There is no heavier fate than to live in a time that is not your own.
—Vasily Grossman, “Life and Fate”
Our moment is rife with impermanence. Nearest to us is that form of impermanence familiar to Buddhists: birth, aging, sickness, and death. Baudelaire described this ordinary catastrophe in lines as forceful as Tibetan skull beads: “Time engulfs me in its steady tide/As blizzards cover corpses with their snow.”
But recently the ageless fear of our approaching demise has been greatly quickened by the COVID-19 pandemic. It feels as if we are now accelerating through the stages of life. If we thought that we still had long, lazy years in front of us, it now feels as if many of us will be dead by the end of the week, every week, and on into the foreseeable future. Untimely deaths indeed. Anxious, we try to shut our ears to it, but we still hear what Albert Camus called “that eerie sound above, the whispering of the plague.”
Of course, once we get to the other side of the COVID crisis, the catastrophe of climate change will be waiting there for us, the sixth great extinction, the abrupt end of the placid Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene, a sure-to-be-short-lived epoch dominated by human purposes and human failures. But even that is only a part of the story, because it is couched within a more fundamental extinction, that of the great grinding machine that is our home, Earth. Here in the Northwest, the Cascadian Subduction Zone forces the lighter North American plate up while pushing the Pacific plate down, and the ocean plate rises again through magma chambers, surging up volcanic conduits into pyroclastic displays of chthonic vigor. Earth endlessly erases what was and provides a blank slate for what is to come.
That’s the big stuff. But for humans there is something subtler than the kind of death we associate with corpses: dead dog here, tiger there, Aunt Hazel in her calico dress over yonder. It is something more personal and melancholy. It is this: If you live long enough, you will see the human world into which you were born disappear. The conditions and the worldly forms into which you were born and which you had taken to be perdurable reality will “suffer a sea-change/into something rich and strange.” You will look about, confused, like a person who “hath lost his fellows/And strays about to find ’em,” as Shakespeare imagined in The Tempest.
Many of the things that disappear will be gone and good riddance. Other things, the things we loved, we will watch wistfully, elegiacally, as if we were seeing yet another disappearance of Praxiteles’s statue “Resting Satyr,” his mocking eyes sinking beneath a rising tide of mud.
I’m 70 years old, and the world that I grew up in is almost lost to sight. As I say, a lot of that is for the good, but for me it is quite another matter if the arts, and the possibility of transcendence that the arts provide, are on a list of vanished things.
The arts were not my birthright. I grew up in a working-class suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area at a fortunate time when public education was good, college was affordable (cheap, actually), and few students graduated with debt. And so it was possible for me to sally forth without the threat of young adult bankruptcy. Since I wasn’t worried about a job just then, and I was accustomed to being poor, I was free to be something else, an English major at the University of San Francisco, a student of the classical guitar up the hill at Lone Mountain College, a longhaired war resister and draft counselor in the chaplain’s office. There seemed to be no limit to the wonderful things I could be in order to make it unlikely that I’d ever cross paths with money. I was poor, but it felt like I was thriving, and I wasn’t the only one with that feeling.
The arts never claimed to know it all. From the Renaissance forward, the arts have been about discovery, not certainty.
But in the present, things have undergone a sea change that is strange enough yet not at all rich. The university, the university as I knew it, no longer exists. In the age of neoliberal “austerity,” educational programs in the arts and humanities have been reduced or removed because budgets are tight and computers come first, or because there is no “student demand,” or, crassly, because there is no market for what the arts have to offer. What’s lost in such market logic is the fact that programs in the arts and humanities—not just in universities but at all levels of education—are the primary way in which we are introduced to fundamental questions about who we are, where we are, how we got here, and what, if anything, we’d like to see changed. These are lofty purposes for education, but with each passing decade they seem to be pushed ever further from view. Instead, we have what the economic geographer David Harvey described succinctly: “The traditional university culture, with its odd sense of community, has been penetrated, disrupted, and reconfigured by raw money power.”
I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church.
—James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
In spite of the near-death of the liberal arts in academia, I will continue to think of myself as a citizen of the humanities, because when I was a student who had rejected all the forms offered to me by nation-state, capitalism, and family, I found a home with a warm hearth in the study of literature. In this home I felt that I had been returned to what the German Idealist writer and thinker Friedrich Schiller called an “original power,” or Nature, something that, for me at least, calls to mind the idea of buddhanature. And in this home I felt for the first time a freedom from the goals and desires that defined the world around me.
For me, the humanities still have an aura of welcome and benevolence. After all, the arts never claimed to know it all. From the Renaissance forward, the arts have been about discovery, not certainty. More importantly, as the epigraph from James Joyce declares above, art has mostly developed at an angle hostile to the reigning platitudes of any given time. The great masters of oil painting were subversive because what they portrayed—including the abstractions of Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky—was more real than what their traditions had allowed to that point. And they were subversive because they were ever more stylistically adventuresome, offering a model of freedom to their audiences, something no structure of power is comfortable with.
As the English art critic John Berger wrote:
Each time a painter realized that he was dissatisfied with the limited role of painting as a celebration of material property and of the status that accompanies it, he inevitably found himself struggling with the very language of his own art as understood by the tradition of his calling.
Perhaps Berger was thinking of someone like Francisco Goya, whose court portraits often subtly mocked the nobility’s self-importance and vanity, and whose use of color and texture anticipated the Romantic revolution so near at hand.
When I imagine that the artistic subversions I have admired and learned from are no longer of any consequence, I feel like I’m part of that place William Butler Yeats wrote of in “Sailing to Byzantium”: “No country for old men.” I feel alien. A social isolate. As Italo Calvino wrote in an elegiac mood, my mood, “The world had changed: I couldn’t recognize the mountains any more, or the rivers, or the trees.” This, too, is impermanence, the fading of the beautiful.
Perhaps I should accept that the arts, too, are subject to impermanence, but that doesn’t make witnessing their fading any less disturbing. For example, I was giving a reading at 57th Street Books in Chicago and a man about my age came up to me afterward and said, “I admire your work, but it occurred to me that you are writing for a world that no longer exists.” Or, as a wag later put it to me in a comment on the Lapham’s Quarterly website, “You’re so last century.”
In the age of climate disruption, plague, and looming nuclear disaster (the Doomsday Clock moves imperceptibly forward each year as if in one of Zeno’s paradoxes), even the concept of “future” feels like something from a lost world. “Concern for the future?” we ask. “What future?” Perhaps in some not so distant time—“after the human game has played itself out,” in environmentalist Bill McKibben’s words—every writer and poet who has ever lived, even the worst of the hacks, will be, perversely, as famous as Shakespeare. Which is to say that every artist known and unknown will be sunk in the same mire, like so many creatures and curiosities of the Jurassic, in a tar pit of our own making.
I would describe [the Heart Sutra] as a work of art as much as religion. And perhaps it is one more proof, if any were needed, that distinguishing these two callings is both artificial and unfortunate.
Since the corporate university has decided that its students have no need of the humanities, it’s a good time to remember that art has always had a difficult relationship with academies, in part because artists have long suspected that the academy itself was a dead place. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Debussy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Cézanne, Gertrude Stein, Egon Schiele, and most other 19th- and 20th-century artists worthy of memory—they all had antagonistic relationships with the rules for proper making laid down by the academy. For the academy, these artists were degenerates, creators who were subversive of every right-thinking duty. As one Henri Rochefort wrote of Émile Zola in the Paris newspaper L’Intransigeant in 1903, “All the diseased minds, the topsy-turvy souls, the shady and the disabled, were ripe for the coming of the Messiah of Treason.” So these artists made their own schools: Impressionism’s Salon des Refusés, Matisse’s Les Fauves (wild beasts!), Expressionism’s Der Blaue Reiter, Surrealism, Dada, and beyond, into an ever more edgy future. In short, the arts have always been most alive outside the academy, en plein air, so to speak.
A secret stream of art and ideas moves through the popular. As a young man, I didn’t feel that going to the Fillmore for the pleasures of psychedelia was a project separate from going to Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco to hear von Karajan conduct Mahler. After all, these days some of our “folk music,” the vox populi inside popular music, is self-knowing and complex in a way that we used to expect only of “serious” music. For example, one of rock guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s influences, especially for his film scores, is the modernist composer Olivier Messiaen. And pianist Keith Jarrett composed one of the most beautiful jazz works that I know, The Survivors’ Suite, and also made a radiant recording of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. And cinema, at its best, has realized Richard Wagner’s dream of the “total work of art”: music, image, and story in one organic whole, as in the films of Nouvelle Vague directors Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, or New German Cinema directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog.
So I must have been wrong to think that I’d lived long enough to see my world die. Only the ephemera have arisen and passed, gone like a neon sign of the “Flying A” from a long-vanished gas station, while my world, both secret and canonical, has endured—in a word, in a note, in a brush stroke.
I assume that this is good news, but why is it good news? The arts endure without the aid of universities, but what is it that endures? Why does it endure? Is it only because of its subversive powers? Important though those powers are, I have come to think not. As I said earlier, the first thing art offered me was the warmth of the living, a refuge, and a consolation. It offered me the “feeling-tone” of the beautiful.
This is the feeling that John Berger describes while standing “wordless” before Rembrandt’s painting A Woman Bathing in a Stream. Berger takes part in the artist’s wonder at the intimacy of the human body and at the way the body becomes a channel for spirit. As Berger writes of this painting, it is the “rediscovery as if for the first time of a familiar body.” But this body is not the product of the culpable male gaze; it is the product of a loving gaze that is, wonderfully, not separate from what it sees. The artist discovers himself gathered together with his subject, this living flesh, and they are gathered in the collective unfolding of the world. As the 13th-century Zen master Dogen expressed it, “Enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” Rembrandt leaves the tradition of painting-as-theology for a place that is wiser than theology. This is not merely a famous image to be checked off a birdwatcher’s lifelist before moving on to the next famous image. Instead, the work provides living access to an old meaning. Like buddhanature, this meaning is present if we can see through the crust of the customary to Rembrandt’s awakened heart.
It is not the painting itself that allows this awakening, the thing that collectors covet, the thing that has a price tag at auction of $50 million, and it is not the trite idea that it is a masterpiece or a work of genius or a part of the history of the development of style. Rembrandt had none of this in mind when he made this painting. He was bankrupt. He painted for himself. He painted in order to mend a world that had fallen about his ears. He wanted to create an image of light emerging from darkness, his understanding of what is unchanging, undying, always here and now. Rembrandt is famous for his many self-portraits, and in a sense this is a self-portrait. Rembrandt puts on his Original Face. We honor this moment when, like John Berger, we stand wordless before it.
Rembrandt’s fellow bankrupt, Jan Vermeer, sought a similar awakening in his painting A Woman Holding a Balance.
An otherworldly expression on her face, a woman holds an empty scale. Before her are two strings of pearls. The pearls suggest the transience of worldly goods, but in their luminescence they also suggest a beyond, a domestic Sacré Coeur. Distracted from the calculation of wealth, she experiences a moment of transcendence, a moment out of time. The pearls are both the problem and the solution. It is as if Vermeer were saying that we don’t have to seek spirit out there somewhere; it is always right here, even in the little world of the household, waiting to be recognized.
Vermeer captures the moment of the woman’s recognition, her sudden awareness. Imagine the painting without the pearls, with a stack of money instead. Without the pearls, and without the delicate transition of shade into light on the wall behind her, the painting would still be masterful, but it would have a more didactic meaning—the triviality of worldly things in the face of the Last Judgment (which hangs on the wall behind the woman). Instead, the woman and her pearls invite us to contemplate a little theophany, an unexpected descent of the divine, and to linger in its aura. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha refines the three vehicles, the three thousand realms, and the ten thousand things to a single “thought-moment.” Like the Buddha’s clarifying gesture, Vermeer refines the thousands of brush strokes, the layers of studies and drawings beneath the surface of the painting, his teachers and their influence, the masters who influenced his teachers, and the whole history of Western painting as the search for spiritual insight, to a single thought-moment.
As Dogen imagined: “One bright pearl is able to express reality without naming it.”
Or consider Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur.” First, he offers the fact of the matter, what we find is in the world. We find that “the soil is bare now.”
All is seared with trade; bleared,
smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and
shares man’s smell.
In spite of the debasing of the world by humans, the ultimate terms of which we are seeing now, Hopkins then tells us that “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things” that cannot be “bleared.” But this freshness is not only in things; it is also in the poem itself. The poem shares in God’s grandeur. The poem is never a dead thing, part of a world that no longer exists. It is like a musical note that decays, only to be returned to life by the next note that decays, only to be once again redeemed. The artist “lets go” of realist representation and joins the play of energy in the void. The artist is the maker of worlds, breaker of worlds, maker of worlds, and again breaker, in what Nietzsche called the “eternal return.”
The first thing art offered me was the warmth of the living, a refuge, and a consolation.
For Hopkins, when art is worthy of our care, it cannot die. It cannot die because, like Vermeer’s pearls, it is a facet of what is “deep down things.” Of course, this could all be Romantic yearning after an experience of something that only exists as yearning. It could be that it does not provide eternity but only the “artifice of eternity,” as Yeats called it.
But the question remains: What is it that endures? There’s no confusion for Hopkins. What endures is the brightness of God’s grandeur, “shining like shook foil.” In a similar vein, the 17th-century Zen master Bankei spoke of “the unborn,” wherein “all things are perfectly resolved.” But these are truly deep matters, and they exist, for most of us, on the other side of a gap. The practice and the experience of art offers access to this other side through that unknowable thing we call beauty. Buddhism, too, shows us that this gap can be crossed, by forgetting the self, as Dogen tells us. In meditation, we awaken to what is on the other side of this gap, even if, on most days, we only get up from our cushions muttering about our backs.
For most of us, the experience of a beyond is fleeting and uncertain, and we meet it with a pause. It’s like Dante’s Final Vision in the Paradiso, where he sees what he has sought: “One Simplicity of Light” (trans. A. S. Kline). The sweetness of this moment is like what one “sees in dream, and when the dream is gone an impression, set there, remains,” but just the impression. Dante’s earthly powers “fail the deep imagining,” until, happily, the next heartening appearance of “the Love that turns the Sun and the other stars.”