Psychomachia and Autobiography (with frolicking hippies)

The first question people always ask me about Hippies is whether this romp through the psychedelics and sexual liberation and ideals, the music scene and the war scene, all the darkness and all the light of the late 1960s, is autobiographical. And am I like Ragman or Ziggy or Tex, etc.?

It’s not exactly autobiographical in that sense. But I draw from autobiography on every page. I am a bit part in every character. But perhaps this is tautological. Perhaps every artwork with more than one character is a kind of psychomachia, all characters projecting different aspects of the writer’s soul or psyche. Perhaps this is not just a psychological necessity (creative arts are after all self-expression) but a metaphysical one as well. How metaphysical? If all the people of the world – past, present, and future – are so many surface expressions of the single personality of godhead, then the whole great drama, the extended “vanity fair” of human history, is one great psychomachia. And divine history, too, as the figures that populate the collective imagination are just as much expressions of godhead as the figures that populate physical reality. Indeed, the figures of imagination may be more intimate expressions of godhead, as Jung’s collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche and gets one step closer the universal Psyche.

At least this literary theory, this metaphysics, seems consistent with the cosmic laws governing the created world of Hippies. And perhaps that is enough.

 

The Curse of the Confederacy: A Plague on Both Your Houses

As I try to think through both sides (and come to terms with my own ambivalence), I don’t see any good guys in the debate about removing the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. I share the underlying politics of the “removal” side – let’s call them the liberals. Namely, the values of the Confederacy in no way reflect our values today. In fact, the vast majority of people (white and black) I have known in my 50 years in New Orleans agree with that. Thus, removing purely political markers like the Liberty Monument makes sense. Changing selected street names or removing flags – no problem. But I am uncomfortable with the cleansing of art history, as if art history has no value beyond politics and must be purged to suit today’s political values. For example, the century-old Beauregard sculpture’s lines and shadowed cuts and grandeur impressed me long before I knew who was on the horse. It certainly never gave me the slightest pro-Confederate feeling. If it had been quietly renamed “The Unknown Union Soldier,” most could still have enjoyed the aesthetics and most native New Orleanians would have been none the wiser. (My experience is that outsiders coming in are more aware of the political side and natives are more likely aware of these things as the “furniture” they grew up with.) So my concerns on this side are these:

(1) Where does the cultural cleansing of historical-register artifacts from centuries past stop? Take ‘Em Down Nola (who led the removal of Beauregard and the other Confederate monuments) has already targeted the 160-year-old equestrian statue of U.S. President Andrew Jackson as well as the French Quarter monument to New Orleans founder Bienville, who died 100 years before the Confederacy existed.  For those who are concerned about the scope of the cleansing, if removalists could give them a clear sense of the endgame before the steamroller (as they see it) starts rolling, it would go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and opening a dialogue. At least it seems a fair question to ask.

(2) How does “us vs them” identity politics ever get us back to the “all-in-this-together” model of Martin Luther King and Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano, Gandhi and Mandela, all of whom placed shared humanness at the center of their visions? Sectioning off white, male, black, female, etc., reifying those characteristics and prejudging people accordingly, seems to keep us on the wrong path. What you spend your time visualizing is what you bring into being. At what point do we focus our considerable energy on the things that connect us to each other and to the future rather than on the things that divide us?  

Pro-monument voices – let’s call them the conservatives here – have, for the most part, been even worse. All the waving of Confederate flags and “Southern pride,” in this context, suggests that they really do still believe in the lost cause of Confederate values. This is almost mind-boggling. Even the ones who complain about “erasing history” seem to be clinging to the political history of a vicious past. I haven’t heard every voice, but has no one disavowed the political values of the Confederacy in no uncertain terms and made the case that art history may have some small value that goes beyond politics?

Removal of the Liberty Monument was an easy call. Removal of the Jefferson Davis statue should also have been an easy compromise, as any art historical significance it had beyond its political point seemed slight. But Lee and Beauregard were on the National Historical Register for a reason, and that reason is not because the National Historical Register favors Confederate values. I would like to think it has something to do with preserving art history as, to some extent, valuable in its own right, irrespective of politics.

In the end, maybe removal of all the monuments was a good thing. I haven’t really canvassed all the neighborhoods to see what people were actually thinking, and I might be swayed by more voices on the ground. I suspect, though, that the most public voices on both sides represent their own fairly small but very active political circles. But each side seems to thrive in its own way on polarization, ready to shut its ears and throw everything under the bus to make its political point. This makes me think that maybe politics itself is the problem. Maybe we should throw politics under the bus …

Click here for “The end of all politics.”

Three Takes on Satan

First, there Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the guy who would famously rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He created quite a stir in his neoclassical age. The critics of that age liked for everything to fit into their symmetrical boxes, but there was some conundrum about what to do with Satan. Everyone naturally wanted Adam or the Messiah to be the hero of the poem, but no one could deny that Satan was the most interesting, most memorable, the dominant character who lingers in the imagination. Not that Milton had anything subversive in mind, at least not when it comes to the Christian world view. (His regicidal politics are another matter.) Milton is no doubt a God-fearing Protestant, but Satan steals the show nonetheless.

A century later, William Blake finds a way out of the conundrum. Blake also identifies as Christian, but his way out of Milton’s knot gave no succor to more orthodox Christian souls. Blake had his own visions of divine history – quite literally, as a result perhaps of some psychotic or paranormal power – which, he claimed, confirmed Milton’s epic vision in every respect but one: Milton misnamed the Messiah “Satan” and misnamed Satan “The Messiah.” Blake could not deny his own essentially religious visions of divine reality but he could not accept the principles of orthodox Christianity, which he found deadening and counter to the spirit of the human soul. He and Milton would probably agree that Milton’s Messiah represents restraint and reason, and that Milton’s Satan represents an unrestrained desire, a passion that exceeds all accepted bounds. It’s just that for Blake, that means Milton’s “Messiah” represents everything deadening to the human spirit and Milton’s “Satan” represents the liberating and redemptive power. At first glance, indeed, it seems like Blake puts a lot more energy into debunking Christian orthodoxy than offering anything favorable to Christianity. (The archetypal figures in his visionary works can be interpreted in a way that is commensurate with the Christian mythos but they are not limited to that interpretation.) Blake, however, reminds us in a letter to Thomas Butts: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God.”

Leave it to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who was kicked out of Oxford in his youth for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” and mailing it to every Bishop in England, to take the next move. Shelley keeps Blake’s archetypal structures intact, embracing the Romantic view of imagination and passion and desire as liberating forces and conventional thinking and restrained rationalism as deadening, but Shelley breaks the whole mythos free of the Christian shell. Shelley agrees that Milton’s Satan is morally superior to his God, but he would prefer to draw his archetypal heroes from the likes of Prometheus, as someone who can represent the great forces of our collective unconscious without the risk of pulling the reader into the realm of nominal superstition.

So is that the end of Satan? I doubt it. Even today, Milton’s Satan can capture the imagination of readers – both professorial and everyday ones. And I know religious philosophers after Shelley – Kierkegaard and Husserl come to mind – have wrestled with the role of imagination and desire in a religious framework (although I can’t recall them bringing Satan into it in the same concrete way).

Then there’s Dracula and such villains who seem carved from Satanic stone, but I’m not sure we should start down that road. After all, Satan may be the ultimate reference point for all villains (but especially for gothic villains). So maybe we’d better stop here and ponder 😊

“Meanwhile the Adversary of God and Man,
Satan with thoughts inflam’d of highest design, 
Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell
Explores
 his solitary flight.” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, 1667)

 “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ca. 1790-99)

 “Milton’s poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system [Christianity], of which … it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” (Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, 1821)

Aix-la-Chapelle

Our cathedral in Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle as the French and English would have it) shares its major traits with other gothic cathedrals.

The exterior is all verticality, from the pointed arches of windows, doorways, and other architectural features, to the high thrust of the steeple rising from its smaller fellow points.

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The exterior as a whole, especially from a distance, brings the eye across the social plain and points all the world’s grandeur upwards, from the hierarchies of the medieval social structure to the vanishing point atop the steeple, teasing the eye still further home into the heavens.

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The interior houses, among other things, the richly-colored stained glass walls that fill the apse and frame the altar.

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Arguably, the stained glass in all gothic cathedrals serves at least two symbolic functions in addition to the narrative function of transmitting sacred history to an illiterate congregation: (1) they create an illusion of the world’s most massive structures being held up by pure light, just as the entire material world is held up by the Word of God and the light of Christ’s sacrifice; and (2) they signify the light passing through the walls of Mary’s womb in the Christian mythos’s moment of greatest mystery.octagon

But what keeps me coming back is the detail – the little unique spots and patches of aesthetic beauty in this massive canon of gothic symbolism — from the octagon that remains from Charlemagne’s 8th century original structure

 

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to the exterior features of the facade that seem unique, at least to my amateur eye

 

 

 

to the quirky details of the interior

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I don’t even know what to call these spots and patches. They point back to the gothic canon, the symbolic template that the Dom here in Aachen shares with the larger gothic traditions, but they are also little aesthetic chips in their own right, separable from the mother building and marvelous for their random beauty. In this sense, you can see them through the lens of Jung’s synchronicity. As opposed to the causal aspect of apprehension (in this case, the gothic structure that determines the details), synchronicity focuses on the chance aspect of what is before the eye, the random beauty that emerges best when the object is stripped from the external causal nexus and viewed in its own right. It’s a little bit like moving from traditional art to abstract art, where the idiosyncratic arrangement forces you to find, or create, a new register of intelligibility.

It’s not always worth it – this sort of move from traditional to abstract – this move away from the causal frame of reference into something more like vertigo. But to me, it’s always worth it when it comes to gothic cathedrals. Unlike modern and contemporary artists, who cover the whole range from profound to puerile, gothic cathedrals never disappoint. It doesn’t take a shred of true religious belief to feel, as one approaches and enters these architectural wonders, that no artist or movement of artists of any period has created such powerful, holistic, and all-encompassing moods as those who built these magnificent structures 1000 years ago.

Aachen to Maastricht

The bus to Maastricht crosses the border from Germany into the Netherlands as soon as you leave Aachen. Here are some fields along the way

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and at Dreilanderpunkt where Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands meet. (OK, I took this picture earlier/greener in the season, but it’s along the way.)

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Then Maastricht, from the images that capture the gist of the town

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to the churchimg_2315

to the really weird stuff; e.g., I’ve never seen a urinal like this

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or a bookstore like this

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I have on some occasions seen an underground art scene like the one at Landhuis/Wasteland

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For example, this would fit at The Farm in Tennessee or in the Bywater/Marigny/St. Claude area back in New Orleans, where a kind of free-spirited, low-budget, random exuberance knocks things out of the way and creates its own field of aesthetic play. Perhaps it might fit the industrial art scene of London. But this kind of spectacle is at first glance less visible in Germany, except maybe in Berlin or in some of the other eastern cities I’ve heard about like Leipzig and Dresden. This is a generalization, of course, not a universal truth, but the Germans seem a bit more inclined to color inside the lines and get things done. I’m still poking around though, making the most of my contacts with those Germans who break the boundaries and enjoying the kindness and generosity of Germans in general.

Oh yeah, and then there’s dope boats in Maastricht.

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Sorry, though, the government has cracked down. No smoking weed on the dope boats without a Dutch passport — for now, anyway.

 

 

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

I can’t say I’m very invested in the debate about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, but I can picture how the deliberations might have played out. The plus side is fairly simple. His songwriting played an enormous role in shaping the sensibilities of a seismic cultural shift in the 1960s and thus (insofar as it was a seismic shift) of cultural trajectories thereafter. I imagine all at the table would also grant that Dylan has proven himself both a great and highly prolific songwriter.

But, respond the naysayers, songwriting is at least as much about instrumentation and melody and musical coordinates as it is about the verbal. Dylan may have had as profound an impact on culture as such previous winners as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, but does the verbal element in the songs, on the page without the music, reach the same level of word-built architecture as One Hundred Years of Solitude or Song of Solomon? Or if one defines “literature” more broadly to include the musical elements, then does the next short list include McCartney/Lennon and a host of other songwriting megastars? Such stars deserve their awards but should a literature award be reserved for more purely literary forms? Or should we just give awards for art in general, avoiding all discrimination of genres?

The arguments that weighed against the choice of Dylan must have been no light load. Perhaps we could say that a purely formalist assessment of the words Dylan has written weigh against the choice. This is not to slight the formal beauty of Dylan’s output (I share the enthusiasm for the early Dylan songs of dubious love, social justice, and the crash of human nature into the historical moment, but for the full artful textures of songs and lyrics, give me Blood on the Tracks), but when measured specifically against other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one might argue that the verbal element on the page in Dylan has not the same stature. But then the historical assessment — the gigantic, multidisciplinary cultural impact – swings back in his favor.

I will leave the pendulum swinging, or if you prefer, suspended in mid-air, to make a curious observation about Dylan’s songs and historical impact. For being such a powerful catalyst for the counter-cultural tide of late 1960s hippiedom and all that came after it, Dylan’s own temperament is not at all “hippie.” If he is a poet, he is a Beat Generation poet, with a little extra 1930s social protest thrown in. Sure, there are threads of idealism, or at least an awareness of the seismic cultural shift (“the times they are a-changing”) in Dylan, but for the most part, any idealism in Dylan remains simmering under the rubble of gritty realism, and tales of hard times in boxcars and back alleys, and a chip on his shoulder that won’t go away (think of “The Idiot Wind’s” chilling response to the woman who misunderstands him, or the all-time masterpiece of schadenfreude, “Like A Rolling Stone,” or even the cynical humor in the love songs). One more easily pictures him among the black-clad poets of North Beach than among the colorful bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. It’s easy to imagine Dylan fidgeting in impatience at the naïve idealism of the flower child generation, although the movers and shakers of that generation, from Jimi Hendrix to the Byrds, were drawing vital energy from Dylan’s repertoire.

The irony of that disconnect between Dylan’s innate cynicism, his street realism, and let’s say it – his crankiness – and the beautiful, flowery idealism he helped spawn, may in fact be one way of explaining his smirk at his own fame, the distemper that always seems to dog the space between him and any award he receives. It’s almost as if he sees his counter-cultural minions – and the award committees honoring him – and he looks skyward and says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Or to focus back on the irony of the Nobel Prize itself, he wants that recognition for his art – for the sheer formal beauty and power of the songs – but shakes his head at the fact that the real recognition is coming not for that formal beauty but for the historical impact of his songs, an impact curiously out of sync with the Beat-shaded sensibility in which they were written. I imagine that Dylan gets the irony. Perhaps much more than the award committees do. Can we blame him then, if commingled with genuine gratitude, he brings that quiet Dylan smirk to the ceremony?

See also Led Zeppelin and Dr. Freud