told them that a woman got ten times more fun out of it than a man. That made Hera so mad she struck him blind. That was how he got his prophetic powers. His blindness allowed him to understand the language of the birds. I don't know about the bees.

In the opera Arald by Nicolae Bretan a blind seer is supposed to be able to bring the dead back to life. On his black charger the warrior Arald has flown over mountains and valleys with the body of his sweetheart Maria wrapped in his black cloak, in search of the Seer. Here's the conclusion--

Arald, first sketch, pastel on brown paper, 10 x 12 inches
(I've inserted progressives of a painting of mine, inspired by the opera. If you watch closely you'll see a minor example of anagnorisis -- in this case the discovery of a bad compositional mistake. It seems obvious now that the three heads in the picture should form a triangle, but I didn't see it until I was well into the painting and had to rotate the dead girl 180 degrees.)
Arald, 2002, oil on canvas, 46 x 32 inches

 Conclusion of Arald by Nicolae Bretan, Nimbus Records, NI 5424

 It turns out that the Seer is more of a Charon than an Orpheus. He gives Arald a magic drink which turns him into a ghost. He brings the lovers together as promised, but in death, not life.

Leonard Euler, 1707 - 1783

 We think of Homer as the archetypal blind bard, but this comes from an even older tradition of powers attributed to blind minstrels, poets and prophets of ancient Greece.

Another example of blindness allowing another kind of "seeing" is the mathematician Leonard Euler who was blind for last seventeen years of his life, during which time he produced some of his best work. He produced an average of one mathematical paper every week in the year 1775, nine years into his blindness.

"Euler calculated without apparent effort, as men breathe, or as eagles sustain themselves in the wind," wrote the French astronomer Dominique Arago. When he went blind Euler said, "Now I will have fewer distractions."


 In addition to his many fundamental discoveries in physics and math, he also invented topology. But Euler had this same feeling that we artists have-that it wasn't really him doing the work. He said modestly that his ability to manipulate symbols was a substitute for cleverness, and that his pencil was far more intelligent than he was. In painting, too, the brush often seems to be guiding the hand instead of the other way around. In sculpture the form seems to create itself magically out of the clay, and if you try to exert too much control you lose it.

Steve Whiteaker says his songs don't usually come to him when he's seated comfortably at home with his guitar but while he's driving his truck!--where it's extremely dangerous to be writing down lyrics, but that's what he does, usually on the back of an envelope.

You might say Euler is to mathematics as Beethoven is to music, and Beethoven of course composed some of his most profound and prophetic work after his hearing was completely gone. Maybe losing his physical hearing allowed him to hear the music on the other side of the membrane, as Tiresias heard the speech of birds. Maybe you have to lose something in order to find something else. One thing dies and another is born.

Roland Barthes also talked about "the discourse's instinct for preservation," to keep going, even though it is haunted by its end, the feared and desired goal that is its reason for existing. This is the opposition at the heart of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind. Hegel agreed with the Hindu god Shiva: there can be no creation without destruction.

Euler's identity is the equality e^pi*i + 1 = 0, where e is the base of the natural logarithm, pi is a circle's circumference / diameter, and i is the square root of -1. Numbers multiplied by i are called imaginary. This graph shows a relationship between the real and the imaginary. Which is sort of what we've been talking about. (I did NOT consciously intend any connection between this and the Shaft of the Dead Man. Make up your own story.)

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