Detail from the Haywain,
by Hieronymus Bosch
The Prado, Madrid
The day before yesterday, a friend and I went to see the play Mercury Fur by Philip Ridely. I didn't go because the play was recommended; one of his son's best friends was starring in it.
The play is an unrelentingly violent and horrifying exposé of human depravity in an apocalyptic setting. Watching it, I was continually challenged by the question of what the possible purpose of such a play could be. What is the point? It was, really, a form of pornography — well-crafted and intelligently acted and directed pornography, but without any of the uplifting qualities that art ought to try to represent to humanity.
It is possible to create an art where destruction and violence serve as their own ends, but it is irresponsible, and betrays both the impulse and its origins.
Yet so much of the world is like this today, isn't it?
A second impression of hopelessness came this morning with an article in the New York Times about veterans from the war in Afghanistan committing suicide. Each one of them, after their combat experience, was overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and a lack of meaning. The presumed threat of our mortality — which is imparted to us because of an unspoken assumption that it is somehow unnatural — brings hopelessness very close to home. It's easy to believe that because everything is temporary, nothing means anything. And it is at this time of year, when the fall air begins to blow in, that that brilliant gasp of autumn which illuminates the coming end of summer sinks into the bones. One can sense it in the very marrow; summer will die. Yet it is exhilarating, filled with promise, not desperate and bleak. So there is the possibility for us to sense hope even within the end of things, if we understand life properly. There are those who can draw strength from such ideas; and our arts, literature, music, philosophy and sciences should help us to absorb these lessons. When they serve the opposite purpose, they do not serve man — they serve his devils.
There ought to be a nobility of substance in our enterprises, don't you think? A way of seeing, sensing that transcends — an effort to incorporate mortality, not dismiss it. If we bury death itself, we lose what makes us live with it. This is a question we need to carry within us always.
We don't begin to formulate any perspective on questions like this without a deep education. One has to study everything in order to begin to grasp the mystery we are faced with.
I'm currently beginning my interpretive work on the Haywain; the outer panel shows the wayfarer, the spiritual seeker. In the detail above, as he transits the landscape of life, the gallows is directly above him: a reminder that death is always with us, and a reminder that we should remember this. Putting it in the distance also reminds us that we think of it as a distant possibility; yet it's ever present in our landscape.
Another line of work I'm currently engaged in is a comprehensive reading of The Making of the Middle Sea by Cyprian Broodbank; and although I doubt many readers will have the patience to read through 600 pages of detailed — yet lucid, fluid, and masterful — archaeology, I can wholly recommend the book to anyone interested in where Western civilization began; for most of what we have inherited in terms of art, architecture, philosophy, and religion owes a great deal to this region.
One of the things this book drives home over and over is the vast depth of time throughout which civilizations, large ones, have existed and traded with one another; most of them entirely forgotten, swallowed by time in the same way that blue whales swallow plankton. Measured against the scope of time and scale presented in this book, no matter how important what we think we are doing is, it is a tiny thing indeed. Even the greatest men and the greatest achievements will eventually be swallowed by time in the same way. This is why Gurdjieff called time, which he named the Heropass, merciless.
Absorbing impressions of this is a humbling experience. My wife and I walk through the Metropolitan Museum today and specifically visited the Cycladic and other Mediterranean galleries to expose ourselves, for just a few moments, to the tiny fragments which remain of these ancient and magnificent cultures, to whom we owe so much. (Picasso, for example, drew much of his abstract toolkit from Cycladic form, recycling it in a way that made it look strikingly original — which it isn't.)
I think the point is, we come up against hopelessness in terms of scale; we come up against hopelessness in terms of time; viewed through this constricted lens, the whole world could, easily, be construed as a meaningless exercise.
That is the easy way out. Men reach for desperation and bitterness, I think, out of selfishness itself — we are tempted to drink it like hemlock and then lie back and let everything expire. Now, it's true, that there are clinically depressive conditions that may do this to individuals, but there is no excuse for doing it as a culture — which is where my objection to this play I saw begins and ends. Any idiot can tell a tale where things end badly— take Game of Thrones, for example. If one wishes to be an artist, one must be something more than a fool.
It is up to us to create an art and aesthetic, a cultural value, that echoes down through time in such a way that we can taste the lives that went before us, and uphold a goodness from it that we pass on into the future, and the lives that come after us.
I think that this is what hope is all about. It is hope, as Gurdjieff said, of consciousness: and that consciousness must be a consciousness of positive value, of meaning, of a world where we do not see everything as continually destroyed, but, rather, continually created.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.