Say that you have several objects on a table. Put a frame around any portion of this situation, and what is within that frame is now to be regarded not as an assortment of separate objects but as something else: a single entity, a wholeness: integritas.
Now, when you have integritas, wholeness inside such a frame, the only thing that counts is the harmonious placement of everything, the consonantia, what Joyce calls the "rhythm of beauty," which includes the relationship of colors to each other, of masses to each other, and of the spaces in between. When the rhythm is fortunately achieved, one experiences the claritas, or radiance: one sees that the aesthetic object is itself and no other thing, and one is held in esthetic arrest.
- J. Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living
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It was sometime in the 80's. I found myself in downtown Chicago with time on my hands. It was midweek, midday. I was near Michigan Avenue and thought I'd go to the Art Institute. There was a show there - Treasures of the Vatican - or some such thing. The jewel of the show was the Belvedere Torso, a fragment of a marble sculpture from the 1st century B.C. There were several stories about its possible subject: Hercules after his labors, Ajax contemplating his suicide. It was impossible to know, but what was known was this headless, legless, armless fragment unearthed in Rome in the early 15th Century has never ceased to inspire artists and the common man alike since the day it was found.
I was common. I wanted to see.
I will always remember the gallery the Torso was displayed in. It was in a room to itself in my memory. There may have been paintings on the wall, but in my mind I don't see them. I did not come for the paintings. I wanted to see the Torso. It was a wide room, empty as I say, as I believe, as I want to believe, of anything but the 2000 year old marble. I turn a corner. I think I turned to my left, and the gallery opened before me. There was a small crowd in front of the sculpture, maybe 6 or 7 people. I know there were children there. When I stepped into the gallery the 6 or 7 people, the children!, all scattered as if on cue and flew from the room. I was alone with the broken thing. I could not believe my good fortune to be entirely alone with it. As I moved closer to it the air surrounding it shimmered and moved in waves as it does when looking down a hot, empty road. I know I continued to walk to it until I was within the 4 or 5 feet they'd cordoned off on every side. It thrummed. It was alive to me and I was stock still. For another minute or two I was alone with him, Hercules, Ajax, the sculptor Appollonios, the creation itself. There was no separation between myself and the sculpture and the air shone like diamonds. The moment others entered the gallery to view the piece it was like a switch thrown: everything snapped back to the everyday: no thrum, no diamonds, no radiance. I lingered in the gallery hoping to feel that way again, but the moment had come and gone.
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Here's what I love: in the quote above, Joseph Campbell quotes James Joyce, who took his ideas from Thomas Aquinas (and Aquinas, Aristotle before him). I love this because each used what was at hand - the work of others - to transform it into the work in their hands. Nothing exists in a vacuum. It is born from what preceded it. Joyce and Campbell are talking about "proper art," not decorative art, or the art of propaganda which they knew to be pornographic, but the art that erases boundaries, that draws you in and holds you, if only for a moment, above and outside of time so that you experience timelessness. The Belvedere Torso gave that to me, as did William Faulkner's Light in August, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Gjertrude Schnackenberg's Heavenly Questions, Daniel Lanois' song Fire, and on and on and on. And that is just how it went for me. You have your own list. We all do, for if we ever let our guard down shit like this just pours in and we are stilled and made to feel more alive from the experience.
But, listen, if this is so for works of art, how can it not be so for the work of the life you are living? Isn't your life born from the lives of those who came before you? Isn't it possible that each step you take is a form of creation, of willing the next thing, the new thing, the thing that has not arrived yet, into being? Isn't it true that when you are in your stride all time recedes and you are simply in the moment, fully experiencing it without filters or categories, but simply are?
We fuck ourselves when we think and believe otherwise, when we live otherwise. The unfucked life is experienced and created, not categorized and judged; it's frame of reference is itself and no other.
* * *
There are two things that really have my attention:
1) the frame of reference, and
2) the idea of harmony.
Most of what fucks us is a withering belief that we are out of step, unwelcome at the table, unskilled in the ways of business, romance, just putting one fucking foot in front of the goddamned other. We are always wrong to the light, never catching a break. And, I promise you, we have all felt some stripe of all that. The mistake we make is in using the definitions others have devised as to what constitutes a worthy life. We use a frame of reference (the scope and scale of what is possible) that is not of us, but of the long agreed upon expectations of the society we are born into. Inside such a frame our life looks ill-fitting, unbalanced, the proportions are wrong. We suck. We suck because we never ask the question about using a different framing device, a different understanding of life.
If you were to lay your losses on a table and frame them as you now feel judged, it looks fairly shitty. A few splashes here and there where it started to come together, but mostly it is a mess. Re-frame it according to your internal compass. It looks different, no? Maybe it even begins to make sense. Now, is this wishful thinking, just blotting out the bits you don't like? Not at all. Remember Campbell's first condition of proper art: wholeness/integritas. You have to use all of it, not just some of it. And this gets to the second idea of harmony.
By harmony neither Campbell nor Joyce nor I mean anything rigidly, categorically beautiful or sweet, but rather an accounting of the whole seen so that light and dark have their place and in fact relate to and reciprocate a continuity that could not exist if what was desired was merely aggressively pretty or fine or fair or just. Harmony, consonantia, is the condition of wholeness that is not static, but is, instead in motion to an internal rhythm that needs no justification, but simply is. This would include your pain, your despair, your bright promise, your redemption and your grace.
* * *
Michaelangleo knew the Torso and copied it into several figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He was asked by the Pope to repair it, to give it a head, arms and legs. He refused. He preferred it as it was: beautiful.
I want you to look at the Torso and if you ever get the chance, you should be in its good company, but until then, look at it: broken, forgotten for 1400 years, and yet it lives, it inspires, it makes the air around it to vibrate and shimmer. Its beauty comes from its brokenness.
Just like the rest of us.
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