Wednesday, July 01, 2015
I walked the other day, as is my habit, to the far end of the beach, where the beach comes near to the public road. About twenty American college students, guys and gals, presumably on interterm break, had taken up residence on the sand. The young men played frisbee, tan and trim in their long, baggy trunks, heartbreakingly handsome. The women stood by in an appreciative row, posing seductively in their bikinis; "a bevy of beauties," my father would have said. The scene might have been out of Bosch's central panel, the Garden of Earthly Delights -- pure hedonism, pure innocence.
In the course of the week I had been reading about life in the 16th century, Bosch's century. How different, I thought, is life for these 21st-century college kids. With only a little bit of luck, they will live out their lives without the direct experience of war, without epidemic disease -- plague, smallpox, typhoid, cholera, etc. -- without grinding poverty or famine. They can have sex without fear of sexually transmitted disease, and give birth without fear of dying. They will not spend half their lives with toothache, and they will keep their teeth till the day they die. They will live longer, healthier lives than even my generation, three or four times longer than the contemporaries of Bosch. All of this because of the empirical way of knowing.
The circumstances of human life have dramatically changed for those of us who live in the science-based, secular democracies. But, of course, human nature has not changed. We are still prey to pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The worm is still in the apple. (Who is that gloomy fellow with his head in his hands, on the back of the goldfinch?) The apparently carefree college kids on the beach will -- like humans everywhere, at all times -- struggle to find and keep love, to sleep soundly in the darkest hours of the night, to wake with joy each day to a world made fresh with innocence. They will strive to choose the good and resist evil. Science won't help them with any of that.
I reach the rocks, turn around, and head back up the beach. As I pass the frolicking youngsters again I give them a thumbs up. They will need all the luck they can get.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
In 1504, the year Hieronymus Bosch probably painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, hundreds of miles to the south the Florentines set up in the center of their city Michelangelo's just completed David, a 14-foot-tall white marble statue of the young Israeli king. The statue was meant as symbol of Florentine power -- the giant-killer becomes a giant -- but it was more than that. It was a supreme Renaissance recognition of the power of humans to control their own destinies. No longer need men and women be the playthings of gods who must be placated by incantations and sacrifice. Tall, youthful, mesmerizingly beautiful, utterly naked -- Michelangelo's David paid only the slightest nod to its biblical source. It was set up in the Piazza della Signoria, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, a secular setting for a secular work of art. Hubris? Perhaps. But confidence too, a confidence that would be largely confirmed by history.
Meanwhile, in that same year, Copernicus began to make the celestial observations that would allow him to tear the Earth from its cosmic foundations and send it spinning through the heavens. If the Earth is in motion around the Sun, then the absence of stellar parallax requires that the stars be vast, almost incomprehensible distances away. This was more than a recondite matter of mathematical astronomy. Suddenly the tidy cosmos of Dante and the theologians, contrived by God as a stage for the drama of sin and salvation, was smashed. Humans broke free of the great chain of being. They discovered new civilizations across the Atlantic (and cruelly destroyed them in the name of religion and gold.) Eventually, they would send ships across oceans of interplanetary space.
Hieronymus Bosch does not interest us, I think, for his qualities as an artist. It is as an explorer of the human psyche that we engage him. In the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych he takes us where no one else will quite so explicitly go until Freud appears on the scene four centuries later. He grasps the human psyche by its ankles and shakes it out onto his "canvas." It's all there. Our hankerings for a prelapsarian Eden. Our propensities for envy, gluttony, avarice, sloth, lust, anger, pride. Our capacity for violence. The itch of sex. Altruism. Reverence. Curiosity. Beauty. Love.
Evolutionary psychologists debate what parts of human nature are genetic and what parts are cultural. I think it would be foolish to underestimate biology. Foolish, too, to underestimate our ability to transcend biology. Our neuro-biological natures are sufficiently complex to confer upon us a de facto freedom to choose the good, not because we fear eternal punishment but because reason and experience assures us that our own happiness depends upon the happiness of all.
Tomorrow: One last visit to the jardin de las delicias.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Notre Dame, while in the throes of newfound Catholic piety, I crafted a coffee table in my father's basement workshop, with a tiled chessboard built into the top. I designed and jigsawed a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed and weighted at the bottom with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. I was hugely proud of the entire production, the finest thing I had ever made.
I was also racked with guilt. Pride is the first of the Deadly Sins. We are called -- so I believed -- to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. The sin called for penance. I would chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I replaced the king with a more easily replaceable pawn. Smash!
As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent. I was also already on my way toward apostasy from the bipolar Catholic theology of Paradise and Hell, those enclosing wings of Bosch's triptych. Already my secret longing was for the Garden of Earthly Delights.
The traditional interpretation of the central panel of Bosch's masterpiece is humankind's descent into wickedness, to be paid for in the fiery torments of Hell. And certainly we know from his other works that Bosch had a moralist's regard for sin. But no one could have painted the Garden of Earthly Delights who had not felt -- and did not long for -- pleasures of the flesh. I look at the Garden and see a world that is far more attractive than the sterile precincts of Paradise or the shuddering horrors of Hell.
Men and women, black and white, humans and beasts, enjoy a peaceable kingdom, a world that while tolerant of unconventional desires is devoid of violence. Couples make love in bubbles, in pools, in orchards, in teepees, in mussel shells, on grassy lawns. Everywhere there are luscious fruits -- cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. The children of Adam cavort with the children of Eve, the lion lies down with the lamb. In the central pool the women bathe, their golden tresses hanging down; their companions circle, an unending parade celebrating the diversity of life. Even the birds, recognizable by species, look on with charmed delight, sharing fruits.
Bosch has pulled a sly trick. Never has "wickedness" been made to look so inviting. Forget for the moment, he seems to say, death, judgment, heaven, hell, all the dark preachings of Savonarola, the burkas, the hairshirts, the smashed chess piece, all those catalogues of sin. Enjoy beauty and pleasure where you find it. Treasure what is yours -- this Earth, this flesh, these creatures, these fruits and flowers. Let Venus rule; not gloomy Saturn or violent Mars.
I look again at the presumed portrait of the artist in the panel Hell. The old master seems to wink.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Three A.M., the hoo-ha hour. Wake from nightmarish dreams. Rehearse in darkness all the things that might go wrong, a catalogue of ominous thoughts. The edge of the bed might as well be the brink of the abyss.
How thin is the line between reason and unreason, civilization and anarchy, law and chaos. The library of Alexandria goes up in smoke. Plague, syphilis, civil war and fire ravage the serenity of Bosch's Flanders. The Germany of Goethe and Humboldt descends into 20th-century savagery. Planes smash into the World Trade Center, tumbling the towers like houses of cards. Our personal lives, too, teeter on a knife edge. A mutant gene. A germ. A drunken driver swerves into our lane.
Three A. M. The long-beaked bird takes me by the hand, leads me round and round.
If we can imagine Bosch's hell, it is because every detail has been drawn from the here and now. The burning cities. The marching armies. The rivers colored with blood. The blades and thorns, spears and arrows. The insect people, scurrying. The nightjar judge on its potty throne, devouring a hapless sinner -- you? me? -- who farts birds, the nightjar judge who defecates men and women into a dark pit. (Is that cesshole connected by subterranean channels to the dark pool at the foreground of Paradise?) The tables are turned. Musical instruments have become instruments of torture -- the officers of Auschwitz listening to Mozart on their gramophones. A pig, dressed as a nun, forces a kiss.
Three A. M. We need not wait for eternity. The judgment is now, day by day, moment by moment. The nightjar judge, with his iron pot crown, disturbs our sleep, his minions scuttle our neuronal passageways, like rats in sewers. I get out of bed. I go to the kitchen. I turn on the light.
But wait. Who is the white man peering out from the center of the panel, the man with the eggshell body, the treetrunk limbs? He is the one incongruous element in the painting, a Gulliver in a Lilliputian hell. Is it a self-portrait of the artist himself? Amid all the madness, his expression is eminently sane, kindly, mildly curious. He watches dispassionately. I dreamed all this up, he seems to say. It's all there, in my head. And if it's in my head, it's in your head too.
Three A. M. The heart of darkness.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
Tout les matins du monde sont sans retour: The mornings of the world are without return. The line is from a novel, and gave the title to a film. It might describe the left-hand panel of Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
It is the morning of the world that Bosch depicts, the Judeo-Christian version of that ancient and almost universal myth of a time in the past before woe and worry. Eve kneels demurely in her nakedness to receive God's blessing. Adam looks on bemusedly, as if wondering exactly what it is he is supposed to do with the thing between his legs. Their wondrous paradise is filled with birds and beasts of every sort. (Bosch proves himself a careful observer of the natural world; dozens of species can be recognized.) There is indeed a bliss of sorts -- who would not want to wander within these zoological precincts, pet a unicorn, climb the bird-flocked mountain, discover sex for the first time? But all is not as benign as it seems. A cat makes off with a rat; a lion devours a deer. At the center right is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, with its tempting fruit, twining serpent, and slithering beasties emerging from the pond. And what, pray tell, lurks in the dark pool at foreground?
Never mind, forget the ominous hints that paradise is imperfect. It is morning. A passing shower during the night has washed the air. I sit on the terrace in almost Edenic nakedness and watch the sky brighten in the east. Our resident spider, Argiope argentata, six centimeters from claw to claw, has as usual rebuilt overnight her dazzling orb that fills the space between the porch and the white torch tree. The mocking bird, Mimus polyglottos, sings from the peak of the roof. No newspaper lies on the front stoop with terrible headlines from Darfur or Iraq. No television. The radio is silent. It is morning, and every day dawns anew -- awaits its Original Sin.
There is the wish to make this apparently perfect sunrise hour extend indefinitely, to live suspended between thought and action -- to live without thought and without action -- in the stillness of an unending dawn. Perhaps that is what took me briefly as a young man to the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Surely that is the attraction of the cloistered life, Simon on his pillar, the woman in the wall. The mornings of the world are without return, they dawn but once. Catch them if you can.
The itch of sex, the scratch of mind, the nagging voice of responsibility: these haven't yet dawned on Adam, haven't yet crossed Eve's mind. But they will, oh yes they will. Look carefully. Paradise is not what it seems. The great globe of the sun breaks free of the horizon, as it has done more than a trillion times since the first terrestrial dawn. I feel its warmth on my naked skin. Argiope argentata waits beneath her silver shield for the fly that bumbles into her trap. The myth of Eden -- the immaculate auroral hour -- is only that.
(You can click and then click again on any of this week's illustrations for enlargements.)
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Hieronymus Bosch painted his ever-intriguing triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights in or about the year 1504 -- on a cusp of history (click to enlarge). The Middle Ages are ending. Modernity is being born, most dramatically in the Italian Renaissance. Orthodoxy butts head with adventure, dogma with curiosity. The printing press has been invented. Luther will soon nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Copernicus is thirty-one years old.
The city of Florence has recently experienced a last gasp of theological repression with the brief ascendancy of the priest Savonarola, who railed against preoccupation with earthly delights. His bonfire of the vanities consumed mirrors, fine clothing, secular books, musical instruments and the equipment of gaming, perhaps even paintings by such masters as Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was not to last. In 1497, the people, especially the young, revolted, danced in the streets, reopened the taverns, threw wide the doors of their souls to an increasingly secular future. Michelangelo's monumental nude David can be taken as a symbol of a new immersion in the natural order, a new embrace of las delicias.
All of this can be seen working itself out in Bosch's Flemish masterpiece. In the left-hand panel Adam and Eve are blessedly -- and nakedly -- at peace in Eden, in a state of innocence, before the Original Sin (although the lion does not quite lie down with the lamb). In the right-hand panel is the ultimate bonfire of the vanities, a vision of Hell more terrifying than any sermon of Savonarola. And in the central panel, men and women nakedly cavort, indulging themselves in every sort of sensual pleasure, much like the beautiful young people in the streets and bedchambers of Florence once Savonarola had been toppled from influence, and for which, in the traditional interpretation of the painting, they will pay a horrific price in the nightmarish Hades to their right.
Anyone who has seen Bosch's painting, even in reproduction (the original is in the Prado in Madrid), will not have forgotten it. It is one of those works which mirror our souls, in which we see our own dreams and nightmares. Over the next few days I will reflect at length on each panel separately, from a purely personal perspective. In doing so, I am mindful that a much-admired colleague in the nature-writing community, Terry Tempest Williams, spent seven years looking at her own soul in Bosch's mirror, and reported what she found in a remarkable book, Leap. It has been some years since I read Leap; in any case, there is unlikely to be much overlap in our responses.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
The poet Yeats said of the poet Shelley, "There is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom speaks first in images."
What, I wonder, is my one scene, one picture?
It would depend, I suppose, upon the time of life.
There was a time when I could have stood all day before Monet's room-sized painting of water lilies at MoMA, all gorgeous natural depths, lush, sensual, accepting. The story then was not so much about myself as about the world out there, the world for which I was a curious spectator. I wanted to see the world as Monet saw it, with a kind of X-ray vision that dives through the surface to whatever it is that makes the world go, and glow.
Then I became obsessed with the paintings of Mark Rothko, those haunting, agnostic canvases of floating color that spoke in cryptic utterances, revealing nothing. Those were the days when I kept company with the medieval mystics -- Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross -- and their absconded God.
As I settled into comfortable middle age I might have chosen one of Vermeer's quiet domestic scenes or Pieter Bruegel's The Harvesters, crystal clear in its mathematical precision, its unabashed realism, its sensual celebration of work and rest, food and drink, a brow moist with sweat and the white nape of a neck inviting touch. Not ecstasy or transcendence, but tranquility and immanence. Oh yes, there was a worm in the bud, but hidden out of sight.
And now? And now? I keep coming back to the young Caravaggio's The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. The black wings and white robe of the angel, curling together -- the yin and yang of a human life. On the left, darkness, a stony foreground, the anxious gaze of the seeking soul; on the right, light, verdancy, the quietude of acceptance; on the left, the masculine, hard, dry, fraught with tension; on the right, the feminine, gentle, soft, wet, conserving. The whole suffused with an erotic frisson. This angel is not one of the Christian heavenly choir; he is Eros. He is Cupid, with music for his wounding dart. And I am Joseph holding the score, a motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, the text from the Song of Songs, that most erotic of scriptures: "How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden."
(Click to enlarge)
Saturday, May 23, 2015
Each day at college, as I go to collect my laptop, I pass the Art Department's bulletin board. And, in recent weeks, I have been drawn up short by an announcement for a gallery show by the New England artist Janet Rickus, with this illustration of one of her works.
Why? What is it that so attracts me to the painting? A collection of ceramics and a fat vegetable arrayed on crisp cloths. The original painting, I understand from the internet, is life size. I also see from the internet that this is typical of Rickus' work.
Technical proficiency? The artist is indeed stunningly adept at portraying objects realistically. But that alone cannot account for the emotional reaction to her work.
The subject? There is a certain intellectual appeal to the juxtaposition of the organic and inorganic, but surely there is more to it than that. After all, these are commonplace objects, stark in their simplicity.
Maybe it is the stark simplicity of the objects that is their appeal -- shape, color, natural light, shadow. Then too we recognize the intentionality of the artist, her careful selection of the objects, their arrangement, their likenesses and contrasts.
And, yes, now we are getting at it. It is not so much the paintings themselves that grasp our attention, as it is a certain way of seeing the world. A certain way of making the world that we see.
Simple elements. Artfully arranged. Elegantly expressed. These are the same qualities we look for in a scientific theory. When Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity, physicists knew immediately they were in the presence of truth, even though -- initially -- not a single experiment confirmed the theory. The mathematics of general relativity was just too beautiful not to express reality. Beauty is the resonance of a pattern of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world. And that is why beauty is nature's signature of truth.
"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my friend Scott Russell Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."
Friday, May 15, 2015
Let me say a few words about another painting that came up in a conversation lately, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord"), painted in 1850. (Click - and again - to enlarge.)
The theme, the Annunciation, was a common one (scroll down for gallery) in Late Medieval and Renaissance art. Rossetti has adopted many of the conventions of that time, but given them a new interpretation.
In the earlier paintings, Mary is generally portrayed as a mature woman, up and about, dressed for the business of the day in red and blue. She is slightly abashed by the words of the angel, but usually appears as if she were expecting the message and accepts her fate with equanimity.
Rossetti's virgin is a young girl, perhaps just woken from sleep, in her night clothes of virginal white. The traditional red is seen here as an embroidery hanging on a folded embroidery frame (we have seen it before in an earlier Rossetti work, The Girlhood of Mary). A blue screen is in the background, and a blue sky.
The lilies, the white dove, and the just extinguished candle (here a wall sconce) are all Medieval and Renaissance conventions.
Something new is going on here.
The angel Gabriel is a slightly androgynous young man, wingless, naked beneath his simple gown. He hovers just above the floor on fiery feet. The stem of the lilies points to Mary's womb. Here are the usual three blossoms, representing, presumably, the Trinity, but one of them is still in bud.
Mary is -- well, you tell me. She seems to be looking at something -- a hint of angelic tumescence? -- that Gabriel's turned posture does not allow us to see. She is aroused, embarrassed, fearful. She doesn't seem to have a clue that she is being invited to be the mother of God.
We are a long way here from the Age of Faith. We are witnessing a very modern drama, one that has less to do with the salvation of the world that working out the tangled scripts of Rossetti's -- and our -- psychosexuality.
If yesterday's Pontormo painting anticipated Copernicus, Vesalius and Agricola, this 1850 work of Rossetti anticipates Darwin and Freud. If we want to understand the painting, it is not to the theology that we must turn, but to evolutionary psychology.
In her big fruitcake of a book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has a lot to say about Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite "decadence" (although, curiously, she does not mention this early painting). She does mention the influence on Rossetti of "Italian Catholicism's vestigial paganism," and I think here she is close to the mark. In its sacramental colors and symbols, its frank sensuality, and its mythic interpretation of dreams, Rossetti's Annunciation -- this very Catholic painting -- takes us away from the supernatural drama of sin and salvation and back to the forest groves and caves where our neural circuitry acquired its primal wiring.
Saturday, May 09, 2015
Tom is here (Ireland) for a visit. He and his wife have just spent a few days in Amsterdam where they visited the Rijksmuseum. The hit of that visit was the four Vermeers, including The Milkmaid, which I have blogged here on several occasions.
Also in Amsterdam is The Little Street, another of my favorites (click to enlarge). It is unlike the other Vermeers I have blogged –- The Milkmaid, Woman Weighing Gold, The Geographer -– all closely observed interior scenes with a single human figure dominating the composition. Here the humans have been reduced to doll-like figures, faces averted -– a woman scrubbing, a woman sewing, two urchins playing on the stoop. What we do have is another exercise in close observation and quiet domesticity, the two things for which Vermeer is universally loved.
As I have said on previous occasions, I admire Vermeer for his Catholic attention to the materiality of the world, the is-ness of things. Whatever is transcendental in his paintings is sacramentally mediated through stuff. Surely, his stuff is there to be accumulated, as one might expect from a citizen of practical, acquisitive, Protestant Holland. But Vermeer sees through the surface of things to the mystery that lies within.
The Little Street is at first glance little more than a pile of bricks, but the bricks speak of an inner life. They bleed their lime. They crumble. They surrender at street level to a calligraphy of whitewash. The lines of perspective converge on a vanishing point deep inside those two dark windows, somewhere below the surface of the painting. The alley, too, hints of interiority.
Vermeer did not choose this scene because it was pretty; it has to the eye untouched by grace a proletarian dreariness about it. Rather, he takes ordinary matter –- brick, mortar, wood, lime, cloth –- and consecrates it with attention, this is my body, this is my blood. To the attentive eye, stuff speaks of its own transcendence, its infinite interiority. A pile of bricks is the journeywork of stars.
Wednesday, May 06, 2015
"It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch in The Voice of the Desert.
The nail. The iron nail. Vermeer is committed to exact observation and description of the natural world, no detail too small to be overlooked. There is no obvious metaphorical meaning here. The painting does not direct our attention to another reality. It celebrates this reality, the one in which we live and breathe and have our being. Vermeer's life overlapped Galileo's and Newton's. He may have known Leeuwenhoek. He is immersed in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution.
But the nail. How can the experience of a nail be -- dare I say it? -- numinous? Not numinous in the sense of the dictionary's first definition -- of or relating to the supernatural -- but of the second -- spiritually elevating, sublime.
Experience is not passive. It is a conflation of an external object and the experiencer's knowledge and imagination. A numinous experience is one that ignites a firestorm in the brain, a thrill, a rush of pleasure, a sense of the mysterious, of beauty, of overflowing fullness.
I hold an iron nail in my hand, cold and hard. There is first of all the tactile pleasure, purely sensual. But there is more, much more, that knowledge brings to the experience. What I hold in my hand is both a human artifact, rich in history -- an object that pierces wood and plaster -- and an element that is unusually common in the universe for a reason that points us to the deepest mystery of what is.
The Earth's core is mostly iron. There is iron in the crust, too, but iron has a propensity to form alliances with other elements and therefore hides in combination. The solar system swarms with iron meteorites. Iron drops onto the Earth from the sky.
All of which takes us into the cores of stars, where the heavy elements are forged from the primeval hydrogen and helium of the big bang.
Without going into detail, here is a graph familiar to any physicist, the nuclear binding energy curve for the elements. (Click to enlarge.) On the vertical axis, the energy required to break apart the nucleus of an atom into its constituent protons and neutrons. On the horizontal axis, the elements, from hydrogen to the heaviest elements. And there, at the very top of the curve, is iron (Fe), mass number 56, 26 protons and 30 neutrons, the most stable of elements.
If a star were to burn to its end, it would become a ball of iron. But before that happens other forces intervene, which can cause a star to explode and hurl its freshly forged elements into space, ultimately to become part of my body, my brain, and the iron nail in my hand.
The key to numinosity is to perceive the commonplace as part of a cosmic drama we only faintly understand, churning with powers that are perhaps beyond our capacity to know, to feel that drama unfolding in every jot and tittle of the ordinary, to be aware of being swept along on a unfolding tide of being, stars seeding the universe with the elements of life and mind -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin.
A nail. A hole in plaster. As Krutch said, it is not easy to live with a continuous awareness of things. We are grateful for the all too infrequent moments of numinous insight.
Sunday, May 03, 2015
I first wrote about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid back in the late-summer of 2009, when the painting was the star of a show at New York's Met. I was so enchanted with the painting that I made it the desktop on one of my laptops, where it has remained ever since. I wrote about it again here and here.
What I like about the painting is the way it celebrates the commonplace, especially the way it illuminates simple material things -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin. We see these things as they are, but also -- though the artist's genius -- as part of a transforming radiance that shines in even the most ordinary things, what in one of those earlier posts I called "the isness of things that overflows our knowing."
Well, here I go again. The Milkmaid is still on my desktop, and for the last day or so I have been fixated on two tiny details -- a nail and a nail hole in the plaster wall. Click image to enlarge. And here is the full painting.
Our first reaction might be surprise that the artist would register such homely details, but that is the charm of the painting -- the re-enchantment of the everyday.
And that, after all, is the challenge of religious naturalism: to experience the mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum -- the fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery -- in every aspect of the natural world.
I am, of course, borrowing these terms from Rudolf Otto, the German Lutheran theologian of the first half of the last century. Otto sought to ground the religious experience in the ordinary physical experience of things, a numinous grasp of something awesome and exhilarating behind the surface. For Otto, that something was "wholly other," a glimpse of the transcendent divine.
Mircea Eliade took up where Otto let off, and spoke of the sacred and profane. He too emphasized the experience of the transcendent in the ordinary, "the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world."
Both Otto and Eliade had a huge influence on my generation of seekers, especially in their insistence that religion be grounded in the experience of natural things. All of this meshed well with the Roman Catholic sacramental tradition in which I was raised. But Otto, Eliade and Catholicism saw the numinous experience pointing beyond nature. Eliade wrote: "We cannot speak of naturalism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is 'supernature' that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world."
For the religious naturalist, the intuition of a "wholly other" is a step too far, not just beyond the physiological and psychological experience, but into a kind of anthropomorphic idolatry. What then is it that gives the experience its numinous quality, what I called in one of those earlier posts "metanatural," as opposed to "supernatural"? Tomorrow I will try to answer this question -- by reference to that iron nail in the milkmaid's wall.
Reprised from May 2011.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
I offer here Jan Vermeer's The Geographer, painted in Holland in 1668-69, as an iconographic image of religious naturalism, particularly that with a Roman Catholic flavor. (Click to enlarge.)
But first, a few words of context.
In the academic year 1968-69, a National Science Foundation grant enabled me to study history of science at Imperial College, London, with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall. Few scholars know as much about the foundations of modern science, and especially about the beginnings of the Royal Society, established in 1662, the first scientific society. While with the Halls, I had the opportunity to read widely in the early Transactions of the Royal Society, and in the communications of Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Society. What comes across in these documents is an insatiable curiosity about every aspect of the natural world. It is almost like the excitement that attended the discovery and exploration of the transAtlantic New World in the previous two centuries, but this time the "new world" is that in which we live our daily lives, revealed in its depths and dimensions for the first time by telescope and microscope -- and by awakened attention.
Oldenburg was in communication with Vermeer's exact contemporary and fellow citizen of Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoek, the famed microscopist, whose simple instrument revealed an unexplored universe of the very small. Many scholars believe that Leewenhoek my have been the model for The Geographer, and might even have commissioned the work. If so, here we have art and science converging in the lives and works of two remarkable men.
The Geographer is surrounded by the implements of the new secular quest for reliable public knowledge: maps, charts, globes, dividers, square, cross-staff. It is clear that Vermeer shared a respect, even affection, for these objects. His painting offers unmistakable homage to the scientific enterprise.
But more, the painting invites us into the interior thoughts of the Geographer. He is caught in a moment of private reflection, when public and personal knowledge flow and ebb together like a tide on a shore. What is he thinking? What meaning does he glimpse?
Vermeer converted to Catholicism at age 20, probably as a condition for marriage to his Catholic betrothed. But there is no reason to doubt that his conversion was sincere. The scholar Daniel Arasse has suggested that Vermeer's "religion of painting" drew him to, and was reinforced by, the Catholic "dogma of the mysterious union of the visible and the invisible, along with a faith in the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable." If Arasse is correct, in the distracted gaze of the Geographer we encounter the Catholic sacramental tradition, in which the sensate world of color and materiality invites us to participate, even as spectators of the painting, in an intuited world of inexpressible Mystery.
Friday, April 24, 2015
A few more thoughts on those Wayne Thiebaud landscapes I shared the day before yesterday. I suggested that the terrestrial environment is inevitably going to be a human artifact, that we might as well make that artifact a work of art, and that artists as well as scientific ecologists might lead he way.
Whenever I hang out with my nature writing pals, they cringe when I mention artifact. They have another notion of what the environment should be, something wild and beautiful and untrammeled by humans. Their notion of what we should strive for is rather more Bierstadt than Thiebaud.
Albert Bierstadt was a 19th-century German-born artist who made his reputation with large, romantic paintings of the American West as it was -- or was imagined to be -- before the coming of those defiling white folks from the East (click to enlarge). Oh, there were humans in Bierstadt's nature, native Americans, but they were imagined to be as seamlessly a part of the natural world as eagles and deer.
Bierstadt's landscapes are no less idealized than Thiebaud's. It is a different esthetic at work -- the esthetic of an unspoiled Eden -- but what you see on the canvas is what you want to see, not what is actually there. If pre-Columbian Americans had a lighter touch on the land it was only because they had less advanced technologies. It is possible that they were implicated in one of the most extensive mass extinctions in recent Earth history (the demise of large North American mammals at the end of the most recent Ice Age). They were certainly engaged in almost constant warfare among themselves. Give Bierstadt's "noble savage" a gun and a steel plow and there goes whatever untrammeled nature you might find in his paintings.
Which is not to say that we might not have much to learn from native Americans about the kind of landscapes we want to create, or that in managing the Yosemite Valley, say, we might not have more to learn from Bierstadt than from Thiebaud. What is important is that we recognize our responsibility toward the future Earth, decide upon a spiritually-nourishing esthetic, and then use the surface of the Earth as an artist might use a canvas.
Two things will work against us: greed and the idealization of the wild. We either create a work of human art, or concede the environment to the exploiters.