VI. Doing The Twist


Lions and Rhinos, Chauvet

 "He'd lost his magic"

That's the first line in Philip Roth's great short novel, The Humbling in which an actor has lost his ability to act. "He was conscious of every moment he was on the stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn't thinking about anything. What he did he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed--he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it." He has lost the ability to penetrate the membrane.

In an interview with Terry Gross, the actor William Hurt said, "You can judge your performance before and after but not while you are doing it. You have to be totally committed." You become the character, you become the paint, you become the clay, you become one with your lover. Judgment and analysis come later. One thing dies and another is born. No creation without destruction.

Hegel's whole philosophy is based on this concept, which he called Aufheben, or sublation. It has the contradictory meanings of "to lift up" and to "to eliminate," to exalt and destroy. Each side of the argument is necessary to define the other. Sublation is a good word to describe how the creative act requires both remembering and forgetting. You have to learn how to use materials and to remember techniques, but to make a true work of art you have to forget all that and start from scratch. As Barthes said, "being creative is an ongoing process of continual change and reaction."

In The Mind in the Cave Lewis-Williams compares the ethnographic and neuropsychological evidence from the cave paintings to that of shamanistic societies, and he finds the following correspondences:

"[T]he cave and the vortex; auditory hallucinations; fear; the rock as a 'membrane'; someone coming out of a crack in the rock; hallucination of a healing ceremony; emergence from the cave with a new persona. In sum, the 'death' and suffering of an initiate often involves descent to the lowest realm of the shamanistic cosmos -- and to the furthest end of the induced spectrum of consciousness."

To jump from the Paleolithic to 1909, here's a letter from Mahler to Bruno Walter: "How absurd it is to let oneself be submerged in the brutal whirlpool of life. To be untrue to oneself and to those higher things above oneself for even a single hour! But writing this down like this is one thing -- on the next occasion, for instance, if I now leave this room of mine, I shall certainly again be as absurd as everyone else…. Strange! When I hear music -- even while I am conducting -- I hear quite specific answers to all my questions -- and am completely clear and certain. Or rather, I feel quite distinctly that they are not questions at all."


That they are not questions at all. The two sides have become one side, as when strip of paper is twisted into a Mobius strip. Messiaen had similar thoughts. He said in an interview, "Music is a perpetual dialogue between space and time, between sound and color, a dialogue which ends in a unification: time is space, sound is colour... The musician who understands, sees, hears and speaks through these fundamental notions can begin to approach the unknown."

 When composing Mahler and Messiaen passed through the membrane into the timeless world of certainty where there are no questions or answers. The twist is that that is not usually the world you create in your art. Mahler's symphonies are all about the "brutal whirlpool of life" and there is as much sensuality as spirituality in Messiaen. To live completely on the other side of the membrane is not only to cease to create but to give up on life. It would be, as Von Kleist said about returning to a state of innocence, "the last chapter of the history of the world."

 The Weird Bottle

 Kerrick Hartman, Simple Twist, 2009
In October of 2009 I was looking at an alabaster sculpture by Kerrick Hartman, one of Michael Warrick's sculpture students at UALR, and it reminded me of a Klein bottle, which has neither an inside nor an outside but is one continuous surface.

Amazingly, Kerry called it "Simple Twist"! I didn't even know that until I asked him to email me an image of it. Not only is it appropriate to my subject, it's also a song by Bob Dylan -- which has a blind man in it!

Kerrick Hartman, Simple Twist, 2009



A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walkin' by the arcade.
As the light burst through a beat-up shade where he was wakin' up,
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.


 Anyway, later that night I suddenly realized that maybe this was an even better metaphor for the creative act, during which the difference between inside and outside, right brain and left brain, subjectivity and objectivity, disappears. Mind and body operate as one continuous whole, inside flowing smoothly into outside. This is a Klein bottle made from two Mobius strips (right).  


A mathematician named Klein
Thought the Möbius band was divine.
Said he: "If you glue
The edges of two,
You'll get a weird bottle like mine."

 But Mobius and Klein was an irresistible combination of names, so here's my version…
(If it keeps starting and stopping, keep it on pause until it loads all the way, then play.)

But … Isn't this the way we ordinarily think? -- information processed by both hemispheres and exchanged freely across the corpus callosum? This realization almost made me abandon this whole Klein bottle thing, and maybe even the Membrane. Maybe the whole idea was harebrained. I felt like my whole lecture idea had been topologically turned inside-out and revealed to be a sham. It was one of those seemed-like-a-good-idea- at-the-time moments. But wait!--

These are not pictures of real Kline bottles. Here's one somebody made in glass--
  -- but it's still only a representation of a 4-dimensional object in 3-d space. The senses we have only allow us to perceive three spatial dimensions, but if we could view it in 4-d we would see no self-intersection.

This revelation, the transformation of a 2-d object (the membrane) in 3-d space into a 3-d object in 4-d space, completely restores the mystery of the creative act as I experience it. Like the bottle, I too am "non-orientable"! -- or at least disoriented. It really is like entering another dimension -- whatever that might be like. Here's the way Tina S.Chang puts it -- from a story called 'Perelman's Song":
After all, the first creator gods were potters, breathing life into clay vessels. The mystery of art making must have led directly to the mystery of religion, since there had to be potters before that metaphor could have been conceived.


 The Wire

So Klein's weird bottle turns out after all to be a great symbol for creativity, just because it's such an insoluble mystery! It's fitting that a metaphor for the mystery of creativity should be a mystery itself, one that's completely beyond our intuitive powers, as mind-bending as the creative act itself. There ceases to be a boundary between the subjective and objective, but at the same time there is a boundary!

Warren Criswell, pp. 10 & ll from
Lenny & the Black Riders

 I was listening to an old recording from the '60s of Leonard Bernstein talking about Beethoven's 3rd symphony. He talked about the dialectic between the simple and the complex in Beethoven's music. Dialectic is the confrontation of opposites. I mentioned Hegel's term Aufheben, which we call sublation. Hegel used it to explain what happens when thesis confronts antithesis. "The two concepts Being and Nothing are each both preserved and changed through sublation in the concept Becoming."

So is the creative act a sublation of the worlds on either side of the Membrane? the conscious and the unconscious? The analytic and the holistic? The left brain and the right brain? The generous and the selfish? The giving and the stealing? Dylan and the blind man? Me and my double? In becoming, the work of art discards both the "is" and the "is not." It's a very Zen thing. In Stravinsky's Oedipus rex there is no movement, yet there is movement. Remember that song by Donovan? -- "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is…"

The lock upon my garden gate's a snail, that's what it is.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
Caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
Oh Wanita, oh Wanita, oh Wanita, I call your name.
…The lock upon my garden gate's a snail, that's what it is.
Caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
First there is a mountain . . .


 It's from an old Zen adage that describes perfectly in a few words what I've wasted all this time trying to say. The master said when he knew nothing about Zen a mountain was just a mountain and a river was just a river. But when he learned more about Zen the mountain wasn't a mountain anymore and the river wasn't a river. "But when I became proficient in Zen," he said, "the mountain was just a mountain and the river just a river." The key word there is "became." Becoming, transforming, creating, "an expanding frontier of ignorance."

Maybe what I've been calling the "Membrane" is not a noun but a verb, meaning Becoming. We transform our phantoms and desires into art. Inside becomes outside. When we stop becoming we stop creating. And the rest is silence -- or repetition.

"Being creative is an ongoing process of continual change and reaction."

Recently I watched the documentary "Man on Wire," about the guy who outwitted the security and walked a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Philippe Petit risked his life to transform himself into a work of art, literally. Watch this:


 It existed only for an hour or so, and can never be repeated. Still, I felt it had the spark of great art. In fact this used to be the mark of authenticity for performance artists -- that it could only be done once. But as I watched this I started feeling something that I think I've always feared but have put away in a black box: that great art demands that we walk that wire -- that we are willing to risk everything for the work. No wonder Plato thought artists were crazy and banned them from his Republic!

The divine spark of inspiration can be a dangerous thing, dangerous to us and those we love. How many of us have the courage (or foolhardiness) to crawl into the darkest, deepest part of the cave, or hide in tiny studios, or walk in the air between the tallest buildings in the world? Our cowardice may make us good, decent, productive citizens -- but is it also the reason we fail as artists? Or maybe the feeling of defeat and failure is a part of being an artist -- maybe a part of being alive.

On the other hand, all that could all be bullshit, as several of my friends have pointed out. David Bailin reminded me that Charles Ives held onto his security as an insurance man, and yet in his spare time composed some of the greatest and most daring sounds in the history of music. Another full-time, life-long insurance man was also one of our greatest poets, Wallace Stevens. And Somerset Maugham was not a driven wire-walker like Gauguin or Van Gogh or Morandi or Satie. He played it safe and watched the bottom line, but managed to turn out some great novels anyway, some of them about that very passion he felt he lacked. In Of Human Bondage Glutton and Philip represent the two poles of creativity - the one who sacrifices everything for his art because he can't do otherwise, (he's a glutton for punishment!) the other who doesn't have this imperative and sees the folly and cruelty of the "true" artist's life.

And yet either is capable of great art. There are no rules for creativity. It's a lawless activity, and we make our own rules. Yours will be different from mine, and they will keep changing. First there's a mountain, then there's not. The membrane gets twisted into Moby Dick and swallows us up like Jonah, and God only knows where we'll get spit up.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Warren Criswell


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