POETRY Part I. La muerte y el vivir (Death and living) Art, philosophy, literature, our “Humanities”, what life do any of them have if they do not connect to and enrich the actual lives we live? But they never have a life of their own, they only come alive if you make them, where in the same movement they make you come alive. We have relationships with art, and with ideas, much like how we have relationships with people. Can you imagine just one person controlling the relationship? So how then can you imagine a writing, or an artwork, creating all the meaning for you? Maybe in science, maybe in math… but not everywhere, not in the Humanities, where you become aware of your own creativeness, of your own being. And so, our time now presents two ideas that can be useful to how we exist, and how we dream. The two ideas I have in mind are Death and Living, which aren’t necessarily opposites, if you can imagine that Death is a part of Life, its echo always haunts Life, and it is only fictionally separated from Life. So these two themes: Death and Living (or ‘how we live’) swirl around thoughts now. And of course, the maneuver of the Humanities is to connect what swirls around thought today to Eternity, to human history, so that we can imagine that we are not alone in our present, and we are not the first to step foot here – only the shoes we are wearing are new, but that’s just fashion. What I think to do here, in the first part of this lesson, is to present two creations – an image and a poem – that speak about Death and Living, imagining that they can give us a gift that can make our lives better. They are from long ago and far away, but maybe so are we. Be aware, dear students, that the representation of Death in art has nothing to do with Halloween, with horror movies, or with the sentiment of fear. To augment a person’s fear is a form of cruelty, which has no place here. Instead, Death represented in art has generally had the purpose of reminding the viewer of the precious value of Life, so as to say: ‘You will die one day, how then do you want to exist? What do you want to do with the time that you have?’ Death is invoked to remind us of Life’s value – not to be afraid of Death, but to appreciate Life. Here, look at this….
It is a tile mosaic from ancient Rome, from the city of Pompeii in southern Italy that was buried in ash, volcanic ash, and so preserved for many centuries in a frozen form, without life, but only its souvenirs. It was in the first century AD that this tile mosaic was made. It represents visually the Latin expression memento mori, which means, “remember that you will die.” It is a tile mosaic, it was built into the floor of someone’s house, it’s about the size of a big carpet, and it’s something that would be looked at everyday, like a reminder. A reminder of what? The symbolism of the image: The skull in the center, representing Death. The wheel below the skull, representing Fortune. Like the wheel of Fortune. You know by now that the meanings of words change, actually it seems that they degrade, that we lose their poetry and simplify their meanings… but yet we believe we are progressing! “Fortune” today generally means “luck.” But “fortunate” and “unfortunate” have an implication that go beyond the simple, reductive and plebian notion of “striking a fortune,” or of the “Fortune 500”… But enough pedanticism, let’s look back at the question: What is Fortune? We see it in the pair “fortunate” and “unfortunate.” Fortune implies an awareness of the part of life that you do not control. That you cannot control. But that effects how you are. Fortune denotes that a person’s power is limited, that a person’s
knowledge (which is a form of power) is limited. According to the ancient notion – because fortune after all is a Latin word – a person does not make his or her fortune or misfortune – it simply happens, almost arbitrarily, and is received, not made. So Fortune can be tragic and fatalistic, or it can also be magical and enrapturing. The point is that a person’s power to control his or her own life is limited. There is the other side, beyond our control, and that was called ‘Fortune.’ Of course modern science, and even modern ethics, all want to ‘expand our individual power’ and reduce the role of the unknowable and uncontrollable in life to a minimum, maybe even to abolish them all together. Yet has it worked? Are control freaks secure or insecure people? And so, back to the mosaic, the wheel of Fortune appears under Death – when will Death arrive, how will it arrive? How will she enter the room? What will she look like? Do you think she will be wearing a name-tag? The wheel spins for the gambler, and it stops where it wants. But look again. Between the Skull and the Wheel is a Butterfly. Yes, that’s what it is, a Butterfly. A symbol of the soul that leaves the body and flies away at the time of death. Free and eternal, reminding us of life’s happinesses. What is that strange thing above the Skull, that wooden object with a string, perched evenly atop the Skull? It is a Balance, and instrument for weighing things. And do you see that it is balancing two things of equal weight? One isn’t heavier (meaning move valuable) than the other. What are those two things that are equal, the same, when measured by Death? Look at the two sides of the image, at the things hanging from the Balance. Do you see? More symbols. On your left: Those are clothes, nice clothes, a dress the color purple (royalty!), a nice gold belt, and a well-matched white scarf. You know, that actually is a cool outfit. And running through the dress is a spear – a symbol of power. So there on the left you have very nice clothes, which signify material wealth (but even if you don’t have material wealth today you can at least have good taste, which is a wealth in itself… and then we can talk about the people who have a lot of money but no taste, but we won’t, because that would be in bad taste…) I was saying: nice clothes on the left, a symbol of material wealth, and a spear, a symbol of power. “Wealth and power.” Hurrah! And on the right? Oh, but those are rags. Rags, clothes again. Tattered and un-dyed. So a symbol of material poverty. And what is that running through the rags? It is a walking stick, and on it hangs sack, where the vagabond puts all his things, and wanders around – using the walking stick – because he has no place to go. They are symbols of desperation and abandonment, the walking stick and the sack, the opposite of the spear of power. On the right we have poverty and desperation, the other side of wealth and power. And yet these two opposites, wealth-power and poverty-desperation are equally balanced when the wheel of Fortune stops at Death, and it is time for the butterfly of the Soul to fly away. What does it mean? From what possible perspective in your mind do wealth-power and poverty- desperation appear indifferent, equal, and therefore unimportant? Is it amazing that such a perspective can be imagined? What insight does this perspective make possible, and what can you do with this insight? Insight (Einsicht in German) is a moment when we look at the way we normally look at things, when we become aware that the way we look at things effects what we see, and when we become aware that in our normal way of looking at things there was something important that we didn’t see. An insight is a moment of revelation. It is a truth that we reach
beyond common sense, and so it is rare, not common. And certainly can’t be taught didactically. What is the insight in the tile mosaic? Well, there is wealth on the left, and poverty on the right. And common sense has always said that we should spend our lives working to move from the right to the left. Because of course the left is better – it certainly weighs more in our system of values – and the right, poverty, is a plague and a curse: avoid it, escape it, for the sake of a better life. But dear students, if it were that simple – or even that easy – then there would be nothing to think about, and nothing to remember. And yet, we think. How dare we! A life is spent valuing what? Pursuing what? Despising what? We all die, rich or poor, and “you can’t take it with you” they say in English today, but how does your Soul fly away? What did we spend our lives doing? What did we give importance to? ‘Death is the great equalizer,’ says a proverb. It is the equalizer of the physical world and its corollary the material world (wealth-poverty). And yet the spiritual world? Here the question is different, it is not ‘what you can take with you’ but what did you leave behind, in the lives of others? And so kindness, compassion, love and an appreciation for life are the real components of wealth – the ones we don’t appreciate enough, the ones maybe we only see in a moment of insight, when we step outside of our common sense that sees only with its eyes and not its heart. Memento mori is the title of the tile mosaic, “remember your death.” How to live then, what to live for…? We need to be reminded sometimes, is it true? When we waste our time we forget our death, and hence live badly. What rat race are we in? Where do we think we’re going? And what will it be like when we get there, to our “goal”, to our purple dress and gold belt and white scarf? Which still is a very nice outfit. The two things I share with you in this lesson – the artwork and the poem that you’ll see now – were originally intended for the last lesson of our semester, titled Καλό ταξίδι (Kaló taxídi): bon voyage in Greek. It was my way of saying goodbye to you, and wishing you happiness on the journeys of your lives. But because the question of Living now comes into focus in our collective solitudes, or better still the question of appreciating life, which is itself an art, I thought to change the order of things and lessons. We are easy and we can do that, because the topics of our conversation must follow life and not a syllabus… Ok, the intermezzo is over now, onto the poem. This is the poem:
The City You said: ‘I will go to another land; I will try another sea. Another city will turn up, better than this one. Here everything I do is condemned in advance and my heart – like a dead man’s – lies buried. How long can my mind remain in this swamp? Wherever I turn, wherever I look, I gaze on the ruins of my life here, where I’ve spent and botched and wasted so many years.’ You will find no new land; you will find no other seas. This city will follow you. You will wander the same
streets and grow old in the same neighborhoods; your hair will turn white in the same houses. And you will always arrive in this city. Abandon any hope of finding another place. No ship, no road can take you there. For just as you’ve ruined your life here in this backwater, you’ve destroyed it everywhere on earth.
By Constantine Cavafy, a modern Greek poet writing in the 1890s, in the eastern Mediterranean. This poem, so interesting, it only look depressing if you don’t make out its faint little halos, like in Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna. You see? How you look at things determines what you see. What does the poem say literally, with its words? To ask this questions means to immediately ask another: What does it let you say, as you complete its meaning? The first question first: What does the poem say? It says: “My life here sucks. I want to get out of here, because I can’t figure out how to live here. Everything around me is an obstacle, nothing I do works, no one appreciates me, and I am wasting my life.” But then it says something else, it creates something, it creates an Elsewhere. “If I go to the Elsewhere – the not-here, the ‘city’ – then everything will be cool. Then, and there (not here) I will have the life I want, I will be happy, and everything will be great, it will be the opposite of what it is here and now.” So the narrator is waiting for her life to start – she imagines it will start when she leaves where she is and gets there, to the elsewhere, to the city. Or maybe, when she graduates her life will start, or when she finds a good job her life will start, or when she loses 20 pounds her life will start… Here, and now, nothing is possible, but there and then, everything will be possible. And in the meantime? Wait, work, complain, and ‘try to get there’ – in the physical sense (graduate, look for a job, whatever). This Elsewhere and this Hope, what do they mean? This Dream, what does it mean? Could it be that these hopes and dreams and elsewheres can oppress the present? Can they oppress reality? They can – says the poem – if we are foolish enough to think that the Elsewheres, the Hopes and the ‘cities’ are places out there in the world that we just have to arrive at physically. But that isn’t where they are. The city we want to live in, the person we want to be, the life we want to live, are really places within ourselves that we have to go to, in the here and now. Happiness is in the here and now if we know how to see it, and if we leave the backwater of our own sad habits of seeing only obstacles in life and not possibilities, of seeing only the world and not ourselves. The ending of the poem is strong, the voice says, “you’ve become bitter and weak, and those habits of being you will take with you wherever you go… Because ‘the city’ you are looking for you haven’t built yet in yourself, and yet that invisible city is the only one you will ever really inhabit: The city of your soul.” Well dear students, as I’ve written this I’ve combined and moved back and forth between the first question (What does the poem itself say?) and the second question (What does the poem allow the reader to say?), but such mixing and blending and frolicking of thoughts is the nature of interpretation. You see, we have conversations with poems, and there are so many conversations to be had. Memento mori and live the life you want. Don’t wait for the future, for when you arrive in ‘the city’ to be happy, to be the person you want. Now is the time to live, to love, and to be happy. And with this feeling of such energy stored inside, when the doors are opened again and we can be in each other’s company and be free, who would be so foolish as to ignore all the life and all
the possibilities around him or herself, staring into the tunnel of a small screen or even smaller obligation that now is all that we can physically see? Who can ignore the beauty of life after this, after we’ve been deprived of it for a while? Who will still want to live invisibly and blindly after this? Who will still take life for granted after this? Who will ignore the humanity that will surround you again after this? “It was in my darkest winter that I discovered my warmest summer,” wrote Albert Camus, the summer that you can carry with you forever. You are lucky when you visit that summer in your inner world, in your invisible city. You are fortunate, because life reverberates with the sound of your own music. Here, look at this, and Italian proverb from the sixteen hundreds…
“When Fortune is playing for you, you dance very well,” it says at the top. And Fortune will play its music again. Maybe it’s already started, maybe it’s playing here:
Part II. Dolce far niente (Sweetly doing nothing) The hologramish weather of these days solidifies the ambiance of misery that fills up the world of empty streets and empty places where we use to meet. But we are far from it, contained within our houses, and there, there are candles to light that no one else can see. Our inner worlds can be places of joy, of candles, hiding amidst the empty grey, which we were use to anyway. The exceptional doesn’t contradict the normal, but reveals its truth more lucidly – in these exceptional times we can learn a lesson that applies to all times, and that just now perhaps is more obvious: Beauty hides in the world. The way we are hiding now, and the way our dreams might even be hiding from ourselves in our immobile time that is so well disposed for doing nothing. It is when we do nothing that many things happen – but they happen within us, within the closed houses of our souls, and they don’t appear outside on the streets of the social register of productivity. Yet what happens inside, in hiding, can haunt the physical world, or the social world, like a spellbound aura of dreams that never end. What better thing is there to take from our solitude than our dreams? What better use is there of solitude than to dream? Yet to dream, one must know how to do nothing, and that is the topic of this lesson from a distance: The magic of doing nothing. Is it a white magic or a black magic? Of course it depends from which point of view its creations are regarded – because doing nothing is in fact, and in secrecy, one of the most creative states that a person can exist in. I have arrived at the idea of writing to you about doing nothing through a consideration of the ways that it is being impeded, even at a distance, by certain providers of busywork who view it, quite simply, as a form of black magic. It is as though they are trying to perform an exorcism against doing nothing – wishing to expel it from your lives as though it was a virus. Points of view are entitled to exist, and points of view are entitled to view each other and speak what they see. From my point of view I see this: A stream of busywork is at this moment a direct impediment and a denial of the fecund possibilities contained within doing nothing. It is always this way, now it is just more clear, because our situation is perfectly suited for doing nothing most intensely, which means most creatively. There is a desperation, quite sad, in current efforts to reestablish the order of social time, with its register of days and nights, the hours of the clock, scheduled activities, and its apotheosis of anxiety: the deadline. Doing nothing exists outside of the social register of time. The time spent doing nothing can’t be counted, because its essence is a communion with eternity that laughs at clocks and to-do-lists. It floats above the labyrinth of the reality principle so as to contemplate it for what it actually is: A collective neurosis as disproportionate to life as a catcher’s mitt is to the amount of toilet paper really needed to clean oneself properly. Doing nothing is a moment of revelation, and that is why the coloring of its magic takes on different hues for different people – because there are different types of people who each see the world as refractions of what they themselves are. The concept of doing nothing comes wrapped to us like a gift, under different layers of perception that we remove like children on their birthdays, unwrapping the paper to see what’s inside. The first layer of wrapping paper is the perception of doing nothing accorded by our society and its dominant ideas. Here, at the most superficial level, which is the best place to begin – and to forget like wrapping paper – doing nothing appears as a manifestation of laziness. And laziness signifies non-productive activity. Yet “productivity”, in this equation, is strictly identified with the social circuit board of value whose organizing principle is money. Read Benjamin Franklin, if you dare to know one of the architects of the concerns that organize your
mind. “Time is money,” he says, and time that is not money is consequently nothing. So he did not appreciate nothing, or perhaps he appreciated it too much and as such felt compelled to deny it to himself. It is not from a consideration of an external necessity – the need to make things – that a person denies his own inclination to doing nothing, it is instead from a consideration of an internal necessity that is stronger – the need to dream – that a person builds labyrinths of reality to hide in. The United States, and all countries imbued with the Protestant ethic, or “work ethic”, have imagined themselves as being very different from the rest of the world, but especially from the Catholic countries which constantly reappear in the Protestant field of vision as lazy. All this means is that the fecundity and creativity of doing nothing are not perceptible from this point of view, or from this point of denial. So very well, color me bad if you must as you see me doing nothing, but your perceptions are just a wrapping, the gift you still have not seen. And know that these perceptions of yours are destined to be forgotten, at least by me, at least for now. But in the language and in the perception of Catholic countries – and in Italian in particular – there is a different way of naming and of experiencing the gift wrapped under the first linguistic layer of laziness – and this we can call the gift’s second and final layer of concealment, its greatest moment of anticipation. In Italian there is the expression dolce far niente, which means sweetly doing nothing. Some people don’t like sweets, they taste lazy to them. But maybe the problem is with their palates and not with the sweets themselves. Could it be? Sugar is most fascinating when it melts, and it is in the slowness and serenity of melting that doing nothing finds its metaphor in sweetness. To sweetly do nothing is contrary to anxiously doing nothing and to passively doing nothing. To anxiously do nothing is akin to running away from one’s body, which is not a sign of health but a sign of misery that leaves one short of breath. To passively do nothing is akin to consuming mass-produced dreams, which creates nothing but voids that leaves one short of words. To sweetly do nothing is to love and to perceive the wealth of things that you are actually doing in your state of trance, and to be amused by the melting of the perceptions that have hid this idyllic place from you like obtrusive walls. Dolce far niente can be coupled with an aphorism that speaks to its journey towards bliss through layers – through wrappings – of judgmental perceptions: Rebel, you have been damned, why is it then that you are so happy? The gifts of doing nothing are ready to be seen now, shall we look at them? First let’s look at the part of ourselves that we can see with our eyes – our bodies. In doing nothing our bodies’ movements and its aura are not determined by an external object – by a goal, by a machine, or by a place to go. Our bodies serve nothing when we do nothing. Nor are our bodies merely in the shadow of an external object when we do nothing – they are not simply resting and recharging and preparing for another bout of activity, this would make our doing nothing serve an activity – a future activity – which would deprive doing nothing of its charm. Our bodies are like a balloon when we do nothing, a balloon that has been let go of by gravity’s personification – work. We’re floating. What do our bodies do, and how do we see them when we float? When a body is not a conduit of work, or of exercise which is a continuation of work’s logic, then it becomes a conduit of an inner energy whose destination is the body itself. Interiority is manifested in the body when it does nothing – when it does nothing for anybody else except its own. The meaning of that interiority is perceived through sensuality. Look at art, dear students. Art is full of people doing nothing. That is because people are at their most beautiful when they do nothing. Because when we do nothing our bodies simply exist to be enjoyed, and to be enjoyed without any other
purpose than enjoyment itself. The value of our bodies change when we do nothing, and so does our posturing of them. We can pose in our repose, and make our bodies objects of art in the field of physical reality, which is always hiding there under the field of work’s movements, and the circuit boards of panic’s routines. Here we have crossed the bridge to the other side of panic: We are now on the side of sovereignty. Sovereignty is a being serving itself and its own existence, doing nothing, immobile in its own serene enjoyment and contemplation of itself. There are of course an abundance of examples of bodies in motion and even at work in art, but consider that as a rule the bodies shown in art are doing nothing. Yet in that state of doing nothing they are creating beauty, which art then re-presents in its paintings and sculptures, in its poems and songs. Look at this painting –
Madeleine in the Bois d’Amour by Émile Bernard. She is doing nothing but contemplating beauty, inner beauty, and that is why she looks so beautiful. The path to her serenity begins from water, from its calming aura that dissolves concerns, that doesn’t know the solidity of facts, but that is immersed in the current of feeling. She is in the Bois d’Amour, which is an actual place in
France, but the meaning of this name is also symbolic in the contextual whole of the painting – les bois d’amour means the woods of love in French. That is where she is. Love radiates from her eyes as she looks at the sky, and it fills her face as she is content to contemplate her own secrets. She is creating life’s meanings in this state of doing nothing, which in French is also called rêverie, or dreaminess. When we dream like Madeleine we create a sense of our world and of ourselves, we create reconciliations between all that is free within ourselves and all that is not. We create reality’s possibilities when we take a distance from reality’s facts. Maybe she is even creating her lover in the woods of love – the lover she remembers, or the one she hasn’t yet met. She is pregnant with ideas in her state of doing nothing – this fecundity, or creativity – is represented symbolically by her hand covering her stomach, which in art is an enduring symbol of pregnancy, which in its turn is an enduring symbol of creativity. Maybe the best teachers are only midwives of the ideas you create yourselves. Says someone: “But most people don’t see this beauty that is idle and serene, that has to be reached through the path of one’s own aqueous tranquility and delicate perception.” It is true, most people don’t. But then you have to ask yourself a question: Should you see life, and yourself, through the They that constitute “most people”? Each person will answer this question according to the courage of their own innocence. Here is another painting of a person who knows how to do nothing very well –
This one is actually called Dolce far niente and it is by the English artist John William Godward. Godward was born in industrial Victorian England where time was money – just ask Charles Dickens – but he escaped. He followed his imagination. First he changed location and went to Italy, and then he changed time and went into antiquity, which is where this painting is set. What
is the bird that she plays with? What has she created in her perception of it? What stories will she tell about the bird? What stories can we tell about her? Is she floating like the bird? Do you see it in her face and her arm? No form of consumption can ever make a person as happy as this form of self-creation – and so businesses of all types must try to exorcize this form of bliss from the realm of experience, and brandish it with the label of doing nothing – simply because it does nothing for them. But even in our California people are good at doing nothing, yes, even here. Look –
This painting is by Jerald Silva, who paints in Sacramento. Do you see the wonderment in her eyes? What is she discovering? What new forms of life are her dreams creating? Why is it that we are the best at doing nothing when we lay down, in a position from which we cannot look down on anything else? Perhaps, in our state of floating as we lay down, we do look down on the busy world from the far heights of our dreams, and through this reversal of perspective we reconcile ourselves to the world’s weight. But sometimes when we do nothing our spines are erect –
This is a painting of Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of beauty and love, by Rick Ortega, who paints in Los Angeles. Xochiquetzal, in Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs, means precious flower. Flowers only look like they’re doing nothing, but what are they actually doing? They are growing in their apparent stillness so that we can admire them and see our own dreams in them. She is posing here like a flower because that is what a body can do when it is not directed by the remote control of a goal, of a future, or of an object. It can grow from within, and exist for the lucky few who have the eyes to admire it. May you do nothing better. Dimitri Papandreu September 13, 2020
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