JOHN HUTCHINSON - On Dust, Dancers, and Transcendence
(Thoughts prompted by Mark Shields’ recent paintings)
One of the more intriguing ideas that arose in the early development of subatomic particle physics was the proposal that the observer influences the phenomenon under observation, and that a 'subject' is required to determine the very existence of the 'object’. Werner Heisenberg, the theoretical physicist, wrote about this in 1927; demonstrating that measurements in the subatomic world cannot be made without affecting the system itself, the concept became known as the 'Uncertainty Principle' or the 'Observer Effect'. It followed, then, that man and his environment were not separate and independent of each other but fundamentally enmeshed, or entangled, at the deepest level of material reality.
‘Quantum mysticism’, as an offshoot of quantum theory, first appeared in Germany during the 1920’s, when some leading physicists, including Erwin Schrödinger, did not altogether discourage metaphysical interpretations of their theories; it reappeared again in the 1970s with books such as Fritjof Capra’s best-selling ‘The Tao of Physics’, in which, for instance, he suggests an analogy between the ‘Cosmic Dance’ of the Indian god Shiva and the ‘energy dance’ of subatomic particles. Other scientists, however, among them Einstein and Max Planck, objected to this new direction of thought, and most contemporary physicists would still be dismissive of it. Nonetheless, the resonances remain strong, and it is interesting that Einstein himself, despite his reluctance to make a direct link between quantum theory and consciousness, was known to be sympathetic to spirituality.
The ‘Tantraloka’, one of the core texts of Kashmiri Shaivism, was written in the 11th century by Abhinavagupta, who was renowned for his theory on the nature of rasa, or aesthetic experience, which he saw as a bridge between mundane reality and the inner bliss of enlightened consciousness. The study of aesthetics was a traditional Shaiva subject in Kashmir because of the importance of dance and music in spiritual practice; sensory experience, which includes artistic expression, was not to be abandoned or denied but embraced as a living, breathing and vital aspect of God. Furthermore, for Kashmiri Shaivites the world is the manifestation of Shiva, the Hindu god who is an aspect of Brahma, the supreme being, and one of the ways to understand this fully is to begin to ‘re-cognize’ it through the dissolution of dualistic thought, thus returning to primordial knowledge and becoming free of limitations.
It is Shiva who drives the eternal cosmic cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution, and in one of his forms, Nataraja, the lord or king of dance, he is shown with four arms and one leg raised, standing on a demon dwarf who symbolizes ignorance. He performs a dance of bliss within a circle of flames, the cosmic fire that creates and consumes everything in existence, untouched by forces of ignorance and evil. Nataraja symbolizes the power and knowledge that transcend duality, providing an archaic parallel to the revelation of modern physics that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance, a pulsating and vibrant process of creation and destruction.
While predominantly associated with his naturalist plays, August Strindberg had a variety of cultural interests and was driven by a search for spiritual understanding. Among the many ideas and practices he explored were those of alchemy, Swedenborg, Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism; he was sufficiently interested in such things to have once thought of entering a monastery. There are spiritual pilgrimages in many of his written works, and in ‘A Dream Play’ there can be found something like a synthesis of his beliefs about faith and the meaning of life. Its leading character, Indra’s daughter, is both human and divine, progressing through life in a Christ-like way and eventually returning to heaven at the end of the play. A search for what might be called ‘embodied spirituality’ was at the core of his personality, and this gave rise to his studies of the occult as well as off-beat scientific experiments - which were not always benign.
During the 1890s, when his literary creativity seemed to have stalled, Strindberg became intensely interested in painting and photography, and in an 1894 essay, ‘Chance in Artistic Creation’, he describes his method of working and his wish to ‘imitate nature's way of creating’, both of them being somewhat in advance of their time. He liked to begin his work more or less at random, trusting that what he called ‘matter's drive towards representation’ would eventually impel a picture to develop out of the paint, almost of its own accord.
It is true that there is usually a clear enough ‘motif’ in his images — perhaps a stormy sky, turbulent waves, or an isolated rock by the sea - but these landscapes and seascapes are inseparable from the paint itself, as though it were part of a world that was still in the process of being created. As one writer has put it (1), his boundaries and differences are fluid; air appears to have the same density as stone, rocks seems to fuse with water, all of them different manifestations of the same substance. The tactile surface in his paintings can be so pronounced that they not only provide an image of nature but give the impression of being nature.
Strindberg’s experimental photographs, and especially the ‘celestographs’, are perhaps even more exemplary of his concepts of ‘natural art’ than the paintings, for their surfaces not only look weathered but appear to have been altered by actual interaction with the elements. The celestographs were produced by neither camera nor lens; they were made by exposing photographic plates directly to the starry sky. The black or dark brown images that evolved after development were scattered with constellations of small light dots that Strindberg liked to believe were stars, although they may have been caused by atmospheric particles, or even by dirt and dust. In that sense the stars in his sky were indistinguishable from earthly matter, and this ambiguity is the source of much of their interest, for physical science holds that this is a fact, suggesting that every element heavier than hydrogen and helium is formed in nuclear reactions within stars and then discharged into space, particularly in the massive eruptions of supernovas. Almost every atom in the material world has once been in a star; and this means, it seems, that in physical terms we are substantially made up of stardust.
Strindberg’s starry images can also be interpreted as reflections on the oppositions of life: high and low, dark and light, vast and tiny. Earth and sky cannot be separated; ‘everything is created in analogies, the inferior with the superior’, he wrote. As a visual artist, Strindberg’s core interest probably lay in the Baudelairean ‘correspondances’ that his images often evoke; believing that nature invariably strives for form and representation, the meaning of his images may be hard to grasp, but that is in part because Strindberg wanted them to be glances into the reality of another unlimited world.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke studied Hölderlin and Kleist, finding himself drawn to the former’s ideas about consciousness, and especially to his thoughts about the all-knowing state of angels, all of which bore some similarity to the reflections that Kleist had earlier developed in his short story ‘On the Marionette Theatre’.
Rilke’s images in the ‘Duino Elegies’ might be said to begin with non-conscious objects and to end with super-conscious angels, following a way of transcendence (2). There are three ways of achieving this sense of grace. First, there is child-like innocence; second, for Rilke (as for his predecessors, the German Romantics), death presents us with a direct means of transcendence as it allows us to lose the self-consciousness and physical limits that separate us from unified existence. Third, and most importantly, there is love, and particularly unrequited love, in which consciousness becomes unbounded and universally focused.
In Rilke’s thought, linear time is the source of past and future discontent; memory leads us to elegiac laments for wholeness and unity that has been lost, and the anticipation of the future with its prospective depletions and eventual death is a constant source of unhappiness. To escape these anxieties, Rilke attempted to turn time and space into a realm in which all and everything exist simultaneously, as it does in the transcendent world of the angels. But this world, and the angels themselves, cannot be described directly; the poet can only give the reader an impression of their wholeness by forcing the imagination beyond normal linguistic limits, attempting to reunify that which rational man tends to separate into different categories. Because he is conscious of himself as a discrete and independent being, man looks out at existence and perceives boundaries that separate him from other people and things; he tries to overcome this by controlling the world, as well as by analyzing and ordering it mentally. Ultimately, however, experience resists systems of order, while time brings about confusion and decay.
By the end of the ‘Elegies’, nonetheless, Rilke comes to the conclusion that he should not become overly distracted by transcendence itself, and that his more pressing task is to transform the sorrow and pain of human existence into an aesthetic experience that can lead us beyond isolation and self-consciousness. The ‘Elegies’ begin with Rilke’s yearning for the realm of the angels and end with a return to the earth; at first the poems seem to gaze upwards, but later they look downwards again, considering the earth around us and all its limitations, in order to bring about new understanding.
This, however, was part of a broader and more comprehensive aspiration, which was to free consciousness from the limits of visibility. Rilke held that what we perceive with our senses is only one dimension of our existence; ‘All the worlds in the universe are hurtling into the invisible and as such into their next-deepest reality’, he wrote. He tried, in his poetry, to find his way to the invisible, to what lay beyond physicality, as he did in the ‘Elegies’ and the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’.
The sonnets were composed shortly after the ‘Elegies’ as a memorial to the young Wera Ouckama Knoop, a friend of his daughter Ruth, who had recently died at the age of nineteen. In a letter he wrote: ‘This pretty child, who only began to dance and was admired by all who saw her then because of the art of movement and metamorphosis innate to her body and to her temperament, explained unexpectedly to her mother that she could no longer dance and did not wish to any more… In the time that was left to her Wera made music; finally she only kept up her drawing, as if the dance that was failing her was issuing forth from her ever more quietly, ever more discreetly’.
Heinrich von Kleist's story ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ was written in 1810, ostensibly about a dancer and his views on puppets or marionettes. As is characteristic of Kleist’s writing, the piece is unconventional, with some surprising twists that fundamentally derive from a reference to the book of Genesis and the story of the ‘Fall of Man’, in which the birth of self-consciousness sets in motion and perpetuates a sense of human isolation. Kleist considered this mythical event to have never ended, for he was convinced that the biblical tale was an allegorical representation of the development of human self-awareness and its experience of limits and separation.
According to Kleist there is no easy way back to the innocence of Eden. Human beings are thinkers; the stuff of thought is knowledge; knowledge is a mixed blessing, for although it is harmonious and content when fulfilled, it is uncertain and occasionally deluded when incomplete or flawed. Kleist suggests that our only hope is to press forwards towards what he considers to be true knowledge, which is complete, whole, and indivisible. The inverse is equally true: separation into subject and object, or self and others, brings about the creation of distance, which is characterized by uncertainty and doubt.
In Kleist’s story, the dancer, whom the narrator has unexpectedly met in a park, explains that a marionette, which lacks self-consciousness, is capable of conveying more natural beauty than a human being, and that only a god might be able to surpass its weightless grace.
‘Now, my excellent friend,’ said my companion, ‘you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.’
‘Does that mean’, I said in some bewilderment, ‘that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’
‘Of course’, he said, ‘but that's the final chapter in the history of the world.’ (3)
1 See ‘The Celestographs of August Strindberg, by Douglas Feuk; ‘Cabinet’ magazine, Summer 2001.
2 See ‘The Cambridge Companion to Rilke’, ed. Karen Leeder and Robert Vilain, Cambridge, 2010.
3 From ‘On The Marionette Theatre’ by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by Idris Parry, in “‘Hand to Mouth’ and other essays”, Carcanet, 1981.