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."
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 went down to the crossroads
tried to flag a ride
ain't nobody seemed to know me
everybody passed me by
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.
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
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
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--
(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.)
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
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
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