Monday, January 13, 2014

We're all French

Room with dots by Kusama Yayoi

Today (actually, January 5, as the calendar of past events inexorably ticks away) I saw the exhibit by Kusama Yayoi at the Shanghai Museum of contemporary Art. A formidable but uneven artist, her great strengths emerge when she introduces us to a vision of other worlds, as she understands them. Her great weaknesses emerge in a series of oversized canvases that are nothing more than a sequence of repetitive, amateurish doodles which, to the great misfortune of everyone (but most especially the art world) are venerated in the same way as her best work.

 Maybe someday critics and the public will learn how to distinguish the good from the bad, but it probably won't be any day soon.

One of the important points her work underscores, without using hallucinogenic drugs (although you may think you have, once you get into a show of hers) is the ability of the human psyche to occupy worlds we have not conceived of yet. Those worlds need not be the sole property of an individual mind; there is a way that they can communicate themselves, and this kind of art is quite effective at it.

Leaving aside for the moment any commentary on the exact nature of the other worlds she picks, other than saying they have their limits from a metaphysical point of view, we can agree that consciousness is capable of entering territory unfamiliar to the average, everyday mind. Of course this is well known; but rarely do we get a chance to walk into a room and truly feel it, to have it penetrate into our bones and our organs, such that the very tissues and membranes of our brain and spinal column tingle with questions about the nature of where we are and who we are.

Yet the ordinary world is capable of producing the same effects; anyone engaged in long-term spiritual effort is able to report this. 

Under normal circumstances, of course, it doesn't. And the question is — why?

The presence of Heaven, I think, is a rare presence. Both Ibn al 'Arabi in Swedenborg pointed out that if we had a taste of heaven every day, we would soon grow tired of it. Man has no wish to go towards something he already has; and, in conceiving of other worlds, everything we can conceive of, we think — in one way or another — that we already have.

This habit of believing that what we can conceive of is equivalent to what can be attained is an ingrained one. We think, for example, of the perfections of the heart—generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, equanimity— as Being-qualities we already know about and can understand in one way or another. Yet indubitably, we have already conceived of them; and in doing so, we think we own them in one way or another, or, at least, can own them.

In my experience, I'm not at all sure this is the case. These qualities are only owned by us subjectively through the conceptual understandings we form. The qualities have an objective manifestation as well, but that is not within our grasp — we just conflate our conceptual understanding with said objectivity. This is a subtle point that must not escape the attention of the adept — to know a word, even well, or to have a feeling, even one that is familiar and firmly reinforces the meaning of a word, does not mean that the experience is an objective one. An objective experience, in so far as it is possible, is transcendental. This means that it takes place outside the realm of known worlds. It is reflected in the known world, to be sure; but that reflection is an insubstantial mirroring of a higher truth.

This is the trouble we always get ourselves in. Everything emerges from the conceptual mind—we talk about it — or write about it — we think about it, and we think we know something about it or understand it. It is only in that moment of not knowing it, of fundamentally intuiting that we know nothing whatsoever about these matters, that we taste for an instant the incapacity that we perpetually dwell in.

This perpetual incapacity in the presence of other worlds, which contain higher principles that occasionally brush up against us, is what Jeanne de Salzmann called our lack. We rarely see this; and we only see it when a feeling quality from a higher level inwardly forms in us which allows us a taste of this same lack.

 I recently saw an archival film of Madame de Salzmann where she made an arch comment about Americans and Frenchmen.  "Americans," she said dryly, "are always trying to understand how to work. The French think they already know how."

The remark would be amusing if she actually meant Americans and Frenchmen—we Americans in the room certainly took it that way— but I have a sudden, sinking feeling that she was subtly saying we are all sitting in an old world, thinking we are in a new one.

That is to say, we are all French. 


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