Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Broken Heart, Part III: The Concentration of Desire

So we see in the flawed doctrine of eternal damnation, which erroneously turns damnation into a thing of sorts—a physical place in which crude tortures take place—a rough approximation, in physical terms, of an actual metaphysical state of non-refinement, in which the particles of God’s Being, although collected through the impressions of Being, never become distilled into a concentration of finer substances. My self-will is what prevents this; in the stubbornly temporal (not eternal) ego-experience of life and Being, even my suffering is about me and how I suffer. Gurdjieff’s emphasis on objectivity (read, non-judgment) bears close examination in relationship to this. When I sense inwardly and organically (conscious labor) and when I feel inwardly and organically (intentional suffering) these two faculties have a property of objectivity to them. They are already touched by the concentration of the Divine from within; and they lead the way towards a greater, more objective, understanding of Being through Grace; for insofar as “gold” (refined particles of Divine Being) is present, so more gold can be acquired. Gold begets gold; or, as was said in the Gospels, To he who hath shall much be given.Those who do not have are thrown into the fire; yet this expression is a bit off the mark, because what really happens is that the fire never acts on them. 

We can understand this, if we wish to, from the perspective of the enneagram. It’s a whole system; and yet it’s typical to become stuck on the right side of the diagram, in which an endless cycle of the forces of material desire and power trap us without developing the force needed to pass from fa to sol. To do that, the fire of remorse needs to be lit; only then does the dross of our ordinary sin begin to be burned off. In this action, our sin itself becomes more concentrated (lesser sins burn easily, but greater ones endure.) 

The more concentrated the remaining matter of our sin becomes within us, the greater anguish it causes; the greater the anguish, the greater the remorse. So one sees one needs one’s sin if the inner flame that spurs us towards the Lord is to become hotter, hot enough to concentrate our desire sufficiently. 

This concentration of desire is a principle theme for Hadewijch, Catherine, and others, and should not be discounted in the same way their prosecution of eternal damnation ought to be.

Part IV of this seven part series publishes on Dec. 3.

An additional note to readers:

...New installments from The Inherent Wave of Being— A Treatise on Metaphysical Humanism will begin Jan. 2020. 
If you haven't read the original series of posts, it published between September and November 2018.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Broken Heart, Part II: To Love Even The Devil Himself

Detail from The Apocalypse Tapestry, Angers
Photograph by the author

I touch here on, as I said before, subtle metaphysical mechanisms and philosophies that it could take many weeks or months—perhaps years— to sort through and discuss. Yet the ultimate point is that God is ultimately merciful, and loves all of His creation regardless of its nature. God loves the devil, who, as all other creatures, does His bidding. In this regard the devil cannot be blamed or judged for what he is, for he—like all the rest of creation—is of God. While we resist the devil, both with and without, we owe him that same non-judgmental love that God gives him. He, like the rest of Being, is our neighbor, and one of the finer points of Christ’s great command Thou shalt love thy neighbor is thyselfis that the devil is my neighbor too.

It may sound heretical to say one should love the devil; and yet the devil is always in me, for he is the personification of sin itself. In this regard I understand that I need to respect my sin: indeed, St. Catherine points it that it’s my lack—my sin—that spurs me, if and when I see it in an organic manner (my words, not hers), towards God. No other experience moves me in the direction of the Lord so much as remorse of conscience, which is an instinctive property of Being.

Or at least it ought to be. Yet such instincts are distinctly atrophied in me; it’s only a closer relationship with the molecular properties of the organism and their role in three-centered Being that can open my eyes in regard to this question. The whole purposeof three-centered Being is to open these parts of awareness so that remorse of conscience can be reborn and act within.

If I truly see and sense my sin—all of it, from the beginning—the anguish it produces becomes my friend and ally in my search for the refinement of Being. Nothing concentrates the particles of the Divine so effectively as remorse; if my Being is the crucible for this spiritual alchemy, then remorse is the fire, and my deeds the ore from which a more refined experience of the Lord can be distilled. In this sense I can love the devil, because without his temptation, and my consequent sin, there would be no anguish—no flame, no fire— from which to act.

In this way we begin to see, perhaps, that the flames and fires which the damned are presumed to spend eternity in are quite exactly this thing: my sins, collectively, without the action of remorse of conscience. If remorse does not arise in me, I live eternally, but I live within my sin, which exists cumulatively, durably, and undistilled. The action of remorse doesn’t begin; and the refinement of Being which proceeds from it never takes place. 

This should be contemplated carefully and often, because without an understanding of this my inner efforts are in vain. 

Part III of this seven part series publishes on Nov. 30.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Broken Heart, Part I

Yantai, China
Photograph by the author

Flight from New York to Shanghai, China, Oct. 14

We think our selfishness is redeemable.

I say this in the sense of an inner assumption that my sins aren’t so big; and that I’m worthy of forgiveness. Yet when I truly sense the magnitude of my transgressions, I see how deep they run—to the bone. 

In the confessional, we say, the burden of them is intolerable. Yet the fact is that I do tolerate them; I live far too easily with my sins. I’m comfortable with them, despite my protestations.

Above all, I see how deep they run. As I grow older and the inner sense of myself knits itself together into a more comprehensive entity, I begin to understand that every sin stays with me permanently. They’re indelibly etched into my being; once done, no thing can be omitted from the truth about me.

This is how I am.

If I see this more clearly, see enough of it, then I begin to understand another phrase from the confessional: there is no health in us. I flatter myself with comforting thoughts about how forgivable I am; I rationalize my misdeeds. Even this is a misdeed; I’m selfish even about my selfishness. The situation reminds me of Gurdjieff’s adage that everything in me is a lie of one kind or another. Another thing it reminds me of is his tale (in Life is Only Real Then, When I Am) of how it used to be a tradition to recount a person’s flaws for three days after he or she died.

The sensing of my sins is a duty and an obligation; but the summary of them can’t be seen before much organic contemplation has taken place. I can’t just understand my sin from the perspective of a list, or thoughts of it: its cumulative effect needs to be organically sensed and felt. The experience of sin must, in other words, become three-centered. One is reminded of St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, in which God tells her that mere words are finite and empty. If the door to the true nature of one’s sin opens within and it is properly sensed, it opens on the universe... as Catherine is told, the infinite.

Yet at the same time I’m required to experience the collective anguish of my sin, I see I should not feel sorry for myself. My sin (again, per St. Catherine) is only appreciable to the extent I see it’s sin not against myself, but against God.In other words, to feel sorry for myself because of my sin is yet another sin.

As this experience of sin becomes deeper and more apparent, the action of Grace continues. It is a perpetual and eternal force that exerts the power of mercy and forgiveness despite my unworthiness; and this is the essential mystery of Grace, that it lives and loves utterly without judgment.

In this sense, one is introduced to a complex effort to understand St. Catherine and other mystics (Mechthild of Magdeburg, Hildegard von Bingen) in regard to their emphasis of God’s judgment. The theme of Judgment and damnation is a near-constant one in the religious texts of mystical liberation; only in Meister Eckhart’s mystical teachings do we find a lessening of the intensity with which this premise is prosecuted. The reason for this, of course, is that Eckhart (one cannot doubt it, studying his texts in comparison to the various female mystics of the Middle Ages) had comprehended a higher level of divine truth than others. This isn’t to discount the value of the other mystics, but rather to put them in context. 

I speak from the experience of reason, sense and feeling when I say that every influence of the divine is colored and contaminated by the individual who receives it. No human is without flaw; and we consequently produce flawed interpretations of the Divine Inflow as it arrives in us. In externalizing, it’s nearly impossible to separate our own attitudes, ideas and concepts from the action of the Divine within. 

Let me remark that the understanding of Grace and Mercy as being utterly without judgment is a subtle one. There are forms of discrimination and judgment at all levels of creation, to be sure; creation—both within us and without us—is a hierarchy in which the particles of the Divine are sorted, sifted and re-concentrated. In the process the dross—inferior particles representing admixtures of the Divine with the material—is separated in an action of refinement. Yet all of this “judgment”—the separation of the coarse from the fine—takes place within creation, and God Himself exists outside creation

This means that the process of judgment is external to God, not internal. 

Part II of this seven part series publishes on Nov. 27.

May your heart be close to God, 

and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Infinite Perfection of Love

October 9, Yom Kippur

The day of atonement in Judaism.

Last night it occurred to me that I come to many situations in my life—for example, a Gurdjieff meeting—believing that I have something to offer. 

Behind what I actually am, the objective things that might be offered, stands an individual who believes in their own self importance: that “I” am worthy, that “I” am important, that somehow I have an authority others ought to pay attention to and would benefit from. This belief is ingrained and insidious; it lives deep within the texture of what I am in my ego-self, and no amount of objective counterbalance within Being can completely eliminate it.

There comes a moment, however, when instead of offering my deviously plastic ego, I suddenly receive. That action turns everything of ego on its head.

This receiving is born of Mercy and transmitted through Grace; and in the instant of receiving I see that “I” have nothing to offer. 

I am made nothing; and in nothing I become whole in the Lord.

There’s a truth, mind you, to the fact that within the context of objects, events, circumstances and conditions, I do offer and even must offer. It’s my bounden duty to offer goodness, thanks and praise not just to God, but also my fellow human beings. 

Yet even that offering is limited to the finite world and finite things. In this context I remember what St. Catherine of Siena hears from the Lord during The Dialogue:

…some time ago, if you remember, when you were desirous of doing great penance for My sake, asking, 'What can I do to endure suffering for You, oh Lord?' I replied to you, speaking in your mind, 'I take delight in few words and many works.' I wished to show you that he who merely calls on me with the sound of words, saying: 'Lord, Lord, I would do something for You,' and he, who desires for My sake to mortify his body with many penances, and not his own will, did not give Me much pleasure; but that I desired the manifold works of manly endurance with patience, together with the other virtues, which I have mentioned to you above, intrinsic to the soul, all of which must be in activity in order to obtain fruits worthy of grace. All other works, founded on any other principle than this, I judge to be a mere calling with words, because they are finite works, and I, who am Infinite, seek infinite works, that is an infinite perfection of love. 

—Saint Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, Joseph Pich, 2013.

Within this context of receiving I see how everything I offer within the finite world of objects, events, circumstances and conditions is not enough; and does not even correspond to what my duty towards God calls for. 

Received Grace reveals all in an inner moment of intelligible silence. 

Within this silence, feeling.

In this way Catherine’s calling with words —my ordinary self—is supplanted by an intelligence without any words; and within this intelligence I begin to form a relationship with what Catherine calls an infinite perfection of Love.

If I don’t work towards this infinite perfection of Love, I don’t work.

To be infinite means to be without limit, boundless; it comes from the Latin in- and finitus, meaning unfinished. So this infinite perfection of Love is both unlimited and unfinished; an endless work in progress, formed through relationship.

We have, as organisms, the inner capacity to sense and feel the action of this infinite perfection of Love. Within it I become nothing relative to myself; and I am indeed nothing of myself. 

I see, instead, how I am of God; and within this nothingness of self I discover a new relationship of Being.

Perhaps, one could argue, these are private matters; yet unless I witness God’s Love, attest to it, invest (clothe myself inwardly) in it (invest ever more deeply in sensation), and try as best I can to offer it to another (move from within to without from a center of gravity rooted firmly in feeling) —not from myself, but as God’s vicegerent—I fail to fulfill God’s two great commandments: 

Thou shalt Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thou shalt Love thy neighbor as thyself.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Hair on Fire

Oct. 6/7, Sparkill

I suppose those who read the last post may find it worthwhile asking the question, how can organs be metaphysical?

This idea of metaphysical organs may seem new or original, but it’s nothing of the kind. Swedenborg talked about heaven itself being composed of metaphysical organs; and he explained that the organs in the human body have counterparts in heaven, with various parts of heaven and the angelic host serving as lungs, heart, kidneys, brain, and so on.

We can extend this analogy not just to the kingdom of heaven which lies “above” us, but also to the molecular kingdoms that lie below us. A cell, for example, has an entire functioning body with various parts that also serve these purposes. It breathes in and out; it thinks; it senses, it pumps fluid through itself from central locations, etc. In this way we see that the functional relationships between all the parts of our physical organs are necessary ones that exist on every level. This is why Swedenborg understood that the analogy extends into heaven. Had microbiology been as developed in his day as it is now, he would’ve equally understood connection with the molecular world; and, let’s remember, he was a consummate physiologist who made many groundbreaking discoveries regarding human neurology which were not recognized for more than a century after he lived. So he knew whereof he spoke.

Readers may also remember that my recent review of King Crimson brought this idea of the analogy of metaphysical organs, in that particular case regarding the function of the band and its various pieces. I mention this again in order to call us to the realization that the idea of the body and its different organs with their relationships is an essential one in the standing way that the cosmos is constructed. The material universe itself is a body with many different cells and organs; every constituent part of it mirrors that in a fractal relationship that extends in all directions.

 Our metaphysical organs serve functions identical to our physical ones; and so our conscious contact with them, if we have any, mirrors their relationships and functions. They can develop diseases that affect their relationships with each other and with us just like our physical organs can; may have abilities and disabilities, just like we do. Expecting them to function flawlessly or in some perpetual state of enlightenment is a profoundly erroneous approach. They need to be kept healthy, properly fed, sufficiently oxygenated, and so on just like physical organs do. Now, how one goes about that is a complex matter; and perhaps beyond the scope of our understanding. The idea itself, however, may give us a measure of respect in regard to these organs.

I didn’t intend to write this little piece in that way when I began my contemplations this morning. Yet this is what I ended up with. My mind, as I awoke, was more on the impressions of the night before at dinner, which I ate with my daughter, my son, my wife, and my daughter’s partner. The entire meal consisted not just of taking in the external impressions of food and family, which were compelling and rich; there was also an inner experience of enormous gratitude for every single instance around me. I entered, during the meal, a more harmonious state of vibration in which all of the objects, events, circumstances, and conditions provoked the most profound sense of the sacred, and of gratitude. That sense expanded to include gratitude for all of life and what it is.

We simply don’t see what an enormous gift we have been given. I’m often reminded, these days, of Dogen’s famous comment:  

We have been given these bodies difficult to obtain, and encountered this Dharma difficult to encounter. Therefore let us practice as if our hair were on fire.

 These bodies difficult to obtain represents a recognition of the comprehensive action of God’s will to create the organs of being on every level.

 This Dharma difficult to encounter represents the tremendous additional effort needed for those organs to become aware of Truth, which is God’s eternal and essential nature.

 Therefore let us practice as if our hair were on fire represents the constant and unflagging effort we ought to reciprocally undertake to return thanks and praise unto God and to fulfill our duties to Him. It should be the most urgent action of our lives.

 This re-centers the core of our being around unselfishness, instead of selfishness. The two give completely different results.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Metaphysical Organs of Being

October 5

the boy in the middle was a Yezidi… (a) circle had been drawn round him… he could not get out of it until it was rubbed away. The child was indeed trying with all his might to leave this magic circle, but he struggled in vain.

Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men

 How does one come to understand one’s life?

There's a current that flows into us from God which provides complete understanding. That understanding is God’s understanding, not our own; and because we are not aware of the existence of that understanding, we rely on our own, which will always be a thing defined by the material, whose limits are circumscribed by the material. It's the same circle described in the quote. This circle represents our life and who we are as we are, without God’s influence.

The paradox here is that the understanding from our life, which appears to be everything we are and all that we know, is actually the precise thing that prevents us from experiencing real life, which exists outside the circle. We create within ourselves a thing, an abstraction, that represents life, and we sign onto it with all that we are. Everything in our being. It even comes back to us in our dreams in an endless set of iterations that reflect the confusion we’re in. 

 There's a different understanding. This complete understanding actually dials everything we are down to zero, because it isn't our understanding and has in fact nothing to do with the construction we’ve made. It’s an understanding that moves within the present moment and brings a new relationship to it. It’s an understanding that informs according to what is, not my dreams.

Someone asked me a while back how one acquires this understanding, and among the circle of friends engaged in this conversation there was a sense of laughter. Basically, a disbelief that there could be any answer to this question. There was also, of course, the tired old Gurdjieff trope that there are no answers hanging in the air. This fossilized idea continues to be regurgitated no matter what one does to counter its toxic effect on inward investigation.  Folks who sign on to it as a mantra and cling to it like a life preserver repeat it because perhaps it makes them feel important.  In fact, it's categorically untrue. Remember — answers are responses, and everything in the universe is a response of one kind or another to a corresponding arising. This means, in objective fact, that there are nothing but answers. The whole universe is an answer. 

We are answers.

 In any event, there was a response available here, as well, and I made it. 

The way we acquire this understanding is organically.

 This organic response which leads to understanding is the reciprocal response from Being engendered (note this word up in your dictionary and ponder it, because it is used very intentionally here) by the inflow of God’s Mercy. A whole thing takes place here which is not susceptible to verbal interpretation; one has to be within it to understand such understanding. 

The point is that it exists, not that one can define it.

True understanding is not acquired by the physical organs, who are mere middlemen. The metaphysical organs have to participate. These metaphysical organs of being relate to Gurdjieff’s higher being bodies, which are in fact metaphysical entities: the astral body, for example. It’s interesting that you never hear people speaking about these entities as metaphysical entities, even though it's quite obvious.

 The metaphysical organs receive vibrations from metaphysical sources. The vibrations they receive do not even register on scientific instruments, because they are metaphysical. Gurdjieff alluded to this when he spoke of emanations. 

If your metaphysical organs are atrophied, they don't sense:

Blödsinn, Blödsinn, du mein Vegnügen...
Stumpfsinn, Stumpfsinn, du meine Lust

If I try to understand my life physically and from the objects, events, circumstances, and conditions that surround me, I'll fail. All of these things – which begin quite easily, from an early age, to appear as though they are everything that I am and all that is — are essentially beside the point in the question of understanding my life from the metaphysical point of view. 

It's only the force of God’s mercy that flows into me that matters. 

There is no other force from which the true nature of life can be understood: and all the things in life become a distraction from that fundamental truth.

 Notes on the Next Attention by Fran Shaw is a good place to begin if one seeks active commentary on this question. It defines the condition that such work ought to rediscover itself in within us better than any other book from the Gurdjieff work.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Representatives within Being, part II

 I’d like to say a bit more about this idea of being representatives within Being.

We’re caught in a world of confusing influences. Outward circumstances pull us every which way. It’s difficult to keep focused on honoring existence, on what ought to be done. I need the gravitational force of Grace within me to help keep me centered and focused on my responsibilities, which always ought to be to God and thoughts of God first. If everything in me has a center of gravity that begins with a relationship with God — an inner relationship with the Grace that arrives that starts every moment, right now— then I remember my responsibility.

 When we speak about “self remembering” and ”self-knowledge,” we often think that this is remembering myself and knowing who I am, knowing myself. Yet it would be more helpful if we understood these terms from the perspective that the "self" in question is God. 

It isn’t my self I'm remembering; if I remember rightly, what I remember is that Being which creates me, not myself. 

That Being is a powerful creative force that gathers my existence together at the point of my intelligence and consciousness. “I” oversee that moment of the creation of Being and inhabit it, but it's not my own property. If I understand my role correctly, I'm like a supervisor hired to oversee a vast factory which manufactures all kinds of miraculous things, who never owns it and has to treat every employee and product that is manufactured as precious. Some of the parables about vineyards and servants are about this question, phrased in terms appropriate to the times in which they were told.

Anyway, this vast factory is what I call my life. When I remember myself, if that ever happens, what I remember first isn’t that what Lee does, or how important and wonderful he is (I'm not in the least important and I’m certainly not wonderful) but the extraordinary, inherent, living, and active value of this quality called Being within me, which through its own eternal Grace (Grace outside of time) already causes me to Be

I inhabit a demand and a responsibility from that instant forward (that is, within all instants.) That responsibility is forever present; it’s my duty to bring myself into alignment with it, to sense it.

When I speak of extraordinary, inherent, living, and active value, I think these are the four qualities vital to an understanding of life. Being is extraordinary: it inhabits the order (the order) of this level, but it comes from a level much higher than this. It is inherent because the quality of Being penetrates all the other levels of the universe along with this one, in quality and intensity according to its concentration. There is nothing without Being.  It is living because it is constantly growing and changing and learning about itself.  It is active because it is imbued with that quality called agency, which cannot be separated the conferring of responsibility. It is this last quality of being active that endows Being with intelligence, purpose, and direction.

 I find it helpful, while inhabiting the inward flow of Being, to remind myself as often as I can of these principles, not by using the words for them, but through the active sensation of Grace which automatically aligns Being in such a way that the qualities are remembered — wordlessly. They have to be embodied without the words, inhabited as a garment. This helps to protect me from the elements, keep me warm, and instill a sense of gratitude for the fact that I am given gifts of life and Being, clothed in the garment of God’s love, and can make an effort to give thanks for it.

May your heart be close to God, 

and God close to your heart.

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Representatives within Being, part I

Sept. 29

 Speaking last night with some very close friends. 

The question came up of how common it is for those engaged in “spiritual work” of one kind or another to think they are better than others. This is not just common to religious fundamentalists, who are often infected with this disease. It comes as a packed suitcase with nearly every practice, and human beings are in perpetual danger of traveling everywhere with it. Every group of practitioners seems to think they are the chosen people of one kind or another.

What is forgotten today is that everyone is chosen. Even the worst of us have been chosen by God as his representatives within Being. We are asked to inhabit this life and honor it, regardless of its conditions.

The conditions aren’t going to be good. No one ever said they would be.  No one, however, said they would be bad either. They exist as themselves without these labels. It is what takes place within us that characterizes their nature; and as agencies of God himself, we become responsible for what takes place within us in order to characterize. A faculty of discrimination emerges; and we, not God Himself, assume ultimate responsibility for the good and the bad by engaging with conditions.

The less concentrated and balanced one’s attention is, the less likely it is one can honor the conditions of being. Discrimination becomes personal and selfish without balance. Balance, in its own turn, is conferred by Grace (the inward flow of the Divine) and humility. If these two forces (humility dependent upon Grace, as always) are present and active, human beings are always aligned with the good. Yet, of course, because of the collective delusions of mankind, most of the time human beings believe they are aligned with the good before they ever have even the first understanding of Grace and humility. This, of course, provokes the opposite: one thinks one is special, one thinks one is better than others. The fundamental effect of Grace and humility is self-evident: under these influences, one does not think such things. It ought to be the first understanding in us—not the last.

If one stays close to oneself, pride is an easy thing to see. Each one of us carries it on our shoulder for all to see; yet we never see our own pride, we only see that of others. If we see our own pride, the first thing we feel is shame. Beware of those with no shame. It is an essential component of Being; I speak here not of selfish shame, which is related to inner considering, but unselfish shame, which drinks in the inward flow of Divine Grace, and sees how one is lacking. If we drink this, we drink wine, not water. It fills us with the Holy Spirit and we know how we are: not better than others, but in need of being better than ourselves. If I am in need of being better than myself, I perpetually strive to align myself more perfectly (perfection is a very distant—in fact unattainable— goal) with God’s Grace, which can help me. I can’t help myself. If I think I can, already, the pride is at work.

 I have to begin again every day on this, because I am not easy to educate. I can learn this lesson 10,000 times and it is only after that that perhaps I will learn it properly on time number 10,001; and then it’s nearly certain that on time number 10,002, I have to begin again, because I forgot yesterday’s lesson. Do you understand what I'm saying?

 If I learn to submit to the Grace of God, which allows humility to be born at the expense of me as I am, then I remember my lessons. I never remember the lessons of Grace and Humility because I’m a good student or have a good memory or have finally understood something; I only remember them when Grace arrives and engenders humility in me.

 Well, of course, this isn’t exactly what we talked about last night. But most of these thoughts follow on it.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

King Crimson, Part II

King Crimson, Part II

Just before the concert — and, to be confessed, before I fully developed the above analogy — I mentioned to one of the folks attending with me that King Crimson engages in “the molecular deconstruction of musical form.” 

This was only half an observation, to be honest, because the other activity King Crimson engages in is the molecular reconstruction of form. 
The form—the body of compositions, which is the singular vehicle whereby its fans have for years known the band—the musicians encounter night after night is repeatedly taken apart and put back together in the moment, with a spontaneity that exceeds the demands and the laws of the form itself. 

This dynamic is a different enterprise than the static form which fans perennially expect; for example, 21st Century Schizoid Man, the standard encore song. Compositions like this exist, to all appearances, frozen in time: well-worn, fraught with age and baggage. Yet the song (and the listener) benefit the most when hearing the piece as though it were newborn in this moment—which it in fact is. Only our habitual parts, which are generally more powerful than we realize, ever assume otherwise.

 Let me speak a bit more about this exercise of form. One of the songs performed on Saturday night, Easy Money, began by sticking rigorously enough to the form proposed by the composition. Musical compositions are very analogous to a daily routine or discipline; let’s think of it in monastic terms: a set of intelligent repetitive actions meant to focus us so that we can make a sound (excuse the pun) effort from within ourselves.  My friend Sylvia March has a poster in her kitchen of the Zen master Suzuki Roshi, bearing a quote that says: 

if we lose the spirit of repetition, our practice will become difficult

We need, in other words, an intelligent form that we commit ourselves too. In the case of King Crimson, the compositions offer that form.

Just as in any other inner discipline, the idea of the form is to make a complete commitment to it in such a way that it offers the opportunity to exceed its own value. The form itself creates that opportunity, because there could be no reach beyond if it didn’t exist in the first place; yet it’s only from that place which intentionally constrains that any reaching can take place. An irony, perhaps, to consent to be bound through strict limits in order to discover the potential for freedom, but there’s no other way to begin.  Robert, at the beginning of the VIP talk, pointed out that it is always from this perpetual re-beginning that everything takes place.

 The idea of being bound through limits in order to seek freedom is, metaphysically speaking, the fundamental nature of the universe itself. Attempting to engage and mirror such action within the context of a musical composition on stage may seem too prosaic and trivial. Yet it touches on that same sacred action that Robert brought up before the concert. There’s nothing overinflated about the idea, though it may sound so to the uninitiated.

After seeing the first two concerts in this series (for me) of three in 2017, I spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the performances by listening to various albums, both studio and live, in order to take in a wider range of new impressions of the band and its work.  

We human beings enjoy thinking of ourselves as special and apart from creation and its lawful requirements, but they’re inescapable. This means that any enterprise – whether it’s scrubbing a floor or playing ”prog-rock” music (I’d argue KC is not prog-rock but a different beast entirely) – inevitably expresses the cause-and-effect of lawful existence in ways that we may not be immediately aware of. Hence, as Robert sits down to write a composition, or the band plays it—or as I myself write this and that piece—there are aspects to the creation and emergence of that kraeft that may not be immediately evident to us as we participate. 

In the case of King Crimson, the music manages to bring an aural and physical intensity that expresses universal law through a mutable music form. I’ve had this same impression of the Gurdjieff movements, especially through the formal performance of the New York Gurdjieff Foundation’s movements members two years ago.  In both the movements and in the musical expression of King Crimson as an organic unit, we see and hear the action of law on man. Some may object to this potentially heretical (to Gurdjieff pupils) comparison, because the forms are quite different, but at their core they’re both examining the same thing. The fact that King Crimson is a mostly musical, not physical, form of expression allows it to investigate a different set of questions. 

Now, I’ve never spoken to Robert about this, so I don’t know what his opinions and observations about his own musical exercises are. I can only offer my impressions of them. I wrote down a few notes during the concert, one of which seems particularly correct to me. 

“Combining surprisingly, rapturously melodic pieces with sheer intentional mayhem. Yet not mayhem in any traditional sense of the word: dismemberment of the body. What is dismembered are our notions of what music is, or ought to be: in this molecular deconstruction of sound, something new emerges. The band is re-creating and discovering harmony where none should by right exist.”

 This impression of an absolute and satisfying harmony emerging from a complex construction of dissident elements is something that continues to fascinate me in KC’s music. It speaks of potentials we don’t really see in life; of a possibility of a whole life being created from elements that, on the surface of things, ought not to fit together well or make sense to us. And, indeed, much of life is like that; it consists, like the chord progressions of King Crimson, of unlikely elements who don’t make the most familiar bedfellows. 

These life-elements defy routine prediction; and they collide with each other with an intensity and potential illogic. Yet they quickly find their relationship to one another; and as they do so, they immediately express an emergent form that becomes a greater thing than the individual parts. What might have been cacophony discovers unity; what might have been unpleasing becomes a food that unexpectedly satisfies.  

As a member of the audience, I have no inherent right to expect that anything will be pleasing in the first place – although I may come with that demand. Yet I discover that it’s my job to see and hear what is, not what I want it to be. The impressions are powerful: and they leave no room for my opinions in the end. They become a part of me. I’m now responsible for this tiny corner of the universe and what it has produced. The privilege lies in being a beneficiary of the enormous work and precise intelligence that has gone into creating and presenting this material.

Well, this review has gone on long enough; and having written it, I sense it’s not quite like the usual review of a concert. Yet King Crimson is not your usual band; and the work it’s doing demands, in my opinion, a new and different kind of examination that moves beyond the ordinary — just as the music does.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.