Painting Joseph Massey’s “Polar Low”

Lena Levin. Half-sheathed in ice, after Joseph Massey’s “Polar low”. 12″x12″. 2016.

Half-sheathed in ice
a yellow double-wide trailer

mirrors the inarticulate morning.
The amnesiac sun.

And nothing else
to contrast these variations of white

and thicket
choked by thicket

in thin piles that dim the perimeter.

Every other noun
frozen over.

Joseph Massey, “Polar Low”

The poem starts as a landscape — a vast expanse of ice, or snow in morning light, with a single concrete, human-made object, the yellow double-wide trailer. It is described with some precision, but it is half-sheathed in ice.

This half-sheathed is, I believe, the first key to the poem, the first glimpse of it being not only an image, not just a landscape. There is an inner tension in sheathed — a sheath covers a weapon (thus protecting its owner and others from it), but sheathed in the modern usage also invokes the idea of protective covering. It’s also the thing itself that requires protection, rather than others needing protection from it.

Primed by the idea of sheathing, double-wide invokes double-edged (sword). But the trailer is not a sword, is it: it is not only sheathed, but it is also inherently unpowered; it needs another one to move it. Alone, it is truly stuck there in ice, truly forgotten (preparing us for the amnesia of the sun).

But it does something — it mirrors the inarticulate morning, a morning that cannot express itself. By the way, it is the only agency in the poem, filled as it is with passive verbs. And it is the dubious agency of a mirror, which can only reflect — not act.

Why is the morning inarticulate? Perhaps because everything is so white, there is not enough contrast to create a clear picture? This inability of the morning to express itself prepares us for the coming: And nothing else // to contrast these variations of white. Nothing but yellow.

But the question arises: are mornings even supposed to be articulate? The first hint of anthropomorphism in the poem, immediately followed by the amnesiac sun — we don’t usually think of the sun as something having memory. And if you cannot have memory, how can you be amnesiac? Here is the rub, isn’t it — mornings aren’t supposed to be articulate, and this one is not; the sun isn’t supposed to have memory, and it doesn’t. But by stating these truisms in these anthropomorphic and negative terms, the poem implies that they should (or might) have these abilities: to express themselves, to remember.

How does the trailer mirror the morning? Is it because there are reflections in its surface, or in the ice sheathing it? Or is it because its yellow on the surface of the earth is the counterpart of the amnesiac sun in the sky? The trailer is forgotten, the sun is amnesiac.

And there is nothing else.

Wait, but there is: thicket chocked by thicket — the image of bare branches struggling with one another, obstructing one another’s breathing and (possibly) movement. Another meaning of choke: “overwhelm and make someone speechless with a strong and typically negative feeling or emotion”. Are thickets inarticulate too, unable to express themselves because of one another?

But if there are thickets, then it isn’t just (variations of) white and yellow — there is also the black of the branches. Perhaps the branches are also covered with ice and snow, but they are visible, they dim the perimeter — so there are some dark lines in the landscape. But the perimeter of what? Of the trailer? Of the field of the poet’s vision? Of the morning itself? Of the poem? Dim: Do they make the morning and ice less bright? Or less distinct? Less intense?

And the thickets are piled? Are the branches cut, or are they also just frozen? Thickets in thin piles — there is both thickness and thinness in the same thing.

And with this linguistic conundrum between thickness and thinness, the poem finally reveals itself as not-a-landscape: every other noun frozen over.

Are nouns frozen because it’s so cold, so it’s difficult even to utter them — and when they are uttered, they get frozen in the air? Or is it about “freezing” of words, their becoming less warm, less alive, less connected to their relatives and their underlying metaphors.  Thicket might signify anything thick, but now it is frozen in one specific meaning.

So in the end, it seems as though it is language itself — rather than the double-wide trailer with which the poem started — that emerges as being half-sheathed in ice, half-frozen. But it still mirrors things that are, in themselves, inarticulate and amnesiac.

Isn’t this what poetry is for?

The Brain is just the weight of God

Painting Emily Dickinson

Lena Levin. The Brain is just the weight of God. After Emily Dickinson. 2016.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Emily Dickinson


A dramatic shift in pace and in age — I’ve been painting an Emily Dickinson poem these days. On the one hand, it is a part of this grander quest for a space of unity between poetry and painting. On the other, I am following ModPo 2016 at Coursera.org, and this week’s assignment was close reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson. The painting is — possibly — still in-progress, and below are my close-reading notes informed by this attempt at painting translation.


1. Brain

Dickinson uses this word in such a way as to override the mind-matter duality: brain “stands for” both the material tissue inside one’s head and the mind. In my dictionary, these are two different meanings for brain (1. Tissue; 2. Mind). In lexicography, this structure implies that these meanings cannot be present simultaneously: in each individual usage, the word means either one or the other (otherwise, they would be listed under the same number, in a comma-separated list). I believe my dictionary is correct as far as everyday usage of this word is concerned.

But in this case (as probably in many others), the English language is smarter than its users and lexicographers. Ask a scientist, and the mind and the brain turn out to be the same thing — or rather, two alternative ways to describe the same thing. But the language knew that already, and that’s what Dickinson sees and brings out here. She “wipes away” the duality and falsifies the artificial boundary between the two meanings. In the poem, brain has both meanings simultaneously: the “matter” meaning is evoked by talking about dimensions and weight, the “mind” meaning — by its ability to contain the sky (and the sea, and God). Had she used the word mind here, the poem would have become both trivial (we all know that one’s mind contains the sky, and the sea, and God, too) and false (mind has neither spatial dimensions nor weight).

2. Contain // With ease — and You — beside

An interesting — pseudo-rational — argument of why the brain is wider than the sea. It’s simply because once we put the sea in it, there is still place for You. It can be my (the speaker’s) brain containing the person I talk to (you), or it can be your (the listener’s) brain containing yourself (apart from the sea). Here, too, I believe both interpretations are invoked at the same time.

3. Blue to Blue

This quatrain begins as though it is going to be structurally and semantically parallel to the first one: wider than the sky, deeper than the sea. This expectation is interrupted by the puzzlingly surprising idea that Brain is Blue. Why is it?

On the one hand, it invokes the meaning of blue as “sad, melancholic, depressed”. On the other, I am reminded of Kandinsky’s insight into what he calls “spiritual meanings” of colours. For him, Blue stands for spiritual (as opposed to material), divine, heavenly. This is related to the fact that blue recedes: if something is bluer, it’s generally perceived as being more distant, or even moving away (this effect is often called “atmospheric perspective”). I am not sure, of course, whether it was Dickinson’s intention to invoke this quality.

4. Absorb As Sponges—Buckets—do—.

Because of the non-conventional punctuation, and because the first meaning of bucket is “container”, I first interpreted Buckets as an alternative to Sponges (a kind of “correction”, where the brain is compared to a bucket, rather than a sponge). But then, buckets don’t really absorb, do they?

So the intended meaning is probably buckets as in “large quantities of liquid”. But I think it’s important that the language’s pervasive tendency to conflate “containers” and their contents as meanings of one single word is invoked here, in the reader’s momentary confusion over which meaning to choose. I think it’s important, because its reminiscent of the core motive of the poem: the brain as both a container and its “contents”.   

5. just the weight of God.

The poem suddenly moves from truisms (“the sky is wide, the sea is deep”) to an (almost) blasphemy: God is heavy? You can heft him (or her, or it, or them) Pound for Pound? The idea of God being heavy is smuggled in almost imperceptibly at first, through the lullaby quality of the sky-is-wide-sea-is-deep comforting parallelism.

It’s really this Pound for Pound that brings it home, strikingly, especially after the much more lyrical Blue to Blue of the second quatrain. It invokes a rather disturbing, Dali-worthy, picture of a person carefully hefting a pound of God in one hand and a pound of (their own?) brain in the other. In its turn, this picture brings with it the Merchant of Venice, and his pound of flesh just about to be cut off.

How did it happen, that God becomes as heavy as the sky is wide and the sea is deep? One image that comes to mind is an ocean shore, where all one sees is the sky, and the sea, and the rocks breaking the waves. Now here is something as prototypically heavy as the sea is deep. It is as though God replaces rocks in a familiar seascape.

Interestingly, there is another expectation broken by this quatrain. The width in the first quatrain, and the depth in the second, prime the reader for the third spacial dimension, height. And indeed, God is high would be much “easier” than God is heavy.

6. As Syllable from Sound

Which is of these is compared to God, and which to Brain? Dickinson leaves the question open. But even if she didn’t, it won’t help us decide which might turn out to be a little heavier, because how do we compare Sound to Syllable?

On the one hand, Syllable is a kind of Sound. It is a linguistic sound, a component of speech, and there are certain structural constraints (there ought to be one vowel, and — possibly — one or more consonants on either side of it). So Syllable is something much more defined than Sound, and much more human: it is a part of human language, whereas sounds can be non-human. It is also the stuff of poetry: syllabic structure is much more salient in a poem than in the language in general.

With the most general sense of sound in mind, one can say that Syllable is something much smaller (lighter?) than Sound. But Sound can also refer to a single phoneme (or phone) of language (as in “the sounds of the English language”): if we focus on this meaning, then a syllable consists of one or more sounds — so it is potentially larger than a sound, but not necessarily (/a/ is both a sound (in this sense) and a syllable).

So, in the end, which is which? Which of this strange pair is Brain, and which is God in Dickinson’s comparison?

I am inclined to think God might be to Brain what Sound is to Syllable (that is, that this is the insight of this poem), because Syllable is more human, and more structurally constrained, and more unambiguous than Sound. But the puzzling quality of the comparison might be even more important than any answer after all.   

Still, I cannot help thinking that Colour is to Painting what Sound is to Syllable.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse?

Lena Levin. "Window". 30"x20". In progress.
Lena Levin. “Window”. 30″x20″. In progress.

This week, I started the preliminary study of Sonnet 86 (“Was it the proud full sail of his great verse…”). “Study” is probably not the right word for this process of letting the sonnet sink fully into my mind-body system and create the seed of a future painting. This description makes the process seem awfully like sexual intercourse, and maybe it is, indeed, a more appropriate simile than “study”.

I am trying to get (back) into biweekly rhythm for this series — a week of preliminary deep engagement with the sonnet, and then a week of painting the sonnet. Like slow (very slow) breathing in and out. This gives me every other week to paint other things — just to keep me alive through the “breathing in” week. This week, I returned to the view from my studio window, which I started two weeks earlier, while studying Sonnet 85.   

Unexpectedly, I realised on Monday that 86 is the last sonnet of the composition I am working on, which I call, for now, “Poem and Muse”.

There is a certain randomness in how the sequence gets broken into these nine-sonnets and sixteen-sonnets sequences; the only mathematical “given” in this is that there will be ten nine-sonnets composition and four sixteen-sonnets composition — this “solution” is determined uniquely by the total number of sonnets. For some reason, I imagined this one will contain sixteen sonnets, but there is a very logical thematic break between eight six and eighty seven – I have no idea how I missed it before. It means that a lot of compositional adjustments I did to individual paintings to create the sense of overall unity were misguided, but somewhat miraculously, the unexpected shift to the nine-sonnets idea works, even though it changes the relative positioning of the individual paintings radically.

On the other hand, the shift gives me an opening into this sonnet, the last sonnet of the composition. It contains, in a sense, a summary, a collage of the whole subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (“then lacked I matter“). In the future painting, I imagine, it will be a cubist-like breakdown of form. And the colour harmony is also largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it ought to lean towards reds, for the sake of the overall harmony. This is a very abstract vision so far, but it’s a beginning.

I love how this sonnet suggests familiarity with ghosts/spirits/muses that visit the “rival” poet, as though they are the same ghosts. This rhymes with my thoughts over these last days, about our basic (in)ability to share experiences. Even if we think we recognise an experience from someone else’s description, it may still be a delusion.

On many levels, it’s a continuation of the previous sonnet’s themes; the challenge is not the very existence of someone else’s great verse (or great paintings, as it happens), but the suspicion that the experience you need to share is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. It’s only the gap between inner experience and its outer expression, their incomplete alignment, that opens the path for the next artist, the hope to add something new, even if it’s only saying the same old thing in a new way.   

On the responsibility of the artist [April 6-7, 2016]

Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.
Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.

Over the last several weeks, I somehow lost the rhythm of daily writing — which I seemed to have found, and integrated firmly into the overall structure of my day, in the beginning of this year.

The inner core of this rhythm is journaling, in my own, very inner, very private journal; writing down, every evening, all the impressions and insights of the day — in studio and elsewhere; having a deeper look into my own mind. The public, blogging facade — this “Studio Journal” — is an outshot of that. I would re-read every evening what I’ve written the day before, and if there was something worth sharing, I would edit the entry into a “Studio Journal” blog post, which is to say — edit out all the stuff which I feel should remain private; things completely personal and unrelated to the studio process.

I know — I’ve learned it the hard way — that journaling is essential for my life and work, for their organic, effortless flow. But there is a paradox in that, a paradox rooted in fear. Journaling is a tool for self-reflection, as a mirror of my mind. It creates a pause needed to take a step back from the fleetingness of life, and to see what’s really going on, to accept and “integrate” the achievements, and to acknowledge the failures, to gain some measure of clarity for my journey into the future.

It is as essential as “stepping back” in the painting process — when you stop the process, and look at what you are doing from a distance. If you don’t do it with some regularity, you are likely to end up with a mess — or, at the very least, with something dramatically different from what you imagined you were painting. And the danger is that, sometimes, there is a temptation to delay stepping back precisely because you really sense you need it — but this sensation means that something might have gone wrong, and you are not fully aware of it. There is a temptation in keeping the illusion of flow intact, to let it live for a while. And so you don’t do it precisely because you need to do it.   

I think I got it right with the painting process — reacting almost automatically when this sensation begins to arise. But the journaling practice is newer and weaker (although I did journal in the past, this was long ago). And so the routine broke exactly when it was most needed, when I began to feel that something might have gone wrong, but — apparently — didn’t really want to see it clearly. Life — at least my life — unfolds in these waves of ups and downs. I renewed journaling on the upward movement — precisely because I wanted to gain more awareness about what actually happens during the “downs”, and hoped that the habit will “hold” — but it broke almost at the first hint of the first downward movement.

So there is only one way — to renew it right now, without waiting for the next “up” (even though I suspect that this very determination might signal the beginning of the next “up” — which would be very welcome, by the way). And not only “internal” journaling — the “Studio Journal” blog, too; after all, the idea is that raw reflections on the process of painting the sonnets are an inherent part of the whole project.   

But this entry is not about sonnets — not directly. We had to go to San Francisco on Wednesday, and decided to use this opportunity to visit Pierre Bonnard’s exhibition in Legion of Honor. We’ve never really seen his work properly, even though he is represented in many museums we’ve been to. But on those occasions, competition was usually too strong — just too many things that I needed to see more; there was never enough time and space for Bonnard. In retrospect, I think it was good that I didn’t see his work properly before, because this was a completely unexpected experience, and a strikingly unpleasant one. Not because he is not a powerful painter — rather, because he is.

The essence of painting is showing the invisible — sharing one’s inner experience of the world with the viewer(s). And the experience communicated by Bonnard is that of an extreme world-alienation; more so: life-alienation. It is impressionism for the age of life-alienation — or rather, in Bonnard’s case, of complete alienation between human beings, a total, cold, unbearable breakdown of empathy and compassion.

His world of is the world populated by human beings who are absent even though their bodies are there — but just as material objects that affect the distribution of light and colour. Sometimes their heads are just cut off by the edge of the picture plane, sometimes shadowed to the point of invisibility. But even when they are visible, people are expressionless, nearly faceless — they are not present as human beings; if the eyes are windows into the soul, they have no souls (and even self-portraits don’t really constitute an exception). The only beings who have souls in this world are cats (and, less so, dogs).

I know this experience is real; there is a truth in it — after all, it’s not without reason that the ability to be present is being praised as a spiritual achievement. But, frankly, the last thing I want is for this experience to be magnified by painting — and Bonnard certainly has the power to do so. As a matter of fact, I hope that the peak — or rather the darkest depth — of the age of alienation might be over, that we are moving away from that. And these paintings — they certainly don’t help. That’s why I don’t even want to illustrate this post with a reproduction…   

I’ve been reading this book, “Art and Human Consciousness”, by Gottfried Richter. I keep planning to write about it in more detail, but it is hard to find my language for that — because his language is strongly shaped by his worldview, which is, in many ways, alien to me. I was able to transcend this gap in reading, but it is more difficult to do in writing.

But the Bonnard exhibition reminded me of one of Richter’s observations about the art of the twentieth century. He believes that, in earlier ages, artists were, in a sense, protected: as though there was an angel guarding the doorway to the darkness. If you were a true artist, you could be assured that all the insights you get — all the inner experiences you express — come from the light side of the spiritual realm (even though this doorway, too, was guarded by an angel). But now, both angels have left the world, and both doorways are unguarded. The artist now bears the full responsibility of knowing whether an experience come from the darkness or from the light. You can be a true artist, and still help in spreading the darkness in the world. And that was my experience of Bonnard.

On the danger of “Einstellung” in art

Pablo Picasso. Self-portrait. 1896.
Pablo Picasso. Self-portrait. 1896.

Picasso said once that it took him four years to paint like Rafael, and a lifetime to paint like a child. I believe he knew — consciously or not — that knowledge, and even mastery, not only expands our abilities, but also limits them.

Continue reading On the danger of “Einstellung” in art

On giving paintings time to work their miracle

Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait with palette. c. 1890
Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait with palette. c. 1890

For several weeks in autumn 1907, Rainer Maria Rilke was visiting Cézanne’s memorial retrospective in Paris nearly every day, and spent hours in front of his paintings. This encounter has transformed him, as a man and as a poet, “[b]ut, — he wrote to his wife —

“it takes a long, long time. When I remember the puzzlement and insecurity of one’s first confrontation with his work, along with his name, which was just as new. And then for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes …” (from Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters on Cézanne.”).

Continue reading On giving paintings time to work their miracle

Michael Atavar on “12 rules of creativity” and losing the ego

Lena Levin. Sonnet 66. 20"x20". 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 66. 20″x20″. 2014

Every once in a while, usually after reading someone’s excited blogpost, I decide that I ought to read “The Artist’s way” by Julia Cameron, but invariably get dissuaded by Amazon reviews (both positive and negative alike). The most recurrent complaint, it seems, is the overwhelming abundance of references to God in the book, which seems to frustrate even moderately religious readers, let alone non-religious ones.

Michael Atavar’s little book on “12 rules of creativity” deals with the same problem — creative blocks, and how to find one’s way through them — but without any references to God whatsoever. To be completely honest though, I must add this qualification:

Continue reading Michael Atavar on “12 rules of creativity” and losing the ego

Shakespeare on subjective experience of time: Painting sonnets 50 and 51

Our subjective experience of time is one of the most mysterious and paradoxical things I know. Mostly, we seem to just flow with the time, unable or unwilling to step outside and marvel at the strangeness of the whole experience.

Shakespeare’s “horseback” sonnets (fifty and fifty one) give us an opportunity to look at this strangeness “from the outside”, while still experiencing its emotional repercussions vicariously. They share a very well-defined “objective” setting: their speaker is on a road, riding away from his beloved. The scene is so concrete and tangible that it’s easy to think about these sonnets as a missing soliloquy from “Romeo and Juliet”: Romeo on the road to Mantua.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way
Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

The continuity of this setting forms the background for an amazingly swift and drastic change of the speaker’s subjective experience. Heaviness, sadness, and anger of the fiftieth sonnet transform into lightness, joy, and love in the fifty first. Even the speed of the horse seems to have increased dramatically, but this cannot be the case — what have changed instead is the rider’s experience of time.

Just try to read these sonnets aloud to yourself to feel this change and notice how the rhythm changes, reflecting this increasing speed (or, if you prefer to listen to them, click the first line to hear Edward Bennett reading them):

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’

The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed being made from thee.

The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;

For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.


Thus can my love excuse the slow offence

Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.

O what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind;
In winged speed no motion shall I know:

Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh — no dull flesh — in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade:

Since from thee going he went wilful slow,
Towards thee I’ll run, and give him leave to go.

The question was, how to translate this transformation into the language of painting?

The answer I found is in the next question: how the rider sees what’s in front of him before and after the transformation? Since its the mind that constructs visible “reality” from the data supplied by the eyes, the view must change dramatically. This is what these two paintings show: one landscape as seen from inside two different states of mind.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

If you don’t think such a change is possible, it’s just because such extreme changes in the inner state tend to detract our attention from visual experiences.

But how did this happen?

A levelheaded, reasonable person might probably answer that the speaker sees things “as they really are”, “objectively” in the first sonnet  — but then moves to a dreamy (if not downright hallucinatory) state in the second. I must admit, my paintings might seem to suggest something of this interpretation: the first one certainly looks more “representational” than the second — but wouldn’t the swift extremity of motion blur the landscape?

Anyway, I believe this reasonable character I imagined in the previous paragraph would miss the whole point: the mental shift that accomplished this transformation is not from “objective reality” to a hallucination, and not from the present to the future — but from one future to another, just a bit more distant one. If someone looked at the whole scene really, really “objectively”, from outside the speaker’s mind, then the momentary present state of affairs would be exactly the same on the journey back — the same road, the same horse, the same aloneness of the rider (well, the horse would be looking in the opposite direction, but this certainly isn’t enough to explain the sudden change of mood).

This means it is not the present that is reflected in the rider’s gloomy mood in the first sonnet, it’s the future — the future of being away from the beloved. This future shapes the rider’s present into the sensations of weight in me, sadness and irrational anger towards the poor beast (who, after all, just follows his unexpressed wish to slow down even more). That’s why this swift shift to another future is enough to change subjective experience of the present so completely. And after all, the moment-to-moment subjective experience is all we have — and thus the future appears to define the present (instead of being determined by it, as we ordinarily think about it).

Why is it that the future has so much power over the present?

Take love, for example: the illusion of “happy ever-after” is so seductive that the genuineness of present love is often equated with its indefinite extension into the future. If we followed this idea to its logical conclusion, it would turn out that one cannot know for sure if the love they feel now is “true” until they are dead. Doesn’t this sound absurd? Thankfully, love tends to bring one into the present moment so forcefully and irresistibly that the subjective experience of time almost dissolves into thin air, as though the time didn’t exist at all. Otherwise, the uncertainty of future would lead us to hopelessly loveless lives and cancel any possibility of “happy ever-after” altogether. 

What if, like I suggested in the beginning of this post, we read these sonnets as a “missing scene” from “Romeo and Juliet”? Here are the words that would precede this scene (the link will take you to the whole farewell scene on the “Open source Shakespeare” website):

Juliet: O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?
Romeo: I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.

This the exact same motion of the mind towards another future that we see in the sonnets (this parallel is what made me imagine the speaker of the sonnets as Romeo in the first place). But if the rider of the sonnets is Romeo, then we know that this better future never happened; Romeo’s return to Verona was in fact more tragic than the journey to Mantua. But what of that? When this new present came, it could in no way change the quality of this moment. Romeo just creates for himself a present moment of love-filled joy out of thin air (just like Juliet creates an earlier moment of togetherness by believing that a lark is a nightingale, and that it is not yet near day in the farewell scene). And in the timeframe of their short lives, every moment of joy is worth a year at least.  

 The Romeo and Juliet interpretation of the sonnets is, of course, totally speculative. It’s just a way to illustrate the idea that the future need not exist to affect the present. These three scenes — Romeo and Juliet’s farewell, his journey away, and his journey back — are nested within one another like Matryoshka dolls: as the farewell contains the journey away as its defining moment, so the journey away contains the journey back. This nesting seems to me to be a fitting metaphor for all the futures that shape our present moments: they are contained within the present, and that’s where their power over it comes from.

It’s quite likely that what I will say in conclusion is the most obvious thing in the world for you — or, on the contrary, it might sound most counterintuitive and bizarre. As for me, I tend to vacillate between these points of view, yet these sonnets made me experience the visceral truth of this: At any present moment, the future doesn’t exist except within this moment (and of course, only insofar as it is present within someone’s mind).

The good news, of course, is that one can choose a “future” that shapes their personal present with sheer power of imagination — and see the world transform, (more or less) as it does in these two paintings.

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On love

Lena Levin. Night's candles are burnt out.... . 2014
Lena Levin. Night’s candles are burnt out…. . 2014. Click the image to see more.

What is love?

Believe it or not, I had never really thought about it till last week. Or if I have, it was more about how language shapes and constrains our understanding of love — but not about what love really is, the reality this word points to. This reality of love must predate language, both in the evolution of humankind (just think about dogs!) and in an individual life story, beginning in the circle of parental love; it is this un-linguistic reality that I have never even tried to think about. In retrospect, I believe this is because the concept of love seemed unproblematic, just as any concept which matches direct experience easily and organically, like “apple”, or “joy”, or “sky”. You wouldn’t just pause to think “What is apple?”, would you?

I was shaken out of this blissful, un-thinking, dog-like understanding of love about three weeks ago, when I joined an online course on Shakespeare. Come to think about it, it had to happen sooner or later: how can one work with Shakespeare’s sonnets without facing this challenge? The first play to be studied in the course was “Romeo and Juliet”; but it was not the play itself that problematised love for me, but some discussions on the course forums: a surprising number of them revolved around one or another way of devaluing Romeo and Juliet’s love (“puppy love”, “physical love”, “childish infatuation”, “superficial”, “just hormones” — I am sure you get the gist). Let me share with you my favourite recording of the first balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet”; had I been asked what love is three weeks ago, I might have pointed to it and say: This is love.

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After reading these forum discussions, I knew it mightn’t have worked. I am not generally given to the well-known “someone is wrong on the internet” syndrome, but I felt as though these conversations bared a hidden rupture in the very fabric of life. Here was a difference in worldview so painfully deep that it makes no sense to argue, but it — in a sense — hurts just to see it. But I couldn’t put my finger on the source of this frustration until I read one of the introductory lectures to the second play of the course (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), “What is love?” by Joshua Calhoun.

Calhoun’s core point is that the English word “love” is ambiguous: it covers a range of disparate experiences, and it is this ambiguity Shakespeare exposes and plays with in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Greeks, he believes, got it right (or at least less wrong) with their four different words:

  • Agape for charity, compassion, the love of God for man and of man for God,
  • Eros for sexual passion,
  • Philia for affectionate regard and friendship, and
  • Storge for child-parent relationship.

Calhoun writes:

“I like to think of these as Grecian urns, appropriately labeled so that love can be sorted out. The English language dumps all four containers—Eros, Agape, Storge, Phile—in the middle of the floor in a big pile, much like my daughter used to do with her toys when she was a toddler.”

But is that so? Languages move from specific to abstract along with the humankind’s attempts to increase knowledge and understand reality — and ambiguity and abstraction are very different things. If dumping all the toys in a big pile is a metaphor for ambiguity, then abstraction would be figuring out that some toys belong to the same category (for example, sorting them by colour), or, at a still higher level of abstraction, discovering the very concept of “toy” (as opposed to other, “grown-up”, things).

The existence of many different kind of toys doesn’t make the word toy ambiguous, and there is a good test for that: one can talk about toys without meaning anything more specific. If I say “Kids love toys”, I don’t necessarily have any specific toys in mind, and you — if you hear or read it — are not supposed to disambiguate this statement and figure out which particular toys I meant. Compare this with the word word, which can mean “a unit of language” or “a piece of news”, but it cannot mean both at the same time. If I say: “the first word of this sentence”, I mean the former, and if I say “I received word from home”, I mean the latter. In either case, the listener would resolve the ambiguity, that is, pick the meaning appropriate to the context.

What about love, then: is it ambiguous, as Calhoun argues, or is it a valid abstraction? When one says “love”, does one always mean something more specific, something which would nicely fit in one of those Greek urns? Or are there contexts where these distinctions don’t matter, and, furthermore, it is essential not to make such distinctions to grasp the meaning? Here is an example of such a context, a quote from Alan Watt’s “The Wisdom of Insecurity”:

“The further truth that the undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love. For the love that expresses itself in creative action is something much more than an emotion. It is not something which you can “feel” and “know,” remember and define. Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole.”

In this context, the word love cannot, I believe, be replaced with either of the more specific Greek alternatives. This thought itself could not have been expressed without a concept abstract enough to cover all kinds and types and shapes of love. Another example, even more to the point, from Joseph Campbell’s essay “The Mythology of Love”:

“We can safely say, therefore, that whereas some moralists may find it possible to make a distinction between two spheres and reigns—one of flesh, the other of the spirit, one of time, the other of eternity—where ever love arises such definitions vanish, and a sense of life awakens in which all such oppositions are at one.”

One can, of course, disagree with these thoughts — but I happen to believe that Shakespeare expressed a similar sensation of essential unity of all forms of love in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (and, moreover, in the parallels between this comedy and the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet).

In thinking about these two plays, and the meaning of love in them, I’ve come to a somewhat idiosyncratic metaphor of love as water: it can be in a glass, in a pool, in a river, in an ocean, in a waterfall; one can drink it, wash something in it, swim in it, stand in front of it in awe and wonder, and one can drown in it. Shapes are different, experiences are different, but it’s still water. And so love can take different shapes, and be experienced in a variety of ways, from rapture to agony, from comic to tragic — but it’s still love. For me, denying the truth of Romeo and Juliet’s love sounds like saying that there is no water in Niagara since one can neither drink from it nor swim in it.

Language can constrain the mind and force it into superfluous divisions and dangerous metaphors, but the concept of love seems to give an example of the opposite situation: language provides us with a unified abstract concept, which has psychological validity for some people, while the others see it as an ambiguous umbrella term for experiences that have little, if anything, in common. In the latter case, nothing remains but to stick adjectives in front of it for disambiguation, or try and narrow the concept to one or another “right” sort of love. In a sense, it is a case of ambiguity after all, but on another level: love can point either to specific experiences or to the unified reality behind all of them.

In the essay already quoted above, Campbell tells of five degrees of love “through which a worshiper is increased in the service and knowledge of his God” in Indian theology. The first four are described through appropriate social relationships: servant-master, friends, parent-child, spouses (in this order). But what is the fifth, highest degree of love? Campbell writes:

“It is passionate, illicit love. In marriage, it is declared, one is still possessed of reason. One still enjoys the goods of this world and one’s place in the world, wealth, social position, and the rest. Moreover, marriage in the Orient is a family-made arrangement, having nothing whatsoever to do with what in the West we now think of as love. The seizure of passionate love can be, in such a context, only illicit, breaking in upon the order of one’s dutiful life in virtue as a devastating storm. And the aim of such a love can be only that of the moth in the image of al-Hallaj: to be annihilated in love’s fire.”

What is recognised here, I believe, is that a human society is built around taming the natural energy of love into a range of “useful”, constructive forms, which maintain the community and its order rather than disrupt it, just like we do it with fire and water. If we try and understand “true love” in terms of these experiences only, it is bound to feel ambiguous. But just as fire and water, love cannot be fully domesticated; it doesn’t make it less of a love, rather more — and that’s the truth of Romeo and Juliet’s love. Their love is, of course, formally sanctified — they are married, albeit in secret; but it still has the same quality of a devastating storm breaking against the social order, of a moth flying towards fire, of the highest and purest degree of love. “The underlying thought here, Campbell continues, is that in the rapture of love one is transported beyond temporal laws and relationships, these pertaining only to the secondary world of apparent separateness and multiplicity.

So, what is love, after all? I agree with Alan Watts that one cannot “define” it, but Joseph Campbell comes close in linking the unified concept of love to Schopenhauer’s contemplation of the ability of an individual to put themselves and their life in jeopardy for the sake of another (in “The Foundation of Morality”). This ability comes “…out of an instinctive recognition of the truth that he and that other in fact are one. He has been moved not from the lesser, secondary knowledge of himself as separate from others, but from an immediate experience of the greater, truer truth, that we are all one in the ground of our being.

This is love.

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On Romeo’s story as a hero’s journey

I’ve been re-reading “Romeo and Juliet” for an online course on Shakespeare I am taking, and it seems as though, for the first time in my life, I actually paid attention to the opening words of the Chorus. It’s strange: I know these words by heart (in two languages, in fact), but somehow I’ve never really noticed how they clash with the play itself. Here are the words:

Chorus: Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (Prologue)

It is an accurate summary of the events to unfold, but the thing is, one and the same sequence of events can make a multitude of different stories depending on the perspective, on our way of perceiving them. And here, in Prologue, the play is announced as a story of civil feud, in which the love story is but a chapter; nay, even less: a means to an end. But the play as we know it is a love story, in which the feud is but the context, the hostile environment. By the end, it turns into Juliet’s story:

Prince: A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.(Act V, Scene 3)

August Rodin. Romeo and Juliet. 1905
August Rodin. Romeo and Juliet. 1905

The focus of the play shifts gradually. In the first act, it mostly keeps to the Chorus’s original perspective (with three of its five scenes taking place in locations vaguely described as “a public space”). Before the second act, the Chorus appears again to introduce Romeo and Juliet’s perspective, and four of its five scenes happen in enclosed private spaces. The first, public, story culminates in the first scene of the third act (when Mercutio and Tybalt are slain) and then disappears from our view till the very end of the play (the last scene of Act V, the churchyard scene).

By this time, nobody in the audience (I guess) really cares at all about whether or not civil peace is going to be restored in Verona, and yet this is exactly the promised “happy end” of the larger story introduced by the Chorus from the start (and even now, anyone can go to peaceful Verona and see the promised statues). Shakespeare’s humanistic impulse moves the story away from the social plane and makes the private tragedy of a two lovers larger than everything else in the play, but he doesn’t really forget about the social calamities. It just turns out that their resolution is found not in “a public place”, but within the private, psychological space of love.    

This contrast between two stories — located as they are in two different spaces, public and private — gives rise to the third story, the story of Romeo, which, in the light of this contrast, begins to look rather close to the mythological “hero’s journey”. In the beginning of the play, we find him in the “outer” world, pining for Rosaline, fully immersed in the by then long-established tradition of love for an unattainable lady (which makes one avoid life rather than live it). He is called for adventure — crushing Capulet’s party, and here, just before they go, we get the first inkling that Shakespeare has given him a deeper (albeit not always quite conscious) awareness of what is going on and what is his part in it:

Romeo: I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen. (Act I, Scene 4)

We, in the audience, know that he is right, but to him, the actual events of the night would seem to show the contrary — so blessedly happy he feels once he enters the magic private world of Juliet’s orchard. He now meets the true, life-inspiring, love, and it calls him into action.

As mythological heroes usually do, he goes to his “ghostly helper”, Friar Lawrence, who — among other things — tells him directly about the role his love story must play in the world of politics:

Friar Laurence. But come, young waverer, come, go with me,
In one respect I’ll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love. (Act II, Scene 3)

And Romeo replies in a way that always puzzled me enormously before this re-reading:

Romeo. O, let us hence; I stand on sudden haste.

What can it mean, “sudden haste”? He has actually been hasty all along (so there can be nothing particularly “sudden” about it), and now that the friar has agreed to his request, he might, on the contrary, calm down a little. Why this feeling of sudden haste instead? But if we assume for a moment that his prophetic dream the night before means that he somehow has more knowledge of his fate than he is conscious of, then it might be that the friar’s mention of the feud serves to remind that “knowing” part of him how little time he has left — hence the sudden urge to hurry even more.

I won’t recount Romeo’s trials here — everyone knows them — except for one, his first meeting with Tybalt after the wedding, the first attempt to conquer hate with his newfound power of love, and thus to fulfil his destiny:

Tybalt. Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford
No better term than this,—thou art a villain.

Romeo. Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting: villain am I none;
Therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.

Tybalt. Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw.

Romeo. I do protest, I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise,
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love:
And so, good Capulet,—which name I tender
As dearly as my own,— be satisfied. (Act III, Scene 5)

This takes enormous courage in the “culture of honour” (an essential part of Romeo’s public, ordinary world), as witnessed by Mercutio’s reaction (O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!), but, of course, it doesn’t work anyway — he would have to lose more than his reputation of valour.

Just as his entrance into Juliet’s world of love earlier, this ultimate loss is also presaged by a dream, almost a mirror-image of the first one. He recalls it just before he receives the news of Juliet’s “death”:

Romeo. If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand:
My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne;
And all this day an unaccustom’d spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—
Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!—
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips,
That I revived, and was an emperor. (Act V, Scene 1)

Just like the first one, this dream seems to be immediately contradicted by reality, but the audience knows that the dream is actually closer to the truth than these news: Juliet isn’t really dead and had he but kissed her a bit longer the following night, he would have seen her awaken to life. Shakespeare seems to be telling us once again that his dreams are more than the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy.

Death is never too far from his waking thoughts, either; he is always ready to die (I suppose one must be in the world he lives in). What he is not ready for, his worst fear, is Juliet’s death — this seems to him to be against all “rules”:

Romeo. Is it even so? then I defy you, stars! (Act V, Scene 1)

And he springs into determined, single-minded actions which would bring the story to its end, and public peace to Verona’s streets. Defying the stars doesn’t seem to prevent them from having the last word, does it?

So, then, is this a failed hero’s journey? Could it have worked out better for them (could he have transformed into “an emperor”) had he not defied the stars, that is, if he had been able to accept and conquer his worst fear, the fear of life without Juliet? Because, after all, it was all a delusion, a seeming death (and his dream has, in fact, told him so).

Frankly, I have not expected that the logic of this post would lead me to this question — and I have no answer.

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