Tag Archives: et in arcadia ego

Et in Arcadia Ego

4 Feb

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

-Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

The purity of memory never lasts. Those happiest of moments become tinged by time, whether abruptly or by a slow and steady march. The markers of a carefree youth age away, and the impermanence of all things becomes all too real. Cause for defeat, for fear? No: an added sense of urgency, a realization that every little moment is precious. Reminders that we can build something real; even if it only lasts an instant, we can cherish it for a lifetime. We cannot control history, but we do have at least some control of the narrative that emerges from it. It takes time. But time, just as it can wear things down, brings wisdom, and renews itself in cycles that defy the linear logic we’ve imposed on it. Everything dies and nothing dies, and we are left with neither heaven nor hell but earth, where we belong; here, in all its absurd messiness. It’s a beautiful thing.

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Some Artistic License

18 Feb

Lest this blog turn into a hockey-only affair here in the midst of the playoffs, I’ll inject some art to liven things up a bit. The four works that follow are four of my favorites. I can think of plenty of good ones that aren’t here, and a few of my favorite painters don’t have any one single work that really stands above the rest like these do. But these four have captivated me in one way or another over the past four years or so, so they make the cut. Here they are.

I. Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens)

Rafael, 1511

schoolofathens

Anyone who’s bothered to read all of my philosophical ramblings won’t be surprised to see this one leading off the list. It is a fresco in the Vatican, and it pays homage to the philosophical roots of the Western tradition, of which Christianity is also a part. The great minds of the ancient world debate questions great and small. It’s not always entirely clear who is who, but the central subjects of the fresco are obvious enough: Aristotle and Plato, forever in a friendly tension, the real and the ideal juxtaposed against one another. Basically every philosophical debate ever since has its roots in this one, and even the rejection of this debate can be found sitting a few steps below them in the form of Diogenes.

It’s become fashionable in some circles to dismiss Greek philosophy as an anachronism, or a narrow Western imposition. But in many ways, the Greeks had the human condition measured better than anyone who came after, and they can be valuable guides. Of course the Western Canon has its flaws; all who contributed to it were a product of their times. Instead of trashing this self-evident truth, it’s much more useful to see what they got right, and how those simple early thoughts endure far more meaningfully for lived experience than anything in the arsenal of postmodern jargon. In a rare occurrence, I side with Plato over Aristotle: this is the ideal of how debate should look, with respect and camaraderie and deeper search for the truth.

II. La condition humaine (The Human Condition)

René Magritte, 1933

laconditionhumaine

At one point while I was in Washington DC, I wandered through the modern wing of the National Gallery on my own, drifting along from one picture to the next with no particular enthusiasm. Then I came to this one. I stood there, transfixed, for at least a few minutes. It was hard to put into words exactly what it meant, but I got it immediately, and it couldn’t be any more right. From Sara Whitfield’s Magritte (1992):

“This is how we see the world,” René Magritte argued in a 1938 lecture explaining his version of La condition humaine in which a painting has been superimposed over the view it depicts so that the two are continuous and indistinguishable. “We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.” What lies beyond the windowpane of apprehension, says Magritte, needs a design before we can properly discuss its form, let alone derive pleasure from its perception. And it is culture, convention, and cognition that makes that design; that invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience as beauty.

The point here, I suppose, is not wildly different from the one I was making with The School of Athens: we all come from a certain context, and view things through a certain lens. We are our histories; we embody the people and places we come from, and cannot shake them off as we gaze out upon the world.

III. Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park)

Diego Rivera, 1947

dreamofasundayafternoon(Click image for enlargement)

A high school Spanish teacher showed me this mural long before I’d considered studying abroad in Mexico, and while I probably rolled my eyes at her gushing like most high school kids do, something lingered. By the time I headed south, it had become an essential stop, and on my first free weekend, I hiked up Paseo de la Reforma alone to stand before the mural, which occupies an entire wall in its own museum. It didn’t disappoint. I was riveted.

It tells the story of Mexican history from left to right, from the first conquistadors to the Revolution of the 1910s. The heroes and villains all mingle in the park, strolling down its promenades, forever tied up in a contradiction of a nation. At the center is Rivera as a boy, standing next to the calavera, that reminder that death levels all the differences between these many people, arm-in-arm with its creator, José Guadalupe Posada. National myth, fantasy, and harsh reality all blend together in vibrant color, a crowd that captures the soul of a contradictory nation.

Once I’d drunk my fill, I then spent my own Sunday afternoon wandering the Alameda of 2010 Mexico. It was a chaotic mix of vendors and protesters and pleasure-seekers; none as famous as those portrayed by Rivera, but even if they had been, they would have been lost in the crowd. I sat down on a bench and wrote for a bit, happy to have arrived, but slowly realizing that this fleeting glimpse was only the beginning. I had more work to do. I set out to find a nation and wound up finding myself instead, in large part by coming to understand that wild cast of characters that had wandered through my own life.

IV. Et in Arcadia ego

Nicolas Poussin, 1638

etinarcadiaego

Even in Arcadia, there am I. The speaker of these words, of course, is Death, and the shepherds of Arcadia have just discovered death in the form of a mysterious tomb. The pastoral lives they live are but a dream, and no one can hide from it forever.  My fatalist impulse comes through here, Posada’s calavera once again underscored: it is all so fleeting, and even in paradise, nothing is eternal.

It’s a somber note to sound, perhaps, but this isn’t to cast a pall over it all. Instead, it shows just how precious those moments of bliss can be, and how we must adapt to their lack of permanence: we must treasure them, and never lose sight of how little time we have to do whatever it is we’re setting out to do. That awareness is at the root of my hunger to figure things out, and to get as much right as I can. We all need our occasional retreats to Arcadia, but we cannot linger: the world calls.

It is no coincidence that two of these four works are filled with people, attempting to sort out their roles within a society or some other social environment. Another looks out from within, at how the individual sees the world; another steps out, while reminding us that we can only do so for a little while. It’s all part of the cycle.

Photo sources:

http://uploads5.wikiart.org/images/raphael/school-of-athens-detail-from-right-hand-side-showing-diogenes-on-the-steps-and-euclid-1511.jpg

http://www.ket.org/painting/images/humaine.jpg

http://www.oh-wie-scha.de/homepage_cipa001.jpg

http://www.parnasse.com/etinarc.jpg

Farewell Duluth III: Solitude

10 Aug

You’re a believer in community, you buy all that sentimental stuff you peddle every day, that life is found in intertwining your history with those of the people closest to you. And yet. And yet there are days where it wears you down, where you get too caught up in whatever bubble you inhabit, grow annoyed by the little tics of those around you. Community is one of the greatest sources of life you know, but it is not the only one. You have to get out. Just you, and you alone.

This is another of your town’s triumphs: nowhere is it easier. There are parks at every turn; some packed, some more wild; some well-worn, some neglected. A short drive can take you to places where you won’t meet a soul, if you so desire. You head out to recharge, to find distance; perhaps to cast judgment from afar, perhaps to head for a realm where judgment has no meaning.

You are swift to retreat into these moments; at times you were perhaps too swift, but even now as things come together, you cannot neglect this. This is your cycle inward, necessary before you pull back out. You must go. Back out to some little corner you’ve claimed as your own simply because it cannot be owned. Time is short, so you hurry upward, the jagged rocks in the path turning your feet as you climb. You could stop here or there to admire the view, but not here, this isn’t the place. Across a road, past the spot where you once saw a bear, ever winding upward. A few signs of youthful dalliance, carelessly hidden in the woods; was that you not so very long ago? How the time goes, how much more precious youth now seems.

Out you go, hurrying to time this journey just right. Before long you’re hopping from rock to rock, down a staircase carved in stone. Through the birches, across a boardwalk, the deer far back in the woods flushed, bounding back through the underbrush for only a moment before they’re silent, and then all is silent for you, too. Up a hill, though the view disappoints, back through another stand of wood, a mysterious half-hidden trail, whether from deer or teenagers or something much older you do not know, up to that oak tree near the top of the ridge where you once stood there trying to make sense of what exactly it was you’d done, brandishing a manifesto from an earlier self and proclaiming its wrongness, though now you’ve come full circle and have forgiven yourself. Your younger self deserves more credit than you ever gave him. Who could you have been if you’d gotten over those crippling anxieties, acted on that self you always wanted to be? God only knows now, though that impulse is still inside of you, can still be channeled into something good. Onward, you press, on to the outcropping, site of many a picnic and also your first goodbye to this place, a sunrise at dawn beneath a different oak, this one now as dead as the finality of that goodbye. Take the right fork, you haven’t been that way before. You make your way down the path, looping in and out behind spruces, careening downward so easily you can’t help but run. You bend to pick at a malformed raspberry, sample the latest thimbleberry, scarf the smattered juneberries, a regular forest feast.

Down a field of talus, across the bit that gets muddy when it rains, and you’re nearly there: or maybe you’ve come from the other direction, up from the wider path, past the ruin of an old mill and the side creek that you once waded up for a mile or two, picking crayfish out of the shallows with a couple of people you chose to share this garden with, down the path where one great story reached its peak and another arose; where it led was never entirely clear, but still it has its roots here, high on the bank above the little stream. The destination is always the same. This little patch of woods birthed so many of the convoluted thoughts of the past seven summers, your blessing and your curse, a burden you could not live without. Here is where the last story came to an end, and here too you hope to end the last and worst of the stories you’d rather pretend were not yours.

You reach the gates, push aside those tumbled branches and finally, there it is before you: the cathedral, the dying pines towering up above an open glade, the sun dancing between the trunks, the blinding light of the sinking sun pouring through, setting it all ablaze, and you set out gingerly through the waist-high grass, your hand trailing through it as you go. Perhaps you should drop to your knees, make a show of it all? No, you cannot linger, the mosquitoes nip and the sun sinks. Now, it seems, that time is over, gone without any obvious moment of revelation. It all makes sense now. You complete your duty without any fanfare, and life goes on as if it had never been more than a fleeting thought. Victory.

You head off the path and into the heart of the little stand. Not quite a sacred ground: you’re still in a city, after all, and the reminders of life beyond never quite die. Wilderness is a myth, or perhaps a state of mind. Yes, death comes only to the pines, nearly half of them now just towering empty trunks, lonely pillars supporting a ceiling of fading blue. Et in Arcadia ego. Spruces rise up in their place, and even here before you, a solitary oak tree, fighting above the tangles of thimbleberries and announcing its arrival on the scene. Bring your children here someday, and it might all be gone: just another clump of wood in a forest that buries its past. You could move on to the next hill, where the pines stand a bit more resolutely, but no: yours are these ones, right here, the ones that remind you that you don’t have long. Everything seems more immediate, both the triumphs and the tragedies of life given a vivid edge, and you relish them that much more because you know how much it means to feel all of these things, to live with that joie de vivre that overwhelms all weakness and fear. The more you lay claim to these trees, the more you sense that they are not yours alone, that another set of eyes watches. You’re not quite sure yet where one story begins and another ends; perhaps they all just blend together here; here, in this garden of all your dreams.

You’re free here, though you don’t quite feel it. Gone are the days when every little victory was cause for rejoicing; now you just take it all in stride, natural, the next step along this little chasm through the grass. All is right, all goes on, and as long as you may linger, this is not you: you must share this, come down from your messianic ideal not into a nihilistic doom but into reality where you belong, where you can still be the author of a story that aspires to everything you might desire, even as you know you might not ever quite get there. The pursuit is enough, and with moments like these, you’ll have the wits to make sure the chase never eats you alive.

It’s time to move on. The sun sinks away, and you have far to go before you can rest your feet again. You’ll miss this spot, but you are forever changed by what it’s gifted you, and that is enough: it belongs to you, you belong to it, and whatever shall come will be in the shadows of those towering pines. The light will filter through, blinding but bearing that gift of life all at once, all of those apparent contradictions borne together into something that is, quite simply, you.

Part 4 is here.